On the Spectrum: Jewish Refugees from Nazi Austria and the Politics of Disability

Friday, January 4, 2019: 4:10 PM
Price Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Katherine Sorrels, University of Cincinnati
In April of 1939, nine-year-old Peter Bergel and his parents set out from Amsterdam for northern Scotland. This was not their first choice. Jewish refugees from Frankfurt, they had fled to Amsterdam in 1937 and applied for visas to the United States. Peter’s parents’ applications were granted, but entry restrictions for “defectives” scuttled Peter’s application. The boy had contracted encephalitis when he was three and it had resulted in permanent brain damage. The British Home Office granted Peter a visa because his parents had found a doctor in Scotland willing to care for him. In a small village outside Aberdeen, a German Jewish refugee physician, Dr. Karl König, had just secured permission to open Camphill Special School, a residential care community for children with disabilities. Peter was to be his first patient.

In an era when the response to disability was shame, blame and institutionalization, Camphill’s principles were that disabled children could enrich communities and that doctors should abandon the search for cures. Camphill soon expanded into a global movement of more than 100 eco-villages for people with disabilities. Yet the movement originated in the era of eugenics and as Douglas Baynton has noted, eugenicist concerns about disability were inseparable from concerns about race. In fact, German racial thinking structured the founders’ thinking about ability and disability.

I use writings by the founders, oral history interviews with older community members, genealogical research, and expulsion and immigration records to reconstruct the movement’s origins and the network that helped it spread. I raise questions about how progressive the community’s approach to disability was (and is), which sheds light on current historiographic discussions about the roots of the disability rights movement, the origins of the counterculture, and the intersections between the two movements.

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