Among the Gypsies

My father raised me to despise all things German. Never should I forget that it was Germany that had rejected him, ripped away his job and forced him out of his homeland. Never should I forget that Germany was responsible for killing the Jews, our relatives, our people. After my father came to America from Germany in 1939, he spoke German to his parents, but to no one else. Sometimes he would teach my brother, sisters and me a German phrase or two—like bitte shön to say “please”—but on the whole, he didn’t encourage us to learn German. It was an ugly language, the language of the Nazis, I thought. It left a bitter taste in my mouth when I tried to speak it. My father never bought anything “Made in Germany” and if anyone even mentioned buying a Volkswagen—the very car inspired by the Nazis—he delivered a scathing denunciation.

Born 10 years after my father’s arrival in America, I didn’t always understand the weight of my father’s experiences. When my school friends talked about being part Irish, Italian or French, I wondered if I was part German. But when I came home and asked, my father frowned, his eyebrows lowering ominously. “No! You are all, one hundred percent, American. You are Jewish and you are American. You are not German.” First for my father, and then for myself as well, the name of Germany was synonymous with pain. I never would have been drawn to Germany and my own German roots at all—had it not been for the Gypsies.

I can’t remember when I first became interested in Gypsies—it seems as if I was always drawn to them—but it was not until I discarded my romanticized notions and recognized their connected history with Jews that I found a purpose to being among them. My own grandfather, a music critic and poet in Mannheim, once published a poem—in German of course—entitled “The Gypsy,” about a Gypsy violinist and the pain expressed by his music.

Now I, too, began to learn about the Gypsies’ pain. Shocked by the victimization of Gypsies in the Nazi era and the resurgence of violence against them in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism, in 1991 I helped found an international coalition organization of Gypsies and Jews called the Romani-Jewish Alliance and worked to inform the public about the Gypsies’ current plight. But still I felt pulled toward the past, hungry to learn more about what has been called “the forgotten Holocaust” of the Gypsies.

I had learned about the Jewish Holocaust through my father’s stories and by reading memoirs of Jewish survivors, stories that touched me more deeply than any history book; now I wanted to understand the Gypsy experience on such a personal level as well. But there were very few similar personal accounts of the Gypsies’ experiences. Not until recently were the testimonies of Gypsies deemed worth retrieving, and not until recently did Gypsy survivors begin to tell those stories. Besides their fear and superstitions of speaking about personal humiliation and pain, they found no practical or emotional value in the telling. Some survivors had to tell their wrenching stories many times in applications for reparations, to little or no avail. Now they were aging, dying off, and their stories were dying with them.

Though I was determined to help in the effort to record oral testimonies, I didn’t know how to locate Gypsy survivors. Few of them lived in the United States, and fewer still were willing to reveal their identity for fear of prejudice, much less talk to a non-Gypsy about their painful experiences. Then, in 1991, I met Reili, a German-born Gypsy woman who lived in the United States. As a child, she had fled with her family to Italy, Romania and Yugoslavia, where her family was finally arrested and interned in a concentration camp. Reili wore a gold Magen David on a chain around her neck—”to remember my Jewish friends,” she said. She told me long, fascinating stories about her relatives in Germany and their varied experiences of persecution under the Nazis. They would talk to me, Reili said, if we could go to Germany together. They would trust me, she explained—because I was her friend, and because I was a Jew.

In Munich, the city where my father’s grandparents, aunts and uncles once lived, I listen to my new friends as they tell me their stories in German, the language I learned to hate. Reili translates into English, but I listen to the sounds of the German too, and watch the expressions on their faces as they talk. Bit by bit, I begin to overcome my bias against the language. Most of the Gypsies I talk to in Germany lost scores of relatives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where approximately 4,000 Gypsies were murdered in a single night in August 1944. But this isn’t true of Rosa, Reili’s 72-year old aunt. Though she’s a survivor of Auschwitz and other camps, she lost most of her relatives years earlier, in 1941.

