Smoke rising from the chimney at Hadamar, one of six facilities which carried out the Nazis' Euthanasia Program. Hadamar, Germany, probably 1941. Dioezesanarchiv Limburg/USHMM #86721a
Tuesday, August 14, 2001
Smoke rising from the chimney at Hadamar, one of six facilities which carried out the Nazis' Euthanasia Program. Hadamar, Germany, probably 1941. Dioezesanarchiv Limburg/USHMM #86721a
The members of this panel discussed the Nazi persecution of deaf people, including Nazi policies against them, the “racial science” used by the Nazis to justify this persecution, and the experiences of deaf survivors. Each panelist made a 20-minute presentation, followed by interviews with two survivors, conducted by Dr. Simon J. Carmel, Professor of History, Rochester Institute of Technology.
Tuesday, August 14, 1-4 p.m.
Paul A. Shapiro, Director, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Paul Shapiro and I am the director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum today for our panel presentation on the Nazi persecution of deaf people. This program has particular meaning for us because it’s taking place in conjunction with the National Conference of the Jewish Deaf Congress. I want to extend a special welcome to the officers and members of the Jewish Deaf Congress and to Dr. Simon Carmel of the Rochester Institute of Technology who helped organize today’s program. We have yet to come to terms intellectually, emotionally, or politically with the significance of the Holocaust but it is clear that study of the Holocaust and of the unprecedented crimes of the Nazis is significant for us. The Holocaust offers lessons of universal significance that we are driven to understand in order to preserve the memory of those who fell victim and because the lessons of what was allowed to happen then remain relevant today, in a world in which hatred, bigotry and discrimination against the “other,” people who are different, remains all too common. The mission of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies is to promote and support research on the Holocaust, to inspire the growth of the field of Holocaust studies, and to ensure the ongoing training of future generations of Holocaust scholars. Within this broad mission, study of the victimization of all of the groups of people who were targeted as groups by the Nazis -- Jews, Roma and Sinti, or Gypsies, Poles, people with disabilities, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses -- constitutes a scholarly act of memorialization. This panel presentation is part of a series of presentations through which the Center seeks to focus attention on research areas where important work has been done and where more work remains to be done. Three years ago our Center worked together with Gallaudet University to organize a remarkable conference on deaf people in Hitler’s Europe. I am personally very excited and very gratified to see some people here today who participated in that extraordinary meeting. I know that Professor Schuchman, who will speak today, is editing the papers of that conference for publication. Study of the Holocaust is, by its very nature, an emotional experience. I have rarely been as moved by scholars’ papers or survivors’ testimonies as during the days of that conference in the summer of 1998. So I am glad that we are gathered together again. What we do here today ennobles the memory of the deaf people who fell victory... who fell victim, to hatred and persecution during the Holocaust, that defining event of the twentieth century. Before turning the podium over to our panel moderator, I want to draw your attention to another program taking place here at the museum this evening. Co-sponsored with the embassy of Israel, at 7 o’clock, we will be showing a film on the Nazi euthanasia program, a film entitled “Healing by Killing”. The film is in German and English with English subtitles. It is closed captioned for the hearing impaired. The showing will be followed by a discussion with the film’s producer, Nitzan Aviram. It is now my pleasure to turn the podium over to Dr. Jeffrey Megargee, an outstanding member of the research staff of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, and again the very warmest welcome to all of you who are here today.
Eve Rosenhaft, Reader, Department of German, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
First of all, I’d like to thank the JDC and the Museum for giving me the opportunity to give this talk. I’ve had a chance with the help of Simon Carmel to learn about something which I hadn’t paid much attention to before, namely, the situation of the deaf in Nazi Germany. To be deaf and Jewish in Nazi Germany was to be under a dual threat. Under Hitler, the German state was the most ruthlessly antisemitic regime in modern history, but the Nazis were not only determined to remove Jews from German society, they also presided over a comprehensive program for transforming that society. They pictured the German nation as an organic whole, using the term “national body.” The strength of this “national body” could be maintained only by controlling the bodies of every individual within it. Physical and mental health were to be promoted. All forms of disability had to be eliminated. This was the practical application of the principles known as “eugenics.” Both of these policies, antisemitism and eugenics, were embedded in a wider worldview. This view saw human history as a history of conflict between societies and it defines “societies,” using the language of biology, as races. The Nazis thought that these races of mankind were not morally equal, some were better than others. At the top stood the Nordic, or Aryan race, represented by the Germans, and they could only survive and fulfill their historical mission by multiplying, conquering new territories, and subjecting other peoples to their domination. None of these policies was invented by the Nazis. In one form or another, the ideas behind them were shared by many people in Europe and America in the early 20th century. What was unique to Germany between 1933 and 1945 was the literalness, the tenacity, with which the Nazi state tried to turn racial fantasies into reality. Patricia Heberer will be talking in detail about the persecution of disabled people, programs of compulsory abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia, or what’s known as “negative eugenics.” I will talk about the persecution of Jews, but at the same time I hope I can give you a sense of how both persecutions were related to each other and I hope I can give you a feel for the logic of policy in what has been called the Nazi “racial state.” I’ll start by looking at the history of Nazi policies. I’ve said that the Nazis didn’t invent the ideas that underlay their treatment of Jews and the disabled. They inherited the notions of race and eugenics from thinkers of the 19th century. Proponents of the science of race argued that different groups of people were inherently different from one another, and especially that some groups were permanently less developed or more primitive than