REFUSING TO LOOK AWAY — by Joanne Intrator
When I became a physician – a psychiatrist – I did so in no small part because of the dread thunderhead shadow Nazism cast over my young life.
In escaping Hitler’s Germany, my Jewish parents were relatively fortunate, yet I always had a sense that the severe stresses the Nazis cruelly inflicted on them could have had something to do with the serious health struggles they faced all too early on.
Underlying medical research, characteristically, is a desire to understand pathologies, with a mind towards either alleviating or curing them. And so, there was a logic to how I progressed from being a young adult painfully obsessed with the Nazis, to a research scientist conducting seminal research on the brain structure of psychopaths.
NEVER LOOK AWAY, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-nominated film is chiefly about a fictional painter named Kurt Barnert, who is freely based on the towering contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter. While the movie has a luminous message of universal import about the redeeming qualities and potential of art, I came away from it with vexing questions about Richter’s first real-life father-in-law Heinrich Eufinger.
In 1965, Richter produced a painting based on a family photograph from 1932 that shows Richter as a baby together with his aunt Marianne Schönfelder, 14 at the time. Originally, Richter called this work “Mother and Child.” A deeper, disturbing biographical narrative inherent to the painting was not revealed until 2004, when investigative reporter Jürgen Schreiber wrote in Der Tagesspiegel that Richter’s aunt Marianne, labeled schizophrenic, was subjected to forced sterilization and then murdered in Nazi programs led in part by Heinrich Eufinger, who in a twist of fate became Richter’s first father-in-law.
At the end of World War II, the Russians captured Eufinger, knowing he had committed appalling crimes, but they wound up never putting him on trial, as he helped the Russian camp commandant’s wife through a challenging birth. Eufinger subsequently held prestigious leadership positions in East German and then West German gynecology clinics. When he died in 1988, many German obituaries said he was “respected.” Whereas Marianne Schönfelder was buried in a mass grave along with other murder victims, Heinrich Eufinger is interred in Wilelmshaven, Germany in an Ehrenfriedhof – a cemetery of special honor. His tombstone, topped by a serpent-entwined Staff of Asclepius – a Greek deity of medicine and healing – memorializes in words that he was a “Professor Doctor of Medicine.”
But what exactly did Heinrich Eufinger do in the Nazi period? Gerhard Richter is too crucial a cultural figure for Eufinger — with whom he had a significant relationship – to be left only sketchily examined.
In the English-speaking world, it appears little is known about Eufinger beyond the outlines of what Schreiber reported in Der Tagesspiegel, namely, that he rose through the Nazi ranks to become an SS-Obersturmbannführer — (literally translated, that means “senior assault unit leader”) – and that he headed some of the same facilities where Marianne Schönfelder was abused by “doctors” and finally murdered on their watch.
The state of German-language research into Eufinger’s life is a little more advanced but still inadequate. Schreiber found some information in German government archives and expanded his original report into a German-language book that remains untranslated. Notably, after that book was published, Richter publicly defended Eufinger’s reputation, leaving Schreiber flabbergasted. Online German reports about Eufinger – including a German Wikipedia article – give only the bare outlines of his career but provide all too little detail about his mentality and his promotion of atrocities.
Meanwhile, though, even my online research demonstrates that with determination, it would certainly be possible to compile a more in-depth profile of Eufinger the Nazi “doctor.” For instance, an online antiquarian German book-seller is — (as of this writing) — offering the medical dissertation from a Leipzig University student, to whom Eufinger provided case information for the 400 involuntary sterilizations described in the thesis.
Only by chance did Schreiber reveal Eufinger’s involvement in Nazi programs leading to the murder of Gerhard Richter’s aunt Marianne. Without that revelation, Donnersmarck would have lacked the specific impetus necessary to the creation of his movie. While we cannot predict what will come of a deep-dive exposé of Heinrich Eufinger, the physician in me has a powerful desire to see such an exhaustive exposé published. Nothing, after all, so rebukes Holocaust deniers as direct evidence — originally produced by Nazis themselves — of the crimes they committed against humanity.