Rosa is Austrian-born and belongs to the Sinti, a subclass of the ethnic Gypsy population who settled in Northern Europe in early 1400s. Like the German Sinti I meet, her family contradicts the stereotype of the traveling Gypsies: They had been settled in Vienna for generations, lived in houses rather than Gypsy wagons, and invited their non-Gypsy neighbors to their home for coffee. Rosa shows me a family photograph album from the late 1930s: The people are dressed elegantly, and apart from the men with violins, their appearance flies in the face of Gypsy caricatures. Rosa’s sister, a handsome woman with long blond braids, might have been a model “Aryan” with her classic Germanic looks. She holds two smiling young children, Rosa’s nephews. I linger at the picture. Looking at Rosa, with her thick dark hair, brown eyes, and walnut-colored skin, I wouldn’t have imagined that the woman in the photograph was her sister. The mother and the children look so happy—and so Germanic. The children are even wearing lederhosen.

Rosa brings me back to reality. “Dead. All of them. In Litzmannstadt.”

In 1940, Rosa’s family was sent to Lackenbach (a Zigeunerlager, or forced labor camp for Gypsies) and then deported to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland—which the Germans renamed Litzmannstadt—in November of 1941. Rosa, then 17, escaped from the train bound for Lodz by crawling through an air hole.

“I run away. I crawl up and I go. My people goes with the Jewish people to Litzmannstadt—Lodz you say today. Lodz.” While the Jewish ghetto in Lodz existed for four years, the Gypsy section existed for only two months, in 1941. Of the 230,000 original Lodz Jews plus the 25,000 people transported in, only 877 lived to tell about Lodz. No Gypsies survived. Those who hadn’t died of typhus were taken to the extermination camp of Chelmno and forced into trucks that served as mobile gas chambers. Rosa drives this point home to me as she shows me her photo album. “Kill all of them, the Jewish people and the Sinti, all of them. All of them!” At each photograph, her finger pauses beside a face, and she tells me a name. Each name is followed by the litany: “Tot. Dead. Litzmannstadt.”

After her escape from the train bound for Lodz, Rosa went to Munich. There, she knew, was a group of Sinti families whom she could depend on to help her. She was taken in by a Sinti family, and eventually married the young man of the family, who had served in the Germany military. (Gypsies were drafted into the military and were not discharged until 1942. Though some who served were not deported, others were sent to concentration camps still in their military uniforms.)

In December 1942, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler had ordered the deportation of all German Gypsies to Auschwitz. By March 1943 most of the Gypsies in Munich had been arrested and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a special camp had been set up for them, composed of 30 damp and filthy barracks in sight of the gas chambers and crematoria. But Rosa, still in hiding, evaded this deportation for about a year—until she gave birth to a son and went to a doctor six weeks later with post-partum complications. The doctor treated her, but reported her as soon as she left the office; she was arrested on the street outside the doctor’s office. Though her baby remained safe with her husband’s family, Rosa was taken to the police station—and then sent on a transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But how had all this come about? Long before Himmler had given the Auschwitz order, Gypsies had been arrested, sterilized, sent to special concentration camps. And long before Nazis came to power, ever since the Gypsies had arrived from India in the middle of the 13th Century, the Gypsies—along with the Jews—were Europe’s scapegoats, discriminated against and persecuted by both church and state. Though Gypsy culture has little in common with Jewish culture, the two groups were bound by their difference from the majority in Europe, and both suffered the effects of xenophobia: marginalization, persecution, and suffering. The Middle Ages brought ludicrous blood libel accusations of child stealing, well-poisoning and cannibalism; in the 1600s, laws in Germany, Finland and England decreed it a hanging offense even to be born a Gypsy. Some places even instituted “Gypsy hunts,” declaring “open seasons” when Gypsies could be tracked down and hunted for sport. By the 19th Century, the Romantic interest in the Gypsy as “noble savage” had brought about a diminution of the outright persecution, but Gypsies were never accorded equal status as citizens.

