Discussion Papers Series
Remembering the Dead, Documenting Resistance,
Honouring the Heroes
by Ethel Brooks, a sociologist and associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey
In October 2012, in Berlin, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime was dedicated, directly across from the Reichstag in the Tiergarten. That Memorial came thirty years after Germany officially recognized the racially based motives for annihilation of the Sinti and Roma. Its inauguration occurred nearly 40 years after the first activists began calling attention to the losses suffered by Sinti and Roma communities, after their persecution had gone unacknowledged in the decades that followed the Second World War. At the inauguration of the Sinti and Roma Memorial, Romani Rose, head of the German Council of Sinti and Roma, a Sinto activist who lost 13 members of his family at Auschwitz-Birkenau, said, “There is not a single family of Sinti and Roma in Germany who has not lost immediate family members. It shapes our identity to this day”. Scholarly estimates of deaths in the Sinti and Roma genocide range from 220,000 to 500,000. However, the unreliability of pre-Holocaust population figures for Sinti and Roma and the paucity of research, especially on their fate outside Germany during the Holocaust, make it difficult to estimate the number and percentage who perished (1).
Roma originated in northwest India –most likely in the Punjab region—and first came in groups to Europe between the 8th and 10th Centuries (CE). Romani subgroups include Roma, Sinti, Kale, Manouche and others. The word “Gypsies” is an exonym, given to Romani groups because they were mistakenly thought to have come from Egypt. In Central and Eastern Europe, the word “Gypsy” takes on a greater pejorative, since in many languages –such as the German zigeuner or the Romanian tsigan—the word comes from the Greek word meaning “untouchable”. While Sinti and Roma have lived throughout Europe for centuries, they have faced persecution, violence and exclusion throughout much of that history (2).
The persecution of Sinti and Roma predated the Nazi era with historiographic evidence of pogroms, harassment and genocide reaching as far back as the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. While under Article 109 of the Weimar Constitution, Sinti and Roma were accorded full and equal citizenship rights in Germany, by 1926, Bavaria required registration of all Sinti and Roma and instituted measures for “Combating Gypsies, Vagabonds and the Work-Shy”. In 1936, a central office for “Combating the Gypsy Nuisance” opened up in Munich, and the Interior Ministry set up directives authorizing police to conduct raids on Gypsies in preparation for the Olympic games that would be held in Berlin. Roma were also subject to the Nuremberg Race Laws (3) of 1935, and many Roma who came under the scrutiny of the state were forcibly sterilized. The first concentration camp for Sinti and Roma (called zigeunerlager, or “Gypsy Camp”, by the Nazis) was established on 6 July 1936 at Marzahn, on the outskirts of Berlin. Located between a sewage dump and a cemetery, the camp imprisoned Sinti and Roma who had been rounded up during the preparations for the 1936 Olympic Games. Directly after, local municipalities established concentration camps for Sinti and Roma throughout Germany and beyond, set up by the Nazis and their collaborators who were located throughout Europe (4).
Among the body of evidence that supports the murderous intention of the Nazis and their collaborators are photos that document Sinti and Romani experiences of life before the Holocaust such as the identity cards with anthropometric measurements and racial categorizations and the roundups and internments that began in Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. The photos portray individuals, families and communities, whose fate we know nothing about, and whose stories remain untold in history books and undocumented in national archives.
While concentration camps are the best documented sites of wartime atrocity by the Nazis and their collaborators - where prisoners were tortured, worked to death, gassed or murdered by other means - they are just one facet of the genocidal project of the Holocaust in Europe in these camps. The Sinti and Roma were often forced to wear a black triangular patch, or a badge with the letter “z” for ziguener (“gypsy”) assigned to them on racial grounds. Approximately 20,000 concentration camps were set up across Europe - some for transport, others for forced labour, and still others for mass murder. Along with the concentration camps that imprisoned millions, ghettos were set up in major cities, set apart by brick walls, barbed wire and armed guards, housing Jews, Sinti and Roma, and others. In Poland, the Czech Republic and beyond, German troops (Wehrmacht) and police murdered countless Sinti and Roma, and then buried them in mass graves in the countryside (5).
