Braille Monitor                                                                                                        May 2004

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Blind Jews in the Third Reich

by Gabriel Richter
translated by Gail Snider

Gail Snider
Gail Snider

From the Editor: Gail Snider speaks German fluently and has taken courses in German translation. She works as a peer counselor and Braille proofreader for Services for the Visually Impaired in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a longtime member of the NFB. When we decided to address the subject of the experiences of blind people in the third Reich, we were told about the book, Blindness and Eugenics, by Gabriel Richter, published in Freiburg, Germany, in 1986. The book has not been translated into English, and in fact we received only a few excerpts in German from Heinrig Scholler, a blind colleague of the author, who wrote the book's introduction. All efforts to contact Gabriel Richter himself failed. Gail agreed to translate Richter's text about blind Jews under the Nazis in the material we received as well as two interviews that appear, we believe, in the chapter on sterilization law. "Blind Jews and the Third Reich," chapter X, section 3 begins on page 81 of the book, and chapter XI, "Sterilization Law," section 5 begins on page 134. Here is Gail's translation:

The history of blind Jews during the Third Reich is inextricably bound up with that of all the Jews living in Germany and the German-occupied countries. Blind Jews received no special treatment. They could be regarded as special to some degree in that they were more likely to be declared unfit for work and could be found in greater numbers among the elderly. But of the roughly 2,000 laws, ordinances, and regulations passed against the Jews between 1933 and 1945, very few concern the blind in particular.

The "Aryan paragraph" was introduced at a meeting of the Union of Blind Academics of Germany in July of 1933. Chairman Carl Strehl expressed his willingness to go along with the decision to exclude Jews from the union as follows: "For the U.B.A.G. it was a matter of course that we would align ourselves with the fundamental principles of the new National Socialist government and carry them out as they related to the union's day-to-day activities."

In October of the same year the Federation of the German Blind announced an amendment to its constitution which stated in Section 9 that only someone "of German origin" could be a regular member. At the same time the following notice appeared in the Blinded Veteran: "Members of foreign races cannot hold any positions of authority or leadership in state government, and they must be kept out of the teaching profession."

Peter Plein, chairman of the League of Blinded Veterans of Germany, even thought he could see into the future of the Third Reich with regard to special privileges for blinded veterans when he wrote: "It is we, the blinded German veterans, who look to Reichschancellor Adolf Hitler with particular trust; for, since he was deprived of his eyesight for several weeks because of a gas-related injury during that critical November of 1918, he, like no one else, will know how to show his appreciation for the heavy sacrifice that we blinded veterans have made for the fatherland, a sacrifice which we must bear for the rest of our lives." By December 31, 1933, the now 2,884-strong League of Blinded Veterans had thrown out seventeen of its members because of their non-Aryan origin.

Beginning in 1934, a systematic campaign of defamation and hostility was being waged against the Jews, almost exclusively in the Blinded Veteran. In it Richard Kliesch wrote about an incident after World War I. Before then, he said, he had clung to the belief that the war had been lost through "the treason of Marxism," but following the November revolution in 1918, "The people of Israel had triumphed all the way.”

"’The war dead fell on the battlefield of dishonor' is what one teacher, a Jew, had the nerve to say to the young people whose education had been entrusted to him. The soldiers who had come home aged by their experience, those war victims with their bodies shot to pieces--they couldn't understand that. They had fought and sacrificed their health all for nothing. The nation was falling apart. Moneylenders and black-marketeers were getting rich; corruption dominated public life; traitors, Marxists and Jews, were in control."

Elsewhere in the Blinded Veteran of 1934 is a reference to a statistic in the national archive, according to which: "the total number of Jews who had fought and died in the war (was) well below the average for the population in general." As a result it was concluded that Jews would be "systematically pressed into service at the front."

In the same year a renewed attempt took place to portray the Jews as "postwar profiteers," and again the author was Richard Kliesch: "As exploiters of the plundering that went on after World War I, the international Jews triumphed, for they deceived not only our honest, hardworking German boys but also their own German accomplices."

Later, stories written by disabled veterans told how they had become "anti-Semitic." On this subject Walter Mettel described in the Blinded Veteran how a Jewish medical student in a "fit of experimentation fever" had chopped off a wounded soldier's arm. Further examples of hate propaganda against the Jews continued to appear in the Blinded Veteran.

When it came to denying Jews their civil rights, a definite effort was organized to forbid blind Jews to wear the yellow-and-black armband for the handicapped, but this move was rejected on July 13, 1942. At a time when the Jews already had to wear the yellow Star of David, when their extermination had been decided upon long before, and when the deportation and murder of Jews were already underway, allowing blind Jews to wear the armbands for the handicapped comes across as a farce.

