Who decides if a child lives? A terrible crime took place in a German clinic for disabled children. The persecution, sterilization and murder of hundreds of thousands of disabled people is one of the most overlooked chapters in the history of Nazi Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, it is estimated that well over 200,000 people with a wide range of disabilities were dismissed as Lebensunwertes Leben (‘lives unworthy of life’) and systematically killed in six converted psychiatric hospitals across Austria and Germany. Public opposition to the program was limited. The most striking intervention came from the Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen. Stephen Unwin’s riveting new play All Our Children is set against a forgotten chapter of the Holocaust, the murder of disabled children and young people, remembering those who died and those who fought against this injustice. Playing at The Sheen Center All Our Children,started previews April 6th and plays until May 9th.
T2C had a chance to talk to this author, to learn just a little bit more.
T2C: You have directed in Scotland and England and now your play is in New York.
Stephen Unwin: Briton is a small country, in my 20’s I worked in Edinburgh at the Traverse Theatre. A lot of actors that I worked with made it big like Alan Cummnings and Tilda Swinton. I am really a play and opera director. I have directed over 50 or 60 productions. Doing this play is terrifying.
T2C: You have written several books.What is the difference between writing books and a play?
Stephen Unwin: The books are are factual, the play took historical research. It is also imaginative. The translation is informative in writing the play. You are creating dialogue that trips on the tongue.
T2C:What aren’t you directing All Our Children ?
Stephen Unwin: I directed All Our Children in London, but its right to do it here with an America cast and director for an American audience. I could have done it, but it was great to have an experienced director for here.
T2C:What made you write All Our Children?
Stephen Unwin: It comes from the experience of a father who has a severally disable child. My son Joey has no speech, epilepsy and will always need to be taken care of. My mom was also a German Jew and there is something in that inheritance. I was also brought up on Catholicism. This play weaves all that together.
In this play, the bishop has a line “all God’s children need”. The play was my question and answer as to what is the onset of that? The Nazi killed over 200,000 disable children because it is too expensive to keep them. I think that the tax payer and the state needs to support the most vulnerable. We have a responsibility through our tax dollars and commitment. I admire that religious commitment and now the rest of the world needs to find a political answered to helping our seniors and disabled. The Nazi’s wanted to spend money on the military instead of their people’s needs. This play has a series of arguments. Society has a contribution to make.
T2C:What made you write about the holocaust?
Stephen Unwin: This story is before the Jewish holocaust, it is the attack on the disabled people. This is a story that is completely forgotten about. Bishop Galen was very grand and aristocratic, the Nazi’s thought he was one of them. However he stood up against the murders and stood up for the disabled. Hitler stopped the program, because of his speeches and bravery.
T2C:How did you get the play to New York?
Stephen Unwin: I directed it in London and it was a big success, then somebody form the Sheen Center contacted me. This play sparks an ethical debate. When the forces of the state go against the most vulnerable, we need to band together and state this must never happen again!
T2C:I know the US had commercials wanting to sterilize disabled children and in Germany they were being experimented on. What is it we don’t know?
Stephen Unwin: There was an absurd amount of eugenics going on in America and London. It was a misunderstanding of Darwin theory. The thought was that if we sterilized, we could stop the diversity of people, that this is good for everybody. We forget that perfect is not good for anyone. When I was younger I used to be so scared of people with disabilities and now I’m not. Fear creates hate.
T2C: You are an advocate for disabled children. What do we not know that could help?
Stephen Unwin: What we forget is that disabled children should have every right that every other child should have. I took my daughter Bea, to the playground here and there was not one disabled child. Children need to play. They need access to education, to grow and be the best they can be. The psychological stress to fight for a disabled child’s right shouldn’t be taken for granted. This is not something a family should fight for. A child should be kept safe. The casual language of moron, stupid and dumb are all abusive. Virginia Wolfe when seeing disabled children on a bridge stated; “They should all be killed.”
T2C:How does theatre help disabled children?
Stephen Unwin: This little play has helped some people have more empathic and has helped create a political change towards disabled people.
T2C:What are the challenges you face as a father of a disabled child?
Stephen Unwin: My boy Joey is now 22, so he is nearly an adult. The challenges are you have to fight and fight and fight. Joey gets what he needs, because I am a privileged person. I try in what ever way I can to help people do not have the advantages that I have. Joey is a lucky swine, because he has family around loving him.
T2C: Is this play spiritual?
Stephen Unwin: This play is the most personal thing I have done incorporating my Jewish inheritance and Catholic upbringing. This terrible crime was committed, yet a voice when brave enough is clearly and forcibly enough, people will follow you.
T2C:What would you like our readers to know that I haven’t asked?
Stephen Unwin: It’s not a date night play, this is not as terrifying as people think it is. It is emotional and you will cry. It is humane. Human’s no matter how they are born is worth infinite value.
All Our Children: The Sheen Center, 18 Bleeker St. until May 9th.