This story takes place many decades ago.
Julia Binder refused to give up her child. Although Daniel was born with an extra chromosome, which made their lives considerably more complicated, she loved her son with all her heart and she wanted to raise him herself. She had no interest in letting strangers do it.
However, as was the custom of the day, she was relentlessly pressured to institutionalize her young child or to place him in a hospital so he could receive special care. But she would not consider it. She wanted her little boy to be with her because they needed each other and because she was certain it was safer for Daniel to remain in their home. They were living in uncertain times, and she did not know who to believe or trust.
Unfortunately, Julia knew from painful experience that having a child with a disability was made far more difficult by the attitudes of others. Even the language that was used regarding Daniel was hurtful. This was the era before the term Down syndrome came into use. In their world, her son was known as a mongoloid.
Most of the people who lived on their street knew about Daniel, and for the most part, they chose to ignore him. However, there was one family, the Meyers, who had warned Julia to keep her boy away from their children. In their ignorance, they actually believed that her child’s condition could be contagious.
Of course, the local school wanted nothing to do with her son. They automatically assumed that he couldn’t learn so there was no point in exposing the “normal” children to his kind.
For those reasons, and many more, it was not easy trying to care for her nine-year-old all alone – but Julia had no choice. Her child had been born out of wedlock, a shameful thing in this time and place. She had made the mistake of believing that Daniel’s father, a career military man, loved her the way that she loved him, but it turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Shortly after she told him she was pregnant, he shipped out, and Julia never heard from him again.
All of this invited endless gossip and innuendo by her neighbors, including the belief that giving birth to a mongoloid was God’s way of punishing Julia for being a whore. But she did not consider her beautiful child to be punishment. She considered him to be the greatest blessing of her life, and it was that unconditional love that made Julia so fierce in her defense of Daniel.
Her son was completely innocent of the misjudgment and bias that others held against him. He was no more responsible for his mother’s actions than he was for being born with a chromosomal condition.
But Julia knew she could not change the opinions of those around her. So instead, she focused on filling their lives with love, and although they were just a mother and her son, that was enough to make a family.
As Daniel got older, she did her best to teach him at home. Some things he grasped, and others he struggled with. His most significant challenge was his speech. He had a large vocabulary, however, very few people, other than Julia, could understand what he was saying. But, of course, very few people even bothered to try, and that was their loss.
Had they made the effort, they would have discovered how sensitive and thoughtful her son could be. They would have learned that he was an obedient child who was outgoing even though his friendliness was never returned in kind. They would have understood that he was a person just like them and that he deserved to be treated like everyone else.
Julia attempted to shield her son from the difficulty of their lives, but times were hard and the young mother continually struggled to make enough money to keep them fed and clothed. But, month after month, Julia somehow managed. She took in washing and ironing and made a little money sewing for people. Eventually, a nearby tailor heard about her skill, and he began to send her alterations to do. After that, their finances became slightly more stable, but life was not easy for anyone.
Julia’s favorite part of the day was the late afternoon walk that she and Daniel took together. He looked forward to it with great anticipation, asking repeatedly after lunch how much longer until they could go. Each afternoon around five o’clock, weather permitting, they would take their stroll, hand in hand.
Daniel enjoyed being in the fresh air and feeling the sunshine on his face. As they walked through the streets, he could smell the food being prepared for the evening meals. Occasionally they would see other kids playing, but their parents usually ordered them inside whenever Julia and her son walked by. It was because of that kind of narrow-mindedness that Daniel had never had the opportunity to make a friend.
Unfortunately, the reaction was just as bad whenever they came across adults engaged in conversation. As soon as the grown-ups noticed Daniel, they would fall silent. The young boy did not understand that it was his physical appearance that made people suddenly stop talking and stare. But the thoughtless way that people treated her son made Julia wonder what kind of world they were living in. However, she refused to let the negative attitudes of others rob her of the joy she experienced as a mother.
