Siegfried Braun and the First Austrian Cripple Working Group
By Volker Schönwiese and Angela Wegscheider
As an organiser of self-help groups and a political activist, Siegfried Braun (1893-1944) co-founded the Erste Österreichische Krüppelarbeitsgemeinschaft (First Austrian Cripple Working Group), a disabled people’s organisation oriented towards emancipation and social rights. In 1943, the Nazis deported Braun, identified as an Austrian-Czech Jew, to the Theresienstadt ghetto. He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
The contemporary disability rights campaigns are influenced by and embedded in historical processes and narratives. Siegfried Braun was a key agent of an early disability advocacy movement. Sharing his story can be considered as a “usable past” in understanding the present and building a different future (Longmore 2003). By using archive material, among other media-coverage of Braun and his group in the 1920s and 1930s as well as his diary entries found at Terezín Memorial archive, we managed to reconstruct the diverse, inspiring and long forgotten story of Siegfried (in Czech: Vítězslav) Braun.
When he was 20 years old, Braun moved from Moravia to Vienna, expecting help from the then modern social-medical institutions of the Monarchy’s capital as a wheelchair-user. However, he was quickly disappointed in Vienna; instead of receiving the support for an independent life he had hoped for, he was referred to the nursing home for elderly and sick people.
The Demand for Political Emancipatory Self-Help
Around 1915, Braun began to work on establishing an information and advice centre for physically disabled persons in Vienna. At first this was unsuccessful, however, he managed in recruiting a number of like-minded people with disabilities. In talks at culture and social associations in Vienna, he promoted his idea of founding a disabled people organisation and self-help, remembering retrospectively:
"The cripples of Austria should organise themselves and advocate their right to live and work. We cripples don’t want any homes for the sick and poor relief but, where and whenever possible, we want to be seen as human beings and be connected to other humans through work." (Der Krüppel, September-October, 1934, 38)
Braun worked hard to advance an organisation of physically disabled people whose impairments had been caused neither by military service nor by work-related accidents or illnesses and who therefore received no disability pension. Braun and his allies were inspired by the newly developing so-called öffentliche Krüppelfürsorge (public cripple welfare) and self-help initiatives in other countries. In the early 1920s, he founded the Austrian Selbsthilfebund der Körperbehinderten. Soon, however, Braun was dissatisfied with the aims of this organisation. The central dispute was whether the fight should be primarily for benefit claims or whether comprehensive empowerment should be developed in the context of a broader self-help approach.
In 1926, Siegfried Braun and a number of like-minded men and women with disabilities left this association in disappointment; this self-help alliance subsequently fell apart, and instead the Erste Österreichische Krüppelarbeitsgemeinschaft (First Austrian Cripple Working Group) was founded. Beyond a care approach, the First Austrian Cripple Working Group drew attention to emancipation and social rights, such as the right to work. Braun was the first chairman.
In the years to follow, he and his allies organised information events, conferences, and discussion groups in order to expand the circle of allies, and to make politicians and the general public aware of the problems and political demands of people with disabilities. The association’s monthly magazine Der Krüppel (The Cripple) informed about the association activities and disability policy always following a political, educational and emancipatory mission.
Fight for Employment and Rights
From the beginning, the association’s aims were empowering people with disabilities, their claims were Arbeit, kein Mitleid (employment not pity) and Arbeit, nicht Siechenhaus (employment not asylum). Braun and his colleagues wanted to move away from being considered objects of charity – a role imposed by the Austrian welfare policy. The organisation did not only demand compliance with contemporary equal and human rights but also actively organised peer counseling, representation, and regular employment in their own businesses. Here, persons with disabilities and chronic diseases were employed as tailors as well as brush and basket makers. Braun always tried to focus on the social and political dimensions of employment and welfare benefits:
“The life of a cripple is not to be organised as mercy or a gift but by law and order as with all other working people.” (Der Krüppel, September-October, 1934, 37)
Already in 1928, he decided to step down as the chairman, but continued to work as a freelancer for the First Austrian Cripple Working Group. Siegfried Braun then travelled extensively, e.g., through Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, and Germany. As he had to travel in his wheelchair and public transport was not accessible, he spent many hours in luggage carts. Braun closely followed and documented the development of self-help organisations and public “cripple welfare” in many countries; he wrote about his research findings in the magazine Der Krüppel. In his articles, he highlighted examples of schooling, vocational training and/or permanent employment for people with disabilities. The magazine published – evidently organised or written by Braun – also texts about the general situation of persons with disabilities in Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and Wales as well as Russia. In 1929, Braun participated in the 1st World Conference of Workers for Crippled Children in Geneva (Switzerland), where international disability professionals and activists discussed the problems and experiences of children with disabilities, focussing on healthcare, caregiving and education.