Along with the pogroms that took place throughout Europe, mobile death squads (einsatzgruppen)were deployed across the countryside as the Nazis pushed eastward into the Soviet Union. The number of Sinti and Roma who perished in the camps is only part of the story - the excavation of unmarked mass graves and the identification of those buried in them is an ongoing process taking place in Eastern Europe today. There is much work to be done to document Romani experiences of the Holocaust, and still much more to determine an accurate estimate of the numbers who were murdered, both inside the camps and by mobile killing squads, pogroms and other forms of violence. In the seventy years since the end of the Second World War, there is still no accurate count of the number of Sinti and Romani lives lost during the Holocaust, especially in the East, where the Romani population was greater and, we can assume, the number of those murdered rose accordingly.
I believe that it is crucial for us to hold memorial ceremonies and set aside spaces and monuments dedicated to those who were murdered, to those who lost family, loved ones and community, to those who returned from the camps or hiding only to find their culture decimated and to those who survived genocide. The theme of the 2013 International Day of Commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care” (6), encourages us not only to remember the dead and commemorate the survivors, but also to celebrate the heroes of the Holocaust - those who reached out beyond their families and communities, and who, in saving the lives of others, ran the risk of losing their own lives.
I am often asked about Sinti and Roma resistance to the terror and destruction carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators. One of the most significant - but understudied - acts of resistance carried out by Sinti and Roma prisoners occurred between 15-16 May 1944 in the zigeunerlager of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sinti and Roma prisoners were deported to Auschwitz in family groups, and at least 23,000 were murdered in the gas chambers there. Throughout the network of death camps and mobile gassing units, Jews and Gypsies were the two groups systematically targeted for murder.7 By the end of 1943, the Nazis had imprisoned 18,736 Sinti and Roma in the Birkenau Gypsy Camp; by May 1944, only 6,000 remained. The others had been gassed or deported to other camps for forced labour (8). On 15 May 1944, the prisoners in the zigeunerlager discovered that the Nazis planned to gas all 6,000 of those who remained; when the SS (9) guards, armed with machine guns, surrounded the camp for the transport to the gas chambers:
…[T]hey met armed resistance. After stealing scraps of sheet metal, the prisoners had sharpened the metal into crudely fashioned knives. With those improvised weapons, and with iron pipes, clubs, and stones, the Gypsies defended themselves. Guards shot some resisters (10).
Unnamed heroes carried out this armed resistance to the SS guards, over the course of those two days in May. Their brave actions prevented the camp from being liquidated for a few months. However, on 2 August 1944, guards gassed the remaining 2,897 residents – men, women and children - in the middle of the night. Even at that last moment, there was resistance. According to documents located in the Memorial Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “The prisoners attempted to resist, but the SS crushed their opposition brutally” (11). The near-impossible uprisings by the Sinti and Roma at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau are part of a larger story of uprisings and other forms of resistance in which Sinti and Roma played a part. We have no documentation on Romani participation in ghetto uprisings, but Sinti and Roma were active in resistance activities, camp uprisings and in work to save individual lives from murder by the Nazis and their collaborators.
As an American Romani woman and a scholar, I sometimes find it a strange and new experience to research and write about Holocaust testimonies of Romani survivors. I grew up in a Romani community where people did not talk about the losses our people suffered in Europe during the Holocaust. My community has been in the United States since the 1880s and did not know the extent or the details of what our brothers and sisters were suffering in Europe at that time, but we all lived under the cloud of that unspoken genocide afterwards. My father and uncles (12) fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. Before they died, I never thought to ask them whether they were part of any camp liberations, or what they had witnessed during that period of their lives, or what work they had carried out during their time as soldiers. They, too, were part of the resistance against the Nazis. Yet this, also, was left unspoken.
As community members, scholars and policymakers, it is important for us to record, analyze and publish historical facts pertaining to the persecution and genocide of the Sinti and Roma, much of which remains untold and undocumented. We also need to tell these stories of resistance and struggle, of heroes and heroines, and of how the common compassion that people have for one another can help to fight the worst forms of oppression. A focus on rescue, and on “The Courage to Care”, can teach all of us to look for and emulate the courage of those who stood up against dehumanization and genocide. This theme points us to lessons that we can learn from those whose kindness and humanity remained strong, even as fascism and barbarity swept through Europe.
