(L to r) Kim Tserkezie, Hans Cohn and Alison Lapper with the new plaque. Photo Salma Conway © 24 Hour Museum
A hidden history of the persecution and death of disabled people during the Holocaust has been given public recognition with the unveiling of a new commemorative plaque.
More than 100 people came to the unveiling at the Holocaust Centre in Laxton, Nottinghamshire, to remember people who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. The event, entitled Disability and the Holocaust – We Shall Not Forget, took place on Sunday May 11, 2008.
Chief executive Dr James Smith, who co-founded the Holocaust Centre with brother Stephen in 1995, said that the day marked the start of plans to include more information on disability within the museum.
“Today has played a very significant part in inspiring us to address the experiences of disabled groups under the Nazis. This isn’t going to end with a plaque in the garden, as important as the plaque is. The issue will be incorporated into the exhibitions,” he said.
The day’s programme opened with a series of talks from disabled artist Alison Lapper, disability film director and producer Liz Crow, director of Disability Access Services Ricki Westbury, and disabled Holocaust survivor Hans Cohn MBE.
The plaque commemorates all deaf and disabled people killed by the Nazis and other oppressive regimes. Photo © Ron Lawrence
Alison Lapper, who was born without arms, remarked on the significance of her being at the event with eight-year-old son Parys.
“Now I’ve got the freedom to have a child, whereas back then I would be dead," she said. "And isn’t it ironic that my child is blond haired and blue eyed, which is the Aryan race Hitler wanted.”
Visitors were given tours of the Holocaust Centre before attending a candle lighting ceremony in the main hall, followed by the unveiling of the new commemorative plaque and rose in the museum’s garden.
Disabled actress Kim Tserkezie from the children’s TV show Balamory gave a poetry reading at the candle lighting ceremony.
She said: “This event today is so important. The history of disabled people is so hidden, and it’s really saddened and frustrated me that it’s never highlighted in any discussions about the Holocaust. Hopefully today is the start of making sure the real story is told.”
Members of the public with the new plaque. Photo © Ron Lawrence
Nearly one million disabled people were sterilised or killed during the Holocaust, and currently their stories are under represented within Holocaust museums around the world.
Berlin born Hans Cohn, 85, escaped the Nazi regime when his parents sent him to England in 1938. The son of a Jewish solicitor, he was rendered completely blind after doctors refused to treat an eye injury inflicted on him by a member of the Hitler Youth in 1934.
Speaking at the event, Mr Cohn said: “This is an opportunity for people to realise that not only ordinary people were killed in the Holocaust but people who were already damaged.”
“Disabled people, who weren’t even Jewish, had their lives constricted and ruined by the fact that they were incapable of having children.”
Artist Alison Lapper with her son. Photo © Ron Lawrence
The Holocaust Centre has been working with the Nottinghamshire Disabled People’s Movement (NDPM) for over a year to coordinate the day’s events.NDPM secretary Liz Silver said that she was pleased to see the issue finally receiving recognition.
She added: “In terms of numbers of people that were affected by the Holocaust, the Jewish people were such a huge majority that I don’t think there’s been any deliberate exclusion of minority groups, it’s just been a focus on the group which had the biggest impact.”
“I think over the years there’s been a gradual realisation and recognition that disabled people and other groups were targeted as well.”
Disability and the Holocaust – We Shall Not Forget was funded with a grant from Renaissance East Midlands as part of Museums and Galleries Month.
Salma Conway is one of our three Renaissance East Midlands arts writers, reporting on MGM 2008 events all over the region for the whole month of May. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.