Skip to main content

The Nazi Persecution of Deaf People Browse

The Nazi Persecution of Deaf People—Panel: Stan Schuchman

Loading ...


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.

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.

Stan Schuchman, Professor of History (Emeritus), Gallaudet University, Washington, DC