Written by Kerstin Stiefel
She came here with her family in 1941, a young girl full of curiosity about the world. With few other options open to her, Regina Suderland became a practical nurse in what was then the psychiatric hospital in Bendorf-Sayn – a forgotten enclave of humanity for mentally ill Jews surrounded by the madness of Nazi Germany.
At first she somewhat feared the men and women who wandered through the halls and the park, seemingly lost in a reverie. But her father, nursing supervisor Benno Hermanns, bolstered the courage of the budding nurse: “Just act as if they were completely normal.”
That was 60 years ago, but when Regina Suderland closes her eyes, she sees the scene as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. The petite 75-year-old stands in the stained glass sunroom of the former “Israelitische Heil- und Pflegeanstalt” (Jewish psychiatric hospital and care home) and sifts through the images in her memory. “There are times,” she says, “when a lot of insanity is completely normal.”
In Nazi Germany it was normal, for example, that the remaining mentally ill Jews were suddenly transferred to Bendorf-Sayn, Germany’s largest psychiatric hospital at the time. It was also normal that only Jews were allowed to care for them there, and that the Gestapo first took their money and their jewelry, and later their clothing and their furniture. And eventually it was normal for the patients and their caretakers to be taken to the train station, crammed into a train and deported to Poland.
Of the 850 people who lived and worked at the hospital, Regina Suderland is one of the few to have survived. The building is now owned by a Catholic welfare organization for physically impaired persons.
Before his patients were engulfed by the “Final Solution,” chief physician Wilhelm Rosenau tried to help them live in dignity. The “harmless ones” were able to move freely between the billiard room, the music room and the synagogue. There was even kosher food to eat. The park was discretely but securely closed off from the street by walls and a heavy cast-iron gate – an enclave of safety in the middle of a war. “That was the highest priority,” Regina Suderland remembers. “The patients weren’t supposed to know what was going on outside.”
Hans Davidsohn was one of the “harmless ones.” Regina Suderland would occasionally see the small man – referred to only as "the poet" by her father – walking in the park. “He would roam around on the grass and talk to the ground.” The doctors thought he was conversing with figures in the underworld. Regina Suderland later found out that he was speaking to the insects. “He really adored them.” Hans Davidsohn’s family emigrated to Israel in 1933. His nieces and nephews have never read the poems he published under the name of Jakob von Hoddis. The language of his poetry was the language of his murderers, too.
Regina Suderland’s father was Jewish. Unlike many other Jews in Osnabruck, he didn’t go into exile but instead moved with his family to Bendorf-Sayn in 1941 to work as the nursing supervisor in the psychiatric hospital. His wife, a so-called “Aryan,” hoped that her gentile background would save her husband and her daughter Regina. Regina Suderland started working as an assistant nurse in the clinic because no “Aryans” outside of it would hire a half-Jew. The 15-year-old gradually got used to the “many oddities” there. Only the screams of the most severely disturbed patients, who were kept in confinement, haunted her in her sleep. Every day she had to pass by a walled-off accommodation block for men. Their desperate cries pierced the young woman’s heart. Her father warned her not to get too close to the patients. He wouldn’t tell her why the sight of her drove the men so wild. “But I knew anyway,” she says today.
The mood among the Jewish doctors and nurses oscillated between fear and a desperate lust for life. Many suspected what was in store for them, while others clung to the hope that they would “only” be sent to a labor camp. “The women would sew money into their bras,” Regina Suderland recalls. Because she was only half Jewish she was allowed to leave the hospital grounds, and she secretly took fur coats from the patients to Cologne to have them sewn as linings into regular coats – “so they would have something warm to wear when they were deported.” One male nurse chose to commit suicide with his girlfriend when he found out what was really happening to the Jews in Poland. “They’re not going to get us,” he told Regina Suderland. The couple overdosed on morphine.
“We always hoped someone would come and see for themselves what was going on here. But we realized that our suffering and that of the people in our care was just a very small part of a much greater suffering,” Wilhelm Rosenau wrote after the end of the war. He and Benno Hermanns were forced to draw up the transport lists for the deportations. This tormented Regina Suderland’s father, and on several occasions she found him sitting in the kitchen, crying. As a prisoner in Oranienburg concentration camp in 1938, he had been forced to build crematoria, and he had no illusions. “At some point,” he said to his family, “it’s going to be our turn.”
Regina Suderland sought and found a task at the clinic: tending to a mentally and physically disabled girl lying alone and half-conscious in a bare room. “The girl rolled around on the washable mattress and didn’t speak, but she listened.” When she had been washed and fed, the girl would smile in thanks.
Regina Suderland survived. When not a soul was left in the hospital, after all of the patients and staff had “emigrated,” as a report from the Gestapo in Koblenz put it, the young woman lived …[in a small house on the grounds of the institute] with her family and that of chief physician Wilhelm Rosenau.
The beds [of the hospital) always had to be freshly made up in case the Kemperhof hospital in Koblenz was destroyed by bombs. The managing director appointed by the Nazis was Paul Kochanek. Regina Suderland likes to call him “our little Oskar Schindler.” Kochanek would shout “Heil Hitler!” especially loudly on the street, but when the clinic was turned into an emergency shelter for sick “Aryans,” he saved the lives of Benno Hermanns and Wilhelm Rosenau by telling the Gestapo he needed the two Jews to keep the building in shape. The chief physician and the nursing supervisor spent the rest of the war as janitors, wandering like ghosts through the abandoned hallways. Regina Suderland went from being an assistant nurse to a cleaning woman.
It all happened a long time ago, but when Regina Suderland closes her eyes, the images come flooding back. Today the 75-year-old lives in Koblenz. She worked as a nurse after the war and raised her own children. Her mother died after an operation in 1946, and her father never recovered from the shock. In her dreams, she sees him marching in short, fast strides through the “Israelitische Heil- und Pflegeanstalt,” coattails flapping behind him. For many years she has dedicated herself to helping the victims of the Nazis. Publicly raking through her own past is something Regina Suderland has shied away from for a long time – but she’s doing it now. “I have to. There aren’t many left who can.”