Anyway officials ruled that Jews could continue to wear the armband, though not for their own sakes, but because "the protection of other road-users" was "of primary importance": "The truck-driver, bicyclist, etc., must acknowledge and take into account the sensory disturbance (deafness, blindness) or motor impairment of a person wearing this form of identification and must behave accordingly." In any event, it was intended that the protection guaranteed by the legal right to wear the armband should be more rigorously enforced.

The first deportation of German Jews to Poland occurred in the fall of 1939. "Being sent to the East meant nothing less than extermination. Hunger and hard labor were supposed to kill off the Jews; anyone who survived was earmarked for a violent end." They shared this fate with the Jews living in all the German-occupied countries.

A small number of firsthand accounts exist by blind people who either experienced or witnessed the deportation or extermination of blind Jews, and a few documents shed some additional light on the subject. They describe the conditions in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in which "Jews who were old, disabled, and decorated war veterans" were placed. Because of the "special" status of Theresienstadt there are no actual reports of blind people in the extermination camps.

The first transport from Germany arrived in Theresienstadt on June 2, 1942. The relevant documents confirm the existence of a blind ghetto which was part of the Welfare Unit and was housed in Building Q 319. Before he himself was sent away to die in the fall of 1944, the head of the welfare unit was Dr. Karel Fleischmann, a medical doctor who was also a talented poet and sketch artist. Once he addressed the blind in an attempt to give them a picture of their suffering, their destiny, and their new surroundings:

To the Blind in Q 319:

"We fill up our memory; meanwhile our conscience and intellect remain empty." (Montaigne)

A sighted man is speaking to you: a human being who appears to have an advantage over you, but a human being who is at the same time at a great disadvantage, for on the borderline between light and eternal shade there is a barricade blocking the road. I see you sitting on benches, not smooth, carved ones but rough planks of wood ... Transports arrived and the attics were cleared out and hastily cleaned and detached from the wood-paneled walls. They crammed the attics with people: the old, the frail, the sick, and carriers of infectious diseases.

Here I learned about wretchedness, pain, and misfortune ... I see the grotesque facial expressions of the dying, I see the eyes glazing over, the open, parched mouths gasping in the throes of death ... You did not see all that. You do not see the flights of worn-out stairs; you do not see the narrow courtyards, the stores, the workshops with their sad windows like bleeding, weeping eyes. Nor do you see the trucks filled to overflowing with sick and diseased people. You do not see the mournful battalions of old men and women, driven from their homes, as they arrive, their forms bowed and bent, dragging their pitiful possessions behind them on the dusty road. It must take a certain mental and moral strength not to lose your bearing in such a profoundly altered situation ... Now I am closing my eyes and putting myself in your shoes. You were taken by the hand, led to the train, locked in the compartment, screamed at, and after a while you arrived somewhere or other and got screamed at again; then they made you sit down somewhere or other and proceeded to treat you sometimes well, sometimes badly. Everything was different: different food, a different bed, even the peaceful rhythm of your days had changed.

Among the blind men in Theresienstadt was Dr. Victor Cohn, a welfare officer for the blind from Breslau, who, unlike his wife, survived the horrors of the concentration camps. He left us a poem by a deaf-blind woman, Else Helene Dreyfuss, who also perished in one of the camps. This poem gives us a glimpse into this woman's inner world and, at the same time, gives the thoughts of people with other disabilities a chance to be heard:

And Yet

I cannot see, I cannot hear,

Yet in my mind it's bright and clear.

The mental powers that give me joy

The evil powers could not destroy.

I see no sky, hear no bird's song,

My sight and hearing both are gone;

And yet my soul is not in pain,

For there I see, I hear again.

By the end of World War II, 139,000 Jews had passed through Theresienstadt. Up to 95 percent of them were deported from there and murdered in the extermination camps.

Between the fall of 1942 and the spring of 1945, 3,200 who were also blind and scheduled for the same end passed through the camp. In September of 1942 about 1,000 blind people were in Theresienstadt; in December of 1943, roughly 600. On October 9, 1942, the Welfare Unit for the Severely Injured and Physically Handicapped was founded. The welfare unit in Theresienstadt housed 565 blind people in July of 1943, 668 in October of 1943, and 333 more on June 30, 1944. Meanwhile, the Nazi authorities were relentlessly transporting Jews from there to the extermination camps, where they killed them.

