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