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Michael Zoosman

The Unconscionable Nazi Legacies of Executions by Gas and Lethal Injection

Adolf Hitler’s authorization for the euthanasia program (Aktion/Operation T4), signed in October, 1939, but dated September 1, 1939. The Nazis were the first to implement lethal injection in our world. (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, public domain)

Alabama’s experimental use of gas to torture to death Kenneth Smith on January 25th — like all executions by lethal injection — has perpetuated a horrific Nazi legacy in the United States and is a traumatizing affront to many in the Jewish community. The fact that this torment was blindly carried out just ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is nothing less than a shameless slap in the face of people like myself and many of the nearly 3,200 members of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” who are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors and victims. The Alabama Holocaust Education Center — a highly reputable organization that at this dangerously fraught moment for world Jewry is more essential than ever before — was absolutely right to release a statement ahead of the gassing differentiating the issue of capital punishment from the singular calamity of the Holocaust. Indeed, L’chaim members who, like me, still painfully reside under the incomparable shadow of the Holocaust/Shoah know this truth all too well. Members also know that the lessons of that unparalleled conflagration must be heeded if the phrase  “Never Again!” is to have a fully impactful and abiding meaning for all of humanity. This assuredly applies to never again employing executions by gas and lethal injections, which are forever singed into the annals of human history with the Nazi imprimatur.

Let there be no doubt: the Nazis were not the first to gas the incarcerated to death. That enduring badge of shame belongs to the United States, specifically Nevada, which employed cyanide gas to kill Gee Jon in 1924. However, the Third Reich’s notorious use of gas as part of the Final Solution’s mass genocide against Jews and other “undesirables” unquestionably damns any society that wields any form of gassing — whether via a gas chamber, a gas mask or otherwise — in the killing of imprisoned human beings against their will. It is undeniable that gassing to death is now inextricably bound to these unspeakable events in the Jewish and general collective consciousness. This includes Arizona’s use of Zyklon B — of Auschwitz infamy —  in its execution protocol, which quite appropriately triggered a lawsuit from the Jewish community in that state. It certainly also includes Alabama’s macabre inaugural execution by nitrogen hypoxia, which Ohio, NebraskaLouisiana, Arkansas, OklahomaNorth Carolina and Mississippi are now considering utilizing for state killings, and by which Alabama intends to put to death at least 43 more of its condemned human beings.

The Nazi legacy of experimentation to find the most expeditious way for the state to kill prisoners is a barbaric undercurrent for anyone who is aware of this history. It comes as no surprise that a great many Jewish individuals have contacted L’chaim to describe how the nightmarish scene that played out in Alabama’s death chamber triggered deeply painful cultural memories and reignited a palpable intergenerational Jewish trauma, a subject about which Rabbi Tirzah Firestone has so powerfully written. I myself have experienced a visceral, nauseating response to this gassing, which has inevitably conjured images of my family members and my fellow Jews being gassed to death. These pictures are emblazoned onto the souls of the Jewish people as indelibly as the numbers that the Nazis tattooed on the arms of my ancestors at the Auschwitz concentration camp. As I write this, Death Penalty Action has just created a new petition for all Jewish leaders who feel similarly, adding to the nearly 20,000 individuals who already have signed their names against gassing executions.

This monstrous development should also awaken all Americans to the reality that lethal injection — the primary method of execution used in the United States — is itself a direct Nazi legacy. As with killings by gas, the Nazis did not invent lethal injection. American doctor Julius Mount Bleyer, who served as a member of a commission to study capital punishment, first proposed the novel method in the Jan. 17, 1888 issue of The Medico-Legal Journal, where he indicated it would be cheaper than hanging.  Yet, it was none other than the Third Reich that was the first to actually cross the Rubicon of using this idea and implementing lethal injection on human beings.

