The grey buses and men who managed them
This is Grafeneck chateau in Baden Wurttemberg in south western Germany. It was one of the locations the National Socialist regime used to murder what it considered to be ‘life not worthy of life’. In this video, I shall examine how people were transported to Grafeneck as well as the other killing centres at Brandenburg, Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Bernburg and Hadamar as well as the post war fate of the two managing directors of the company that carried the victims to the gas chambers.
The company that transported the victims to their deaths was called the Gemeinnützige Krankentransport which translated means something like charitable ambulance company or in short Gekrat.
The Gekrat was a company, albeit non profit making. It was registered in the commercial directory at the district court of Berlin-Charlottenburg on 18 November 1939. It was headed by two managing directors, Reinhold Vorberg and Hermann Schwenninger whilst Gerhard Siebert was the deputy of Vorberg. He took over the management of the company in the summer of 1941. Vorberg was based at Grafeneck and personally managed the transports to all the killing centers.
The company not only dealt with the transport of the victims but also the correspondence with the victims’ families until the time in 1940 when this role was taken on by Dietrich Allers who was the head of the central office of the euthanasia programme which is often reffered to as T4 – Tiergartenstrasse 4, the headquarters in Berlin.
The company also transported prisoners from other camps. For example on 28 July 1941, a transport of 575 prisoners from Auschwitz in passenger cars was brought to Pirna.
The T4 programme never actually stopped although officially it ended in the summer of 1941. After this date Gekrat continued to work as an ambulance taking patients to hospitals and nursing homes. However, at least 14 drivers went to the death camps of Action Reinhard in occupied Poland.
The vehicle fleet initially composed of three buses Vorberg had obtained from the Reichspost, two passenger cars that were mainly used for courier trips and a postal delivery van that was based at Grafeneck. Richard von Hegener, who was one of the main organisers of the T4 programme, procured more buses from the Reichspost for other killing centres.
The Reichspost buses, like regular buses, were initially painted red and had post office numberplates (RP). Von Hegener stated after the war that "only about halfway through the campaign" the buses were painted gray which was designed to make them more difficult to see from the air in case of air-raids. The windows were covered by curtains or were painted out. A transport could be three buses together with a passenger car heading the column. Two nurses were allotted to each bus. Violent patients could be strapped to the seat. Nurses also had handcuffs with them.
It often happened that people in the street could witness what was going on. For example, at Zwiefalten were patients were held before being sent to Grafeneck, it was said that the entire village knew what was going on. In Hadamar, residents were able to watch the victims getting out of the bus. In order to prevent outsiders from seeing what was happening, a covered aisle was soon built on the side wing. Whereas the patients probably did not know what was about to happen to them, some resented being taken away and some needed to be forced into the buses.
Within months, it was well known in Germany that people with physical and psychiatric problems were being murdered which led to protests. For example, Limburg Cathedral is only around four kilometres from Hadamar and the Bishop of Limburg, Antonius Hilfrich, was concerned enough to write to Franz Gürtner, who was Reich Minister of Justice on 13 August 1941. He wrote (and I quote) :
“Buses with a large number of victims arrive in Hadamar frequently during the week. Schoolchildren in the area know these buses and say: "Here comes the murder box again." After the arrival of such buses, the citizens of Hadamar watch the smoke rising from the chimney ...
Not only the victims’ families but also others such as State prosecutors and police wanted to find out what had happened to those who were taken away. However Gekrat had no address in Berlin nor telephone number. The address was a post office box and letters were answered by one of the killing centers. Sometimes those killing centres wanted to make the families believe that the patients were still alive and being looked after in order to receive their rations or other goods. At other times, the families were informed of the death of the patient.
So what happened to the two managing directors of the people who ran Gekrat?
Einhold Vorberg grew up in Königsberg. He completed a commercial apprenticeship, served with the “Black Reichswehr” for a few months and stayed in Spain in 1927-1928. In 1930 he worked as a farmer in South West Africa, but returned to Berlin in 1931. In 1932, Vorberg became self-employed and sold costume jewelry. His business went bankrupt in 1935.
Vorberg, who had joined the NSDAP (membership number 139288) on 1 July 1930, was probably brought to the Fuhrer's office by his cousin Viktor Brack in 1936 and initially worked as a volunteer there before getting a full time job in 1937. Viktor Brack had been a member of the Nazi party and SS since 1929 and headed part of the Fuhrer Chancellery and is one of the main criminals responsible for the killing of people who were mentally and physically challenged.