others. This was an idea that helped to justify the process of imperial expansion as white Europeans came into contact with, and conquered, people who had dark skin and unfamiliar customs. It was also used to justify slavery in the United States, and after slavery was abolished, it was used to justify the denial of rights to African Americans. When anthropology became a field of study in universities in the 1860s and 1870s a large group of anthropologists spent their time measuring physical differences among people, trying to relate those physical differences to qualities like intelligence and ability to be civilized. Within white society, too, things were changing in the 1800s. As industry developed, people from different places came together. A new and strange kind of culture seemed to be developing. The big cities were full of immigrants and workers whose allegiance to the existing social and political order was uncertain. In the late 1800s cities looked like a kind of dark continent in themselves; breeding grounds for crime and disease where civilization could be swamped by the return of the primitive. Social scientists and policemen looking for ways to understand and fight crime developed the fields of biological and anthropological criminology, dominated by theories that criminals represented a kind of throwback to more primitive human types where the criminality could be inherited. The diagnosis was that the white race was in danger of degenerating. The cure was eugenics. The word “eugenics” was introduced by the English naturalist and mathematician Francis Galton in 1881. It referred to the policy of improving the physical and mental health of the population by discouraging or preventing people who were genetically weak or degenerate from having children and fostering people who had healthy characteristics. It’s clear then that Germans were not unique in embracing eugenics in the 20th century. The United States was regarded by Europeans as being in the forefront of the study and implementation of eugenics, and the negative eugenic policies of sterilizing criminals and mental “defectives” were being practiced in some American states well before Hitler came to power. After the war, the German authorities refused to compensate many victims of sterilization for their suffering and this was the argument they used: even negative eugenics was a normal policy tool everywhere in the 1920s and 1930s so it wasn’t the same as racial persecution, therefore it wasn’t a crime. Positive eugenics included measures to promote public health and to assist the creation of healthy families and this was supported by intellectuals, medical professionals, and social workers from across the whole political spectrum in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Germany pioneered the creation of public health clinics, sex education, and the dissemination of birth control information, and most of the people involved in this movement saw themselves as working in the name of eugenics. I’ve gone into some detail about the background to racial and eugenic thinking in order to make it clear how Nazi policies could appear at first as familiar and even attractive. The first measures introduced by the Nazis looked like positive eugenics. In 1933, a system of marriage loans was introduced. Working couples who wanted to marry and start a family were offered grants of money to buy furniture on the condition that the wife gave up her job and became a full-time mother. For each child born to the couple, one-fourth of the grant would be written off. They wouldn’t have to pay it back. While it promoted large families, the Nazi regime also assisted them by expanding programs for the care of mothers and children. In order to qualify for a marriage loan, though, a couple had to undergo a medical examination which would determine whether they were genetically fit to marry and have children, and this was the beginning of the process of selection which would make those who failed the test victims of negative eugenics. The Marital Health Law of October 1935 ordered that all Germans who wanted to marry must be medically examined and it banned marriages between healthy individuals and those who were carriers of diseased, inferior, or dangerous genetic material. People who were denied the right to marry became candidates for sterilization. Even negative eugenics could be given a positive spin under National Socialism. Eugenics was always associated with the idea of national efficiency. It wasn’t for the sake of personal happiness that individuals should be made and kept healthy, but so that they could be productive and make a contribution to the social and economic well-being of the nation. Once the welfare state began, keeping the population healthy also meant keeping down public spending. Nazism gave its own emphasis to this idea. It insisted on the duty of all Germans to work, and you may remember that the slogan on the gate of many concentration camps was “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work will make you free. Nazism also required all citizens to use their bodies in active service to the nation. Men should be soldiers. Women should be mothers. This call to duty was often combined with the glorification of physical self-sacrifice, so people who were unable to perform military service, to die on the battlefield for Germany, might convince themselves that being sterilized was a patriotic thing to do. Certainly some disabled Nazis, including deaf people, used this argument. The image of disabled people calling on other disabled people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation is a good illustration of the two-faced nature of the Nazi system. It held out the utopian promise of a society free of crime and deviance, in which everybody was guaranteed good health, productive work, and a secure family life. And this was a promise that people wanted to believe, but in practice the system treated people as infinitely deployable and dispensable as objects. This applied first to those who were declared unworthy, or outsiders, in one way or another. The criminal law was changed to deny the right of due process to political opponents, and even to common criminals, to legalize arbitrary arrests and preventive detention. From 1935 on, certain categories of criminals were officially treated as racially undesirable. Prostitutes, vagrants, and other so-called asocials, including Roma, or Gypsies, were taken off the streets and sent to prisons or camps indefinitely and without the right to appeal. Homosexuals, whose lifestyle contradicted both criminal law and the racial duty to produce children, were hounded and arrested. But in principle, everybody was at the mercy of the system of selection, and if they fell into the hands of the authorities, the agencies of the state -- and the Nazi party -- could use them pretty much as they pleased. It was from managing these thousands of ordinary captives that the concentration camp system was set up right at the beginning of the regime in 1933. Summary arrests, preventive detention, forced labor, compulsory