Leica format

Extract from the novel "Leica format" by Daša Drndić

editions and awards:
Leica format, «Meandar», Zagreb, 2003,
Leica format , "Samizdat B92", Belgrade, 2003.
(Nominated for «Vjesnik», «Jutarnji list», «Vladimir Nazor» and «Kiklop» awards for Book of the year 2004)
Leica formátum, Nyitott Könyvműhely, Budapest 2010, translation Viktória Radics
Leica format, Društvo 2000, Ljubljana 2011, translation Sonja Polanc


They say, some Japanese over there grows bonsai-kittens, dwarfish ones. He puts them in a bottle, connects a probe to their anus with the other end sticking out through the neck of the bottle, then through that probe he feed them. The food isn’t natural food but chemical food that sterilises the kittens while it feeds them. Eventually, the kittens acquire the shape of the bottle. In the bottle they can’t move, they can’t walk, they can’t groom themselves, and as the bottle is often angular, one day the kittens become angular too.


They could place people in bottles as well; those people would remain small, they’d become dwarfs, who with bulging eyes gaze through the glass and perhaps only move their lips. Those dwarfs and dwarfettes, those human monsters, could be placed on shelves as decorative people. On those shelves there would be rows of jars with heaps of humanoid creatures breathing, panting, so the jars would be misty. There would be silence. Living silence, rhythmical and wavy, human. Human silence.


In a mental hospital in the south, maybe even in the north, the patients have sewed up their lips - with catgut made of silk. Catgut is strong thread. While sewing, the patients used a wide slanted stitch so each mouth got sewed up in only three or four goes. That was a (silent) rebellion of the patients against the staff who paid no attention to them. In the asylum, then, even bigger soundlessness came to be, a huge hush which today like steam, like smoke, flows from the ceilings and the walls of that dilapidated building in the middle of nowhere and in clouds it rises towards the sky; during moonless nights, the same soundlessness, that sinister human hush, supposedly insane, returns as a breeze; as feathery rain it falls upon the blurred windows of our exile in nowhere land and, in order to survive, because that is their only air, the patients use that contagious but odourless breeze, that invisible cobweb of silence, to fill their now already hollow, porous lungs. The landscape around the asylum is sealed, fossilized, as a drawing - motionless. It lies underneath a lava of silence woven with noiseless steps rustling softly because they flow out of that hospital in which all the slippers are made of felt.


That landscape, that mental hospital, that asylum of our age, has sowed its traces everywhere, even across the sea. As relics, as fossils of our history, they emerge, in one shape or another, they emerge daily and create enormous horrors which make one vomit.


For instance, those jars.


Those jars that don’t contain imagined yet existing humanoid creatures shaped in the silence of literary musings, people who, for centuries now, have been creating a sinister noise, those jars in which years ago they should have started stacking, preserving, and hermetically closing specimens of the long ago befouled human species, as punishment; those jars in an existing hospital once called Am Steinhof, and later, for the sake of peace of mind and forced oblivion changed into Otto Wagner Spital; those jars which have for over half a century waited in the humid basements of Europe, in the underground darkness of Vienna; those jars with floating children’s brains, the exact number of which remains unknown, some say ABOUT 500, some say ABOUT 600, some say ABOUT 770 brains

others, for the sake of precision, say 772 children’s brains, or 789 – it doesn’t matter, this small difference of 17 cerebral substances


belonging to children from 6 months to 14 years old, supposedly damaged brains, nameless brains, pulled out of the tiny skulls of the euthanised patients of the children’s hospital Spiegelgrund at the time an annex of the psychiatric clinic Am Steinhof, today known as Otto Wagner Spital, and all for the sake of improving the human race, for the sake of improving the mindless human mind. Neatly lined, labelled like jars of Konfitüre in a diligent housewife’s pantry, those preserved yet lifeless brains of the past, toll and echo our present.


My name is Johann. I was born in Vienna in 1931. I’m a house-painter, I have a family, grownup children, healthy. I have grandchildren. I have nightmares. I spent three years in Spiegelgrund as doctor Heinrich Gross’s patient. I was ten then. Before the trial, they took us to the hospital cellar. The jars are hermetically closed and covered with a thick layer of dust. The brains are preserved, they say. They float in formaldehyde, they say. Formaldehyde has a recognisable smell. I don’t believe the brains are preserved. Doctor Gross and the members of his team pricked and prodded those brains, and even if they were preserved, what can be done with them today, what? Those are dead brains, they don’t throb, they’re pale. Those are soft cerebral fossils, those are mummified brains, decayed on the inside, maybe even hollow.


When Gross would enter the hospital room, we couldn’t breathe, our breath was cut by a freezing wind.



Doctor Gross, the former head of the children’s ward in Steinhof hospital, and a notorious Nazi, today is eighty six years old. He stands accused and, bewildered, looks at Johann the house-painter. He is smiling. He is leaning against a silver handled cane. It is an expensive cane. His suit is too large. I am a psychiatrist, says doctor Gross, I know when people confabulate. This man has a vivid imagination, he’s seeing people and events. This man should be treated.


On winter nights they’d leave us half-naked on the balconies. We would die slowly. I haven’t died. They gave us shots and sedatives and first we would shiver on those balconies, then we would fall asleep, then we would catch pneumonia.




