Steven Sem-Sandberg’s The Chosen Ones (translated by Anna Paterson) is a difficult book to read. First, there is the subject matter. Even though The Chosen Ones is a novel, it is closely based on the actual history of the victims and perpetrators of Aktion T4, the Nazi euthanasia program for people designated “unworthy of life.” Second, the style of the book—dense paragraphs that read like nonfiction more often than not—is relentless. I never got a break from the details of Aktion T4 and its effects on the children that got caught up in its monstrous betrayal of everything medicine is supposed to stand for.
For the most part, The Chosen Ones centers on Adrian Ziegler and Anna Katschenka. Ziegler is fictional but closely modeled on actual patients held at the Austrian Am Spiegelgrund Clinic. Before the war, the clinic’s staff cared for children who suffered from congenital illnesses or deformities, mental disorders, learning disabilities, and a host of other problems that their parents found they could not cope with. Some of the children are clearly mentally ill. Others are more ambiguous and, in modern times, would not be institutionalized. Adrian is one of the ambiguous ones. Before the war, he is neglected by his parents and caretakers. There’s nothing that I could point to about his behavior that would warrant putting him in a place like Am Spiegelgrund. Mostly, he’s just very unlucky. His time in Am Spiegelgrund, however, with doctors out to prove pseudoscientific theories about “racial hygiene” or conduct unethical, painful experiments, and cruel nurses, changes him. For the rest of his life, Adrian will be in and out of prisons and mental institutions.
Anna Katschenka is a nurse at Am Spiegelgrund. She’s not a Nazi. She’s not even particularly cruel or callous to the children at the clinic. She is, however, more than willing to follow orders. Early in the book, Katschenka meets with the clinic’s director, who shows her a memo from Berlin that authorizes the staff to euthanize “hopeless” cases. Essentially, if no cure for their “condition” is possible, children can be killed. I put quotations around conditions because while some of the children do have diagnosable illnesses, some of the victims were troublemakers or because of their ethnic backgrounds. Even though the Hippocratic Oath begins with the principle of “First, do no harm,” Katschenka did nothing to stop the crimes occurring all around her. She comforts herself by telling herself:
The ultimate decisions are not made by us, but by them, in Berlin. All we can do is knuckle under and do as we’re told. None of us can be regarded as personally responsible. We are obliged to obey current legislation. We have no reason to feel guilty. (Chapter III*)
Like many Nazis would say after the war, she was only following orders as if that makes things okay.
There is a third confounding factor that makes The Chosen Ones a difficult read (as if we needed one more thing). The third factor is that no one in this book can be trusted. Ziegler’s mental condition deteriorates over the course of the book. Katschenka and the medical staff lie constantly to save face and/or convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing. Working out what really happened is a challenge and I know not every reader enjoys this particular one.
Earlier today, I read Susan Rubin Suleiman’s review of The Chosen Ones in The New York Times. Suleiman’s chief complaint was that none of the characters had much depth, leaving her with a litany of crimes to slog through. I disagree. I found the two main characters fascinating because they are so messy. Katschenka believes herself to be dedicated to her work, in spite of her participation in euthanasia. Ziegler’s psyche is a snarl of anger, confusion, and pain. I found each characters’ version of events to be very revealing about what motivated them and why they did what they did.
After I finished The Chosen Ones, I had to read something completely different. I don’t think that I’ve recovered from the mere experience of reading this book even two days later. This book is not for every reader given its subject matter and its stylistic challenges. I might recommend it, but only for readers who are curious about ethical dilemmas, culpability, and/or crimes against humanity and really, really want to give their brains a lot to chew over.
* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.