When Disabled Children Can’t Get Visas, Parents Face a Heartbreaking Decision

When the Teitz family immigrated to the United States in 1939, the oldest son, Werner, pictured with his mother, was denied a visa by the US government due to his physical disability. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of the Dumais, Teitz and Zuckerman families

One of the most devastating effects of the Holocaust upon its victims was the separation of families. Across German-occupied Europe, Nazi policies of relocation, ghettoization, and deportation rent Jewish families apart. Thousands of Jewish mothers and fathers voluntarily surrendered their youngsters, even into the arms of strangers, in a desperate attempt to save them. But what if one were forced to leave one’s child behind in order to preserve the rest of the family?

This is the story of Werner Teitz. Werner was born on January 18, 1925, in the Bavarian city of Fürth. His parents, Emil and Sophie-Luise Teitz, were prosperous German Jews who were part owners of a local factory that manufactured bronzeware. In 1930, his younger brother, Walter, was born.

By the time of Walter’s birth, the Teitzes already had concerns about their elder son. From infancy, Werner displayed signs of delayed development, and as he grew, he began to exhibit low muscle tone and loss of motor control. In May 1931, when Werner reached school age, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and committed to the Heckscher Neurological Clinic in Munich. Doctors deduced that the disability was the result of traumatic injury to the brain during birth. Werner’s physician wrote in 1938 that “because his legs and arms are paralyzed, he is only able to move with braces. He is unable to use the stairs or walk on the street … . His speech is severely impaired. Only people who know him well … can understand him.” But his physical disorder did not imply intellectual impairment. Indeed, physicians consistently noted that Werner was “intellectually gifted” and for a young boy extremely well-read. His chief joys were stamp collecting and writing long letters to his family in Fürth. While his lack of motor skills made handwriting difficult and onerous, Werner was an accomplished typist and carried on a vivid and heartfelt correspondence with his parents and relatives.

Werner grew up in perilous times for his family and for all Jews in Germany. The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, which came to power in 1933, espoused a virulent antisemitism and a radical racial ideology. Policies of anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution deprived Jews of their rights, denied them their livelihoods, and isolated them from their fellow Germans. By the late 1930s, Emil Teitz was forced to surrender partnership in the factory he co-owned, and was reduced to working there as an employee. The violence and destruction of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” of November 1938, stunned and frightened the Teitzes and their fellow Jews. Emil Teitz’s sister Betty Goldschmidt fled to the United States that same November, joining another sibling, Dr. Leo Teitz, who had emigrated in May 1938. The burnt synagogues, the damaged Jewish-owned homes and businesses, and the murder of nearly 100 Jews illustrated to German Jews, after years of steady but largely legislated persecution, the physical danger they faced. It was clearly time to flee.

Emil Teitz took immediate action, applying for a visa and undertaking the elaborate bureaucratic arrangements required to immigrate to the United States. In December 1938, he purchased open tickets for passage to New York on the Holland-America Line. As they waited for their visas, Emil and Sophie-Luise succeeded in placing their younger son, Walter, on a Kindertransport to Great Britain in July 1939. One family member was safe, and preparations for the rest of the family were underway.

There was one obstacle. Fourteen-year-old Werner was not eligible for a visa to the United States. Beginning with the earliest efforts to limit immigration in 1882, US immigration law forbade entry to the United States to persons likely to become a public charge. Later legislation specifically barred those whose physical or mental disability affected their ability to earn a living. Faced with a devastating choice, the Teitzes made the difficult decision to leave their elder son behind. They were not the only parents faced with such a decision; the Museum’s archives include documentation of at least one other disabled child whose parents were forced to choose between staying with their son in Nazi Europe or immigrating to the United States without him.

What his parents did not know, nor could have imagined, was that Werner faced imminent danger from two sources. The most obvious threat to Werner was the deportation of German Jews, beginning in October 1941, which would lead to almost certain death in the ghettos and killings centers in German-occupied eastern Europe. The second danger was closer to home. Following the German invasion of Poland, the Nazi regime initiated the so-called “euthanasia,” or T4, program, a clandestine killing operation targeting German persons with disabilities living in institutional settings. The program began with child “euthanasia,” which initially focused on infants and toddlers under the age of three, but soon expanded to include children and juveniles, like Werner, under the age of 18. In January 1940, the “euthanasia” program extended to adults, murdering patients with carbon monoxide gas and later with starvation and overdoses of medication. This secret operation represented the Nazis’ first program of mass murder; in all, some 250,000 disabled patients, including 5,000 Jews and 7,000 children, were killed for their disabilities.

A delay in the Teitzes’ departure from Germany spared Werner this fate. In December 1938, the director of the facility where Werner lived informed his parents he could no longer remain because he was Jewish. Wisely, the Teitzes decided to relocate Werner to Hillegersberg, a facility in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Believing him finally safe from harm, Emil and Sophie Teitz joined their younger son in England, and when their visas arrived, immigrated with him to the United States in April 1940. In April 1941, Werner wrote his parents that he hoped “the curtain between us will vanish soon,” and longed for the day they might be reunited. Tragically, exactly one month after his parents arrived in New York, the German Army invaded and occupied the Netherlands, with terrible implications for Jews living on Dutch soil. Sometime in spring 1943, Werner Teitz was removed from the Hillegersberg facility and taken to the Westerbork transit camp. On May 18, 1943, he was deported to the Sobibor killing center, where he was murdered upon arrival on May 21.

Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice will co-lead the 2019 Jack and Anita Hess Faculty Seminar, “Disability, Eugenics, and Genocide: Nazi Germany, Its Antecedents and Legacy.” She is a senior historian in the Office of the Senior Historian at the Museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.