Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Simon J. Carmel’s lecture, “Silent No More: Testimonies of Deaf Holocaust Survivors” related the unheard stories of the persecuted deaf Jewish during World War II.
Carmel, who teaches at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and is a magician, comedian and former physicist, among other things, led a workshop after the lecture on deaf comedy. An interpreter for Carmel was present at both events.
An estimated 25,000 deaf Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust. With only about 20 deaf survivors left today, Carmel’s records become increasingly important.
Carmel began with the story of Fred and Doris Fedrid, who were imprisoned in the Tarnopol ghetto for two years. Fred Fedrid was one of three tailors that Carmel interviewed whose skill helped them survive in a time when being deaf, disabled or “weak” in some way often meant death.
As a man of the trade, Fedrid always carried scissors with him. As clothing of the era lacked any pockets, he placed the scissors in the band of his wedding ring, concealing them from Nazi soldiers. A great barterer, he would allow other prisoners to borrow his pair in exchange for food or other services.
Unlike other persecuted groups in the Holocaust, the deaf did not have a specific identity badge. Most often the Nazis forced the non-Jewish deaf through sterilization, believing that it would prevent any perpetuation of disability in the Aryan race. (A false belief—only 10% of deaf couples have deaf children.) About 17,500 deaf Germans were sterilized between 1933 and 1945.
Fred Fedrid, however, did wear a pin labeled Taubstuum, meaning “deaf and dumb”—two conditions which do not necessarily go together. Although today pride in sign language and in deaf culture often scorns instructing deaf children to speak and to read lips, oralism saved many deaf from prosecution.
Morris Field, for example, never revealed his disability while passing through a total of five concentration camps. When he spoke, his accent blended him into the crowd of other foreigners. Field once noticed a group of deaf signers communicating with each other in a corner, and debated with himself about whether or not to sign to them that he too was deaf. Field decided against it and found the next day that they all had disappeared. He suspected they were all killed.
Carmel also interviewed artist David Bloch. Block recalls Kristallnacht, when Nazis pounded on his door and shouted that they would arrest him for being a criminal—that is, a Jew. He eventually escaped to Shanghai and became something of an art anthropologist.
He has done pieces reflecting on the Holocaust, including “Reception-Deception,” which is pictured above, depicting a skeletal prisoner playing the violin. Bloch interpreted music at the camps to signal imminent death, even though he could not hear it.
Deaf prisoners also faced a dilemma when they managed to escape or become liberated—they were often denied access to the United States. Carmel related the story of Stanley Teger, whose mother had been outraged when the immigration official refused to admit the young Stanley for fear that deafness was contagious. Some infectious illnesses at the time caused blindness, leading to widespread fear that other disabilities would propagate as well.
Teger’s mother finally goaded Stanley to speak—satisfying the official who still believed in the deaf-dumb correlation. Teger started a new hobby in America as a Statue of Liberty collector.
The deaf did face the same struggles as the Jewish in attempting to conceal their religion. Dr. Eugene Bergmann, who grew up wealthy and became deaf when he a soldier hit him on the head with a rifle, was almost discovered when his leg cramped while he was swimming.
A fisherman rescued him and noticed that something was wrong. He told Bergmann to pull down his pants—a terrifying situation for a circumcised boy in Nazi Germany. The boy pantomimed his deafness and the fisherman let it go. When he ran back home, his parents and brother had disappeared. Bergmann searched for them in the forest and encountered a Polish Resistance soldier, who did not believe he was Jewish.
So Bergmann pulled down his pants and proved it. The soldier let him go. Eventually he became a gun smuggler for the Polish Resistance until the end of the war, when he went searching for his family again at a Jewish center. There they said, “Well you don’t look Jewish. Get out.” He again proved himself by the fact of circumcision, and successfully located his mother and brother.
Most of Carmel’s lecture, however, was filled with solemn details and a call to prevent and oppose genocide. His workshop afterward, somewhat more lighthearted, analyzed the visual humor and uniqueness to sign language jokes.
More deaf events will be occurring on campus, according to Professor of Linguistics Donna Jo Napoli, who organizes such events for the Tri-College community. A Deaf Festival Around the World is scheduled for the end of February.