One of the great pleasures of their walks was watching how her son reacted to large vehicles. Any time he saw a bus or a delivery truck, his excitement was almost uncontainable. He frequently asked his mother if they could ride a bus together, and she assured him that someday they would. But after enduring all of the stares and whispers on the street, she could hardly imagine how the other riders would respond to her son.
But none of that changed the fact that her son loved big vehicles. And so Julia had scrimped and saved enough to buy Daniel a metal toy bus for his birthday. It instantly became his most treasured possession. He would play with it for hours at a time, and he carried it with him everywhere.
Although the life they shared was not easy, they were happy because they loved each other, and Julia believed that was all that really mattered. Even in her darkest moments as a single parent, she believed that, at the very least, she would always be able to protect her child.
But she found out just a few days later that she was gravely mistaken.
Mrs. Meyer watched from her front door as Julia left her house carrying several men’s suits that she had altered. The neighbor knew it was about a ten-minute walk to the tailor’s shop, so she figured the young mother would be gone at least a half hour – and that was long enough.
After waiting a short time, Mrs. Meyer stepped outside. Down the street, she saw the man leaning against the bus, smoking a cigarette. She got his attention and waved for him to come up. Within a minute he had pulled the vehicle into position.
Mrs. Meyer quickly walked to Julia’s small house and knocked on the door. Daniel was sitting at the kitchen table and the sudden rapping sound startled him. However, he didn’t move. He knew he had to follow his mother’s strict order to never answer the door. When she got no response, Mrs. Meyer walked to a window and tapped on the glass. After a few moments, she saw the curtain pull back revealing the mongoloid’s face. Seeing him up close was disturbing, but she managed a slight smile.
She tapped again on the glass, turned and pointed to the bus parked in front of the house. Daniel looked toward the street and his eyes lit up as an expression of pure joy swept over his face. He could not believe there was actually a huge bus parked where he lived. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. But after staring at it for a few seconds he noticed it was different looking from the city buses. This one had all of the windows painted, and he wondered how the people could see out.
Mrs. Meyer tapped again. Grinning as convincingly as she could, she motioned with her finger to come outside. Daniel hesitated. He knew he would be in real trouble with his mother if he left the house, but, after thinking it over, the attraction of the bus was too much to resist.
Very slowly he opened the door. Mrs. Meyer looked down at him and said, “Guess what? I have a wonderful surprise for you.” She could only hope that in his feeble-mindedness he could somehow understand. “I asked the driver if it would be okay for you to get on the bus, and he said that it would be alright.”
Daniel was momentarily confused. He didn’t know why this woman was being nice to him. It seemed too good to be true that someone was going to let him climb into a bus.
Mrs. Meyer continued, “I know you like buses. I’ve seen you carrying that toy around. Well, now is your chance to go inside one. You can even sit down in it if you want!”
The enthusiasm in the lady’s voice made him excited. She reached out her hand just like his mother did. As the mongoloid took it, she tried not to show her revulsion. She reminded herself that she had a job to do so it was best to just get it over with. Together they walked to the passenger side of the bus. When the door opened, the little boy looked in at the driver who smiled back.
“Come aboard, young man. It’s okay to look around.”
Carefully, Mrs. Meyer led him up the steps. Once inside, Daniel saw that the driver was wearing a uniform just like the ones the soldiers wore. It made him look important.
Although the young boy tried to hide his feelings, he couldn’t. Daniel began to clap his hands together in delight. He was actually inside a real bus!
Mrs. Meyer asked, “Would you like to walk down the aisle? Go ahead so you can see how big it is.”
Although there was not much light inside, he could see enough to be mesmerized. Daniel let go of her hand and headed for the back of the bus. He reached out and touched each seat as he went by, and he tried to look at everything at once.
Mrs. Meyer leaned into the driver and whispered, “This is the one. This is the bastard I was telling you about.”
The driver nodded.
Daniel took his time getting to the rear of the bus, and when he turned around, the young boy was surprised to see that Mrs. Meyer was gone. Suddenly he heard the door shut and then the soldier stood up and faced him.