The Nazis, then, didn’t have to create new legislation against the so-called “Gypsy menace”—it already existed. In Germany, Gypsies were photographed and fingerprinted like criminals from 1922. But with Hitler, a new rationalization was given for persecution: the allegedly inferior racial character of Gypsies. To prove the Gypsies’ inferiority, the Racial Hygiene Demographic Biology Research Unit was created to register all of Germany’s 30,000 Gypsies and collect genealogical and racial data on them—in order to prove the links between racial characteristics and criminality. Robert Ritter, a psychologist and psychiatrist, headed the project; his colleagues included anthropologists and zoologists. By 1942, Ritter had completed his files and recommended that over 90% of Gypsies be sent to labor camps.

Eva Justin, Ritter’s assistant, was an even more treacherous “racial scientist.” She had visited Gypsy settlements posing as a missionary, and the Gypsies—never imagining that she worked for the Nazis—had nicknamed her “Loli Tschai,” red-haired girl. Eva Justin concluded her research on Gypsies by claiming they could not be integrated. They had a primitive way of thinking, she said, and she recommended that “all educated Gypsies and part-Gypsies of predominantly Gypsy blood, whether socially assimilated or asocial and criminal, should as a general rule be sterilized.”

This depraved marriage of Nazi ideology with science and academics led directly to the August night in 1944 known as Zigeunernacht, the Gypsy night. Rosa, like several other of the Gypsy survivors I spoke with, was transferred out of Auschwitz in June or July, shortly before the liquidation of the Gypsy camp. Being young and healthy, she was spared execution and sent to the women’s camp of Ravensbrück, and from there to another labor camp in Germany. But as she left Auschwitz-Birkenau, she says, she looked at the people who remained behind. They knew they would die, Rosa says, and so they cried out to her: “When you see my husband, tell him. When you see my son or daughter, tell them.”

Rosa pauses, her eyes watery, and reaches for another cigarette. “I cannot explain how that was.”

“I no like the Germans,” Rosa says, frowning severely. She is cooking, a warm potato salad like my father makes, only with the addition of some greens that she calls “field salad.’ “It’s the Sinti cooking,” she says proudly. Her sleeves are rolled up and I can see the faded blue Auschwitz tattoo on her right forearm. The pale numbers are preceded by the letter “Z” for Zigeuner, the German word for Gypsy that derives from the Greek root meaning “untouchable.” Rosa hates the word Zigeuner, which the Nazis seared into her skin to show that they considered her, and all her people, subhuman. She tells me a story about an 80-year old German man who lives in her apartment complex. One rainy day, Rosa’s daughter had left a baby stroller in the entryway and the man slapped her. Rosa’s daughter slapped him back. Shortly after this incident, Rosa ran into the old man by the mailboxes by the entryway. He eyed the envelope with her pension check. “Why can’t I get a pension check when you Zigeuner get a pension?” he asked provocatively.

“Why can’t you get a pension? I’ll tell you why,” Rosa snapped back. “It’s because you are a Nazi swine. You ever call me a Zigeuner again and I will call you a Nazi swine again!”

In her 70s, frail and ailing, Rosa is energized by the force of her anger. Her eyes flash defiantly. “I no like the German people!” she says again, raising her voice emphatically. “Why they kill the Sinti? If a person steals, does something wrong, you put him in jail. But you no take the grandparents, the little babies, kill them all.”

On a day when there are no interviews, I walk around Munich—and despite my ingrained attitudes, I find it a charming city with its cobbled streets and steepled churches, lovely parks, beer and wine gardens, toy museum and marionette theater. At the Viktualienmarkt, the food market, I admire the stands full of fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, cheeses, sausages and olives. I stop at a juice stand to order a glass of red currant juice, Johanisbeersaft. Drinking it, the deliciously tart flavors awaken the taste buds of my childhood and I remember how my parents grew current and gooseberry bushes in the backyard of our home on Chicago’s South Side. We helped pick and wash and clean the berries so my mother could make gooseberry pie and currant jelly, to recharge my father’s culinary memories—the tastes he longed for from his youth in Germany.

