Eugenics is defined as a bio-social movement which supports manipulation of populations for the purpose of improving its genetic composition. It was a practice most infamously associated with Nazi Germany. It began with forced sterilization of the mentally and physically handicapped and was ended with a program of euthanasia.
Deafness was declared to be a hereditary disease after many debates in the medical community, which included this population among those targeted for sterilization and Hitler’s final solution. It is estimated that at least 17,000 deaf Germans were sterilized or killed during the Holocaust. However, there were survivors and due to the extensive research and work done by historians, we have some of those stories of inspiration.
Ingelore Herz Honigstein was born deaf. She had been taught to speak by a speech teacher and later attended the Israelite School for the Deaf. Because they had a relative living in the US, her family was able to contact the American consulate and obtain visas. A Nazi interrogator, suspecting that she was deaf, asked her to turn around and repeat what he was saying. In front of her was a picture of the American flag behind glass. Using the reflection in the glass, she was able to read his lips, repeat his words and thus was granted the visa that took her to the US.
In 1942, 146 deaf Jewish students from the Israelite School for the Deaf were removed from the school and killed. Just three years earlier, the school's headmaster, Dr. Felix Reich, realizing the coming danger, took 11 students with him to England. His intention was to return to save more, but he was unable to do so.
Marion Schlessinger Intrator became deaf at age two as a result of scarlet fever. At age four, she was sent to the Israelite Institute for the Deaf. In 1939, the Schlessingers were informed that they were to be deported to an interment camp. Hugo Schlessinger contacted Felix Reich and asked him to take Marion to safety. She is one of the 11 children saved by Dr. Reich. In 1944, Marion was contacted by the International Red Cross and told that her entire family had survived and she was able to join them in New York.
Rose Steinberg was also sent to the Israelite Institute for the Deaf from her home in Warsaw, Poland. Her parents, Michel and Tauba Steinberg, recognizing that life for Jews was becoming more difficult, devised a careful plan to get the family to Paris. Rose had met Max Feld in Paris and they were married in 1937. As the Nazi presence increased in France, Michel Steinberg and Max Feld were arrested. They did not survive. Rose, her young daughter and her mother were hidden and protected by the French until the end of the war.
Lotte Friedman was struck with scarlet fever at age two, leaving her deaf. Lotte’s stepmother taught her skills to survive in the hearing world. She enrolled in the Art Academy in Berlin where she learned to draw and sculpt. One evening, she witnessed the destruction of Jewish properties and the arrest of Jewish people in the neighborhood. She immediately fled to a train station and went to a friend’s house in Cologne for help. She was reunited with her family in Aachen and they were able to escape to Holland. In 1940, they were granted visas for the United States.
Fred and Doris Fedrid were kept imprisoned for two years in the Tarnopol ghetto in the Ukraine. Fred Fedrid was a tailor whose skill helped them survive. He was able to ‘palm’ a pair of scissors by tucking the tip in the band of his wedding ring and traded their use for food and services they needed.
Morris Field, kept his disability hidden and survived through five concentration camps. He was able to speak and his accent allowed him to blend in. He once witnessed a group of deaf prisoners signing to each other. They had disappeared the next day and he believes they were discovered and killed.
David Bloch recalls when Nazis pounded on his door and threatened to arrest him. He was able to escape into Shanghai. He became an art anthropologist and produces many pieces based on the Holocaust.
Eugene Bergmann became deaf when a soldier hit him on the head with a rifle. Arriving home, he discovered that his parents and brother were missing. Looking for them in the outlying forest, he was found by a Polish Resistance soldier. He worked for the Polish Resistance throughout the war smuggling guns. At the end of the war, he was able to locate his family.
It should be noted that the deaf detained in camps had to learn to blend in so as not to be noticed by their captors. Many of the hearing were able to develop a signaling system to alert the deaf and helped save many. In addition to those who worked in various resistance groups and many countries to aid the deaf to survive, it is noted that those who taught the deaf to speak and read lips perhaps played the biggest part in saving many of their lives.