'Finding Ivy: A Life Worthy of Life' Exhibition Hosted at City Lit

Published: 24 May 2024
a man and a woman looking at an exhibition

This week, City Lit hosted the exhibition ‘Finding Ivy: A Life Worth Living’ in the Gallery. The exhibition brought to light 13 British-born victims with mental illnesses or learning disabilities who were killed by the Nazis in German and Austrian institutions between 1940 and 1941.

In total, there were around 70,000 adults with mental and physical disabilities that lost their lives as result of the killing programme. They were deemed to have “lives unworthy of life”. ‘Finding Ivy’ is designed to restore justice, dignity and humanity to these people who had their lives taken away from them.

As well as the exhibition, City Lit Fellow and Co-Chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, Rt Hon. Ed Balls chaired a panel with historians, researchers, theatre producers and descendants of the victims. City Lit’s Percussion Orchestra also performed with the Corali Dance Company, both of whom have learning disabilities themselves. This allowed them to pay tribute to the victims and celebrate their own lives as creative artists.

To find out more about ‘Finding Ivy’, City Lit spoke to the creators of the exhibition, lead researcher Dr. Helen Atherton and historian Dr. Simon Jarrett. We also spoke to City Lit Percussion Orchestra tutor Alex Thomas to hear their perspective on the event.

Q&A with Dr. Helen Atherton and Dr. Simon Jarrett

Ed Balls, Paul Weindling, Dr. Helen Atherton, Stephen Unwin, Nancy Jennings and a BSL interpreter taking part in a pnale discussion at City LitEd Balls, Paul Weindling, Dr. Helen Atherton, Stephen Unwin, Nancy Jennings and a BSL interpreter taking part in a pnale discussion at City Lit
Dr. Helen Atherton (pictured middle) at the 'Finding Ivy' panel discussion at City Lit

How did you first hear about the British-born victims for ‘Finding Ivy’?

Helen: Back in 2010, I went on a trip to Hartheim in Austria, which is one of the six centres where the Nazis killed people with disabilities and mental illnesses. On one of the displays, there was an indication that people from Great Britain had been amongst those that had been killed, which was a really surprising.

I couldn't quite understand at that point in my own mind how they'd managed to get from Britain to Germany and Austria and end up in that situation.

How did you learn more about the 13 ‘Finding Ivy’ victims?

Simon: As well as Helen and I, we’ve a little team working out in Germany and Austria who bring their own kind of skills and expertise. They’ve helped us look through evidence found in different local, regional and national archives. Things like medical notes of victims, taken from the hospitals where they were living before being killed. We’ve also tracked down the relatives of the victims, some of whom knew about what had happened in the past, some of whom didn't know. From there we were able to build up the life story of each person.

Helen: And it’s all been done all for free. Even the translators, who would go through the documentation and provide very comprehensive translations of medical reports, despite a lot of them being in old German. People were really keen to help.

How did the ‘Finding Ivy’ victims end up leaving the UK?

Simon: They’re all completely different stories, but what they've got in common is that most of them are sons and daughters of German or Austrian immigrants who came over to Britain in the early 20th century. A lot of the victims had returned to Germany and Austria in 1920s, because many of their parents had been deemed ‘enemy aliens’ in World War One. 

Helen: As well as these cases, some of the victims were also born in Britain, but married Germans or Austrians and went back with them to their own country.

man pictured holding a microphone speaking to a crowd with another man standing behind himman pictured holding a microphone speaking to a crowd with another man standing behind him
Exhibition creator Dr. Simon Jarrett speaking at the 'Finding Ivy' event at City Lit

Who does ‘Finding Ivy’ refer to?

Helen: ‘Ivy’ was the name of the first victim that we started researching. She was born in Broughty Ferry near Dundee in 1911. Her father was Austrian, and her mother was German. Ivy had learning disabilities.