This genocide, which cost six million Jews their lives and has been called the most consequential in human history, also caused the deaths of 5,000 blind people.

Interview with a Blind Woman
Affected by the Sterilization Law

                                                         December 4, 1984

Question 1: What did you know about the Defective Offspring Prevention Act?

Answer: We heard a little bit about the act in class. The way it was presented made it quite clear that I had some vague reason to feel guilty about something. I kept wondering over and over again: "Why me especially?"

Question 2: Did the act affect you personally?

Answer: Yes. I was sterilized on January 23, 1935. It was during Advent, 1934, and we were all sitting in the dining hall, when suddenly I was told to go to the director's office. This was unusual at that time of day. My heart was pounding fiercely, and I kept thinking: "You haven't broken any rules, have you? And you did do all your homework correctly, right?" I was exactly twelve years old, still just a kid. I played and I enjoyed schoolwork; I was happy and mentally up to par. I wasn't exactly enlightened about sexual matters, though. All I knew was that all women and girls menstruate and that babies are not delivered by the stork. So there I was, standing in front of the director.

Director: "Hello. Sit down, please. I have asked you to come and see me because I have something very important to discuss with you. It's this: in the next few days you are to have surgery. But you must not say anything about it to anyone!"

Me: "But why, Sir? After all, I'm not sick, and nothing's hurting me!"

Director: "The surgery is necessary. You don't need to be afraid of it."

Me: "So when am I going into the hospital, and when will I have the surgery?"

Director: "That I cannot tell you exactly. It will be in the next few days."

Me: "But what for? Why?"

Director: "Look here, you've been studying biology in class, right? Surely you must have heard something about nerves and nerve fibers."

Me: "So whereabouts will they do the surgery? On my eyes?"

Director: "No! on your abdomen. The nerve fibers are going from your tummy up into your head and right to the sight center of your brain. Maybe there's a chance you could get some of your vision back after the surgery--not all of it, but perhaps some, at least. And that would be really nice, wouldn't it?"

And that was the end of the discussion. After that I went home for Christmas vacation. My parents said nothing to me at that time about the decision to have me sterilized, although they had been notified of it. The only information they shared with me was that I had to have surgery.

My father did fight the decision, though he didn't say anything about it to me then. As he explained later, he had to go to court. First he asked the judges to postpone the sterilization till I was twenty, but they refused. Then he petitioned the court to wait until I had my period so that he could do a better job of explaining everything to me. Their snap judgment was: "The sooner it's done, the less dangerous it is." I don't blame my father for what happened. Back then, the rationale he gave me for giving his consent went like this: "Look, you're a pretty girl, after all. Perhaps you would like to get married one day. Then it'll be a lot easier for you and a lot better if no children come along." But I myself was profoundly unhappy when I grew bigger and heard that I wouldn't be having any children. And I have been feeling the pain right up to this very day, even though it has decreased somewhat over the years because I didn't find out till later what a big responsibility it is to have and raise a child.

The day of the surgery had come. They brought me to the hospital, a place I had never had to go to before. Even being prepared for surgery scared me terribly. The shock after the operation was every bit as bad; I who had been happy and healthy before was suddenly having dreadful stomach pains. They had made an enormous incision from one hipbone to the other. It was a really difficult and dangerous operation. What can be done today with no trouble at all was dangerous back then. I was determined to get out of bed, but I wasn't allowed to get up even once just to go to the toilet. It took a lot of nurses just to hold me down. I called out over and over again: "I can't see anything at all! Everything's the same as before! Why did you operate on me?"

Whether it was the violent movements I was making or something else that went wrong, by the time I was supposed to get my period, everything inside was all damaged and deformed. I was having a really difficult time, and the cramps were indescribable. I had to have surgery all over again twice. What I had to go through is almost beyond description. In any case, even with all these operations, I never did get my period. I went into a kind of menopause, like a middle-aged woman going through the change. In the end I even had to be treated by a neurologist. It's true that taking hormones helped me somewhat, but even today I still suffer from a lot of health problems.

You have to remember that at the time of the first operation I was still a child, barely twelve when I was sterilized. At fourteen I had to have another operation to correct the position of my uterus, which had fallen and become inflamed, and when I was fifteen, they had to remove my entire uterus and part of my vagina.

Because of the neurological problems and hot flashes which followed the surgeries, I suddenly found my ability to learn and concentrate had become very limited. I just wasn't able to make the grade so I could get into high school, and it was too late to make up what I had missed because the literature I needed wasn't available.