For in truth, my father had retained one strong affection for Germany: his love for German food. Crusty breads, kuchens and strudels, rich pies and cookies, sausages and potatoes—he loved them all. Sometimes, in the little kitchen of our red brick house, he would cook Schmarn, an eggy scrambled pancake, or make a warm potato salad in vinaigrette. Other times he took the family to a German-style beer garden, where we sat outside beneath ivy-laced stone walls and devoured liverwurst sandwiches on crusty rye bread, washed down with mugs of root beer.

This passion for food seemed to run in the family. My father liked to tell the story about his uncle who would bribe the conductor of the express train to Frankfurt to make an unscheduled stop in his hometown—just so he could get off and have a piece of his mother’s currant pie. My Oma baked fresh cherry pies for us in her apartment kitchen, using her special German Mürbteig pie crust, a rich, tender crust made with flour, butter, sugar, egg and a touch of brandy.

But when I was a child, washing down my Oma’s delicious cherry pie with swallows of brash American Coca-Cola, I never realized how fortunate I was even to know my grandparents, never contemplated their wrenching departure from Germany in 1939—just before all the Jews in Mannheim, including my grandmother’s sister whose name I bear—were deported to concentration camps in France. Yet along with the pies and the kuchens, I had absorbed the awful contradiction of my German heritage: the loss of the country where my ancestors had once belonged, the terrible betrayal.

The Gypsies I meet in Germany, still living in the nation that persecuted and murdered their people, have an even more vivid sense of betrayal. Only 5,000 German Gypsies survived the prewar population of 30,000, and most of them continue to live in Germany. When I ask Rosa if she has ever thought of leaving Germany, she just shrugs.

“I hate it, I don’t like it,” she replies. “Where can I go? I’m old too. I no have nobody.” The Gypsies had no Palestine to go to, no relatives in America to support them and help them rebuild their lives. So the survivors returned to live in the country that betrayed them. They speak German and are full German citizens—some have family lines in Germany that go back 500 years—yet they abhor the very idea of Germany. The word “Germans” to them refers only to citizens of Germany who are neither Gypsy nor Jewish; they call themselves “Sinti,” always. They never—never—refer to themselves as Germans.

I want to ask Rosa more questions, to somehow understand how it came to be that our dissimilar peoples were forged by the terrible bond of the crematorium. “If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past,” says art critic and social historian John Berger. But the Birkenau mud seeps into the present for Rosa, and for me. The present and the past are hopelessly entangled.

So instead of asking more questions, I sit beside her on the sofa, our shoulders touching, and we sip sweet creamy coffee from thin china cups. I offer her slices of Zwetchgenkuchen, an exquisite plum torte made only in the fall, that I’ve bought at the Konditerei near her apartment. The cake is one of her favorites, she says, speaking in the fragmentary English that she learned from selling supplies to American soldiers after the war. My great-great-grandmother had published cookbooks in German verse more than a century ago; I draw on my minuscule vocabulary of German to tell her how I learned the recipe for the plum torte from my father and my grandmother, and make it every fall. In turn, she tells me about her recipe for apple strudel.

And as we sit and talk about our recipes and our coinciding histories, I start to see that my bittersweet connection to Rosa is a powerful link for me to the contradictions of the past and the present in Germany.

Toby Sonneman is the author of Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West. A new manuscript, In the Rain One Sees No Tears, is based on the stories of Gypsy Holocaust survivors.

Though no pre-war census of the Romani people exists, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 were killed by the Nazis. Romanis call that period “Porrajmof,” the Devouring. Romani losses, however, are rarely recognized—in large part because survivors have been reluctant to speak about their experiences outside their own communities. Among the more than 50,000 testimonies gathered by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation since its founding by Steven Spielberg in 1994, have been 255 Sinti and Roma survivors of the Holocaust. One hundred, thirty-five of these survivors are women. Among the testimonies, more than 200 said they were hidden during some period during the war. Some fought with partisans or resistance groups; some were in ghettos; many reported internment in forced labor camps. More than 50 said they were interned in one or more concentration camps, including more than 20 at Auschwitz. The Shoah Foundation has yet to catalogue these testimonies in detail.

To contact the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation about testimonies or educational material, call (818) 777-7802 or write to P.O. Box 3168, Los Angeles, CA 90078.