Her father was one of the people arrested as a spy and kept in an enemy internment camp. It’s at that time that Ivy and her mum went back to live in Germany. Her mum died in 1916 whilst her husband was still in the camps, but we know he came back around 1919 and went back to Vienna with Ivy.

But in 1930, she was admitted to a large psychiatric hospital in Vienna called Am Steinhof and there she stayed living and working in the laundry room until 1940, when she was transported to Hartheim and killed.

Why did the ‘Finding Ivy’ victims end up in institutions?

Helen: About 10 out of the 13 had some form of schizophrenia. One person had depression with alcohol dependency, one had epilepsy, and the other one Ivy, as I have said, had learning disabilities.

In those days, it was very different to today. Families really had very little choice. If psychiatrists and doctors said your son, daughter, husband or wife needs to go into an institution to be ‘treated’, it was very difficult to resist that.

Simon: It’s important to recognise as well that these victims were clearly loved and adored by their families. Their families invested a lot of time, money and support into them and very much grieved for many years after their relatives were killed.

group of learning disabilties dancers all dancing under lightsgroup of learning disabilties dancers all dancing under lights
The Corali Dance company, who have learning disabilites themselves, performing at City Lit

Were the ‘Finding Ivy’ families made aware of the Nazi state-run programme?

Helen:  The whole programme was carried out as a deception. While the victims were being rounded up from the institutions, their relatives were told they were moving somewhere else. They had no idea they were going to be murdered. Quite often, months after they'd actually been killed, they'd get a fake death certificate saying they had died of a false cause.

Simon: Some nurses even tried to warn relatives of what was really happening, but it was too late, or they misinterpreted what the nurse was trying to tell them.

Helen: We think this is why some of these victims were not talked about openly by families, because of the guilt around not having saved their relatives. That, and the unfortunate stigma associated with having a relative with learning disabilities and mental health problems at that time.

How did descendants of the ‘Finding Ivy’ families react?

Simon: It’s had a really big impact on some of the families. Some of the families know the history and some don’t. And what's nice is that actually people are very grateful to know. They're not saying, “Why are you dragging this stuff up?” 

Helen: I was even contacted by the grandson of somebody who'd come across the exhibition in Germany and he'd never really understood why his grandfather died. There was always a mystery about it. All of a sudden, they find something that changes their understanding of their own history. 

Q&A with City Lit Percussion Orchestra's Alex Thomas

It was also fantastic to see the City Lit Percussion Orchestra perform again, this time in a collaborative effort with the Corali Dance Company. We caught up with Alex Thomas, who teaches the Percussion Orchestra, to hear his thoughts on event.

group of pople playing percussion instruments with a conductorgroup of pople playing percussion instruments with a conductor
Alex Thomas (left) performing with the City Lit Percussion Orchestra

What does it mean for the Percussion Orchestra to perform at the ‘Finding Ivy’ event?

Alex: This is the first time we have been asked to create music in a collaborative context, so it was quite challenging. The Orchestra members took it very seriously, knowing how much interest there is in the event. Everyone was committed to trying their best to make great music as always. 

We wanted to do our best for the dance company, Corali, and to present a performance worthy of those who were persecuted, and to remember them. We also wanted to celebrate the learning disabilities scene as it is continuing to emerge now. 

Why is it important to celebrate learning disabilities in the performing arts?

Alex: Our students are very open minded and welcome new learning experiences. This means they create very unusual refreshing work which they want to share with the public. We have made some firm friendships with great artists who genuinely treasure this contact with people that they wouldn't usually meet, working in unusual and inventive ways, and helping our learners to make their voices heard. 

What we create is unique and inspiring, and seeing these same values in the Corali dance company has been highly affirming. Anything is possible and can be achieved with patience, imagination and hard work.

Study with learning disabilties at City Lit

Our Centre for Learning Disability Education offers a creative arts-focussed portfolio of courses for adults with learning disabilities.

'Finding Ivy: A Life Worthy of Life' Exhibition Hosted at City Lit