I had been told not to talk about the operations with anyone, but the big girls still managed to get it out of me. The story spread all through the institute like wildfire. I can't begin to tell you how awful it was, being pursued by the boys and even by grown men. After all, I myself wasn't made of wood; on the contrary, because of the fluctuations in my hormones, I was sexually overstimulated much of the time. That got me into situations which brought me nothing but trouble and torment.

Question 3: Do you know anything about the restrictions on marriage in the Third Reich?

Answer: I know what happened to a married couple who are friends of mine. They were faced with tremendous difficulties when they wanted to get married because the husband was suspected of having a genetic defect (he had two blind brothers). The wife was blind too, actually, but her blindness resulted from falling down the stairs. When these two wanted to get married, they had to arrange for a marriage license to be issued by the minister for the Interior, Dr. Frick. Also they had to produce a certificate of fitness for marriage. Finally they did manage to get the marriage license, but only after a blind doctor named Siering, who had some kind of connection with the minister, spoke up for them.

Question 4: Were you able to get together with male peers?

Answer: It used to be that boys and girls could get together for dancing or group games, for example, as long as we were supervised by a chaperon. Suddenly all of that was forbidden. We were punished even if we were seen giving a boy a goodnight handshake or going for a walk in the garden. Anyone who was caught having intimate relations was immediately expelled from school in disgrace.

Question 5: What do you know about the fate of blind Jews?

Answer: I really can't say much of anything about the fate of blind Jews. There weren't any in our school as far as I know. I do know through hearsay that there were a few blind Jews at a different school for the blind, and they are supposed to have been treated pretty well by the nuns there. But I only found out about this secondhand.

Question 6: Were blind people euthanized?

Answer: As far as I know, blind people were not directly at risk if they could practice a profession or were otherwise bright enough to be fully employed. It was only people with mental or other disabilities that went to "X," and their blind friends never heard from them again. The families would receive the news that the blind man or woman had died of some illness or other.

Question 7: What was your employment situation like in the Third Reich?

Answer: I was in the training program to become a telephone operator and shorthand typist. Besides that I had to spend all my free time in the Institute's knitting factory, where we were only allowed to do the most menial jobs. Anyone who got sick even once had to wait till the last minute to see a doctor. If anyone complained of some kind of discomfort, they were simply told, "Oh, that's nothing!" I even know of someone who died. The poor girl looked awfully pale and wasn't feeling well. They hit her and accused her of dusting her face with flour. A few days later the girl was dead.

Question 8: What else happened to you at the Institute?

Answer: We were frequently humiliated and intimidated. If, for example, your stocking had a hole in it or your shoes didn't have a perfect shine or the knot in your tie wasn't perfectly straight, you got punished right there in the dining hall, with all the male and female dormitory staff and school employees sitting round. We always had to submit to these dreadful punishments. We were treated like soldiers in the military, even the girls, and I bitterly resented that.

Question 9: What positive experiences did you have during the Nazi period that you can tell us about?

Answer: The only positive thing was getting to know girls from other schools for the blind and singing with them at the camp sponsored by the League of German Girls. That was really nice. We would do folk dances and sing and enjoy communal activities, and we made friends and had lots of fun playing practical jokes on one another.

Question 10: What did you do after the end of the war in connection with your sterilization?

Answer: I wanted to sue for damages so I could be compensated for all that I had gone through, but I could not get anyone to provide me with the written medical opinion I needed. They said that the damage to my uterus was a birth defect. There was nothing I could do. Whenever I had to get a routine physical, I was always asked, "When did you have your last period?" Each time I had to explain the whole thing. The doctors would get mad and say, "Those criminals!" but if I asked them to give me their opinion in writing, they would distance themselves from me, and nothing was done.

Once when I was hospitalized, it was confirmed beyond any doubt that the damage to my uterus had nothing to do with any birth defect. But in the end, after two attempts to get the required written medical opinion, I lost my courage and didn't do anything more about it.

Letter from a Sterilized Blind Man

In the year 1934 we were each summoned separately to the director's office; none of us knew what this was about. There I was asked by several doctors and party officials how long I had had my eye disease, to which the only answer I could give was: "Since birth." Not long after that I was taken to the courthouse at (name blanked out), where a judge asked me if I would consent to a voluntary sterilization. I said no, of course, so then a form was put in front of me which required my signature. I did not sign it. Don't make me go into any more detail about that court hearing; it's too painful.

A short time later I got a letter from the Superior Court for Genetic Health telling me I had to present myself there. I did not go, which resulted in a party official coming to the school and forcing me to sign, this time in the presence of the director. At that moment the joy went out of my life because I knew what was going to happen to me.

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