REVIEW: Crying Hands Signs the Fate of Deaf People in Nazi Germany Back Into History
Shay Erlich reviews Crying Hands, a Theatre Passe Muraille presentation of Teater Manu (Norway) with community engagement partner the Deaf Culture Centre, about Deaf people in Nazi Germany:
Crying Hands is a meticulously researched docudrama focusing on the experiences of the Deaf community in Germany during the Second World War, created and directed by Bentein Baardson. Utilizing a predominantly Deaf cast, and voice interpretation (Kjersti Fjeldstad) for hearing people who do not sign, this work has been recently translated from the original Norwegian Sign Language into American Sign Language for its first international tour.
Drawing from a plethora of historical research, including in-depth interviews with ten Deaf Holocaust survivors, the play focuses on the lives of two composite characters, Hans (Ronny Patrick Jacobsen) and Gertrude (Ipek D. Mehlum) with additional facts and context provided by narrator Eitan Zuckerman.
Hans is born Deaf, to a working class, Christian family with a history of hereditary hearing loss and other disabilities. In early adulthood Hans is involved with a Deaf Stormtrooper unit, despite never caring much for politics, and eagerly participates in the victory parade celebrating Hitler’s rise to power. However, Hans’ participation in the Nazi regime is shortlived: shortly after Hitler’s election in 1933, the Deaf Stormtrooper unit is shut down. After this, Hitler began attacking the Deaf and Disabled community directly, including passing laws which imposed harsh conditions for those who were Deaf and disabled including forced sterilization. Recognizing the error of supporting the Nazi party, Hans becomes attached to the resistance movement, until he is eventually arrested as a political prisoner. Once he arrives at Sachsenhausen, Hans is left to survive as best as he can in the concentration camp, earning the favour of high ranking party members and eventually completing his journey at Auschwitz as support staff for Nazi Party officials.
Gertrude acts as a foil to Hans. Born hearing to a wealthy family, she studies medicine and public health. Taken up by the eugenics movement, she joins the Nazi party as a medical advisor. She continues to support the system with the goal of creating a genetically healthy nation. It is discovered suddenly that her grandmother is Jewish, and she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. After her medical talents are discovered in the camp, she is forced to continue to support the horrific medical experiments that were being conducted.
In this work, culturally Deaf approaches to storytelling are an undeniable force. In Deaf culture, it is frequently important to step back and take in the larger context of a story or person prior to focusing on narrative details. In Crying Hands, this means it is crucial to examine not only Hans and Gertrude as individuals, but how they were influenced by their families, cultural contexts, and communities. In these deeply divisive political times, it can sometimes be difficult to understand how people become radicalized to political positions where harm to others is justifiable. Through the lens of docudrama, it becomes more comprehensible. In coming to know Hans and Gertrude, we can see how small decisions that seem inconsequential form the basis of an unstoppable political machine. Even as they each individually discover the horrors they are complicit in, Hans and Gertrude remain powerless to unravel, or even slow down, the destruction.
The oratory style of this work is phenomenal. During the height of the eugenics movement, when most of the Deaf population was being forced to speak rather than sign, a collection of videos was made to preserve ASL for future generations. These videos in turn became the basis of an academic register of ASL. In Crying Hands, the actors emulate this style beautifully, with slow, clear, large, signing. It is only briefly visible that the translation of this work into ASL has just occurred within the last several weeks. This is a work equally at home on a stage or in a university classroom.
Crying Hands will stay with audience members for a long time. More than just a recitation of a frequently ignored Deaf history of the Holocaust, audience members are encouraged to confront whether the ways we treat Deaf and disabled people throughout history have truly shifted. To this day, shadows of policies and regulations that surfaced during The Second World War still have bearing on Deaf and disabled people’s lives. Disabled people are still frequently sterilized against their will to prevent propagation of disabilities, and parents are encouraged to terminate pregnancies that may result in Deafness or disability. Parents who have murdered disabled children are frequently met with pity and reduced criminal sentences due to the perceived difficulty in raising a disabled child. A substantial percentage of people murdered by police are Deaf disabled, particularly disabled people of colour. In a world where little outcry is raised as atrocities against Deaf and disabled people continue, Crying Hands is an important reminder to stay vigilant against tyranny lest it continue to be repeated.
Shay Erlich is a wheelchair dancer and performance art critic. They have recently co-founded the Cyborg Circus Project (a disability-led dance and circus company) with their partner Jenna Roy and write about disability art at The Wheelchair Critic as well as in mainstream publications such as NOW Toronto and The Dance Current.