The Special Needs Educator Who was Murdered by the Nazis

Meet Sally and Rebeka Bein who ran an educational institution for Jewish children with special needs during the Holocaust, and were eventually killed along with the children by the Nazis.

Dorit Gani
Sally Bein (background) with some of the institution's children. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

In the early 20th century, in the heart of a pine forest in eastern Germany, a one of a kind institution was established – an educational facility for Jewish children with special needs. The director of this institution, set up in October 1908 near the town of Beelitz, was a 27-year-old Jewish man by the name of Sally (Samuel) Bein, who until then had worked as a teacher for deaf and mute children.

Sally Bein. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

The facility (known as the Israelitische Erziehungsanstalt Wilhelm-Auguste-Viktoria-Stiftung) accepted children ranging from preschool aged to adolescents, most of them with special needs of various types. Others were sent there because of domestic issues at home and an inability of their parents to take care of them, while later on more children arrived because of limitations on the number of Jews allowed at ordinary schools. Sally Bein sought to receive them all, and integrate the different groups, a view that was quite ahead of its time.

In the beginning Sally and his wife Rebeka were the only teachers at the facility, but as the years went by more staff members joined the team, including three additional teachers and a teaching assistant, a cook, a caretaker and a gardener, all of whom contributed to the children’s education in addition to their regular work. Pupils would spend about two years at the institution, during which they studied academic subjects like Hebrew, German, history, and arithmetic, but a heavy emphasis was also placed on more mundane life skills and practices, including proper codes of social conduct, guidelines on order and cleanliness, as well as various arts and crafts like carpentry, cooking, and gardening.

A carpentry class (Photo taken from an album belonging to Arthur Feiner, a teacher at the institution)

Studies took place in a Jewish atmosphere, with Bible classes, observation of the Sabbath and dietary laws of Kosher, as well as the celebration of Jewish holidays. Day trips and games would take place during free time with the participation of all children, and no separation by gender or age, nor any consideration for cognitive differences among them. Throughout the years nearly 400 children studied at the institution, with most of them able to eventually move on to ordinary high schools or to find work. Bein’s achievements gained him a worldwide reputation, with doctors and educators from across Europe and even pre-state Israel coming to visit and learn his work methods.  

Rebeka Bein (Photographer unknown)

The skies over the school began to darken in 1933, with the coming to power of the Nazi party. Sally Bein was forced to contend with constant attempts by local authorities to disrupt the institution’s activity and shut it down. The main complaint was that the facility and its children were perceived as a stain on the local population – a supposed negative influence on tourists who visited the area. When the Nazis began their extermination programs, the institution’s fate was sealed. Under the Third Reich, Jewish special needs children had no right to exist.

In April of 1942, nearly 30 children and staff members were sent away to the Warsaw Ghetto. Sally could by then sense the direction the wind was blowing, yet decided to stay put, though he and his family held visas that would have allowed them to leave Germany. In the months that followed, the last hopes of survival were dashed. On the 13th of June, 1942, a “shipment to the East” left Berlin. On board the train were 748 Jews from Berlin, in addition to some 280 Jews from the Beelitz area, including all of the facility’s children and staff members, among them Sally Bein, his wife Rebeka and their daughter Lisa Carola. The train took them to the Sobibor death camp, where they were murdered. The institution, which for 34 years had been full of life and the sounds of children at play, was now silent.

The school building used by the institution’s children which now serves as the Sally Bein Gymnasium (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

A short time after the eviction, the facility was taken over by the League of German Girls, a Nazi youth movement. For the past few decades, it has been the sight of a high school, named after Sally Bein. The students take part in a number of commemorative activities in hopes of preserving the site’s history for the sake of future generations.

A memorial plaque at the front of the building (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

We were made aware of this story by Ronny Dotan, who first learned of it thanks to the Holocaust Railway Car Project, and later continued studying the subject along with Tatjana Ruge of Berlin. Their research collected information about hundreds of children and staff members, whose relatives have since been located. If you have further information about the institution or the children who studied there, you are welcome to contact Ronny Dotan: [email protected].


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