The struggles facing Jewish people under Nazism often increased when they were also discriminated against for other aspects of their identities, such as their sexuality or their disabilities.1
Roughly six months after the Nazi rise to power, the new regime passed the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases in July 1933. This law ordered the forced sterilization of German citizens diagnosed with hereditary diseases and certain physical, intellectual, and psychiatric disabilities. People with disabilities would also become the first group the regime targeted for mass murder.2
The featured photograph of a Jewish youth with disabilities named Eric was taken after World War II ended. Eric’s experiences show how living with a disability could make it more difficult for a Jewish person to survive Nazi persecution. The son of a Jewish doctor from Vienna, Eric was born with fingers and toes that had not developed as expected. His family applied for visas to the US after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, but 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. Eric's physical disability—and the ways it was regarded by both American and Nazi officials—affected his experiences of persecution and marginalization during these years.
Eric and his family were persecuted by the Nazi regime because they were Jewish, but Eric’s disability meant that he also faced additional discrimination and danger. When Eric was denied a visa to the US, his parents decided to immigrate so that they could sponsor their son when they became American citizens. They left him in the care of his grandmother in Antwerp, Belgium, but German forces invaded in May 1940. Eric and his grandmother fled toward the south of France, but their party was bombed and Eric's grandmother was killed. He was taken to a French orphanage, and in 1945 his parents finally discovered his whereabouts. They arranged for him to be moved to a children's home near Paris run by the Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a Jewish humanitarian aid organization that cared for many refugee children during and after the war.
A case worker for the OSE named Judith Hemmendinger took this photograph between 1945 and 1947 to send to his parents. He had not grown much since they moved to the US, and he appeared much younger than his sixteen years. Although he was painfully self-conscious about his disability among strangers, Eric had adjusted well to life at the OSE home. He made many friends, became an excellent student, and was accustomed to doing many things for himself without prosthetic devices or the assistance of others.
Around 1948, Eric finally received a visa to join his family in the US and traveled there in the care of another boy who was also immigrating. But the youth became seasick, and Eric ended up looking after him instead. The boy later recalled that “I was sick throughout the voyage and could not leave my cabin. I was very fortunate to have Eric, who took care of me tirelessly. He was constantly on the go."3
In the last letter that Hemmendinger received from Eric, he complained about the prosthetic arms and legs made by the doctors in the US, which made it difficult to move. "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, and further details of Eric’s life in the US are unknown.