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Gertrud Bechtold * 1899
Leibnizstraße 10 (Wandsbek, Eilbek)
AM STEINHOF WIEN
Gertrud Bechtold, born on 2 Jan. 1899 in Hamburg, died on 19 Apr. 1945 at the Vienna Municipal Wagner von Jauregg-Heil- und Pflegeanstalt
When Gertrud Bechtold suddenly suffered seizures ten days after her birth, she was baptized in extremis at the Wandsbek Catholic church since her father, the goldworker (goldsmith) Valerian Bechtold from Bilfingen, was Catholic. Her mother Mathilde, née Sodemann, described herself has non-denominational, but she raised her daughter in the Protestant faith. Gertrud survived, though she suffered epileptic seizures all of her life.
She could walk at the age of nine months and speak when she was one year old. She attended the Käthnerort eight-year elementary school (Volksschule), leaving school without a graduation diploma. Inflammatory diseases in the region of the head, including meningitis, had caused permanent brain damage. This illness and a bout of polio she probably went through left her with permanent paralysis of the right arm and the right half of her face as well as delayed mental development. In 1912, the family doctor, Paul Borgzinner, refused to vaccinate Gertrud according to regulations since he considered a vaccination dangerous because of her nervous disease. Gertrud’s illness manifested itself in seizures, great restlessness, and easily triggered excitability, which alternated with phases free of symptoms.
The periods of institutional stays began in 1914, when Gertrud was committed to Eppendorf General Hospital due to epileptic seizures. She was already discharged again after ten days but admitted to what was then the Alsterdorf Asylum (Alsterdorfer Anstalten) after another ten days. Despite treatment with sedative medications, such as Phenobarbital (Luminal) and bromide, her condition persisted. According to a doctor’s certificate, in May 1916 she was transferred to the Friedrichsberg State Hospital "because of increasing restlessness that did not give her surroundings a moment of peace, either day or night.” Gertrud was very much preoccupied with the fact that she had not been administered confirmation so far and that she was therefore "not a fräulein yet.” She repeatedly experienced seizures, after which she would remain dazed and in a bad mood for a longer period. During one of her states of excitement in the summer of 1919, she hurled abuse at her nurses and was thereupon given a continuous bath. This application involved putting patients in a bathtub containing lukewarm water and closed with a canvas or a lid for hours or days. Since the seizures increased in frequency when Gertrud got up, she spent a lot of time in bed. When her condition improved, she was able to write and establish contact with her environment to a minimal extent. Gertrud’s parents had separated in the meantime. Valerian Bechtold went to São Paulo as a goldworker, and Mathilde Bechtold worked as a housekeeper in a private household. She visited her daughter frequently until Gertrud was independent enough to come home to her mother once a week. In 1924, Gertrud Bechtold’s life proceeded in a monotonous way. When she became violent during one of her states of excitement in 1927, she was wrapped as "a form of treatment.” This method involved wrapping patients in damp linen sheets, which tightened upon drying, thus literally pressing the treated person together to keep still. However, Gertrud Bechtold’s seizures and irritability could not really be controlled. When she was well, she busily knitted despite her paralyzed arm.
After the handing over of power to Hitler and passage of the "Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases” ("Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses”), Gertrud Bechtold was also assessed and deemed as not suffering from a hereditary disease, which was the reason she was not sterilized. The seizures became less frequent.
After a nearly 20-year stay at Friedrichsberg, Gertrud was transferred back to Alsterdorf on 16 May 1935. Her life there also took its course alternating between severe seizures and calm phases. She regretted her abusive attacks, though she was unable to keep them in check. Medication failed to help her: When she received strong sedatives, the seizures would become more frequent, forcing her to stay in bed. Care personnel noticed that Gertrud did much better following each vacation.
The health and welfare authority covered the costs and undertook efforts to reduce them. As a patient "doing nothing worth mentioning” except for knitting, Gertrud Bechtold was classified in the highest class of nursing care, group III, but institutional management gave in to the authority’s wishes to have Gertrud cared for according to group II specifications on a trial basis. Things were left at that.
Gertrud Bechtold’s mother Mathilde married a second time, now living as Tilly Kühn on Stoeckhardtstraße in Hamburg-Hamm. From then on, Gertrud regularly spent three days a month there on institutional leave, a phase that ended, however, when her mother was bombed out and evacuated at the end of July 1943.
On 18 Aug. 1943, Gertrud Bechtold was transported together with 227 girls and women to the Vienna Municipal Wagner von Jauregg-Heil- und Pflegeanstalt, a sanatorium and nursing home. At the time of her arrival, she weighed 56 kilograms [123.5 lb]. It is not known whether she smarted from the new situation; her condition did not change for the time being.
Following the death of her second husband, Gertrud’s mother got married again, living under the name of Hitzfeld in Mainburg/Hallertau initially, then in the "Old March” (Altmark) near Seehausen. She maintained correspondence with the institutional management, as Gertrud was not able to write, and planned a visit.
At first, Gertrud added greeting cards of her own to the letters. Seizures occurring with higher frequency weakened her considerably and forced her to stay in bed. In order to clarify the seizures and symptoms of paralysis, an encephalography was performed on Gertrud in July 1944, a dangerous diagnostic method involving therapeutic experiments as well, all of which Gertrud tolerated without any complications. The findings showed a change in the left cerebral ventricle but offered no new therapeutic approach.
Possibly prompted by a communication about Gertrud’s condition dated 13 Sept. 1944, the mother asked the institutional management on 15 Sept. 1944 that in case of her daughter’s death, the body be cremated and the ashes transported to Hamburg-Ohlsdorf. The reply dated Oct. 1944 confirmed Gertrud Bechtold’s unchanged condition, adding with respect to a visit, "if the patient is not in the midst of a seizure, she would recognize you.” Three months later, the mother was informed of her daughter’s unchanged condition with concurrently increasing frequency of seizures. In Dec. alone, Gertrud suffered from 45 seizures and lost weight rapidly, with her weight only 38 kilograms (just under 84 lbs). On 18 Apr. 1945, the medical file recorded increasing decline and, the following day, Gertrud Bechtold’s death, accompanied by the diagnosis of "feeble-mindedness with epileptic seizures after encephalitis. Marasmus. Enterocolitis” (inflammation of the brain, extreme emaciation because of malnutrition, inflammation of the digestive tract). Gertrud died completely emaciated at the age of 46 years. Her mother received the news of her death on 16 May 1946, one year after the end of the war, in Hamburg. That her wish to have her daughter’s ashes transported to Hamburg was met is unlikely due to the turmoil at the end of the war.
Status as of Feb. 2014
Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.
© Hildegard Thevs
Quellen: Ev. Stiftung Alsterdorf, Archiv, V 387; StaH 332-5 Standesämter, 6414-645/1898; Jenner, Meldebögen, in: Wunder/Genkel/Jenner, Auf dieser schiefen Ebene; Wunder, Abtransporte, in: Wunder, Genkel, Jenner, Auf dieser schiefen Ebene; ders., Exodus, ebd.
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