Against oblivion: Renaming school for victim of Nazis

4 Apr 2022

A special needs school is looking for a new name, as it was formerly named for an advocate of euthanasia. Students and pupils have now found a new name.

As the name for a school, “Unterhaching Special Needs Center Specializing in Intellectual Development” is quite a mouthful. Up until ten years ago, the rambling flat-roofed building on the outskirts of Unterhaching was called the Erwin Lesch School. But then research carried out at LMU revealed how special needs educator Lesch was complicit with the Nazi regime. According to the researchers, Lesch had participated in the selection of children who were deemed incapable of learning and unsuitable for school during the Third Reich. The school responded – and has been looking for a new name ever since. Ricarda Friderichs, school principal and freelance lecturer at LMU’s Chair of Intellectual Development, raised the issue with her colleague Professor Peter Zentel. “I suggested naming the school for a victim of euthanasia,” explains Zentel. Friderichs was keen on the idea. A seminar was organized for the winter semester, to which Zentel invited not just his students, but also children from the special needs school to attend week in, week out. The delicate subject-matter of the project: euthanasia. The goal: to teach the schoolchildren about the murder of people whose lives were considered “not worth living.” And additionally, to select an historical figure whose name the school could bear in future. This was a tricky proposition, as eugenics and euthanasia are upsetting topics even today. Making them the subject of lessons for young people with intellectual disabilities requires clear language and a lot of tact.

Lisa Wanninger has made it her mission to rescue the memory of her aunt’s murder from oblivion.

© Stephan Höck

Rescuing memory of murder from oblivion

While the principle of renaming the school quickly gained acceptance, some teachers were still apprehensive, wondering: How would their charges cope with the information from the seminar? Would they be able to handle it? And wouldn’t naming a school for a victim of euthanasia cast a pall over the place? Zentel and Friderichs, the university professor and the school director, decided to go ahead nonetheless. “Naturally, we take our duty of care seriously,” says Friderichs. “But there’s no doubt that the topic belongs in the classroom.” With didactic skill, she is convinced, it is possible to convey the necessary information without causing the students, who are between 16 and 18 years of age, lasting upset. They also quickly identified Theolinde Diem as a good candidate for the renaming of the school. Thanks to the efforts of her niece Lisa Wanninger, a sprightly native of Munich of over ninety years old, the name of Theolinde Diem, who was murdered by the Nazis, is familiar even today. She has a face; she has a story. Lisa Wanninger, who is also an active member of the relatives’ group for euthanasia victims at the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, wants to rescue the memory of the murder of her aunt from oblivion.

As such, she took up Zentel’s invitation to attend a seminar session at the special needs school in Unterhaching and tell the students who Theolinde – familiarly known as Thea – was. And of the fate she shared with so many others. When Wanninger shows her audience photos of her dead aunt in mid January, the university students and schoolchildren have already many shared seminar sessions behind them. They have discussed people who were marginalized and murdered during the Nazi period: Jews, Sinti and Roma people, the homeless, political opponents, the sick, homosexuals. Zentel has explained how in the concentration camps the Nazis not only wanted to extinguish human life, but also eradicate all memory of the deceased. On a board, he has written the question: “What can we do today?” The answers include: “Be nice to others.” “Don’t look away when other people are being harassed or excluded.” And: “Remember.” Stumbling stones could be fitted in the ground as memorials, explained Zentel, or squares and streets could be named after the murdered – or indeed schools for that matter. For the visit of Lisa Wanninger, the adolescents think up questions during the seminar and choose one of their peers to read them out. She places her printout in front of her on the desk. “When was Thea born and when did she die?” she reads. Lisa Wanninger replies: Her aunt was born in 1908, in the month of March. Theolinde Diem was her name, but people called her Thea. A young girl, born into a cultured family, where they played piano, violin, and zither and talked philosophy. But when she was 16, Thea began to have epileptic fits. As a nineteen year old, she spent several weeks in hospital.

Subsequently, she was brought to Schönbrunn Mental Asylum (Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Schönbrunn) near Dachau, which is still a large institution for people with disabilities to this day. That was in December 1927. “She was well looked after there,” says Wanninger, “although as a young girl you don’t like to be locked up.” Her aunt spent 14 years there. “She was able to work, and that staved off catastrophe,” observes Wanninger. “Anyone who couldn’t work was selected.”

Zentel adds: “That was the critical point: You had to be fit for work; otherwise you were seen as useless.” Wanninger shows a picture of her aunt Thea in a polka dot dress. And one of her with a dog in the garden of the asylum. She tells how in the spring of 1941, he aunt was transferred to Haar Psychiatric Hospital (Nervenheilanstalt Haar). And she confesses that she still wondered sometimes how the parents could allow this to happen. Soon afterward, Thea was transported to Hartheim, near Linz. “The actual tragedy,” explains Lisa Wanninger, “took place there.” The school students are moved by the story, and very attentive. “What was Thea like and what did she like to do?” reads the student from her sheet. “Were there no medicines to treat Thea’s illness?” And: “Why couldn’t Thea be saved?” Lisa Wanninger says: “People had lost all sense of humanity during that period.”

Her name must not be forgotten

Theolinde Diem died at the end of April 1941. Her name is engraved on a plaque in the garden of the Schönbrunn workshop for disabled people, together with the names of all those murdered by the Nazis because of their disabilities. Whether Thea’s name will soon be on the gates of the Unterhaching Special Needs Center Specializing in Intellectual Development is still uncertain. School community, district council, government of Upper Bavaria: all of them have to approve the renaming. The signals coming from the government are positive. Senior inspector of schools Brigitte Schefold, spokesperson for children with intellectual disabilities, was impressed by the seminar with Lisa Wanninger. “I would welcome the renaming,” she says. In her view, it is important for education to “tackle difficult subjects as well.” “We cannot gloss over what went on!” And Lisa Wanninger explains: “I just hope it never happens again. We can’t bring my aunt back to life. But it’s important to me that her name should not be forgotten.” Monika Goetsch

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