“You are going to be a good boy, yes? You are going to sit down and be quiet while we take a drive. We have many more like you to pick up, and then we will go to the hospital.”
Always obedient, Daniel sat down. But confusion flooded his mind. He had not known they were going to go for a ride. What if his mother found out about this? She would be so mad, and she would never trust him again. But why were they going to the hospital? Who else were they going to pick up? And most of all, when were they going to take him back home?
Suddenly the fun he thought he would have riding a bus was replaced with an unsettling fear, and over the next hour, that fear became overwhelming as Daniel watched a mix of grown-ups and kids get on the bus. Some people were blind, some limped, and some were missing arms and legs. Most of them got on willingly, but a few put up a struggle and they were hit and kicked by the soldier. Daniel decided that the man who had welcomed him with a smile had turned into the scariest person he’d ever seen.
When he first entered the bus, Daniel hadn’t noticed the cage door at the front. But watching it open and shut after each new person got on, he realized it was to keep them from getting to the driver.
As the ride continued, some of the adults, knowing what was happening, started yelling bad words at the soldier, and many of the women began to sob. Daniel now understood that he was trapped, and it was all he could do to keep from crying himself.
Of course, the young boy was unaware that on the other side of the city his mother was also going through her own form of hell. Julia had come home to find her son missing, and she became hysterical when she found out the bus had taken away her precious child.
As Daniel sat trembling, he had no way of knowing that he would never again see his mother’s face, hold her hand or hear her soothing voice telling him that everything would be alright.
But Julia knew.
When the authorities told her that her son had been taken to the hospital at Hartheim Castle, a feeling of horror instantly swept over her because she realized that she’d lost her child forever.
Months before, rumors had begun to circulate in town about people like Daniel who were taken to the castle and never came back. But Julia had refused to believe it was really happening. If she had actually thought it was true, she would have fled the city with her son.
Tragically, she now realized that she’d made a terrible mistake by staying. She went straight to the local authorities and desperately pleaded with them to let her go to the hospital. When they refused, she had to be physically restrained. She was told repeatedly that Hartheim was the best place for a mongoloid. They were firm in their conviction that he should be with his own kind so he could receive the treatment he deserved – but just what that treatment was – they refused to say.
Julia could not control her rage. Her son was an innocent nine-year-old child who had never done anything wrong. He had never been mean or unkind. He had never hurt another person. He was loving and gentle. He was not a risk to anyone.
But Daniel had committed an unforgivable sin. He was born with Down syndrome in Linz, Austria. And now, in October of 1940, because his country was controlled by the Third Reich, the Germans were going to murder him.
Daniel’s heartbreaking fate had been sealed when a document was signed by Adolf Hitler a year earlier.
That signature had set in motion all of the events of the last hour, and now, after picking up all its passengers, the bus with the painted windows arrived at Hartheim. Within an hour Daniel and the others, including many children his age and younger, had been processed and photographed.
The group was then led to the entrance of a long narrow room where they were forced to get undressed. Those in charge said they were going to shower to prevent the spread of lice and other parasites. Daniel was more frightened than at any other time in his life. He had never been naked in front of anyone, other than his mother. He tried to cover himself, and he didn’t dare look at the others. After disrobing they were pushed and shoved into the room and several of the adults began to cry out, pleading for help. The outburst of raw emotion caused many of the terrified children to start screaming.
But Daniel stood in silence. Although he desperately wanted to call out for his mother, it was impossible to make a sound. His throat was tight with fear, and he was shaking uncontrollably. If only Julia would come and take him away from this terrible place, everything would be okay. He had never wanted anything so much in his life.
But suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by the jarring sound of the metal door slamming shut.
Even those who were unable to speak words began to make heartrending sounds of desperation, while others rushed to the door and began to frantically bang on it with their fists.
