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.