Gross remembers nothing of his past. The trial is stopped because doctor Heinrich Gross has no memory, no one’s memory, neither his nor that of his patients, nor that of history. He dwells in a false fugue, in a fugue of hypocrisy or dementia, no one knows which, and no one will ever find out. Without memory it is impossible to bring back the past. There is evidence, there are tiny pieces of memory stored in the skulls of those who no longer exist. For sixty years that mummified evidence has floated in formaldehyde, but it is not sufficient evidence. The court psychiatrist of the accused former SS psychiatrist Heinrich Gross, from 1950 to 1988 also his well-paid colleague, an active neuro-paediatrician with dozens of research papers on the deformities of the brain, proclaims the doctor senile. The judge, Karlheinz Seewald, acquits him. Doctor Heinrich Gross will die a natural death as an innocent and free man.


I am Waltraud Haupl. I have the health-file of my sister Annemarie from the year 1943. She was admitted to Spiegelgrund because of rachitic changes on her bones. Doctor Gross included her into his programme of euthanasia of mentally retarded children. The file holds the doctor’s therapeutic starvation diet: coffee with milk and a piece of bread once a day. My sister died aged four. She weighed nine kilos. They haven’t given me her brain yet. I’d like to have it. I’d like to bury that brain.





The hospital Am Steinhof (Otto Wagner) is located in a beautiful park with pavilions in Art-Nouveau style. Until 1945, in it works and experiments the cream of Austrian and German medicine. Built in 1907, it has for a long time been considered the largest and most modern hospital in Europe. Some thirty years later, in 1940, it becomes one of the forty centres for the implementation of the Nazi programme Aktion T4 – the programme for exterminating physically and mentally handicapped patients of all ages, hypocritically named The Euthanasia Programme. Programme Aktion T4 was named after Tiergartengasse 4 in Berlin, where there used to stand a beautiful villa with the Fuehrer’s headquarters. There, a team of monstrous and sick-brained people then in power, had planned how to eradicate the pathological human gene, how to control the hygiene of the human race, how to cleanse those they found unfit to live. But, for truth’s sake, eugenic theories, ideas on the sterilization and euthanasia of handicapped people, for the first time appear in the United States and in Sweden during the twenties of the last century. The Nazis “only” adopted them and then brought them to realization.

I`m Friedl’s mother. We lived in a small town some one hundred kilometres from Vienna. The Russian troupes were already in Austria. It was raining heavily in April 1945, it had been raining for days. I wanted to see Friedl. He had already been in Spiegelgrund for two weeks, in Spiegelgrund they said, come in three weeks. They said, Friedl has pneumonia. I didn’t want to come in three weeks, I returned in two weeks, on the 20th of April. They were celebrating Hitler’s birthday. In the ward they said, come back tomorrow. I was drenched. My feet were wet. My hair was wet too. It was windy. I had forgotten my gloves. My umbrella had broken. It was a blue umbrella with yellow dots. I was wearing brown stockings. I said, I want to see Friedl. If you want to see Friedl, go find him yourself, said the nurse. She wasn’t an unpleasant nurse, in the left corner of her mouth she had a cake crumb, it was a chocolate cake crumb. I found Friedl. He was lying in a bed with bars. The paint on the bars was peeled off. All the beds in that ward had bars on them. In all the beds in that ward lay children in tiny cages, motionless. Those children weren’t crying, they were dozing. They had eyes half open and heavy eyelids. I slipped my hand through the bars and stroked Friedl’s cheek. His cheek was cold. Here’s Mommy, I said. Friedl didn’t recognize me. He didn’t even move. I went home and came back in three days. It was still raining. I came for my son, I told the doctor, I am taking him home. Spiegelgrund was the best hospital in Austria. No sane mind would ever doubt the quality of Spiegelgrund. They said, your son is gone, his heart failed him. The nurse checked his file. Yes, Friedl died yesterday, he died yesterday at 14.20, said the nurse. It wasn’t the nurse with the chocolate crumb in the corner of her mouth. It was the head nurse, a strict one. I asked for some document, for a diagnosis, for a report on the death of my son. They gave me nothing. We’re very busy, they said. Then I said, give me his body, I want his body, that’s what I want. The strict head nurse said – he’s been buried in the hospital cemetery, talk to the undertakers. In the hospital cemetery I saw many open graves, all of them muddy, filled with rain, drenched with water. Then came a lorry loaded with paper bags. The paper bags were soaked with rain, they were falling apart, there were tiny limbs dropping from the bags, children’s limbs, tiny bare feet, tiny hands. It’s been 55 years. They gave me my son’s file. They took me to the Spiegelgrund basement, today the hospital carries Otto Wagner’s name. Otto Wagner was an architect, I was told. He had never been a Nazi, that’s why the hospital carries his name. I was taken to the basement. There I found my son’s brain. In a jar. They said, take Friedl. You can bury him now.



With the end of the Second World War the killing of handicapped children hadn’t stopped. The last victim of the deranged doctors – experimenters, was four-year old Richard Jenne, killed in the children’s ward of the state hospital Kaufbeueren-Irsee in Bavaria, three weeks after Germany’s unconditional capitulation.


With ardent cooperation of scientists, students, medical staff and Nazi officers, from 1934 till 1945, throughout Europe, German and Austrian doctors sterilized 375.000 women and men allegedly diagnosed with inherited psycho-physical deformities. More than 5000 children and 80.000 adult mental patients were killed. Most of those doctors were never taken to court; they remained heads of their hospitals and wards, they published their scientific discoveries, they were awarded for their work and they died as honourable citizens. In the bliss of total oblivion.


Translated by the author



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