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Around the Jewish World: Deaf Holocaust Survivors Telling How They Eluded Extermination

Peter Farago should have died long ago. The Nazis, with their twisted theories on eugenics and euthanasia, had earmarked all handicapped Jews for a speedy death.

And Farago, deaf since birth, fit the bill.

He arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the Netherlands in December 1994 as a quiet, chubby 10-year-old from Hungary. He was immediately separated from his mother.

Alone and hungry, Farago approached other children. When he caught their gaze, he simultaneously motioned to his mouth and rubbed his stomach.

That’s when Pavel saw him.

The hearing son of deaf Poles, Pavel, 13, recognized Farago was communicating in sign language.

Pavel intervened and signed to him the advice that would save his life: Don’t let the guards see you.

“I don’t even know if he knew the reason, just that I shouldn’t draw attention to myself,” said Farago, now 63 and living in Budapest.

“It was in 1946 that I learned about the gas chambers, and that all of those handicapped had been taken there first.”

Stories like Farago’s are now being told, or signed, in one of the first efforts to document a history of the Holocaust from the perspective of deaf inmates.

The project is the brainchild of two American professors from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only American university for the deaf.

The pair is currently touring Central Europe to videotape the testimony of deaf Jews who survived the concentration camps, labor camps and ghettos.

The new video project reflects the growing trend toward identifying each of the groups that suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Indeed, the Holocaust perspective of deaf people has its unique aspects: While they did not hear the terrified screams and crying, they registered the vibrations of exploding bombs and gunshots.

And more than other camp prisoners, they required the discreet helping hand of a comrade.

An inestimable number of disabled never made it that far.

In 1933, as Hitler consolidated his power, Germany targeted for sterilization those with hereditary physical or mental defects who were considered obstacles to creating a master race. Those targeted ranged from the physically retarded to the deaf or blind.

In subsequent years, the policy of sterilization turned to one of extermination.

“The deaf are a group that was discriminated against before, after and, of course, during the Holocaust,” said Gallaudet Professor John Schuchman, a historian of the deaf and author of a book on deaf Hollywood actors during the era of silent films.

“This is a story of the Holocaust, but it’s also a story of the deaf community. Various groups are entitled to their history.”

Schuchman and his colleague, Donna Ryan, have joined forces with Israel Sela, director of Hungary’s American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee office to conduct the project.

Sela, who received a doctorate from Gallaudet, conducted the first census of the deaf community in Israel.

“The deaf survived the war as broken pieces,” said Sela, whose deaf parents provided temporary shelter to deaf Holocaust survivors soon after the war and helped them find homes, jobs and counseling in Israel.

“Society was never aware of their special needs.”

One of the first things Sela did upon his arrival in Budapest three years ago was to place a plaque on the site of the former Jewish school for the deaf.

It was one of seven such Jewish schools in Central Europe.

Farago was a student at the school in March 1944, when Nazi-backed Hungarian fascists began cleansing the countryside of Jews.

In May of that year, he and his mother, Anna, 37, were herded into a ghetto in their hometown, Oroshaza, with the community’s 900 other Jews.

The tracks through what is now Slovakia had been bombed, forcing them to be re- routed to Austria.

They remained in a detention center in Vienna for six months, before being deported to Bergen-Belsen in December.

There, Pavel took Farago under his wing.

The younger boy followed Pavel’s lead, and they signed to each other only when it was safe.

When on line for roll call each morning, Pavel stood next to Farago, tapping or squeezing his hand to let him know when to respond to his name being called.

Grateful for the friendship and guidance, Farago gave Pavel his leftover rations of bread or potato.

Once the camp was liberated in March 1945, they parted ways.

In the 52 years since, Farago has never attempted to contact Pavel.

He does, however, recall him fondly as the tall, thin boy with “beautiful blond hair.”

“I don’t want to meet him because all the memories would come up,” said Farago, who was reunited with his mother in Hungary as both returned home after the war.

“But I think about him all the time and keep him in my heart.”

Klara Erdosi also owes her life to a fellow inmate, her sister Julianna.

Then 21, Erdosi and her sister, 10 years her senior, had been deported together to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. Their two brothers, both in their 20s, had already died during the war.

The situation in the camp was bleak, and Julianna, who had perfect hearing, picked up gossip here and there that those strong enough to work would be sent to the nearby Penig labor camp.

The rest, too sick or weak to work, would likely be liquidated.

So Julianna told Klara, who was limping from a mild case of frostbite to her right leg, to walk with normal strides despite the pain.

Both were selected for Penig.

There, Klara was assigned a grisly task. While others chopped down trees, she dug graves for those inmates who died of disease.

She cried often, fainted on occasion in the bitter cold, and was beaten several times.

In her three months of duty, she managed to dig 57 graves. But she and her sister lived to see the camp liberated by Soviet soldiers in June 1945.

“Julianna was always by my side,” said Klara, 74, whose sister died in 1989 at the age of 76.

“I would have died without her. If I had stayed in Ravensbruck, they would have sent me to the gas.”

With many compelling stories to record — more and more deaf survivors kept coming forward — Schuchman and Ryan spent longer than expected in Budapest, the first leg of their trip.

Other stops will include Prague, Berlin, Krakow, Poland, and perhaps Warsaw.

The material they gather from their interviews will be deposited in the archives at Gallaudet.

The two plan to return for more interviews next summer, after which they will host an international conference on the deaf and the Holocaust.

“Your stories will become part of their stories,” Ryan reassured a gathering of deaf survivors in Budapest last week. “Your stories will be told.”

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