Daniel remained in his corner, too panic-stricken to move – but then, shockingly, everything got worse as the people at the other end of the room began to collapse. Daniel did not understand that carbon monoxide was being piped into the room. More people fell, and suddenly the young boy began to feel strange. Without realizing it, he lost control of his bodily functions. After a few more seconds, the indescribable sight of so many people blacking out and falling helplessly to the floor filled him with terror and he finally cried out, but that only allowed the deadly gas to fill his lungs.
For just a moment, the young boy struggled to stay on his feet, but he was quickly overcome and collapsed to the floor like the others. Still conscious, he stared at a woman lying next to him. Her eyes were wide open and fixed and there was a frothy stream of saliva coming out of her mouth. The deadly gas made Daniel’s brain hallucinate, and for an instant, he thought she was his mother. He wanted to reach out to her, but somehow, he knew it couldn’t be true. After a few more short breaths, a fatal darkness began to envelop him, and without making another sound, he ceased to be an innocent little boy and silently became a statistical fact, stripped of all humanity.
A short time later, Daniel’s body was dragged from the stench filled room. The combination of vomit, urine, and feces combined to make the gas chamber a nauseating tomb, reeking of unnatural death.
As quickly as possible, the boy’s small corpse was shoved into an oven. As it burned, his brief existence in this world was reduced to putrid smoke that rose through the chimney in the effort to deny his murder. However, when the oven was opened, it was discovered that some of his bones had survived the intense heat. They were removed and ground up by an electric mill. Daniel’s ashes, along with the remains of other men, women, and children were disposed of in a garden area on the east side of the property.
One month after her son was taken from their home, Julia, still distraught and inconsolable, received a form letter from the hospital administration at Hartheim stating that her son had died suddenly from appendicitis – but she did not believe it. For one thing, there was no mention of her son’s burial place. Secondly, there were now several more people with disabilities who were missing.
However, it was not until after the war that her worst fear was finally confirmed. It was only then that she learned the truth about the unspeakable slaughter that took place at the castle.
The campaign to kill all undesirables had begun with the so-called handicapped. Codenamed Operation T4, it was carried out in secret by doctors, based on the doctrine that people with disabilities represented “life unworthy of life”. Their murder was termed disinfection.
Those who were deemed to be genetically defective, intellectually or physically challenged, individuals with mental health issues or who had deformities were considered to be subhuman and a useless burden on society. It was also feared that if they were allowed to reproduce, they would inflict the next generation with the same deficiencies.
Therefore, they were systematically put to death by the Nazis.
As a result of that philosophy, Julia’s beautiful son was poisoned and his body burned – a fate that would eventually be shared by more than two hundred thousand other men, women, and children with disabilities.
Tragically, because she had been ostracized by the community, Julia was forced to endure the unbearable pain of losing her little boy without the compassion or understanding of other parents. Although a few felt sympathy for her, they were afraid to show it for fear of drawing the attention of the Germans. And so, in complete isolation, her heart broke, along with her will and her spirit.
Through the decades, Julia struggled to comprehend why her child, and all the other vulnerable victims, were slaughtered by the Third Reich. But, of course, no matter how long she tortured herself with that question, she could never find a sane answer for such barbaric cruelty.
Daniel’s murder affected her both mentally and emotionally, and she never fully recovered. Just like the millions of others who lost their loved ones, she forced herself to go on after the war – but life was never the same. The one person in the world who loved her unconditionally had been taken, and he could never be replaced.
Julia Binder lived to be ninety-two, but the world neither noticed nor cared when she passed away in a Linz nursing home in 2003. Because she never married, she died alone without any family by her side. But in so many ways, her life came to an end in the autumn of 1940 when her beloved child was put to death for committing the crime of being born.
The heartbroken mother, who had suffered the greatest pain there is, had always grieved over the fact that her son was denied the basic human dignity of having a grave. So, in her final act of maternal love, she used her resting place to let the world know that her little boy had once been present in this life.
The simple headstone read:
Julia Marie Binder
Born 1911 – Died 2003
Devoted and loving mother to my angelic son, Daniel Patrick
May our Heavenly Father hold my dear child in His arms for all eternity