Take, for example, the story of Dutch Romani survivor Zoni Weisz. At the age of seven, Zoni Weisz was saved, along with his aunt, by the kindness of a guard who kept them on the station platform while Weisz’s parents, brothers and sisters were forced to board the train that would transport them to concentration camps, and eventually to their deaths. At the ceremony inaugurating the Berlin memorial, Weisz recalled the last glimpse of his family before the train took them away, the vivid blue colour and the feel of the soft wool of his sister’s coat as he held onto it when his family was boarding the train. That was his last memory of his family, haunting him even as he remembered the quiet heroic actions of the platform guard.
As Belgian photographer Jan Yoors recounts in his autobiography, Sinti and Roma across Europe took part in partisan and resistance activities. Yoors lived in France with a Lovaro Romani family during the Second World War, and his autobiography is a record of day-to-day life during that time and the work that those Sinti and Roma who were not deported carried out with the partisans. Yoors documents the ways in which Sinti and Roma were able to help the Resistance:
Roma… used their wagons to transport refugees and smuggle small arms and explosives. The frequent movement of those Gypsies also allowed them to accrue ration cards under different names in a variety of places. Those ration cards were important in supplying food to resistance fighters. When German authorities began tighter scrutiny of rations, the Yoors group joined French partisans in raiding ration distribution posts. They also brought the partisans news heard on BBC radio broadcasts (13).
Another way of resisting the Nazis was through efforts to save the lives of children by hiding them. Alfreda Markowska, a Polish Romani woman, was born in 1926 in a caravan in Stanisławow, Poland (14). As the President of Poland recounted in 2006:
In 1941, her family was murdered and she was taken captive... After her escape from prison, she and her husband resided first in the Lublin ghetto, and later in Łódź and Bełżec. She escaped from each of these places, saving Jewish and Romani children. Upon receiving the news of yet another pogrom, she would visit execution sites in search for surviving children. She then transported the survivors to her “base” and procured false papers for them. Some of them she gave back to their … guardians, others she placed in the care of [Romani] families or brought up herself (15).
Mrs. Markowska saved nearly 50 Jewish and Romani children over the course of the war. On 17 October 2006, the President of the Republic of Poland awarded Alfreda Markowska a Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta for heroism and exceptional courage, and for outstanding merit in saving human life (16). Her life has been marked by her courage to care and by her resistance under seemingly insurmountable odds. Alfreda Markowska is one of our true heroes - she showed true heroism by saving her own life in the face of the murder of her family and then going on to save the lives of others.
When we start to look for examples of rescuers in the footnotes of history, and in the hundreds of oral and video testimonies of Sinti and Roma survivors, there are other stories of compassion and heroic acts. Take for example those Sinti and Roma who were part of the resistance movement such as Amilcare Debar, who worked with the Italian communist resistance group Garibaldi Brigade in reconnaissance activities - scouting and delivering messages, procuring weapons and carrying out ambushes and other military operations. Another example is Iosif Teifel, a Rom from Czechoslovakia, who worked clandestinely in the Mukacevo ghetto. Through his work with the partisans, he was able to hide people, provide food aid and carry out resistance activities inside and outside the ghetto during the war (17).
As I ponder how much my people had to go through to survive mass extermination, it gives me great pleasure simply to repeat the names of these true heroes: Zoni Weisz. Amilcare Debar. Iosif Tiefel. Alfreda Markowska.
These are just a few of the lives that have been marked by the enormity of the Holocaust. They are just a few of the Romani survivors whose stories make us aware of the power and meaning of ordinary kindness and compassion that spared lives during the Holocaust. I fully concur with what the architect of the Berlin Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime, Dani Karavan, said in Hebrew at its inauguration:
I feel like my family was killed and burned with the Sinti and Roma in the same gas chambers and their ashes went with the wind to the fields. So we are together. It is our destiny. Our destiny is documented in the work of remembering the dead, in listening to the survivors and in giving credit to the heroes.
