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Subject Guide: Disability History

Archival and library collection highlights found at the Center related to the history of disabled individuals and communities as well as the organizations that helped fund research and quality of life.

Students at the Jewish Institute for the Blind, Vienna. From the Siegfried Altmann Collection, AR 1788. LBI.

Blindness History

Siegfried Altmann Collection (AR 1788)  [Collection is digitized and available online.]

The Israelitisches Blinden-Institut was founded upon an initiative of Ludwig August Frankl; Jonas Freiherr von Königswarter donated the building, which was inducted on December 1. 1872, with Rabbi Adolf Jellinek and Cantor Salomon Sulzer being present. The institute took care of blind children and young adults, providing them with vocational training. Born in Nikolsburg, Austria Hungary (now Mikulow, Czechoslovakia), on July 12, 1887, Siegfried Altmann studied social work and became director of Israelitisches Blindeninstitut, Vienna. The bulk of the collection consists of correspondence of Siegfried Altmann with rabbis, politicians, physicians, authors. The correspondence deals with various topics including Altmann's activities with the Blindeninstitut, and later with the Austrian Institute, among which is a benefit for the Vienna Opera in the late 1940s, with Zionism, and with literary and cultural matters.

Elisabeth Freund Collection (AR 25099) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

Elisabeth Freund was born in Breslau in 1898. Her father was the neurologist Carl Freund. In 1944 she started working at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, which was founded by Julius Friedlaender, a brother of her great grandfather's. There, she founded a touch and learn center. She became an authority on blind students, developing teaching manuals and kits for sharpening the taste and smell of blind students. She also lectured and published on these topics. 

Peter Gouled papers (P-100)

Contains the correspondence, photographs, published and other material relating to Peter Gouled. Of special interest is the material relating to philately and an invention to assist the blind in writing.

Betty Hirsch Collection (AR 1551) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

The collection contains letters sent from Betty Hirsch, German-Jewish teacher of the blind, to her friend Rosetta Hirsch. The letters are largely personal in nature, but also contain discussion of Betty Hirsch's work with the blind, particularly the war blind. Also included is a brief biographical sketch of Betty Hirsch and an essay she wrote on the topic of educational therapy.

Ludwig Cohn collection (AR 11257) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

Ludwig Cohn was born in 1877 in Breslau. He went blind when he was seven years old. After attending a school for the blind, he went to Elisabet-Gymnasium High School in Breslau, studied philosophy in Berlin and Breslau, and finished his PhD in philosophy in 1903. He later studied economy and law and finished a PhD in law in 1922 in Breslau. During World War I, he worked for the Blindenfürsorge beim 6. Armeekorps. He taught at universities in Breslau, Vienna, Budapest, Lausanne, Geneva, Strassburg, Zurich. After 1933, he worked at the university in Prague. In 1940, he fled to Amsterdam with his wife. Cohn died in 1962 in the Netherlands.

Noah Benevolent Society Records (I-186)

The Noah Benevolent Society was founded in New York, January 7, 1849 as Noah Lodge; chartered 1870 as Noah Benevolent Widows' and Orphans' Association; name changed in 1916 to Noah Benevolent Society; disbanded 1980. Included in the collection are documents related to the Society's efforts on behalf of the Association for the Advancement of Blind Children (February 1963).

Disabled children outdoors, undated. From the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York Collection, I-433. AJHS

Disability History

ORT Photographic Collection 1922-1960 (RG 380) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

This collection consists of photographs and negatives of World ORT conferences and congresses, various individuals connected with ORT, and ORT vocational programs and activities, including in Displaced Person’s camps, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Cuba, and North and South America.

Folders of note:

Folder 1235: ORT Institute for Deaf Children
Folder 1375: School and children's home for the deaf and mute

Papers of Leo W. Schwarz (RG 294.1) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

Series III contains documentation of the work of MALBEN, an Israeli organization that sought to assist German DP camp residents who faced challenges in being resettled, including people with disabilities. 

Guide to the Records of the Displaced Person Camps and Centers in Germany (RG 294.2) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

Series VII documents the camps' Union of Invalids, which attempted to address the needs of refugees with disabilities. 

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America Records (I-66)

This collection contains summarized histories of Yachad, the Union's outreach program for people with developmental disabilities.

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Records (I-363)

Series II contains materials concerning the organization's initiatives to assist immigrants with disabilities in the U.S. naturalization process. 

Records of the National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section (I-469)

Series II and Series IX document the New York Section's efforts to serve people with disabilities in a variety of New York City locations. 

Rabbi Reeve Robert Brenner Papers (P-962)

This collection is comprised of periodicals, correspondence, and literature pertaining to the life of Rabbi Reeve Robert Brenner, the inventor of a basketball-inspired game called Bankshot, which can be played by people who use wheelchairs.

