On 1 July 1941, a young Austrian physician named Hans Asperger signed a document transferring a toddler named Herta Schreiber to Spiegelgrund, an asylum for mentally ill children on the outskirts of Vienna. Two-year-old Herta had suffered diphtheria and meningitis, leaving her severely disabled. She “must present an unbearable burden to her mother,” Asperger, then the director of the Curative Education Clinic at the University Children’s Hospital in Vienna, wrote on the transfer document. Herta’s placement at the asylum, called Spiegelgrund, was “absolutely necessary,” he directed.
A haunting photograph of the crying toddler, her head shaven, taken soon after her arrival at Spiegelgrund, is all that survives of Herta. The facility’s murderous medical director, Erwin Jekelius, a former colleague of Asperger’s at the university clinic, soon sought Reich authorization to kill the girl as part of the Nazi drive to rid the gene pool of undesirables. She died two months after her admission to Spiegelgrund, where the Nazis would kill nearly 800 children between 1940 and 1945.
Unlike the millions who were gassed, the killings of the Spiegelgrund children were prolonged and intimate, Edith Sheffer explains in her searing new book, Asperger’s Children. “Doctors personally examined the children they condemned. Nurses personally fed and changed [their] sheets…. Death came slowly, painfully, as children would be starved or given overdoses of barbiturates until they grew ill and died, usually of pneumonia.”