Inspired by the conference “Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe, 1933-1945” hosted jointly by Gallaudet University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1998, this extraordinary collection integrates key presentations and postconference research as renowned scholars shed new light on the ideological and practical concerns that linked the theories of race and of eugenics to the sterilization and murder of persons whom the Nazis deemed “unworthy of life.” Deaf survivors attended and addressed the conference, providing wrenching testimonies that inspired, in part, the publication of this volume.
Henry Friedlander begins “Part I: Racial Hygiene” by analyzing the assault on deaf people and people with disabilities as an integral element in the Nazi attempt to implement their theories of racial hygiene. Robert Proctor documents the role of medical professionals in deciding who should be sterilized or forbidden to marry, and whom the Nazi authorities would murder. In an essay written especially for this volume, Patricia Heberer details how Nazi manipulation of eugenics theory and practice facilitated the justification for the murder of those considered socially undesirable.
“Part II: The German Experience” commences with Jochen Muhs’ interviews of deaf Berliners, both victims and active members of the Nazi Party. John S. Schuchman describes the remarkable 1932 film Misjudged People, which so successfully portrayed the German deaf community as a vibrant contributor to society that the Nazis banned its showing when they came to power. Horst Biesold’s contribution confirms the complicity of teachers who denounced their own students, labeling them hereditarily deaf and thus exposing them to compulsory sterilization. The section also includes the reprint of a chilling 1934 article entitled “The Place of the School for the Deaf in the New Reich,” in which author Kurt Leitz rued the expense of educating deaf students, who could not become soldiers or bear “healthy children.”
In “Part III: The Jewish Deaf Experience,” John S. Schuchman discusses the plight of deaf Jews in Hungary. His historical analysis is complemented by a chapter containing excerpts from the testimony of six deaf Jewish survivors who describe their personal ordeals. Peter Black’s reflections on the need for more research conclude this vital study of a little-known chapter of the Holocaust.
Conference papers and postconference articles reconstruct a vision of the process that resulted in the sterilization of as many as 16,000 deaf people in Europe and the torture or murder of untold numbers whose only “crime” was being deaf. The contributions to Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe investigate how the Nazis acted upon previously existing theories of eugenics and “breeding” aimed at creating a “superior human race.” Such theories had enjoyed some popularity in Germany and other countries, including the United States. A series of laws and regulations, including the July 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases and the October 1935 Law for the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German Nation, facilitated and lent a pseudolegitimacy to measures directed against deaf people and persons with disabilities. The chapters in this volume show that German physicians, teachers, and even deaf leaders endorsed and participated in the implementation of these policies.
German deaf community leaders’ efforts to differentiate deaf people from other populations with disabilities, in order to protect the deaf community from Nazi persecution, proved fruitless. Despite the portrayal of deaf people in the film Misguided People as possessing traditional German virtues in that they were industrious workers, fit both in body and mind, the Nazis suppressed the film and then persecuted, and even murdered, many deaf people.
While the impeccable research in Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe depicts the persecution of the deaf community by the Nazis and their accomplices, the stories of the deaf survivors convey both plainly and plaintively the agonizing impact this persecution had on individuals. Children at the time of their plight, the deaf survivors recall even today the crowded cattle cars and the constant presence of death. They relate starkly and in heartbreaking fashion their uncertainty of what was happening, the chaotic and unexplained separations from their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. More than five decades after the events, they recount the harrowing details of their miraculous survival as they grapple with mixed emotions about living and loss. Their stories add incalculably to the poignancy of this volume.
Donna F. Ryan and John S. Schuchman are Professor of History and Professor Emeritus of History respectively at Gallaudet University, Washington D.C.