Braun received a poor relief benefit from his home municipality situated in Moravia; this support was
“too little to live, and too much to die”.
In the economically and politically difficult times in the 1930s, the financial situation of Siegfried Braun drastically worsened. He very often moved in and between Austria and Czechoslovakia, his life became unstable. Although Braun was no longer directly involved in the work of the Cripple Working Group, he maintained an active and reflexive role in the organisation and took part in the general assembly in 1936. After the “annexation” of Austria to Hitler’s Third Reich, Braun was declared a Jew by the now National Socialist government, although his Jewish identity did not seem to have played a role in his life up until that point.
Self-help and Resistance in the Theresienstadt Ghetto
Siegfried Braun was living in a home for the elderly and sick in the city Ostrava in Moravia close to his native city, when he and the residents of this home were deported to Theresienstadt on June 30, 1943. The Nazis turned the Habsburg fortification Theresienstadt into a concentration and ghetto camp in preparation for the “Final Solution”; the ghetto was led by the Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary forces, cooperating by force with the Council of Elders who represented a pseudo Jewish self-administration. In Theresienstadt the death rates because of hunger, neglect, violence or desperation were high. Only very few persons (16,800 or 12%), deported to Theresienstadt between 1941 and 1945, survived. 88,000 out of the 141,000 prisoners were transported further, mostly to concentration and extermination camps in the east, many directly to the gas chambers; only about 3,500 ever returned.
Throughout his life, Siegfried Braun was committed to those around him, had many interests and enjoyed taking part in discussions about the prevailing conditions, their causes, and opportunities for change. Even in the inhospitable environment of the ghetto, he promoted help for self-help and enlightenment through education. Siegfried Braun was described as a “person of importance” in the organisation of the illegal education programme of Theresienstadt. Braun was
”an organiser and patron of anti-fascist lectures and also a strict critic of the Elders’ Council for its nepotism and inability to stand up to Nazi pressures”. (Makarova, Makarov, and Kuperman 2000, 125)
Braun wrote in a spiteful but still confident way in his diary in Theresienstadt ghetto:
I am fortunate that despite the obstacles of J.[ewish] self-administration, i.e., the bureaucracy of my (one hundred percent) total disability, I was able to (individually), personally and illegally fight my way through the force of my will, otherwise I would have perished long ago. (Diary entries from Siegfried Braun, May, 22, 1944)
On October 23, 1944, Siegfried Braun was among the 1,715 persons deported with the penultimate autumn transport of Theresienstadt (Transport Et Nr. 763). After arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the prisoners, like the others before them, were divided at the ramp into “Arbeitsfähige” (fit for work) and “Arbeitsunfähige“ (unfit for work) according to National Socialist standards. Most of them, including Siegfried Braun if he even survived the transport, were selected upon arrival at the ramp and murdered in the gas chambers.
In many ways, Braun and the First Austrian Cripple Working group can be described as a pioneer of the international disability rights movement starting in the 1960s and 1970s. Braun and his fellows fought for rights, social progress and addressed topics and political demands which still play a key role in the international disability rights and Independent Living Movement today. The investigation of the history of the disability movement and its advocates in Austria as well as the historiography of the early disability rights movements in the 20th century, and of persons with disabilities in the Holocaust is still in its early stages.
Volker Schönwiese is a retired professor for disability studies and inclusive educational sciences at the University of Innsbruck. He was heading the interdisciplinary and participatory project "The Painting of a Disabled Man" from the 16th century (http://bidok.uibk.ac.at/projekte/bildnis/index.html.en) and co-founded the Austrian working group DiStA "Disability Studies Austria" (https://dista.uniability.org/).
Angela Wegscheider is a senior scientist for social policy at the Johannes Kepler University Linz. Her research interests include social history from a disability studies perspective. She is active in the Austrian working group DiStA "Disability Studies Austria".
Longmore, Paul. 2003. Why I Burned my Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
The Story behind 520 Lecturers and 2,430 Lectures in KZ Theresienstadt 1942-1944. Jerusalem: Verba Publishers.