From Virginia to Auschwitz

Arbeit Macht Frei - Work Will Set You Free - a sign you see as you enter Auschwitz.
Arbeit Macht Frei — Work Will Set You Free — a sign you see as you enter Auschwitz.

On July 24th, 1912, the first International Conference on Eugenics was held in London[1]. A veritable who’s who attended — from Winston Churchill to Alexander Graham Bell, to the famed author, H. G. Wells, who staunchly supported the “sterilization of failures” versus the selective breeding of the successes, to enable a fitter race.

Barbed wire fencing around the grounds of Auschwitz I.
Barbed wire fencing around the grounds of Auschwitz I.

There were two critical talks at the conference. The Germans stood up and presented their viewpoint on racial cleansing and how it could shape a future world. And while the Europeans just hypothesized and conjectured, the second critical talk, by the ever efficient and practical Americans, who demonstrated that the act of eliminating “defective strains” was already a full-fledged and mature operation in the United States.

Living quarters and blocks at Auschwitz I.
Living quarters and blocks at Auschwitz I.

American Eugenicists like Albert Priddy, worried that the flooding of America by immigrants (who, in the 1920s, were primarily Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans — like Italians, and Jews) would precipitate “race suicide”. Confinement Centers — or colonies, for short — for the genetically unfit, were popping up in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Idaho and Virginia, and there had already been tens of thousands of operations to weed out the genetically unfit or inferior by sterilization, so they could no longer bear inferior children.

The specially built Death Wall, where disrobed prisoners were taken in pairs and shot in the back of the head.
The specially built Death Wall, where disrobed prisoners were taken in pairs and shot in the back of the head.

Feeble minded women were sent to the Virginia State Colony, where once “contained”, you could never leave. In one famous Supreme Court case (Buck v. Bell, 1927) , 2 generations of women — Emma Buck and her daughter, Carrie Buck — were sterilized for just being feeble minded, with no proof whatsoever and with an 8–1 majority by the Supreme Court. Carrie’s 8-month old daughter barely escaped the same fate.

In less than a decade from Buck v. Bell, by 1936, the worst form of genetic and racial cleansing spread across Europe in it’s most ugly and gruesome shape.

Living quarters, blocks and watchtower at Auschwitz I.
Living quarters, blocks and watchtower at Auschwitz I.

It was blistery and cold the day we decided to visit Auschwitz. There was some snow, sleet, and a lot of freezing rain. It also was New Year’s Eve and the world was getting ready to party for the night. The frosty gusts cut through all the layers of clothing, and we had plenty. As we walked amongst the ghostly grounds, one couldn’t but help imagine what it would have felt like being here on a day like this, with no hope for the future, and with nothing available in the present.

[1] A large part of the information in this blog is from the excellent book, The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee.


Originally published at rowdy planet.

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