What happened to deaf people during the Holocaust?
By H Dominic W Stiles, on 16 November 2012
By Mina Krishnan
Unsurprisingly, during the Nazi regime, thousands of deaf people were subjected to forced sterilisation in the expectation that disability could be eliminated in future Aryan generations, imprisoned in concentration camps and/or killed. Some Nazi educationalists drew the rights of deaf children to an education into doubt, considering it wasteful to educate those they considered ‘inferior’.
- Different figures are given by different sources, but it seems around 17,000 deaf Germans were sterilised between 1933 and 1945 and it is estimated that , in an effort to rid Germany of ‘useless eaters’ nearly 2,000 deaf children were killed by lethal injection or starvation in what were deemed to be ‘mercy killings’. Newborns with physical defects, or who were believed to be physically or mentally disabled, were removed from their parents and taken to special children’s wards for this purpose. Their parents were then told they had died of natural causes. Forced abortions were also done on women suspected to be carrying a deaf or otherwise disabled foetus as late as six months into a pregnancy – this became legal there in 1935.
But did you know about individuals such as…
- Morris Field, who managed to conceal his deafness and thereby survive the war despite going through five concentration camps.
- Otto Weidt, who was not deaf himself but who went to substantial efforts to save the lives of 165 deaf and blind Jewish workers during this time and who was arrested many times by the Gestapo as a result. There is a small museum in Berlin dedicated to him.
- Dr. Karl Brandt, Viktor Brack and Philipp Bouhler, who were the organisers and the head of Hitler’s T4 (‘euthanasia’ or eugenics) programme.
- …and the collaboration with and support for the Nazi drive for eugenics and ‘cleansing’ by teachers of the deaf, who turned their pupils over to the authorities, such as Herbert Weinert, as well as Dr. Otto Schmäl and Hans Hild who, though initially opposed to such measures, later publicly changed their opinions in favour of ‘racial hygiene’ (see H. Biesold, Crying Hands, available in the RNID library).
As the BBC’s ‘Ouch!’ blog states, it’s worth noting that ‘Nazi Germany wasn’t the only regime to practise the forced sterilisation of disabled people, and it wasn’t even the first’. In her book Pride Against Prejudice, Jenny Morris explains that, from 1907, many U.S. states ‘passed compulsory sterilisation laws covering people thought to have genetic illnesses or conditions’ and furthermore, before we get smugly self-righteous on this side of the pond, ‘European states that followed suit in the 1920s and 1930s included Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Turkey’.
And let’s not forget Winston Churchill’s views on eugenics…
Examples of materials held at the RNID library:
Ryan & Schuchman (eds), Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe
Dunai, E.C., Surviving in Silence: a Deaf Boy in the Holocaust
New Research on Deaf Life During the Holocaust (Report) – Health & Medicine Week, 15/8/11, p. 1730 [online]
Gallaudet Today – winter 1987-88: coverage of In Der Nacht photo exhibit / stuff about Eugene Bergman (survivor of Warsaw ghetto)
Gallaudet Today – classic fall 1998: Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe
Deaf American – 1982: Eugene Bergman: deaf survivor – E. Beck. 35 (3)
Deaf American – 1983: Horst Biesold: helping the survivors – E. Gill. 35 (8)
Also of interest:
Deaf Heritage – J. Gannon
A Place of Their Own – J. Van Cleve
Deaf History Reader – as above
Freely available web resources:
BBC ‘Ouch!’ blog – FAQs on the Holocaust and disabled (in general) people:
Deaf Holocaust – was on See Hear but since removed:
See Hear (on the BBC) on the deaf holocaust:
Scholarly presentation – audio & transcripts:
A video interview with Charlotte Friedman:
Interview with Doris Fedrid:
Panel presentation on Nazi persecution of deaf people (recording & transcript) – Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies – held at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Experience of the Deaf during the Holocaust – Renwand:
Testimonies of Deaf Holocaust Survivors (in something called the Daily Gazette)
Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf:
Interview with Deaf Holocaust survivor:
History of Deaf Holocaust Victims
Surviving the Holocaust series
On eugenics, more generally:
Overcoming the Past, Determining its Consequences and Finding Solutions for the Present – Proceedings of the 6th Deaf History International Conference 2006