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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK

World: Europe

Gruesome legacy of Dr Gross

The Spiegelgrund was the children's section of the Steinhof hospital

By BBC Legal Affairs Correspondent John Silverman

Austria is preparing to hold its first Nazi war crimes trial for a quarter of a century.

Jon Silverman delves into the Spiegelgrund's maccabre past
An 83-year-old doctor, Heinrich Gross, has been charged with nine counts of murdering children at a psychiatric hospital in Vienna in 1944.

[ image: Dr Heinnrich Gross denies involvement in the deaths]
Dr Heinnrich Gross denies involvement in the deaths
Seven hundred children were murdered there during the war years as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme, intended to eliminate anyone considered to be physically or mentally flawed.

After the war, Dr Gross became Austria's most celebrated forensic psychiatrist and did research on the brains of some of the children he is alleged to have murdered.

Fight against injustice

One of the many people fighting to see Dr Gross brought to justice is Waltraud Haupl. Her sister, Ann-Marie, was subjected to a "living hell" and died at Dr Gross's hands in the Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna.

"It was cold and without love and nobody took care of her and the doctors did what they wanted to do to her," Ms Haupl said.

Ann-Marie was admitted in 1941 suffering from rickets. But when the doctors discovered that a distant relative had a brain disorder, she became a victim of the clinic's euthanasia programme.

[ image: The brains of hundreds of children still remain]
The brains of hundreds of children still remain
Ms Haupl has her sister's medical notes, signed by Dr Gross. They detail the starvation diet of coffee and bread - at first twice, then only once a day - which pushed her sister inexorably towards death, weighing only nine kilos.

The Spiegelgrund clinic is now part of a huge psychiatric hospital. But though its name has gone, it can not escape its past.

In its pathological department, row upon row of glass jars containing the brains of children bear witness to the clinic's grisly past.

On the wall, there is a plaque in memory of the children of Vienna who were taken there and killed.

After the war, Dr Gross carried out research using some of the brains of children he is alleged to have killed.

Even in 1945, what went on at the clinic was well known - indeed, the director, Emst Illing, was hanged as a war criminal.

But Dr Gross faced only one manslaughter charge and was released after a few months - his conviction ruled unsound.

He went on to become an eminent neurobiologist and was employed by the highest courts in the land to give medical and psychiatric testimony.

Continued denial

Despite continuing allegations against him, he maintained his innocence. The last time he spoke publicly, two years ago, he claimed to have no idea how many children had died at Spiegelgrund.

[ image: Alois Katifinan as the little boy who survived]
Alois Katifinan as the little boy who survived
"Maybe 300, maybe more. Yes, I knew about it but I wasn't involved and to have stood openly against it in those days was an automatic death sentence by the Nazis," he said.

In fact, the number of child deaths was over 700. But Dr Gross continued to enjoy his eminent status, until two years ago.

It was then that Dr Gross's medical notes for a one-month period in the summer of 1944 were found in an archive in Berlin - a time when he said he had left the hospital and was in the army.

Austria's leading anti-Nazi research centre had been pressing for a new criminal case against Gross for years. It now says the surprise find proves Dr Gross to be a liar.

Alois Kaufmann, who was sent to the Speigelgrund in 1943 as a child delinquent and treated with appalling brutality, says Dr Gross must stand trial.

"Did he ask the children about their screams and shouts before they were killed? Did he feel sorry for the 10-day-old boy whose stomach he cut open to give him injections? He was a Nazi through and through and should live in prison for the rest of his days," he said.

Mr Kaufmann has received anti-Semitic phone calls and death threats since it emerged that he would be a witness at the trial of Dr Gross.

Given Austria's ambivalent attitude towards its Nazi past, this may not come as a surprise.

And even the world's most eminent Nazi hunters are reported to say that, despite the new evidence on Dr Gross, a conviction is by no means certain.

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