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Bertha Bunsat * 1890
Barlachstraße 14 (Harburg, Harburg)
HEILANSTALT AM STEINHOF
Bertha Bunsat, born on 17 June 1890 in Insterburg/ East Prussia, committed to the "Alsterdorf Asylum” ("Alsterdorfer Anstalten”) on 29 Apr. 1937, transferred to the "State Sanatorium and Nursing Home on Steinhof” ("Landes- und Pflegeanstalt am Steinhof”) in Vienna on 16 Aug. 1943, murdered on 26 Nov. 1944
Harburg-Altstadt quarter, Barlachstrasse 14 (formerly Auguststrasse 14)
Bertha Bunsat was born as the oldest child of her parents Friedrich (born on 26 Oct. 1864) and Henriette Bunsat, née Schmidtke (born on 18 July 1864) in Insterburg (today Chernyakhovsk in Russia) in former East Prussia (today Kaliningrad region). She spent the first years of her life with her parents and older siblings, two of whom died at an early age, in this part of the former German Empire. Bertha Bunsat also went to school there. By the end of her school days, she was in fifth grade.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the parents left the East Prussian homeland with their remaining children. In their search for a better life, they settled in the up-and-coming industrial town of Harburg/Elbe, where Friedrich Bunsat made a living as a worker. In the first years, they often changed apartments and later lived for a long time on Auguststrasse (today Barlachstrasse), within sight of the municipal hospital at the intersection of Irrgarten/Eissendorfer Strasse.
There, two more children – Willi and Charlotte Bunsat – were born. The road to a better future came to an abrupt end for their two older brothers – Fritz and Hans Bunsat – on the battlefields and in the trenches of the First World War.
Even after her sisters Emma and Charlotte had moved into their own apartments, Bertha Bunsat remained with her parents, on whose help she was dependent in things small and large. Her problems intensified during menopause. On 23 June 1934, she therefore went to the nearby municipal hospital for treatment.
There the responsible doctors confirmed her well-known mental weakness, which showed itself in the fact that she behaved clumsily and could speak with others only about minor everyday matters. Overall, she was characterized as good-natured, having always conducted herself in companionable ways toward her fellow patients and spending many hours alone in the garden. She laughed constantly, without any apparent cause for it. However, any fundamental change in this diagnosis seemed impossible for the doctors of the municipal hospital. Consequently, they recommended that the 44-year-old patient be transferred to the Huckfeld retirement and nursing home in the municipality of Hittfeld.
There her condition worsened. In this home, she also continued to behave carefree and simple-minded, but at times showed herself to be easily irritable. Thrashing about in those instances, she could only be calmed by force. She repeatedly disturbed nighttime peace with loud swearing. She was still dependent on outside help and professional care.
Therefore, after one year, the institutional management proposed the transfer of the resident to the Lüneburg "Provincial Sanatorium and Nursing Home” ("Provinzial-Heil- und Pflegeanstalt” Lüneburg). Even in this facility for mentally disabled and mentally ill patients, nothing changed in her overall condition. She did not cause any unusual difficulties but had to be constantly supervised and cared for; otherwise, she let herself go. She continued to develop no initiative of her own.
One and a half years later, Bertha Bunsat was admitted to the Alsterdorf Asylum (Alsterdorfer Anstalten). The reasons for this transfer are not known. Maybe her parents and her sisters had made a corresponding request because they visited the patient regularly or – in agreement with the institutional management – occasionally invited her home for a weekend and were therefore perhaps interested in a shorter journey. The doctors from Alsterdorf confirmed the diagnosis of their colleagues from Harburg and Lüneburg during the admission examination.
Apparently, the new environment did Bertha Bunsat some good at first. She worked in the vegetable room and proved to be compatible, friendly, and grateful. That changed after a few months. She continued to work in the vegetable room but without being a great help there, repeatedly getting into arguments with other patients, looking unkempt, and attaching no importance to her appearance. She washed herself, but had to be bathed and combed. Discharging her was still out of the question.
