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"Portrait of a Disabled Jewish Youth Named Eric"

Handicapped Child named Eric
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Claude & Judith Feist Hemmendinger

This photograph of Eric (last name is unknown) captures a young man at age 16 in 1945. The son of a Jewish doctor from Vienna, Eric was born without hands and feet around 1933. He had survived the war in hiding as both a Jew and a disabled child. Eric's family had applied for American visas after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, though they were granted only three—one for each of his parents, and one for his older sister. Eric became one of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish applicants for immigration to the United States who were rejected, in his case explicitly due to his disability. Eric's physical disability—and the ways it was regarded by both American and Nazi officials—figures prominently in the ways in which he experienced oppression during this time.

Eric fell victim to double persecution on account of his disability and his Jewish heritage. Nazi propaganda often linked Jews with a multi-layered, constructed notion of hereditary "degeneracy."1 The notion of "degeneracy" had been propagated in German society throughout the Weimar Republic as part of the growing socialization and politicization of health; those with hereditary disabilities or wounds inflicted during World War I were increasingly considered a burden on the state.2 Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, sterilization came to be seen as the "solution" to preventing the spread of hereditary diseases or mental disabilities. At the same time, eugenics—a pseudo-science based on racial thinking—was growing in popularity among far-right intellectuals around the world—including in the United States as well as the early National Socialist party.3 Nazi eugenics incorporated antisemitic ideas about Jews as racially "inferior" and "degenerate" (physically and morally) based on older stereotypes of Jews as "insane," as physically weak, or as sexually "predatory" or "deviant."4

This idea was borne out in July 1933 with the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases. The law ordered the forced sterilization of all citizens within the Reich suffering from hereditary diseases or disabilities, such as mental illnesses, learning disabilities, physical deformities, epilepsy, deafness, and blindness. Disabled persons, therefore, became the first group targeted for exclusion and ultimately, mass murder in Nazi Germany.5 These actions were the result of an ideology which constructed a repressive link between disability, sexuality, and race. The "purification" of German society was carried out by "purifying" sexuality (through "reeducation" and propaganda, forced labor, or sterilization). The rhetoric around these two concepts—"deviant" sexuality and "deviant" and "weak" Jewishness (in particularly, Jewish men) became inextricably linked.6   

Although Eric and his family were persecuted in the Reich for being Jewish, the obstacles Eric faced presented additional persecution and risk. When Eric was denied a U.S. visa, he became caught in the crosshairs of Nazi racial policies. Eric's parents left him in the care of his grandmother in Antwerp, Belgium. However, on May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium; Eric and his grandmother fled toward the south of France. On the way, their party was bombarded, killing Eric's grandmother. Eric was taken to a French orphanage, and in 1945 his parents finally discovered his whereabouts. His parents paid for him to be moved to a children's home ran by the Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a Jewish humanitarian aid organization that cared for many refugee children during and after the war. 

Judith Hemmendinger, a case worker for the OSE who cared for Eric, took this photograph between 1945 and 1947 as a way of informing his parents about the severity of their son's condition. He had not grown in five years, and hence appeared as if he was still a child. 

Around 1948, Eric received a visa to go and live with his parents in the United States, making the journey there in the care of another boy who was also immigrating. In the last letter that Hemmendinger received from Eric, he complained about his prosthetic arms and legs made by the doctors in America, which made movement difficult. "I am writing to you in the middle of the night and have secretly removed the devices. I would like to come back," he wrote. Hemmendinger and the OSE were unable to respond to him, and it is unknown what became of Eric in America.

The idea of an inherited, "inferior" physical or mental deformity led directly to the Nazis' oppressive policies governing sexual behavior. These policies aimed to eliminate the possibility of such children being born at all. Dagmar Herzog, Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 67-75. See also: Alan E. Steinweis, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

For a history of biopolitical discourse in German social welfare programs, see Paul Weindling, Health, Race and German Politics Between National Unification and Nazism, 1870-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Carol Poore, Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007); Robert Heynen, Degeneration and Revolution: Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

For the relationship between the welfare state, eugenicist thought, and Nazi racial hygiene, see Detlev Peukert, "The Genesis of the 'Final Solution' from the Spirit of Science" in David F. Crew ed., Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 (London: Routledge, 1994); Peter Fritzsche, "'Nazi Modern' in Modernism/Modernity vol. 3, no. 1 (1996) 1-22; Edward Ross Dickinson, "Biopolitics, Fascism, Democracy: Some Reflections on Our Discourse about 'Modernity,'" in Central European History vol. 37, no. 1 (2004), 1-48.

See Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca: NY, Cornell University Press, 1985).

The Nazi term for those suffering from these conditions was Lebensunwertes Leben—"life unworthy of life." For further reading on this subject, see: Götz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Eleanor C. Dunai, Surviving in Silence: A Deaf Boy in the Holocaust: The Harry I. Dunai Story (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2002); Suzanne E. Evans, Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004); Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Götz Aly, Peter Chroust and Christian Pross eds., Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). See also the USHMM online exhibition, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.

For further reading on this topic, see the works cited in note 2 (esp. Poore and Heynen), as well as Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Claude & Judith Feist Hemmendinger
Accession Number 45555
Date Created
1945 to 1947
Photographer / Creator
Hemmendinger, Judith
Taverny, France
Still Image Type Photograph
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