In the current era of so-called “fake news,” many individuals with whom I have shared this Nazi legacy of lethal injection have refused to believe it. It merits repeating, then, that one can locate irrefutable proof of this fact just down the street from where I live in College Park, Maryland — at the National Archives and Records Administration. Housed inside that building is Adolf Hitler’s signed authorization for the euthanasia program known to the world as Aktion/Operation T4. This protocol was directed by Dr. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician, as a method to dispose of Lebensunwertes Leben, those deemed to be “life unworthy of life.”

In his medical journal article “Lethal injection: a stain on the face of medicine,” which can be found on the website of the National Library of Medicine in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), trauma medical director Dr. Jonathan Groner described this new medical protocol:

“In 1939, Adolf Hitler started the national “euthanasia” programme—code named “T-4”—with the purpose of killing physically and mentally handicapped patients. The killing facilities were designed on a medical model. A doctor examined new “patients,” and their vital signs were recorded…The killing—whether by lethal injection, poisoning, or gassing with carbon monoxide—was always supervised by a doctor.”

Mark Eliott, the former director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, wrote poignantly about his direct experience with this history when he encountered members of the Jewish community as they protested in front of the death chamber during Florida’s inaugural lethal injection in 2000. The execution victim in that “novel” experiment for the Sunshine State was a Jewish man by the name of Terry Sims. As Mr. Eliott recalled:

“Among the protestors and those keeping vigil was a rabbi with members of his congregation. They were facing toward the death chamber, intently praying while wearing prayer shawls and yarmulkes…We discussed how lethal injection was first developed in Nazi Germany by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician to Adolph Hitler. It was used in the infamous T4 program to legally murder disabled children and adults along with Jews and others the state deemed undesirable or “unworthy of life.” I was deeply shocked that the State of Florida had chosen to revive this horrific legacy by choosing a Jewish prisoner to be the first killed by lethal injection. I felt a sudden spark in the core of my being that later became a fire.”

As with gassing executions, this Nazi legacy of lethal injection should in and of itself give soulful pause to even the staunchest of death penalty supporters, of which I myself was one before learning of this incriminating truth. Alabama used this lethal injection method to torture the very same Kenneth Smith for hours on the gurney less than a year ago, when it failed in its first attempt to kill him, leading to his fateful choice of execution by gas instead. Lethal injection also was the method that Alabama employed to inadvertently “commemorate” International Holocaust Remembrance Day just two years ago, when it put to death Matthew Reeves, one of two Americans with severe, documented cognitive impairment executed in that manner that very day.

To put an end to these grotesque Nazi killing traditions and the collective bloodlust that any method of execution inherently conjures, L’chaim’s thousands of members carry the torch of Holocaust survivor and staunch death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel. Of capital punishment, Wiesel famously stated, “Death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” He added in an interview, in 1988: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.” To be sure, Wiesel is on record having referred to Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator and Final Solution engineer Adolph Eichmann as “an example not to be followed.”  Jewish opponents to Eichmann’s execution included renowned Hebrew University philosophers Samuel Hugo Bergmann and Nathan Rotenstreich, scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, who called the execution a great “mistake.” Other Holocaust survivors themselves, such as Nobel-prize winning author, Nelly Sachs voiced their strident opposition to Eichmann’s execution.

Given this Nazi legacy — not to mention the death penalty’s undeniable outgrowth from lynching and its demonstrably racist application — L’chaim members maintain that 21st century Judaism must firmly reject the death penalty in all cases — from Kenneth Smith to the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter. Like Zimbabwe — which has abolished the death penalty as I write these very words — more than 70 percent of world nations that have discontinued executions agree: there is no “humane” way to put prisoners to death against their will, and capital punishment is not a deterrence to crime.  On the contrary, state-sponsored killing condemns the society that allows it infinitely more than any of the individuals it condemns to death. It condemned the Third Reich, it condemns the soul of America, and it will continue to condemn any civilization that elects to wield its inherent cruelty — until it is finally abolished from this world.

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

NOTE: This article first appeared as an op-ed in The Jurist on Feb. 7, 2024

 

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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