Some nurses were apparently unable to cope with this situation, as shown by the written complaint Bertha Bunsat’s sister Charlotte sent to the institutional administration after a visit to Alsterdorf. She complained that her sister had been slapped in the face by a nurse, something she had never experienced during her time in Lüneburg. The letter concluded with the words, "I would be very grateful if you would do your best to address this matter, and if I were to find my sister calmer during my next visit.” The nurse in question was then transferred to another workplace within the asylum.
The attending physicians approved several requests by the parents that Bertha Bunsat could spend some vacation days with them in Harburg, which were always a special gift for the parents and the daughter. "Then,” as a Harburg resident who had observed her later wrote, "as far as the weather permitted, she would walk by her old mother’s hand day after day in the afternoon and seemed to smile all the time. A harmonious, peaceful picture. The mother must have been over 70 then. She was no longer light on her feet and the walks with [her daughter] were getting harder and harder for her. You could tell. At some point, both are missing; the usual scene remains ... inanimate.”
It is remarkable that the then schoolboy Peter Littich would miss them and wonder what had happened to the two women – especially the younger one, who "by all appearances was quite mentally handicapped.” After all, he could not know that Bertha Bunsat had been transported from Hamburg to Vienna on 16 Aug. 1943 together with 227 other patients.
A few days earlier, Pastor Friedrich Lensch, the head of the Alsterdorf Asylum, had been informed that he was to select 228 girls and women for removal and to specify them on a list in duplicate. Friedrich Lensch undertook this task in close cooperation with Gerhard Kreyenberg, the managing senior physician of the Alsterdorf Asylum. The two staunch Nazis did not reveal any difficulties for them in fulfilling their supposed duty. In particular, they got rid of those patients for whom they found negative evaluations in the patient files. Remarks such as "difficult,” "quarrelsome,” "dirty,” "completely in need of care,” "unable to work,” etc. were important selection criteria for them.
The deportees were anything but welcome at the Steinhof Institution in Vienna. What they experienced there is revealed in the letter by one of those forcibly taken there to her Alsterdorf caregiver: "... We all cried. The nurses scolded us so much at first. [They told us] We should get back to where we came from and so on. That the Hamburgers are sending us something like this, that we are all still alive. Such misery. ... We are now being treated so lovelessly, we know no more love. Yes, that is very sad. ... We get [in the morning] only a slice of dry bread, and at noon, we get little to eat, and in the afternoon we get the same as in the morning. And in the evening we get something warm, but very little. ... We have such a strong yearning for Alsterdorf. If only the hour were near. …"
Hunger reigned at Steinhof. This fact was not lost on Bertha Bunsat’s parents and her two sisters Emma Bunsat and Charlotte Lilje, née Bunsat, either. They sent parcels and money to Vienna, according to the documents. A request by Emma Bunsat to return her unhappy sister to Hamburg was categorically rejected.
Bertha Bunsat’s state of health deteriorated rapidly. Within four months she lost 6 kilograms (more than 13 lbs), became noticeably more dependent on care, stayed longer and longer in bed, was shakier on her legs from day to day, and her gaps in knowledge grew bigger and bigger. Soon she knew only her name and her hometown. Fifteen months after her transfer, Bertha Bunsat died in Vienna of pulmonary and peritoneal tuberculosis, as the surviving relatives were told.
This information, which many relatives received, was already doubted at that time by many addressees – including Charlotte Lilje – and is today described by scholarship as a deliberate falsification.
Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.
Stand: June 2020
© Klaus Möller
Quellen: Archiv der Evangelischen Stiftung Alsterdorf, V370; Harald Jenner, Michael Wunder, Hamburger Gedenkbuch Euthanasie. Die Toten 1939–1945, Hamburg 2017; Michael Wunder, Ingrid Genkel, Harald Jenner, Auf dieser schiefen Ebene gibt es kein Halten. Die Alsterdorfer Anstalten im Nationalsozialismus, Hamburg 1987; Antje Kosemund, Spurensuche Irma, VVN-BdA Hamburg (Hrsg.), 2. Auflage Hamburg 2004; Claus Günther, Heile, Heile Hitler. Szenen einer Kindheit, Hamburg 2016; Harburger Adressbücher.