John “Stan” Schuchman has shone a light on important but little-studied aspects of the experience of deaf and hard-of-hearing people through his research on deaf people in the Holocaust and in the Hollywood film industry (Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry).
Stan Schuchman is an emeritus professor of history at Gallaudet University, where he also served terms as a dean, provost, and vice president. He together with his wife have inaugurated the Dr. John S. and Dr. Betty J. Schuchman Deaf History Award at Gallaudet University. A 1961 graduate of Butler, Stan will return to the campus for a presentation, “Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe” on March 5, 2015. The presentation will be part of the College of Communication Symposium on Servant Leadership that week. His work on oral history (based on sign language) is a major contribution to our understanding of deaf history within the context of the Nazi policies against both people with alleged disabilities and Jews and others marked for persecution or extermination during that period in central Europe.
The research program on deaf survivors of the Holocaust began with the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in April of 1993, according to Dr. Schuchman’s collaborator on the project, Dr. Donna F. Ryan. While Dr. Ryan was an expert on Holocaust Studies, Dr. Schuchman was an expert on the history of the deaf community as well as the use of oral history—using videotaped sign-language interviews with informants. To carry out this program, Drs. Schuchman and Ryan conducted research in Germany, France, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Canada as well as locations in the US. This extensive research program led to the convening of an international conference, “Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe from 1933 to 1945,” in Washington, D.C., in June of 1998, under the auspices of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Gallaudet. An important product of this conference and research was the book, Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe, edited by John Schuchman and Donna Ryan, and published in 2002.
The common experience of deaf witnesses suffering under National Socialism (Nazi) policies was certainly one of marginalization, in the case of Jewish deaf people, double marginalization. Much of the background for these experiences lies in historical theories concerning policies of eugenics and so-called “racial hygiene,” or Rassenhygiene in the official terminology in 1930s Germany. The now outdated theory behind eugenics was that given “scientific” knowledge about heredity and genetics, it should be possible to encourage or, in Nazi cases, require selective marital unions to “improve” a particular population. After coming to power in 1933, the Nazis could begin to implement their particular view that they had a duty to improve the German (Aryan or Nordic) national population through what became extreme practices based on these theories.
The picture that emerged from the research is the following: that the experiences of deaf people in Germany and in the occupied areas were far from uniform, but instead were very complex. In Germany, many deaf people, Jewish or not, were in danger of being classified among those considered to be hereditarily disabled. Hitler and his cabinet enacted a sterilization law as early as July of 1933 just after coming to power targeting people with “a variety of mental and physical disabilities,” people who were to be “excluded from the national community” (Robert N. Proctor, “Eugenics in Hitler’s Germany,” in Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe). People so identified could be sterilized, subjected to forced abortions, and even killed (“euthanized” being the term used by the Nazis, in the infamous “T4” program). Outside Germany, non-Jewish deaf people were not in the same danger, but Jewish deaf people were obviously in even more danger. A further complication is that some deaf people were themselves Nazis or collaborators with the Nazis. There were deaf storm troopers and party officials. In addition, medical personnel and deaf educators also collaborated with party officials in identifying candidates for sterilization, abortions, or even “euthanasia.”
One is amazed that there were any survivors among the Jewish deaf people in Nazi occupied Central Europe. Very little is known about Jewish deaf people in Germany, Poland, or other countries under Nazi rule during the 1940s. Hungary presents a different case because, since Hungary was an Axis ally from 1940 to 1944, Jews were not transported to the death camps until near the end of the war when Germany directly occupied the country (similar to the situation of Primo Levi’s Italy in that regard). When the Germans occupied Hungary, the Jewish deaf people were subject to harassment and forced transportation to the camps by the Nazis and by the local Arrow Cross, the Hungarian pro-Nazi party. Drs. Schuchman and Ryan have been able to interview more than a dozen Hungarian deaf survivors. Their stories are of course remarkable, heart-rending, but also marked by amazing courage and fortitude.
Dr. Schuchman’s research, publications, and presentations have brought attention to these stories, illuminating a little known but highly significant, historical deaf experience.
William W. Neher
Bill Neher is professor emeritus of communication studies at Butler University, where he taught for 42 years. Over those years he has served as Dean of the University College, Director of the Honors Program, Head of the Department of Communication Studies, the Chair of the faculty governance, and most recently as the first Dean (Interim) for the new College of Communication begun in June 2010. He is the author of several books dealing with organizational and professional communication, ethics, and African studies, plus several public speaking and communication text books.
The Conference on Ethics and Public Argumentation, housed in the Butler University College of Communication, serves as CCOM’s academic hub for promoting the ethical use of reasoning and rationality in public deliberation.