Although scholarly estimates of the death toll of the Sinti and the Roma murdered during the Holocaust range between 220,000 and 500,000, I believe that this number would be much higher if the casualties that lie beneath the mass graves could be taken into consideration. I welcome the opportunity to speak up and recall the names of some of our Sinti and Roma survivors, of some of our heroes, and to mark our place in the resistance against the Nazis. It is a time for the world to listen to our history, as part of the history of the Holocaust and as part of the history of Europe.
Much work still needs to be done by us Sinti and Roma historians, leaders and activists to fully document our loss, and honour the victims and survivors of this genocide in official commemorations and everyday acts of remembrance. We need to recognize our victims and that which we lost, but also the heroism that saved lives and preserved even a small part of our culture. This recognition includes continuously fighting against discrimination, persecution and racial and ethnic violence, which the Sinti and Roma still face in many places in Europe.
Memorial ceremonies, events of remembrance and scholarly articles are fitting places to raise such concerns: We need all to be vigilant and stand up against xenophobia, hate crimes and discrimination. Just as ordinary kindness and compassion could help to spare lives during the Holocaust, there remains a need for solidarity, compassion and heroism in our uneasy times, in which some politicians and extremist groups in Europe are renewing calls for our destruction.
Even as we remember the dead, we honour the living - the survivors and heroes among us - and we renew our commitment to documenting, listening to and claiming our history as part of the larger history of the Holocaust, and as part of the history of Europe and of the world. In so doing, we also renew our commitment to the legacy of those who rose up in the face of imprisonment, gas chambers and death squads; to the legacy of individuals such as Amilcare Debar, Iosif Tiefel, and Alfreda Markowska; to the legacy of countless unnamed heroes who rose to the occasion and risked their lives in the face of xenophobia, intolerance, extremist violence and mass murder. May we all have, as they did, the courage to care.
(1) For more information on Roma and Sinti in Europe, see USHMM, Roma (Gypsies) in Prewar Europe. [2 August 2013]. See also “Sinti and Roma”, [2 August 2013].
(2) For an historical account of anti-Gypsy laws, persecution and oppression, see Ian Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome: An account of anti-Gypsy slavery and persecution (Ann Arbor , 1987: Karoma Publishers, 1987).
(3) The Nuremberg Race Laws were laws created under Nazi leadership in 1935 which institutionalized many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideology. These laws denied German Jews citizenship and basic human rights. Groups considered to be racially inferior were also prohibited from marriage or sexual relations. See USHMM. The Nuremberg Race Laws.
(4) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Sinti and Roma: Victims of the Nazi Era. [16 July 2013]; hereafter cited as Sinti and Roma.
(5) Gerhard Baumgartner. Concentration Camps. Project Education of Roma Children in Europe, Council of Europe. [June 13, 2013].
(6) For more information on the 2013 Calendar of Events, see the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme website [June 13, 2013].
(7) USHMM. Resistance During the Holocaust 54 pages, [16 July 2013]; hereafter cited as Resistance.
(9) SS is an acronym for Schutzstaffel. The SS or “protective squadrons” became a state within a state in Nazi Germany, staffed by men who perceived themselves as the “racial elite”. See United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia. [16 July 2013].
(11) Teresa Wontor-Cichy, “Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) in Auschwitz”, accessed June 13, 2013.
(12) Members of my family who served in the US military during World War II include my father and uncles from both sides of my family, Romani and non-Romani alike.
(14) I am grateful to Andrzej Mirga for first sharing Alfreda Markowska’s story with me.
(15) Bronisław Komorowski, President of Poland. Outstanding Heroism. [17 January 2013].
(17) The complete testimonies of Amilcare Debar and Iosif Teifel can be found in the Visual History Archive of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California.
- Who are the Roma and Sinti people?
- What happened to the Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust? What was the basis of Nazi discrimination against them?
- How did the Roma and Sinti organize themselves to resist the Nazis?
- Why does Professor Brooks feel it is important to hold memorial ceremonies and set aside spaces and monuments to those that died during the Holocaust?
- What action can young people take to stand up against hate crimes, xenophobia, racism and discrimination?
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.