Romanies: Hitler's other victims
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The issue of reparations arises from West Germany's unique program of making payments to the victims of Nazi persecution as a gesture of contrition. In the case of Jews this program is well established. But in the case of Sinti, up to 90 percent of those who should receive compensation do not, according to Sinti spokesmen. Vinzenz Rose's humiliating experience in a reparations office in 1979 is repeated many times over every year -- and the documents cited to withhold payments are often as scurrilous as the allegation that the Rose family had been thieves.Skip to next paragraph
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(This issue does not arise in East Germany, of course, since East Berlin has never offered reparations to any Nazi victims. Nor does the general question of Sinti treatment arise, since East Germany -- unique among Eastern European countries -- provides no information about its Romany population.)
The reason for the West German discrimination in compensation -- and the main object of the Sinti hunger strike -- is the long-lived heritage of the Nazi police central office to combat the "Gypsy Pest" in Munich. This office, which provided the files to round up Gypsies and deport them to concentration and annihilation camps in the Third Reich, was dissolved after the war.
A euphemistically named "Vagrants Center" was set up in Munich, however, that preserved the old Nazi files and distributed them indiscriminately to local police in West Germany to promote surveillance of the country's 50,000 Sinti. And under a 1953 Bavarian law "nomadic tribes" had to carry identification documents for their members that included fingerprints -- and they were allowed to move only with permission of the Vagrants' Center.
In 1970, the Vagrants' Center was formally dissolved, and officials of the Bavarian Interior Ministry in Munich say the old files were destroyed over the next four years. Yet they still keep surfacing in cases where reparations are denied Sinti applicants because of alleged criminality.
Thus, one Sinto woman was refused reparations because her own "serious arrest" and prison term in austria (in Nazi times) were held to disqualify her for compensation. Yet the "serious arrest" and prison term -- in a Nazi concentration camp -- were precisely what she was seeking compensation for.
Similarly, records of Sinti's insulting or accusing the Gestapo have been interpreted as proof of their criminality when they have applied for reparations. and Wirbel and his friends still have not won the full acknowledgment they sought from the Bavarian Interior Ministry -- that the Vagrants' Center practiced racial discrimination and violated the rights of the Sinti in its entire postwar operation.
West Germany is far from the only European country where Romanies encounter difficulties. Throughout Western and Eastern Europe prejudice against and persecution of the 5 million Romanies have long been a fact of life, various Council of Europe and other studies repeatedly conclude. Yet little has been done to correct the situation.
In Eastern Europe, apart from Yugoslavia, forced denomadization and assimilation is the rule. And in Western Europe those Romany who are nomads frequently meet with police harassment when they stop for the night. (In West Germany, moreover, they are explicitly forbidden access to public trailer parks.) Only the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Britain, have begun providing caravan sites for Romanies.
Romanies also find it hard to get jobs, because of their lack of training and the widespread belief that they are thieves. Sweden seems to be the only country to have begun a modest training and placement program for them.
Illiteracy is high, and no European country has come up with an education program that effectively reaches Romany children and gives them decent choices in the adult world. Only a few West German cities like Cologne and Freiburg are beginning even to provide Sinti nurseries and youth clubs.
Franz Wirbel's consciousness-raising, it seems, still has a long way to go.