therapy or reeducation, sterilization, deportation, human experiments, murder to order. Many people suffered one or more of these from 1933-1945, and some suffered all of them, enduring years of abuse and exploitation in a number of camps and detention centers before they died of disease or exhaustion, or were killed. Just as they had common ideological roots, policies on race and heredity, crime prevention and punishment, and the treatment of people deemed alien to the national body, had a common home within the machinery of the Nazi state. The Reich Main Security Office, under the SS leader Heinrich Himmler, coordinated police services. But it also had sections which were responsible for labor camps and concentration camps; the prosecution of habitual criminals and homosexuals; examining and categorizing people like Gypsies, who were regarded as aliens; and for developing the use of gas for killing. It was in a sub-department of the Reich Main Security Office too that Adolf Eichmann had his department for planning the “Final Solution” to the so-called Jewish question. Many, perhaps most Jewish victims who were deaf, suffered first as Jews and it’s with that aspect of the Nazi racial state that I want to end the presentation. The rise of racial thinking in the 19th century added a new dimension to what was an old idea: antisemitism. The suspicion of and discrimination against Jews had been well established in Christian Europe since the Middle Ages but by the mid-1800s Jews in western Europe came to be seen, and to see themselves, as full citizens and participants in the national cultures of their home countries. German Jews gained full civil rights under the Constitution of the Empire in 1871. But the 1880s witnessed a new wave of antisemitism all over Europe. In the new antisemitism Jews were blamed not for killing Christ, but for all the ills of industrial society, including both capitalism and socialism. Another thing that was new about this antisemitism was the explanation of why the Jews were as they were, and this was an explanation provided by racial thinking. Traditional Christian antisemitism had been based on religion, and implied the hope that Jews would convert and so stop being Jews. The new antisemitism proposed that the Jews were born different, that their qualities were in their nature or their blood, and could not be erased by any act of will or law. Jews were now the enemy not of Christianity but of the Nordic race or the German nation. A good example of the pseudo-scientific blending of racism and antisemitism is the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain who argued, in 1899, that the Jewish people made a positive contribution to history by being the first to apply the principles of genetic purity. This was his interpretation of the Halakic rules of membership of the Jewish community. But he also described the Jews as the main competitor with the Germanic race in the struggle for domination for western civilization. Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler in 1923. He admired Hitler and Hitler was one of Chamberlain’s biggest fans. The late 19th century wave of antisemitism seemed to have died away by the outbreak of World War I, but the ideas remained, and they became the basis for Hitler’s own thinking and for the policies of the Nazi party from the 1920s on. Once Hitler was in power it became possible to put them into practice. If Jewishness was a matter of blood or genes, then intermarriage or sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews was a threat to national integrity. The blood of the national body might be diluted or polluted, and Nazi propaganda often accused Jews of deliberately trying to undermine Germany by seducing non-Jews. In 1935, shortly before the Marital Health Law brought in general restrictions on marriage, the Nuremberg Laws were introduced. The Nuremberg laws denied citizenship to Jews and at the same time prohibited marriage and sexual relations between Germans and people of alien blood. This first meant Jews, although later it was said that Roma (Gypsies) and blacks were also of alien blood. Later laws defined who counted as a Jew, a half-Jew, or a quarter-Jew, and made rules about whom people with different proportions of Jewish blood could marry. Because these rules firmly identified the bodies of Jews as a threat, they implied that Jews had to be physically removed from the national body one way or another. Even before the race laws were introduced, the Nazi state began a campaign of discrimination against Jews. In the first year of Nazi rule a boycott of Jewish businesses was ordered. Jews were removed from civil and public service and forced out of clubs and associations. The first direct experience of persecution for many deaf Jews in Germany may have been their expulsion from the German National Association for the Deaf in August 1933. In the years that followed, Jews were excluded from a wide range of professions and occupations, forbidden to attend theaters, and forced to take on the names “Israel” and “Sara.” Jewish children were forced out of public schools. The pogrom of November 9th and 10th, 1938 was the first large scale act of open violence against Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses. It also involved the first mass arrests of Jewish men and their detention in concentration camps. The pogrom led to the seizure of Jewish property on a large scale and the final exclusion of Jews from economic life. In 1939, the separation and stigmatization of Jews within German society was intensified. Unemployed Jews, denied welfare benefits, were forced to work. Jewish families were forced to move into houses and streets reserved for them. This policy of creating ghettos was applied even more ruthlessly in Poland after the outbreak of war in September 1939, and it was there that the yellow star was introduced to definitively set Jews apart from non-Jews; a visible sign of an invisible difference. German Jews were required to wear the star from September 1941 on. By that time, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, beginning a war of destruction against the combined racial and political enemy, Jewish Bolshevism. The systematic mass murder by shooting of Jews, along with intellectuals, political enemies, and Roma, had begun, and by the end of 1941 the first of the camps designed expressly for killing were being built. Jewish emigration from Germany was stopped. Those who had not been able to emigrate, just over 200,000 of the original half million or so German Jews, were all subject to forced labor as they awaited deportation to the ghettos and camps in the east. In early 1943, the last Jews who had not been able to go underground were deported from Germany. At the end of the war about one-ninth of the original population of German Jews was still alive in Europe. As is well known, the toll of Jewish dead overall was between 5 and 6 million, and this included some 90 percent of Polish Jews. Of the Jewish victims of the Nazi racial state, at least 6,500, and probably many more, were deaf. Thank you.
