Romanies: Hitler's other victims

The world is slowly, very slowly, beginning to acknowledge some of Auschwitz' other victims. Four decades after the notorious camp was closed, a plaque here, a promised cultural center there, a possible investigation of discrimination elsewhere, is all that commemorates the martyrdom of the Gypsies.

But that's one more plaque, cultural center, and acknowledgment of prejudice than the second-largest group of Hitler's victims -- after the Jews -- could claim a few weeks ago. and Franz Wirbel and his fellow Gyspies are grateful for that.

As a boy, Franz Wirbel was expelled from school in 1936 for the crime of being born into the wrong race. In 1938 his family was restricted to the west Prussian town where they lived. In 1941 they were deported to Poland and then interned, first in the Stutthof and then in other concentration camps. His mother was separated from him in auschwitz on Aug. 2, 1944, at 4 p.m. and burned to death at 6. He lost sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, 39 relatives in all, in the Holocaust.

Because of his youth and hardy constitution he managed to survive Nazi "experiments" in freezing, and was freed by the Americans in 1945. He married, but the couple has no children, for his wife had been sterilized in the camps.

Mr. Wirbel can still remember every stone in Auschwitz. And he still bears the number Z9805 tattooed on his arm. Yet he does not receive the usual monetary restitution for camp survivors, because, he explains, officials told him back in the '60s that he hadn't filed his documentation in time. He lives today by repairing musical instruments. And he thinks the real reason he hasn't gotten reparations is that he is a Gypsy.

By last spring, Mr. Wirbel had enough of second-class citizenship and the absence even of public recognition that half a million Romanies -- the nonpejorative name for Europe's gypsies -- perished in the extermination camps. He and 11 other Sinti (german Romanies) went on a hunger strike at the Dachau camp memorial near the Bavarian capital, Munich, to demand full "moral rehabilitation."

Among the other hunger strikers were Romani Rose, who lost 13 relatives in the camps; Jakob Bamberger, who was forced in Dachau to drink nothing except sea water for 18 days in "survival experiments"; Hans Braun, whose mother, father, and nine sisters and brothers died in Auschwitz, while his sons are still assigned schoolbooks saying that Gypsies steal chickens, evade work, and eat snake meat and carrion; and Vinzenz Rose, who was awarded the West German distinguished service cross in 1978, but was told a year later that an official dossier states (completely falsely) that the Rose family had been thieves.

The hunger strike was resisted by Bavarian officials, by Jewish spokesmen, and by most Dachau and Munich clergymen. But one Lutheran prodeacon let the Sinti conduct their fast in the Dachau camp memorial chapel.

The eight days without food turned out to be an act of consciousness-raising both for the strikers and for West Germany as a whole. The Bavarian government was shamed into admitting that there had been postwar injustices against Sinti and that the "necessary dismantling of prejudice and discrimination" has yet to be achieved. The Bavarian Roman Catholic cardinal and Lutheran bishop to counteract prejudice against "Gypsies" in their churches. The West German justice minister telegraphed his personal support for the Sinti Cause.

A joint statement by the Bavarian Interior Ministry state secretary and representatives of the three parties in the Bavarian legislature called for tolerance and understanding of Sinti by the public. and even Bavarian Interior Minister Gerold Tandler -- who had previously termed the Sinti complaints "slanders" and called their demands "unreasonable" -- finally agreed to investigate any injustice in "individual" cases.

The hunger strike proved to be a catalyst for other actions. In May, north German government officials offered the Sinti a memorial in the Bergen-Belsen campsite. The Bavarian Cultural Ministry offered to finance a center where young Sinti could study their native language and their people's heritage. Bureaucrats became more sensitive to the miserly awarding of standard reparations to sinti, and to the bizarre postwar circulation of anti-Gypsy Nazi records.

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.

(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.

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