LONDON—It’s impossible to fathom the scale of the depravity. An eyewitness account by a Holocaust survivor—unearthed for a new exhibition in London—describes the conditions in the “gypsy” section of Auschwitz as even more inhumane than the rest of the appalling facility.
“The conditions were worse than in the other camps,” wrote eyewitness Hermann Langbein in 1945. “The route between the huts was ankle deep in mud and dirt. The gypsies were still wearing the clothes that they had been given upon arrival… footwear was missing… The latrines were built in such a way that they were practically unusable for the gypsy children. The infirmary was a pathetic sight.”
The report by Langbein, also a survivor of the Spanish Civil War, is just one of the sickening contemporary accounts highlighted in the exhibition Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library (to March 11, 2020).
Over 90 percent of the Roma held at Auschwitz did not survive the war.
In total, it is estimated that up to half a million Roma and Sinti, the name taken by the nomadic people based in Germany, died during the Holocaust. Accurate estimates are impossible but that may have been a quarter of Europe’s Roma and Sinti population.
The plight of these people, commonly known as gypsies at the time, was overshadowed by the scale of the genocide perpetrated against Europe’s Jewish community, but the Romani suffering was not simply eclipsed; it was systematically erased in the post-war period.
Romani survivors did not qualify for restitution; the mass murder of the Roma was largely ignored at the Nuremberg trials; Germany did not formally recognize that there had been a Romani genocide until 1982.
Like homeless and gay victims of the Holocaust, the Roma and Sinti people were primarily categorized by the Nazi killing machine as criminals or “asocials.” For the tiny minority who survived, this meant they struggled to apply for compensation for their treatment in the same way as Jewish survivors.
Despite the German authorities’ failure to recognize this as another strand of genocide, there was plenty of evidence that the Nazis were applying similar twisted pseudo-science to portray the Roma and Jews as lesser people.
The exhibition highlights the work of a man named Dr Robert Ritter, who was responsible for running the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit from 1936. In 1941, he was promoted and also became head of the Criminal Biology Unit. Much of his work focused on trying to prove that the Romani people were racially inferior using a vast array of nonsensical and unscientific methods.
He supported the sterilization of Roma women and expressed his concern about preventing intermarriage with other Germans. He was also personally responsible for identifying Roma and Sinti communities in Germany and Austria which were then raided by Nazis units who transported thousands to the camps.
Ritter was never brought to trial.
His racist project had obviously been influential among senior Nazi officials, however. In 1938, the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler wrote: “Experience gained in combating the gypsy nuisance, and knowledge derived from race-biological research, have shown that the proper method of attacking the Gypsy problem seems to be to treat it as a matter of race.”
It’s utterly extraordinary that it took the German government until the 1980s to officially take Himmler’s word for it: the mass execution of the Roma and Sinti people was a racially motivated genocide.
It wasn’t just within Germany; the Roma and Sinti people were largely left out of the picture when the world united to condemn the horrors of the Holocaust.
“There was no reckoning, no recognition,” said Barbara Warnock, curator at the Wiener Holocaust Library. “At the Nuremberg war crimes trials, crimes against Roma weren’t part of the indictments. There are some documents that were entered at Nuremberg that are to do with persecution against Jews that happen to mention persecution against Roma too but it wasn't something that was being particularly focused on or investigated even though people were aware of it. There's never been that big moment of acknowledgement.”
Warnock told The Daily Beast that there has been a historic and continued marginalization of Roma communities in Europe. “The failure to acknowledge the extent of persecution and suffering probably hasn't been helpful,” she said.
Documents that tell the typically depressing story of Hans Brann, a Roma survivor of Auschwitz, have been located by the Wiener Holocaust Library. He was one of just a couple of thousand Roma who entered Auschwitz and left alive.
According to a police letter, the response to his restitution claim was to order a police inspector to investigate his claim, and prove that he was a criminal, not a racial victim.
Not all of the documentation survives, but he must have been turned down because six years later Brann made the same claim of restitution. He had waited more than a decade for any recognition of the torment he had suffered.
For the Roma people in Europe, the wait goes on. Recent years have seen crackdowns on communities in Italy, France and Hungary.
“Reflect upon the situation in Europe today,” said Warnock. “A massive amount of prejudice and discrimination continues.”