Patricia Heberer, Historian, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
National Socialist Germany has been called “the racial state.” Nazi ideology identified Jews and Gypsies living inside and outside the Reich borders as foreign and parasitic elements which threatened the German body politic, while Nazi policy singled them out on biological bases for discrimination and destruction. Yet even within the German racial community there were those who were perceived to constitute a biological and economic danger: the “hereditarily compromised,” the “asocial,” and the “unproductive,” please see those words in quotes, who ostensibly made no significant contribution to society and whose existence placed a genetic and financial burden upon the state. Throughout the 12 years in which the Nazi party held power in Germany, National Socialists, political, civil, and medical authorities targeted individuals suffering from hereditary and congenital diseases, persons with disabilities, and institutionalized patients, for discrimination, anti-natal measures, and even for death. Where members of the deaf community fell within these parameters as persons with perceived hereditary disabilities, or as persons living in institutions in custodial settings, they figured as victims of radical medical and public health strategies. Targeting persons with disabilities began in the early months of the Nazi dictatorship, when a rapid synchronization of the medical and juridical communities, as well as that of the civil bureaucracy, ensured that eugenic theories, which Dr. Rosenhaft has just spoken about, embedded in National Socialist policy, or rather ideology, translated into state-sponsored measures. By early June 1933, less than six months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, members of an Expert Advisory Council on Questions of Population and Racial Policy, formed at the invitation of the Ministry of the Interior, began to fashion a new population policy. A comprehensive strategy of gene and race cultivation was envisioned. At its core stood measures intended to advance the reproductive capacity of racially and genetically healthy Germans and to proscribe the propagation of the hereditarily compromised. On 14 July 1933 with the encouragement of the Advisory Council, the Hitler cabinet approved the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary diseases, which ordered the compulsory sterilization of persons with certain afflictions. Five of the diseases specifically designated in the ordinance represented psychiatric or neurological disorders, including schizophrenia, manic depressive or bipolar disorder, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, and hereditary feeblemindedness. Physical conditions which warranted sterilization under the new legislation were congenital blindness, congenital deafness, serious physical deformity, and severe alcoholism. Medical professionals, including physicians, dentists, nurses, and midwives, were now duty-bound to report patients with these illnesses or disabilities in the exercise of their office. Directors of hospitals, mental institutions, schools, prisons, workhouses, and concentration camps also proposed candidates for sterilization. Denunciation by ordinary persons was not uncommon yet the overwhelming number of proposals dispatched to the new sterilization courts came from the state medical offices, which received and compiled information from physicians, social workers, and public welfare agencies. Once a proposal to sterilize an individual had been advanced from one of these places, the suit came before a special hereditary health court, each comprised of two physicians and one jurist. By 1936 more than 250 of these courts had been established throughout Germany. When proceedings commenced, the court could call any witness it chose, including the defendant’s physician, thus striking down the privilege of doctor-patient confidentiality. If the decision of the court were for sterilization, the potential victim had only four weeks in which to appeal the verdict. In the absence of such an appeal, or if the higher court turned down a standing appeal, the implementing decree for the 1933 law demanded execution of the sterilization procedure within two weeks time. Paragraph 12 of the law sanctioned the use of force on unwilling victims. Those who attempted to circumvent the procedure were delivered under police guard to the hospital in question. The new law took effect in January 1934, and its effect was immediate, with 388,400 proposals for sterilization advanced in the first year alone. The flood of petitions from medical authorities and other sources created an immediate backlog of active cases so that the hereditary health courts managed to adjudge only 84,000 of these suits in the first 12 months of the law’s application. Of these, the overwhelming number of cases, or 92 percent of them, were approved. Reliable statistics exist for the first years, only for the first years, of the sterilization program, yet it is clear that the number of cases brought before hereditary health courts in subsequent years closely matched 1934 figures. The most careful study of available data suggests that from 1 January 1934 until war’s end in May 1945, some 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized under the terms of the Nazi sterilization law. This figure does not include the number, in thousands, of Gypsies, Jews, Poles, and other victims, sterilized extra-legally in the Nazi concentration camps during the war. Who were the victims of Nazi sterilization policy? Naturally, the majority were those who suffered from illnesses or diseases outlined in the law. For the first year the measure was in place a breakdown of sterilization cases by disease is available. Such statistics illustrate that congenital feeblemindedness and schizophrenia, 52.9 percent and 25.4 percent respectively, represented the chief bases for sterilization. Those individuals suffering from hereditary epilepsy comprised another 14 percent of compulsory procedures, while manic-depressive disorder and chronic alcoholism combined to make up another 5.6 percent of sterilization victims. Those physical disorders outlined in the legislation comprised a small percentage of sterilization cases, with congenital blindness at 0.6 percent, severe physical deformity at 0.3 percent, and the rare disease Huntington’s chorea at 0.2 percent. Persons suffering from congenital or hereditary deafness account for 1 percent of compulsory sterilizations, at least in this initial period. These figures clearly indicate a preponderance of enforcement of sterilization policies in instances of mental illness. Likewise they demonstrate that those disorders whose definition implied a certain elasticity in application allowed inclusion of a broader range of victims. Nowhere was this more true than in the case of hereditary feeblemindedness, whose ambiguous definition permitted physicians and psychiatrists to include not only those diagnosed as mentally retarded or learning impaired, but also the socially aberrant, or those who National Socialist medical officials deemed asocial: