On July 14, 1933 Hitler and his cabinet put into effect a sterilization law for persons suffering from a variety of mental and physical disabilities. This law, called the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, became a cornerstone of the Nazi eugenics movement. It allowed for the forced sterilization and, in some cases, the murder of people afflicted with hereditary diseases. Along with people diagnosed with schizophrenia, epilepsy, so-called feeblemindedness, hereditary blindness, severe hereditary physical deformity, severe alcoholism, and other ailments, the deaf were systematically turned in to local Nazi officials by teachers, nurses, social workers, and doctors. In most cases they were sterilized. Some were forced to abort pregnancies. Others were murdered.
In Crying Hands, Dr. Horst Biesold explores this tragic treatment of the deaf in Nazi Germany. Using archival research, including institutional studies and interviews with survivors, Biesold, a certified interpreter of German Sign Language, wrote the work originally as a doctoral dissertation, published in German as Klagende Hande. This translation by Gallaudet University Press makes available for the first time in English a work that focuses on the persecution of the deaf in Nazi Germany. The presentation and organization of the German original have been edited. Segments dealing with the efforts by survivors to gain compensation from the government have been removed, and personal names have been altered to protect individuals’ privacy. What remains is a painful story of mutilation, hidden suffering, and betrayal.
Biesold begins by discussing the Social Darwinistic origins of the eugenics movement in Germany and America. When the National Socialists came to power, they adopted eugenics as a national policy to stop what they called “hereditary diseases.” Despite the debates over the genetic origins of deafness, it became classified as a hereditary disease in Nazi Germany. Consequently, the deaf were targeted for sterilization and other forced procedures.
Biesold presents the results of a questionnaire that he distributed in Germany during his lectures and presentations. Testimony and data gathered from the 1,215 questionnaires completed by deaf survivors of the Nazi’s forced sterilization program demonstrate that teachers of the deaf in Germany’s special schools actively supported measures against deaf people. Many letters are reproduced in the text to demonstrate this complicity between teachers, municipal officials, and the doctors performing these sterilizations. Biesold focuses on ten institutions, including hospitals, teacher training schools, and schools for the deaf, to show how the deaf were turned in by teachers and other employees for forced sterilizations or abortions, even when evidence showed that deafness had occurred due to an accident. Even the Reich Union of the Deaf of Germany (REGEDE), the leading social organization of and for deaf Germans, lost its independence under the Nazi regime and became collaborationist, informing on deaf individuals and promoting the idea of deafness as a hereditary disease.
Biesold includes a chapter on deaf resistance by teachers, doctors, and caregivers, but he argues that resistance to Nazi policies was minimal at best. In a chapter focused on the Jewish deaf in Germany, he demonstrates how Jewish schools for the deaf had become some of the best in Germany, but he further reveals that the Jewish deaf were the first to be turned in, not from pro-Nazi hearing persons, but from the Nazi deaf. In “Sterilization’s Legacy,” he addresses the post-war treatment of the survivors of this sterilization policy, their shame, the trivialization of their experience, and the long-term medical and psychological effects of the sterilization. A final chapter deals specifically with cases of deaf Germans put to death in the so-called euthanasia program.
The book’s appendices include the text of the questionnaire Biesold distributed and an analysis of the 1,215 respondents by gender, age, and place of residence during the Nazi era, institutions attended, year of sterilization, age at the time of sterilization, place of sterilization, and agency or person who reported them for sterilization. Substantial footnotes, an index, the author’s personal bibliography, and a bibliography of English works are included. Valuable additions include photographs, contemporaneous and historical data and analysis, official and private letters, and the forms used by teachers of the deaf, medical practitioners, and Nazi officials in handling such cases.
The book also includes a forward written by the publisher to explain editorial changes and highlight points made in the text; a translation of the author’s preface to the German edition; and an introduction by Dr. Henry Friedlander, author of The Origins Of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Friedlander’s essay, available on the Gallaudet University Press Web site, places the persecution of the deaf within the context of the history of the eugenics movement and the Nazi racial hygiene laws and programs.
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