Vorberg took part in the trial gassings in Brandenburg. When he was not at Grafeneck, he was working in the Fuhrer's office, which was his main job - being the managing director of Gekrat was only a part time and for which he received a small tax free allowance.
In April 1945 he escaped from Berlin to Bavaria by ‘plane. He was taken prisoner by the Americans and released in the summer of 1945 thanks to fake documents. When Viktor Brack was caught, correspondence found led the authorities to Vorberg, who was arrested and interned in a camp in Moosburg. After a year of imprisonment, he escaped and went to Heiligenhafen and Hamburg before settling in Neuss, where he registered in 1948 as Heinz Vorberg with a fictional date of birth. A relative gave him a job in a paint factory in 1951, and then Vorberg found a job in a building materials factory in Bonn.
In 1961 West German authorities started looking for him and he decided he had to go to Spain where he had lived in the 1920s. He was arrested by Spanish authorities and extradited the following year. His trial did not begin until 1967. On 20 December 1968, a court in Frankfurt am Main sentenced Vorberg to ten years in prison for his role in the murder in 70,237 people. The Federal Court of Justice confirmed the judgment in 1972. However, as more than two thirds had been served in extradition and pre-trial detention, Vorberg was released.
He died on 2 October 1983 in Bonn.
Hermann Schwenninger was the son of an army officer in Munich. Even before he graduated from high school, he belonged to the Epp Freikorps. After the end of the Munich Soviet Republic, Schwenninger studied mechanical engineering and German studies in Munich where he met Viktor Brack. He got a job in the movie business and apparently saw himself as a famous director. However the film industry did not pay well so he worked as a truck driver and transport agent. In 1936 he joined the Nazi party.
In October 1939, his old friend from Munich, Viktor Brack was now a senior official of Fuhrer Chancellery (KdF) for Action T4. That was how he got the job as second managing director of GeKraT.
In April 1940, he took over the management of the transport at Grafeneck.
Probably using his former contacts in the film industry, Schwenninger arranged for Hans Hefelmann from the KdF to contact Tobis Film GmbH, which enabled the realisation of film propaganda for the euthanasia program. Schwenninger was now involved in several film scripts, edits and film recordings. The film Dasein ohne Leben (Existence without life) was directed and written by Schwenninger. Filming commenced in 1940 and was completed in early 1942.
He also collaborated in the writing of the screenplay for Ich klage an which in English is I accuse.
The plot of Ich klage an is that of a young wife suffering from multiple sclerosis pleads with doctors to kill her. Her husband, a successful doctor himself, gives her a fatal overdose and is put on trial, where arguments are put forth that prolonging life is sometimes contrary to nature, and that death is a right as well as a duty. It culminates in the husband's declaration that he is accusing them of cruelty for trying to prevent such deaths
On 1 August 1940, Schwenninger, together with a Mr. Stöppler from Tobis, received a request from the Minister of the Interior, signed by Herbert Linden, to make a scientific film for hospitals and nursing homes. This allowed him to request the Württemberg Ministry of the Interior for access to the institutions.
For the film project, lovely locations were sought out which was meant to show where patients were being kept. This beauty is then contrasted with deformed people who are portrayed as monsters, often using camera tricks with light and shadow. Some portions of these films have survived but most were destroyed at the end of WW2.
Schwenninger temporarily switched entirely to Tobis, in the summer of 1942. In October 1942 the KdF approved a budget of RM51,000 for film projects. This would be roughly equivalent to USD20,000 – which even then would not go very far. To give two totally unfair comparisons but to use films which people will have heard of, Kolberg cost 7.6m RM and Casablanca also made in 1942 cost over USD1m.
All individual steps of Action T4 were filmed, from the bureaucratic filing system to the killing of the victims in a gas chamber. Furthermore, the filming of Dasein ohne Leben could mean changes to the bureaucracy of killing. For example, on 18 March 1941, 40 handicapped people from a medical facility called Scheuer were brought to Pirna-Sonnenstein instead of Hadamar where they should have gone due to their location. Schwenninger had previously selected these people in Scheuern because of their physical appearance. The transport took place by train with its own accompanying staff.
After 1945 Schwenninger testified in several federal German criminal trials, but was never convicted himself. In 1983 he gave an interview to historians Götz Aly and Karl Heinz Roth. He lived out the rest of his life untouched by judicial authorities in Hamburg.