In 1943 in Wartime Germany, Dr. Dorothea Schmidt, Director of the Berlin School for the Handicapped, watches as her students are taken away to be gassed and burned. She does nothing to stop this even though her illegitimate child, fathered by a Nationalist leader, is one of the victims. Guilt haunts her. After the war, she emigrates to America where she falls in love with Leon, a Jewish man whose family died in the Holocaust. She is compelled to tell him the truth about her past even though she knows he will reject her. After Leon leaves her, she starts a school like the Berlin School. She becomes a leader in the field of educating the handicapped and is eventually recognized for her outstanding contributions by the Kennedy Foundation. At last she feels vindicated, knowing that she created good from evil.
Before class started, the fat, pimply girl in the first row raised her hand and asked me, "What did you do during the war Dr. Schmidt?" The students knew that I had emigrated from Germany to the states in 1948, but no one had ever asked me this question in public. Whenever someone asked me this in private, I said that I worked with children and moved on to another topic sending the message that this was a taboo subject. I didn't know why this time I blurted out the truth, but I did.
"I was the Director of the Berlin School for Handicapped Children."
"Weren't handicapped children killed by the *****?"
"Yes. One day all my students were taken away by soldiers. They were gassed and burned in a crematorium, just like the Jews."
"Didn't you try to stop them?"
"How could I? I was powerless. I would have been killed. What would you have done?" As I asked this question, I glared at the girl, placing blame on her for my impetuous response.
None of the students spoke. They were stunned into silence. It was as if they were frozen in time. This was not part of Psychology 231. I began lecturing on Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. When the students looked up from their note taking, there was something new behind their eyes. Mingled together were shock, disgust, anger, and discomfort at not knowing how they would have reacted had they been confronted with evil in the guise of soldiers carrying innocent children to their deaths just because their brains were different, just because they were not considered part of the master race.
I was able to stem the flood of repressed memories that spilled forth from my unconscious into all parts of my brain: the occipital region where I saw a picture-perfect image of the sobbing children being put on buses; the temporal region where I heard their screams; the frontal region where I grasped the inevitability of their impending deaths; and the hippocampus awash with grief, horror, desperation, helplessness, and shame.
There is a focal point, an event that is more powerful than anything else in a person's life, and this was that point for me - Dorothea Schmidt, Ph.D, formerly Director of the Berlin School for the Handicapped and now Assistant Professor of Psychology at American University in Washington, DC. Everything after that event was tainted by that memory. And that memory even reached its tentacles back to tarnish everything that came before. It stained every engram etched into the protoplasm of my brain.