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Insights into Deaf History

From: Sign Language Studies
Volume 14, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 125-129 | 10.1353/sls.2013.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Mark Zaurov and Klaus-B. Günther’s edited collection, Overcoming the Past, Determining Its Consequences, and Finding Solutions for the Present , originated from papers given at the Sixth Deaf History International conference in Berlin, Germany, in 2006, which attracted participants from twenty-eight countries. Deaf History International (DHI), founded in 1991, holds triennial conferences with widespread participation by community historians and Deaf community members. Thus situated within this movement of community historians, Overcoming the Past also attracts presentations by professional historians and scholars in Deaf studies. Nearly all of the contributions to the volume deal with twentieth-century Deaf history, and a significant cluster of them focus on the experiences of Deaf people in World War II.

Indeed, this focus is a highlight of the volume. The book contains a diverse collection of stories on the Deaf experience in World War II. Douglas Bahl, a longtime community historian, offers biographical capsules of nine of the ten pupils of Berlin’s Israelite Institution for Deaf-Mutes who escaped on a 1939 Kindertransport to Great Britain. The remaining 146 pupils were murdered in Auschwitz and There-sienstadt. This biographical focus can also be found in part of Mark Zaurov’s chapter “Deaf Holokaust,” which covers the experiences of selected Deaf German Jews during the National Socialist period. John A. Hay, a member of DHI’s founding committee, writes of the evacuation of British Deaf schools during World War II, organizing his information geographically with lists of schools and locations to which the schoolchildren were evacuated. Newby Ely offers a meticulously researched account of the incarceration of Deaf people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II. Ely’s article is the first to examine this topic from a historian’s perspective, and his use of primary sources will be helpful for future research on this important period in U.S. Deaf history. Iris Groschek explains how teaching aims changed at the Hamburg Deaf-Mute Asylum during the National Socialist era to fostering in pupils a sense of “responsibility for the continuation and improvement of the German race.” While instilling German values through a special unit of Hitler Youth for Deaf children, called Bann G, schoolteachers were also charged with “convincing parents and the affected pupils about the necessity of sterilization.” Teaching staff debated the eugenic fitness of their charges and gave evidence in a special “Hereditary Health Court” about their former pupils. These chapters are supplemented by a collection of photos of Bann G’s activities, which are unfortunately limited by a lack of explanatory text aside from section headings. Two other photo collections, one from the Israelitische Taubstummenanstalt and another from the Finnish Museum of the Deaf, offer much more contextual background for their photos. Mark Zaurov’s chapter on “Deaf Holokaust” presents still photos of different signs for holocaust in the American, Dutch, and German sign languages, as well as a description of the sign shoah in Israeli Sign Language. The visual palette of this volume is further strengthened by full-color photos of paintings in articles by Paul Johnston and Uzi Buzgalo on aspects of Deaf art.

Of particular interest to historians of the Deaf experience are transcripts of interviews that Zaurov conducted at the conference, with either a panel or individual Deaf people, on their experiences during World War II. The first panel consisted of an interview with Harald Weickert and Kurt Eisenblätter, two Deaf Germans who related their experiences in residential schools and at home during the war years. The eyewitness accounts of their war experiences from the perspective of Deaf children—the burning of Jewish synagogues, a rabbi being lynched outside his Berlin home, visits to concentration camps where Eisenblätter’s father was held as a political prisoner, and numerous other stories—show that Deaf people were not immune to the excesses of the National Socialist era. The tensions within the general population are also reflected in the experiences of these Deaf youth: Eisenblätter was “teased” by his classmates after the arrest and public humiliation of his parents. Later on, Eisenblätter and his classmates, on discovering that their school director was a member of the National Socialist Party...



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