vagrants, prostitutes, sexually promiscuous women, especially if these had had more than one illegitimate child, the petty criminal, the querulous neighbor, the juvenile delinquent who experienced trouble with police authorities or school authorities. Sterilization was not the only manner in which Nazi officials attempted to marginalize the hereditarily ill and disabled and to prevent their offspring. Parallel to the infamous Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, one of the so-called Nuremberg laws of 1935, the Marital Health Law of October 1935 prohibited the marriage of, quote, “diseased, inferior, or dangerous genetic material with those of superior material”, end quote. Just as the aforementioned blood protection law banned marriage or sexual contact between German Aryans and Jews, the Marital Health Law forbade marriage between consenting adults if either partner suffered from mental illness or chronic alcoholism, had an hereditary disease, such as epilepsy, hereditary or congenital deafness or blindness, or if one of the affianced stood under legal guardianship on medical grounds. Likewise, permission to marry might be denied if either party had a serious contagious disease, such as tuberculosis or venereal disease. Before marriage, German couples had to prove that no such impediment existed by obtaining a certificate of marital fitness. Individuals refused such a certificate could appeal to their local health courts but those who violated the final decision of health authorities by marrying without certification could be sentenced to prison. With the prohibition of marriage for the biologically deficient, anti-natal policies against the disabled had come full circle. On 31 August 1939, on the eve of the Polish campaign, which launched World War II, the National Socialist leadership issued a decree which effectively dismantled the bureaucratic apparatus implementing the marital health law and which limited compulsory sterilizations to cases, quote, “with particularly great danger in propagation,” end quote. In part, German authorities may have initiated a scaling back of the sterilization measure in order to secure public support for the regime in the upcoming conflict. The Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases had proven genuinely unpopular, especially in Catholic circles. Sterilization policy, and the cumbersome procedures attendant to the Marital Health Law likewise drained vital human resources -- doctors, jurists, and civil officials -- which were now needed for the war effort. Yet perhaps the deceleration of these efforts may have also figured as a component in the decision to achieve the same public health goals by more radical means. By diverting medical professionals and administrators from this halted sterilization campaign, the way was now clear to extend Nazi eugenic measures against the “genetically unfit” to their logical conclusion: to the killing of the institutionalized mentally and physically handicapped. The so-called “Euthanasia Program”, please see that in quotes, was the National Socialist regime’s first campaign of mass murder, preceding the “Final Solution,” or Shoah, by approximately two years. More radical, certainly, than the sterilization measure, the euthanasia effort aimed at freeing the nation’s genetic and economic resources from the drain of the severely mentally and physically ill and was thus in keeping both with Nazi racial policy as well as with its utilitarian doctrine. Institutionalized patients, especially the mentally ill, were the targets of Nazi propaganda throughout the 1930s, and drastic cuts in the care of the handicapped in state institutions preceded the wholesale murder of these individuals. In the spring months of 1939, euthanasia strategists, led by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler’s private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s attending physician, organized a child euthanasia campaign through which at least 5,000 physically and mentally handicapped children were murdered through starvation or lethal overdose. By 1940, an adult killing operation paralleled the murder of disabled infants and toddlers. Codenamed Operation T-4, the effort took its name from the street address of its central office in Berlin’s Tiergartenstrasse. Utilizing a practice developed for the child Euthanasia Program, T-4 planners began in the autumn of 1939 to distribute carefully formulated questionnaires to all public health officials, to public and private hospitals, to mental institutions, and nursing homes for the chronically ill and aged. Limited space and wording on the form, as well as the instructions in the accompanying cover letter, combined to convey the impression that the survey was intended to gather statistical data. The form’s sinister purpose was suggested only by the emphasis which the questionnaire placed upon the person’s capacity to work and by the categories of individuals which the inquiry required health officials to identify: those suffering from schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia, encephalitis, or other chronic psychiatric or neurological disorders; those not of German or related blood; the criminally insane; and those who had been confined to the institution for more than five years. At first, many directors and medical staff at German institutions appear to have filled out the registration forms without grasping their significance, yet it is apparent that the secret killing program quickly, as it quickly became public knowledge, most chief physicians and directors continued dutifully to fill out the paperwork even though they clearly knew the purpose of the form. The completed registration forms were reviewed by three especially appointed experts from the Euthanasia Program. In beginning, in January 1940, those persons selected for extermination, and whose names were confirmed by a central medical commission in Berlin, were transported to one of six killing centers throughout Germany and Austria. Within hours of their arrival, transports of patients selected for extermination were taken to a reception area where they were instructed to undress and received a superficial medical examination. Finally they were gassed in specially designed gas chambers. