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Targets of Eugenics

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Sign Language Testimony of Helga Gross

Growing up in Hamburg, Germany in the 1930s, Helga Gross attended a school for Deaf children. She learned how to speak, how to read lips, and how to use sign language. At the time, many Deaf people were pressured to read lips and use verbal communication in order to fit in with hearing people. But Gross recalls that her parents supported her and encouraged her preference for sign language. “I was a very happy child,” she explains, “until Hitler changed everything, and he changed my life.”

In the featured testimony,1 Gross discusses her experiences as a young Deaf person living under Nazi rule.2 She was just sixteen years old in 1939 when she was forcibly sterilized under the provisions of the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases. The Nazi regime attempted to reshape German society to fit Nazi ideas about race and biology by legalizing forced sterilizations—medical procedures designed to make it biologically impossible to reproduce. Roughly 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized during the years of Nazi rule. This was done in an attempt to keep traits such as deafness, epilepsy, or schizophrenia from being passed to future generations of Germans.3 Nazi policymakers believed that sterilizing people with disabilities would make the Nazis' so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") stronger and genetically superior to other peoples.

Like many other Nazi policies, the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases was inspired by theories of eugenics—pseudoscientific ideas about improving human society through selective breeding and sterilization.4 Although other countries also adopted policies influenced by eugenics,5 Nazi Germany’s so-called “racial hygiene” policies were more extreme than others. Shortly after the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Nazi eugenics policies expanded to include the systematic mass murder of people with disabilities.6

Although she had been sterilized against her will, Helga Gross was still encouraged to join the Nazi Party. Nazi authorities and German medical professionals had deemed her “biologically undesirable,” but she was also considered to be a so-called “Aryan” German who might still help the Nazi cause.7 Local Nazis in Hamburg pressured her to become a member. Gross was opposed to the idea of joining the Nazi Party, but she was afraid to refuse. She decided to delay, and she never filled out the application she had been given.

After the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Gross continued to face discrimination as a Deaf person. She married a Deaf man who had also been forcibly sterilized under Nazi rule, and they tried to immigrate to the United States. But US immigration law permitted the exclusion of Deaf people and others with disabilities based on the assumption that they would not be able to support themselves and were likely to become public charges.8 Gross and her husband managed to immigrate to the US in 1954 after having multiple applications denied, but the provisions of US immigration law that permitted the exclusion of people with disabilities were not removed until 1990.9

The recording of this testimony does not capture all of the sign language that Helga Gross uses to share her story. To learn more about the considerations involved in interviewing Deaf survivors of Nazi persecution, see Donna F. Ryan, "Deaf People in Hitler's Europe: Conducting Oral History Interviews With Deaf Holocaust Survivors," The Public Historian 27, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 43-52.


To learn more about Deaf people in Nazi Germany, see Donna F. Ryan and John S. Schuchman, eds., Deaf People in Hitler's Europe (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Gallaudet University Press, 2002).

The Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases targeted people diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, Huntington's disease, deafness, blindness, physical disabilities, or alcoholism. To learn more, see the related Experiencing History items, Sterilization Order for August Alzen, Letter to SS Doctor Gregor Ebner, and Lothrop Stoddard: "In a Eugenics Court."


Eugenics sought to encourage people deemed healthy and of "good racial stock" to reproduce and have many children, while also seeking to keep people with traits deemed "undesirable" from passing them on to future generations. These theories were widely accepted throughout many countries in the early 20th century, but some questioned the scientific basis of these ideas even then. For more details on the eugenics movement, see the Experiencing History collection Targets of Eugenics.

Sterilization laws were passed in several countries, including the United States. To learn more about the history of the eugenics movement in the US, see Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). See also the related items in Experiencing History Eugenics Charts from the Kansas Free Fair and Letter from Dr. Harry H. Laughlin to Dr. Carl Schneider.

The methods developed during the first phase of the systematic mass murder of people with disabilities—and the personnel—were used in the development of Nazi killing centers later in the war. To learn more, see Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900–1945 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Although Deaf people were not explicitly made targets of the Nazi regime’s so-called "euthanasia" program, many Deaf people became victims of mass murder because they had been misdiagnosed with intellectual disabilities. Nazi policymakers regarded such disabilities as a threat to the health of the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"). 

For another example of US immigration law discriminating against targets of Nazi persecution on the basis of their disabilities, see the related Experiencing History item, Portrait of a Jewish Youth with Disabilities Named Eric.

To learn more about Deaf people and US immigration law, see Douglas C. Baynton, "'The Undesirability of Admitting Deaf Mutes': U.S. Immigration Policy and Deaf Immigrants, 1882–1924,” Sign Language Studies 6, no. 4 (Summer 2006), 411; and M. C. Weber, ‘‘Opening the Golden Door: Disability and the Law of Immigration,’’ Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice 8 (Spring 2004): 162–63.

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Then, as the time became near, I remember very well, I was in the kitchen, and I was cleaning. My mother came and said, Helga, sit down. And she explained, you have to go to the hospital in two days. I said, I have to go to the hospital to get sterilized? I was calm. I kind of accepted it. My mother must have thought something was wrong, or that I was going to run away, or get crazy, but I was very calm. She said, how come – later she asked me, how come you were so calm? And I said, well, the other girls had it done, so I just accepted it, that it was fair. If they did, I guess it was my turn. My father cried. He refused to see me. He didn’t want to hug me before I left home to go to the hospital. It was a very small, cute hospital, very nice place actually. Babies – only babies were born there. A woman did the surgery. Gave me anesthetic and a shot, that everything was good and clean. After the surgery, I woke up, I was throwing up, and I could – I could feel something heavy on my stomach. My mother was sitting next to me, and I tapped her, she was like sleeping. I said, Mummy, Mummy. The second sister underneath me, opened the door and looked in and said hi. Her big eyes looked in at me, and I was laughing. She was so funny, to see her just these two big eyes, poking through the door. Oh, but the pain when I laughed, oh-ho, great pain. I said go away. Where was my father? He couldn’t come. He was so embra – embarrassed, because he was crying for me. Later, two of my schoolmates came, and the three of us just sat and cried. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2003.485.3
RG Number 50.718.0003
Date of Interview
January 22, 2003
Duration 00:02:51
Time Selection 18:36–21:27
Helga Gross
Reference Location
Hamburg, Germany
Interview Type Interview
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