Arts News: Quilts Commemorate Lives of Disabled Lost in Nazi Holocaust

Made of blocks from around the world, this quilt is one of more than 100 quilts commemorating the lives of the disabled taken by German Nazis in 1940-1941 on view in the “The Project 70273” exhibit at UCM, Warrensburg. (Project 70273)

The Project 70273, a worldwide collaborative art project dedicated to commemorating the lives of the disabled taken by German Nazis in 1940-1941, has organized an exhibit of commemorative quilts at the McClure Archives and University Museum on the campus of the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

It is the largest and longest running Project exhibit to date, with contributions from hundreds of individuals from 16 countries. On view are more than 100 quilts of all sizes, including some with blocks made by Missouri residents.

The exhibit was organized by Jeanne Hewell-Chambers, The Project 70273 founder, and is being hosted by Amber Clifford-Napoleone, professor of anthropology and director of the museum.

The story of the horrors that constituted the Holocaust under the Nazi regime is well-known, especially its extermination of Jews, Romani (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. Less well-known is the Nazi effort to exterminate the physically and mentally disabled.

Like the other atrocities, it included euthanasia (ironically, from the Greek, meaning “good death”) or “mercy killings” of those suffering from such illnesses as schizophrenia, epilepsy, syphilis, encephalitis and what has simply been labeled “imbecility.”

Organized out of the Berlin Chancery, German officials set up six “Receiving Centers” in Germany and Austria and invited those who cared for the disabled to send them to the centers, where they would be cared for at no expense. The Charitable Transportation System even provided free transportation.

All of this was rationalized with eugenics, pseudo-scientific propaganda explaining the cost of caring for the “unfit” both in financial terms and as a threat to the master Aryan race.

People of all ages were sent to Receiving Centers. Some were never heard from again. In other cases, relatives or caregivers received letters informing them of the deaths of those they had cared for, citing various medical reasons, rather than saying they were put to death intentionally.

The story of Project 70273 began one evening in mid-January 2016, when Hewell-Chambers was watching a documentary on the Nazi regime. While stitching together some of the drawings of her intellectually disabled sister-in-law, she learned of the Nazi extermination policy — known as Aktion T4 — that resulted in the deaths of 70,273 individuals much like her sister-in-law between January 1940 and August 1941.

Stunned by what she learned, Hewell-Chambers vowed to commemorate those victims by gathering 70,273 blocks of white fabric, each bearing two red X’s, and stitching them together into quilts to be displayed around the world.

The white fabric represents the medical records read by doctors. When two doctors signed off on these records with red X’s, the executions were put into motion.

Thus arose the layered stories of the quilts and blocks in this exhibit, contributed by family, friends and those wishing to commemorate the victims.

Hewell-Chambers soon realized that she could not complete the task herself and resolved to seek the help of quilters from around the world. As she explained: “I can’t change history — can’t unring that bell — but I can commemorate the lives of these 70,273 disabled people in this small way . . . I just can’t do it alone.”

The Project 70273 was launched Feb. 14, 2016, and within three years, it exceeded its goal with contributions from individuals from more than 150 countries. But the Project is larger than the numbers. Hewell-Chambers hopes that it will “unite the world in kindness, creativity and compassion.”

The Project 70273 exhibit was scheduled to close in August, but its stay has been extended into December to a date yet to be determined. Hewell-Chambers will return September 19-22 to conduct a quilting workshop and lead a campus block drive.

“The Project 70273” continues into December at the McClure Archives and University Museum on the campus of the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Admission is free. For more information, call the museum at 660.543.4649 or email clifford@ucmo.edu. You can follow The Project on Facebook.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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