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal its deadly design, the Euthanasia Program quickly became an open secret. Fearing public unrest at a critical point in the war, Adolf Hitler himself gave orders to halt the T-4 program on 24 August 1941. According to T-4’s own internal calculations, 70,273 institutionalized mentally and physically handicapped persons perished at the six euthanasia facilities between January 1940 and August 1941. Yet Hitler’s order for the ending of the action did not mean an actual ending to the killing. The child euthanasia program continued throughout this so-called “euthanasia pause.” More significantly, a drive to reinitiate the public, excuse me, the adult euthanasia program crystallized in the summer of 1942 in a second murder phase whose perceived lack of coordinated activity led many scholars to label the period, inaccurately as it turns out, as the era of “mild euthanasia.” Although more decentralized than the initial Euthanasia Program, the renewed effort was still carefully choreographed in Berlin. There the Fuehrer Chancellery, the engine which drove the T-4 apparatus, continued to select, transport, and process its victims while local authorities determined the pace of the killings. Employing drug overdose and lethal injection as a more covert means of killing, the murderous machinery of Operation T-4 continued to claim victims at a number of custodial institutions throughout the Reich until the arrival of Allied troops in the spring of 1935. In all, historians estimate that some 200,000 to 250,000 institutionalized mentally and physically handicapped persons were murdered under the Euthanasia Program and its corollaries between 1939 and 1945. Deaf persons and persons with hearing disabilities were among those caught up in T-4’s web of destruction. The deaf were, of course, not the Euthanasia Program’s chief targets. Most deaf persons in Germany lived outside institutional settings and I would like to stress that the victims of euthanasia policies were almost exclusively institutionalized patients. An obvious exception to this rule were deaf persons who could not or would not speak. The term then, inappropriately applied, was “deaf-mute.” Although otherwise physically and mentally unimpaired and generally able to work and function normally, such individuals were often erroneously categorized as mentally retarded because of their inability or unwillingness to speak. An unknown number of deaf persons, most of them patients in resident institutions for the deaf or deaf-mute, were murdered during Operation T-4. We do know that deaf persons figured in one of the few concrete acts of resistance concerning the euthanasia effort. This incident involved Swiss-born Heinrich Hermann, director of the Institute for the Deaf and Mute in Wilhelmsdorf near Ravensburg. Hermann had refused to return the original questionnaires which would have registered his patients for the euthanasia program. In such instances, T-4 planners were able to circumvent such non-compliance by dispatching traveling physicians to institutions to complete the necessary forms. 18 of Hermann’s charges ultimately perished at the Hadamar gassing installation in 1941. Thereafter, however, Hermann defied all further attempts to select patients at his facility for murder. Heinrich Hermann was one of a small number of directors known to have successfully rebuffed T-4 officials. In doing so he maintained not only his sense of morality and civil courage but his position as well, serving as director of the Wilhelmsdorf institution until 1947. The Nazi persecution of the deaf and other disabled members of the German society based on medical grounds fit within an overarching framework of radical public health policies which aimed at proscribing hereditarily “unfit” Germans from the national community while diverting public and private monies earmarked for their maintenance to more genetically and racially deserving Germans. These genetic, or rather, eugenic strategies began with sterilization in the early years of the Nazi regime and escalated towards mass murder. The most extreme of these measures, the Euthanasia Program, was in itself a rehearsal for Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies. The ideological justification conceived by medical perpetrators for the destruction of the unfit were extended to other categories of biological enemies, most notably to Jews and Gypsies. The gas chamber and crematoria, specifically designed for the T-4 campaign, was later borrowed by the planners of the “Final Solution” to murder Jews in German-occupied territory. The camouflage techniques which lulled T-4 victims into a false sense of security before the very threshold of the gas chamber were rediscovered at Auschwitz. T-4 personnel manned the extermination camps of Sobibor and Treblinka. Compulsory sterilization, euthanasia, and the “Final Solution” were components of the same biomedical vision, which imagined a racially and genetically pure society and embraced unthinkable strategies to achieve its ends. Thank you.
Stan Schuchman, Professor of History (Emeritus), Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.
Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here this afternoon, and I see many old friends in the audience, and I hope that I’ll have an opportunity to talk with you later this afternoon. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there are several survivors sitting in the audience. I see some of the survivors that I interviewed in Hungary... Hungary, in Budapest. I see individuals who were in Kindertransport when the superintendent of the school in Berlin tried to bring some of the Jewish deaf children from Berlin to the school in London, and many other survivors, and I know that people in the audience want to hear from our guest survivors today so I will keep my remarks brief. And now I will be speaking and let the interpreter sign for me. As has been mentioned, in the summer of 1998, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Gallaudet University co-sponsored the conference “Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe, 1933-1945.” My colleague, Dr. Donna Ryan, and I co-chaired that conference. The primary purposes of the conference were to increase awareness of deaf people’s experience in the Holocaust and to bring deaf-community historians and Holocaust scholars together in one forum. We plan to publish, as has been mentioned, an anthology largely based on the presentations from that conference, and my remarks this afternoon represent a summary or a synthesis from that anthology. In recent years, as has been indicated by the other panelists, several historians have concluded that an examination of the experience of disabled persons is important to a full understanding of the Holocaust. Noted Holocaust scholar Henry Friedlander has shown that the attack on people with disabilities was neither peripheral nor separate from the “Final Solution.” The attack was an integral element in the Nazi theory of racial hygiene, to purge -- to get rid of -- the German Volk of weak or undesirable elements, and permit a purified Aryan people. Nazi eugenics practices played on societal prejudice and willingness to deem those who are different as “lives unworthy of life.” Historian Robert Proctor has examined the central role that doctors and other healthcare professionals played in determining who should be forcibly sterilized, forbidden to marry, or murdered. People with disabilities died of starvation, lethal injection, and suffocation in gas chambers, all processes overseen and administered by well-established and successful medical professionals, not simply by a handful of Nazi idealogues. My panel colleague Patricia Heberer’s research shows us that certain cultural assumptions made discrimination against social groups tolerable to many ordinary Germans, not only the Nazi party faithful. So in addition to this examination of the influence of policies related to the disabled, deaf-community historians who have examined sources in