Children's classroom at the Lexington School for the Deaf, undated. From the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York Collection, I-433. AJHS

Deaf & Hard of Hearing History

United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York collection (I-433)

United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York has been a central force for communal planning and philanthropy in the New York Jewish community since 1917. More than 60,000 donors pool their resources to help people in need, inspire a passion for Jewish life and learning, and strengthen Jewish communities around the world. Projects relate to health and human services, aging and vulnerable populations, Jewish education, and disaster relief. United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York is the organization that resulted after three mergers over the course of the 20th century. Relevant materials include administrative documents regarding the Lexington School for the Deaf, Society for the Welfare of the Jewish Deaf, Hebrew Association for the Deaf, and New York School for the Deaf. 

Temple of Beth Solomon of the Deaf (Arleta, CA) collection (I-406)

In July 1947, the Hollywood Hebrew Society of the Deaf was founded and later its name was changed to the Hebrew Association of the Deaf of Los Angeles (HAD). Like other HAD's, it focused on social programs with very little religious content. By the late 1950's many HAD members longed for a synagogue in which they could worship and study, as well as socialize. With the help of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and the advice of Rabbi Solomon Kleinman, a synagogue of, not for, deaf Jews was born.This collection is comprised of event fliers, an organizational history, and miscellaneous materials concerning religious services. The collection also contains the following publications: The Ben Zukor Community Program Quarterly (1984), and Congregation News (1976-1996, 2006)

Records of the Association of Jewish Deaf-Mutes in Poland (RG 54) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

The earliest attempt to organize the deaf-mute population in Poland took place in 1916 in Warsaw, with the founding of the Deaf-Mute Society; (The Union). Other local deaf-mute societies followed in Krakow and Lwow. In 1930, industrialist Bogumil Liban founded wiazek Zydowskich Gluchoniemych (Association of Jewish Deaf-Mutes in Poland), with its seat in Krakow. More local branches were established in Lodz, Wilno and Bialystok. In 1936, the Association was renamed golny Zwiazek Zydowskich Gluchoniemych oraz Towarzystw Sportowych (General Association of Jewish Deaf-Mute Societies and Sports Clubs). The collection contains predominantly correspondence of the Association's Central Committee in Krakow with its branches in Warsaw, Lodz, Wilno, and Lublin.Topics include organizational matters of the Association, the economic situation of the deaf-mutes, special education, and contacts with Jewish deaf-mute societies in other countries.

Ursula Meseritz Elgart Family Collection (AR 25544) [Collection is digitized and available online.]

Ursula Daniela Meseritz was born in 1919 in Hamburg, Germany as the second of two daughters of Fritz Meseritz (1876-1942) and Olga née Chanage (1890-1942). Ursula attended the girls’ school Ria Wirth in Hamburg and then took courses in home economics at the Taubstummen-Anstalt Berlin-Weissensee, an institution for deaf and deaf-mute Jewish children. This collection reflects the experiences of Ursula Elgart née Meseritz (1919-2003) from her youth in Hamburg and Berlin through her immigration in 1938 until eventually settling in California.

Hoexter Family Collection (AR 2068)

Richard Höxter was a senior teacher at "Die Israelitische Taubstummenstalt für Deutschland" in Berlin, then director of the School for the Deaf in Jerusalem from 1932 to his death in 1941. Collection includs newspaper excerpts (1916-1956) regarding the work of Richard Höxter, essays on "Die Israelitische Taubstummenstalt für Deutschland", letter by Hedwig Höxter (1963).

Grace Polk Family Collection addenda (AR 25489)

Harry Polk (originally Hans Günther Pollak) was born on May 3, 1894 in Vienna, Austria.In 1936, he married Elizabeth Sofer. Elizabeth Sofer was born in Vienna on March 23, 1902 to parents Julius Sofer (1871-1957) and Katharina Skalla Sofer (1864-1944). She worked for her father at the Waldes Koh-i-noor Company in Vienna. Elizabeth was a dancer and a member of several modern dance companies. Like her husband, she first worked for the Waldes branch in New York. In 1957, she began to work as a dance therapist at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City, and in 1958 co-founded the National Dance Teacher's Guild. 

Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry Records (I-530)

The recording: Talking Hands, Shekhet, community for the deaf and hard of hearing, Minsk, Belarus is digitized and available online. 

American ORT Federation (RG 380)

Established in 1922 by Leon Bramson and Aron Syngalowski as the national organization of the ORT in the U.S. ORT, which was established in Russia in 1880, is an international Jewish organization for vocational training. In the U.S., ORT stands for Organization for Rehabilitation through Training. The American Ort Federation established a number of vocational schools in the U.S.