Euthanasia, sterilisation: Austria faces Nazis' treatment of the deaf

5th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

The eight short documentaries, compiled on a 220-minute DVD, are the work of two Austrian linguists and advocates for the deaf, Verena Krausneker and Katharina Schalber, who interviewed witnesses in Austria and the United States.

Vienna -- Forced sterilisation, internment, deportation and euthanasia: this was the fate of many deaf people under the Nazi regime in Austria, as shown in a new series of documentaries co-produced by the University of Vienna.

"Two months after I gave birth to my child, I was condemned to be sterilised," Maria signs furiously with her hands in one of the short films, her anger still showing through almost 70 years on.

Her son Siegfried only lived because his father Franz hid his pregnant wife in a small village. All pregnant deaf women were otherwise forced to get an abortion under Nazi law.

In another chapter, an elderly woman recalls the events at a school for deaf children that she attended, German subtitles helping to understand her Austrian sign language.

"I was about 10 years old. The Nazis came one day and told us to climb onboard two buses in the courtyard," says Ema, now 85.

"We had to leave our things behind," she adds.

"My bus arrived in Wien-Speising (a Vienna neighbourhood), I never knew what happened to the other bus."

The eight short documentaries, compiled on a 220-minute DVD, are the work of two Austrian linguists and advocates for the deaf, Verena Krausneker and Katharina Schalber, who interviewed witnesses in Austria and the United States.

It will be a first exhaustive look at the Nazi regime's treatment of hearing impaired people. In Austria itself, the deaf were only officially granted the status of victims of Nazism in 1995, though the label has existed since 1945.

In all, 24 Austrians appear in the short films, a project co-produced with the University of Vienna and partly funded by a government agency, the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.

"For us, it was the only appropriate way (of recording these testimonies), given that the people concerned express themselves visually and with gestures," Krausneker told AFP.

The documentaries, which vary from 18 to 50 minutes, are each dedicated to a different issue: deaf associations and deaf schools, the war, the camps, forced sterilisation, euthanasia and resistance.

"Many things were only partially known and there were a lot of rumours, but most of all, there was no historic study in Austrian sign language," said Krausneker.

About 10,000 deaf people lived in Austria before the Nazi occupation in 1938, and there were dozens of special schools for deaf children, like the one Ema attended. Half of these were closed by the Nazis.

Now on DVD, these stories can "inform young deaf people today about their history, as they often haven't a clue about what happened," said Krausneker.

The DVD will be distributed to schools for the deaf in Austria and Germany, but will also be available to any school for an affordable five euros (seven dollars).

It comes amid growing awareness of rights for the handicapped, which was given a boost in July when Green politician Helene Jarmer, a 37-year-old art and mathematics teacher, was sworn in as Austria's first deaf parliamentary deputy -- becoming only the third non-hearing person to hold a parliamentary seat in Europe.

Since then, the Austrian parliament has introduced simultaneous sign-language interpretation of all debates and speeches.

But Krausneker also sees a civic role for the films, in a country with a tenacious right wing.

Austria rattled its European partners in 2000 when the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam far right Freedom Party entered the coalition government. Though a centre left-conservative coalition now governs, the Freedom party -- the third largest -- has seen steadily rising support in polls over the last year and almost doubled its support in September regional elections, with lots of interest from young voters.

Since Austrians can vote as of 16 years old, "it's important so that they can make well-informed political decisions," Krausneker said.

The country is also still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past. Austrian deserters from the armies of the Third Reich have not been rehabilitated, and Krausneker noted that Austrian Nazi court rulings calling for people with hereditary disabilities to be sterilised have never been officially annulled.

Research for the documentaries meanwhile turned up surprising new information about deaf opposition to the regime, "either passive or active resistance, motivated by political or personal reasons," she added.

The director of a school for the deaf in Salzburg destroyed the files of all his pupils when his school was closed by the Nazis in 1938.

After Nazi Austria adopted the "Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases" in 1940, numerous families also gave false testimonies of falls or blows to the head that might have caused the accidental deafness of a relative, to hide a congenital condition.

Of some 400,000 people sterilised under the Nazis, about 6,000 were Austrians. The exact number of deaf people who suffered this fate, however, is still unknown.


0 Comments To This Article