the field of deafness also have contributed to our understanding of the Holocaust. Many deaf Germans were among the victims of Nazi eugenics policies, as has been mentioned. It has been estimated that there were approximately 40,000 deaf persons in Germany in 1932. These estimates come primarily from information that we can glean in deaf-education journals of the time, and I might add that these sources are found in deaf clubs, which still exist in Berlin, both east and west, and the deafness collections at the University of Leipzig. And these generally are materials that Holocaust scholars would not be familiar with. So there were about 40,000 deaf persons in Germany in 1932. Some formed a distinctive deaf community, a cultural minority distinguished by their use of sign language and their membership in separate social, athletic, religious, and political organizations. An important artifact of the period is a powerful community self-portrait in the form of Wilhelm Ballier, B A L L I E R, a 1932 film Verkannte Menschen, or “Misjudged People.” This was a film made by the deaf community in ’32 in which they attempted to demonstrate that the deaf community was proactive, healthy, and that the film’s content represents a plea for equal opportunity for deaf workers and professionals, and the demand for respect for German deaf culture. Despite the fact that “Misjudged People,” the film, depicted deaf people as hardworking and athletic, traits normally prized in Nazi culture, by 1934 such a positive representation of people who were targeted for sterilization was unacceptable, and Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry pulled it from circulation. From the work of deaf-community historian Jochen Muhs – M U H S – we know that the action of deaf people during the Nazi era, that the actions of deaf people during the Nazi era were complicated and contradictory. And I mentioned Jochen Muhs as a deaf-community historian because it’s individuals who often are deaf themselves who are collecting the sources that are going to be necessary to help us understand the deaf experience in Europe during the Nazi era. And I might add that, even though I have done interviews with deaf survivors, the interviews that are done by deaf researchers themselves are crucial. They simply can get information that is otherwise, I think, difficult to get to. I mentioned 40,000 deaf people in Germany. Approximately 16,000 deaf people are estimated by Horst Biesold to have been among the nearly 4,000 ... 400,000 forcibly sterilized people with disabilities. If those estimates are correct that means that more than a third of the German deaf population underwent sterilization. A third, which of course means that the sterilizations involved all kinds of deaf people, not just the so-called hereditarily deaf. Yet not all deaf people in Germany were affected by this policy, for only the hereditarily deaf, a diagnosis often misunderstood and misapplied by doctors of the time, were targeted for sterilization. Other deaf Germans, notably the leader of the Reich Union of the Deaf of Germany, we use the abbreviation the “Regede” -- R E G E D E. Other deaf Germans such as Fritz Albreghs, were at least for a time at least just as enthralled by Hitler and his promises for a better future as were their hearing counterparts. I don’t have a transparency but there are some wonderful pictures of Albreghs in the deaf-community publication of the day, “Die Stimme” -- S T I M M E -- “Die Stimme,” The Voice, which was the deaf- community publication of that time and which you can find back issues of, again, in the deaf clubs in Berlin. But there are wonderful pictures of deaf Nazis, there’s pictures of deaf motorcycle units in the SA, pictures of deaf youth who are members of Hitler Youth organizations. So deaf-community sources are quite important here. So Fritz Albreghs became the liaison between deaf people and the Fuehrer. Many deaf Germans and even deaf people in neighboring France exalted Hitler as the first European leader to pay adequate attention to deaf people and their needs. My colleague, Dr. Ryan, has a copy of a wonderful headline from the French deaf community, which when Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, the headline in the deaf-community newspaper in France read, “Bravo, Hitler!”, an indication of the hope that deaf people had in Germany and other places for improvement in their economic and social lives. Photographs of deaf boys in Hitler Youth uniforms and deaf girls in the Union of German Girls as well as of deaf Storm Troopers in the SA motorcycle unit should not be shocking, for deaf people, frequently cut off from information and mainstream media, cannot fairly be expected to be have been more politically astute than other Germans. We do know a great deal about the sterilization of deaf people from the work of the late Horst Biesold. One of the most important parts of the research concerns the collaboration of teachers of the deaf in reporting their students for forced sterilization and forced abortions. Dr. Heberer just mentioned an example of deaf resistance but I think the overwhelming pattern is of cooperation from the deaf-education bureaucracy. That pattern of cooperation from teachers of the deaf and superintendents of schools for the deaf parallels the research that Robert Proctor has done with the medical profession, so the parallels are right on target. But to understand though not condone the behavior of educators, we need to see the role that eugenics education played in the training for teachers of the deaf, not only during the Nazi era but even before their assumption of power. The basic concept of eugenics, breeding for better humans, was part of the cultural assumptions of the day for many Germans, not just for those who were avowed Nazis. And I might add that’s equally true here in the United States in the field of deaf education. So the basic concept of eugenics was part of the cultural assumption of the day for many Germans, not just for those who were avowed Nazis. While many Germans drew the line at murder, as is clear from the resistance mounted by the churches sd suspicion about the T-4 program surfaced, the prevention of “lives unworthy of life” by forced sterilization ... [aside] sure, as suspicions about the T-4 program surfaced, the prevention of “lives unworthy of life” by forced sterilization was no less acceptable in Germany than it was in some quarters of the United States. Biesold’s work shows how this thinking permeated deaf education and there are also examples of the philosophy of deaf education. There’s a good example that appears in the “American Annals of the Deaf” as early as 1934 which talks about the place of the school for the deaf in the new Reich. And it’s a lengthy article but in general it basically says that deaf people could only be subjects of Germany, they couldn’t be full citizens because the men were not expected to serve in the military and women were not expected to bear children. So by definition, and because of the costs that were spent on deaf education, the Nazi administration would look for ways to cut down on the actual number of