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Silent No More: Deaf Survivors Reveal Their Stories

November 1, 2007 By:
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In a recent lecture at Gratz College, Simon Carmel presented a side to the Holocaust that's seldom known: stories of the deaf. Photo by Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg
To survive the Holocaust, the Jews had to battle near-impossible conditions -- hunger, filth, disease, ceaseless work, endless brutality. The fact that many made it until liberation was often a matter of sheer luck, as countless survivors have testified over the years since the end of World War II.

But if it was difficult for the majority of people, how many more obstacles must there have been for the deaf?

Deaf individuals in the camps had to constantly be aware of their surroundings in order to blend in and not make it obvious that they could not hear, as they would most likely be killed on the spot if discovered. Those who could hear often helped the deaf, such as discreetly writing their friends' names in the dirt when they were called during the near-interminable roll calls.

Though the Shoah may arguably be one of the most documented historical events of the 20th century, the stories of the deaf victims have largely been untold until quite recently.

But thanks to research by Dr. Simon J. Carmel, the testimonies of deaf Holocaust survivors no longer remain silent.

In a recent, 90-minute presentation titled "Silent No More," Carmel -- a deaf historian and the principal gatherer of stories by deaf Holocaust survivors throughout the world -- made his second trip to the area this year to share this little-known chapter of the Holocaust.

"We need to preserve these stories," stressed Carmel. "Deaf survivors had their own unique experiences during the Holocaust and witnessed as much as hearing people."

Carmel's multimedia presentation featured photos and stories of members of the deaf community who were persecuted because of what the Nazis perceived as a disability, coupled with the notion that people with handicaps were useless to society.

"We know deaf people are healthy and strong," Carmel stated to his audience, and that "the only thing we can't do is hear."

But the Nazis thought otherwise. The euthanasia program was instituted by the Nazis in the early 1930s to quickly put to death those with physical and mental handicaps; this was long before Kristallnacht and the organization of the death camps.

As part of his program, Carmel recounted the murder of the majority of deaf students from the Israelite School for the Deaf in Berlin, Germany, who were dragged out and killed in 1942.

Carmel's Oct. 22 talk at Gratz College's Tuttleman Library was funded by the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive, Nora Levin Memorial Fund. The program was provided by Creative Access, a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 that supports opportunities for deaf artists across multiple mediums.

The lecture, which was conducted in American Sign Language, or ASL, was voiced by three freelance interpreters and presented on a large screen with Communication Assisted Real-Time Translation, a captioning service. The interpreters also provided both voice-to-sign and sign-to-voice interpretation for a question-and-answer period that followed the main lecture.

'They Were Stunned'
Carmel, who was born deaf, earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Gallaudet University and holds both master's and doctorate degrees in cultural anthropology from American University, both in Washington, D.C. He has studied Israeli Sign Language and worked with the Israeli deaf community.

He began to gather the testimonies of deaf survivors of the Holocaust in 1980.

Carmel has interviewed several survivors of different concentration camps located in Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries; he has also spoken to those who were forced to undergo sterilization, sometimes without anesthesia. Between the years of 1933 and 1945, it is estimated that 17,500 deaf Germans were sterilized, according to Carmel. Those who were blind or mentally disabled underwent similar treatment. And all were warned not to tell friends and family members about the procedure.

Carmel is now interested in studying deaf survivors who were in displaced-persons camps at the close of the war and hopes to discover how they were treated by the Allied troops, the Red Cross and other helpers.

After his presentation, several members of the audience -- both hearing and deaf -- approached Carmel to comment on his lecture.

"They were stunned -- as though they had never thought of what deaf survivors went through," he said.

Carmel said that aside from a couple of statements in a single Holocaust book he knows of, there was no specific research on deaf victims of the Holocaust until around 1980.

Lamented Carmel: "It is truly saddening to say that we have lost many testimonies by deaf survivors, who witnessed everything, and died between 1945 and 1990." u

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