schools for the deaf and the programs that were offered, basically saying that anyone who couldn’t benefit from speech education, speech reading, should be shunted off into the vocational program and that the schools should be reserved primarily for the oral deaf. The fact that that particular article appears in the “American Annals of the Deaf” -- the “American Annals of the Deaf” being one of the two most important journals in the field of deaf education in the United States, the “American Annals” and the other being the “Volta Review” -- it’s very clear that the field of deaf education in the United States had a pretty good idea, perhaps on…had a pretty good idea, I think, of what was going on in Nazi Germany in terms of deaf people. And there’s a whole area of research that needs to be examined, taking a look at the American response in the field of deaf education. We need research taking a look at what was going on with the so-called Deaf Olympics. There were international games for the deaf in Stockholm throughout the 1920s but in particular in 1935, and then in 1939 after there was almost a boycott of the regular Olympics in 1936, yet deaf people throughout the world participated in the Olympics in Stockholm. And of course, the Germans sent a team. There were no Jews, there were no Jews on the team but there was a team that went to the games in Stockholm, and of course, as you can imagine, the Germans won the most medals. I apologize to the interpreters, that was a long aside. If it’s difficult to determine precise figures for the number of deaf people the Nazis sterilized, as Dr. Heberer indicated, it is impossible to know exactly how many deaf people were murdered in the T-4 program. As she mentioned some of the records of this operation were destroyed, but even if there were complete documentation, gleaning the number of deaf victims from the files would be a delicate operation. Deaf people were never officially designated as subjects in the Euthanasia Pro... project, yet we know from Friedlander and Biesold that deaf infants, children, and adults were murdered in the asylums. Some were surely misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, cognitively disabled, sometimes as a result of staff failure to properly communicate with deaf people in sign language or in appropriate written German, and sometimes as the tragic result of societal prejudice about the intelligence of anyone who is deaf. When we recall that a patient’s dossier from an asylum often received only a cursory glance from the doctor, who could sign a death warrant, it’s clear that the diagnoses were often meaningless. Perhaps only a painstaking examination of extant hospital and asylum files, records from schools for the deaf, and the state-run killing centers will elucidate the treatment of deaf people in the T-4 program. The fate of deaf Jews in Germany, in Nazi-occupied Europe, is a story of tragic discrimination and heroic survival. There were very few deaf Jewish survivors from Germany. The story of the Israelite Institution for the Deaf in the Berlin suburb of Weissensee has already been told elsewhere. The school has published a history that’s available in German and Horst Biesold, his work has now been translated into English, “Crying Hands,” which also talks about the school. The school of course was, the building is still there, but the last Jews were expelled from the building in 1942. We’ve also recently obtained information about a factory in Berlin, it’s called the Weidt, W E I D T. It was a factory in Berlin that was run by a man by name of Otto Weidt, who employed deaf, blind, and deaf-blind workers, and he worked heroically to protect his workers. Again, eventually all the workers would be transported and killed. And they have recently opened, reopened the factory in Berlin as a museum and if you go to Berlin today you can visit the site. Indeed, given Nazi policies toward Jews and people with disabilities, it’s astounding that there were any deaf Jewish survivors at all. Dr. Ryan and I have sifted through the narratives of Holocaust survivors, and there are many narratives that have appeared in deaf-community publications, both….[aside] I’ll finish up. We’ve gone through the videotaped archives at Yale, some of them are here at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Shoah Visual History Foundation, as well as individual interviews by Jochem Muhs, my colleague Simon Carmel, and interviews that Dr. Ryan and I have done, we’ve done about 20 interviews and I’m very pleased to see sitting up in the audience some of the Hungarian deaf Jewish survivors that we met in 1997. Speaking of them, in ’97, with the kind help of Israel Sela of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Budapest, we interviewed a dozen deaf Jewish survivors of the roundups, deportations, labor battalions, and massacres that took place at the Danube River. These survivors were hunted by Adolf Eichmann and the Hungarian fascists, the Arrow Cross. And I should mention that just like there were deaf Nazis, there were deaf fascists in other countries as well. So there were deaf members of the Arrow Cross in Budapest and other parts of Hungary. And what is amazing is that the superintendent of the Jewish School for the Deaf in Budapest, which locally is called the Mexico Street school, that the superintendent was able to keep many of the children together throughout the German occupation in the spring of 1944 and the winter of 1945, and the bombardment of Budapest by the Soviet armies. Probably the only reason that many of these Jewish deaf survivors survived was that the deportations in Hungary occurred so late in the war. Only further research into other occupied countries will permit a fully... full understanding of the deaf Jewish experience under Nazi tyranny. The research and the writing in this field has really just begun and many areas need further investigation in order to describe the lives of deaf people in European countries on the eve of the Second World War, as well as to document their fate during the war. The 1998 conference in Washington introduced scholars and scholars... introduced scholars and survivors who might not have otherwise met. We look forward to continued research by scholars, many of them deaf, we hope, to investigate this era further and to enrich the fields of deaf studies and Holocaust studies mutually. Thank you.
Morris Field, deaf Holocaust survivor, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Helga Gross, deaf Holocaust survivor, Palmdale, California.
The Nazi persecution of persons with disabilities in Germany was one component of radical public health policies aimed at excluding hereditarily “unfit” Germans from the national community. These strategies began with forced sterilization and escalated toward mass murder. The most extreme measure, the Euthanasia Program, was in itself a rehearsal for Nazi Germany’s broader genocidal policies. It is estimated that 275,000 adults and children were murdered because of their disabilities. To learn more see this “Special Focus” web page with information collected from the Museum’s Online Holocaust Learning Center.