Book Reviews

On the Fate of Gypsies in the Third Reich

By Ilse Schirmer-Vowinckel

State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau (ed.), Memorial Book. The Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau / Gedenkbuch. Die Sinti und Roma im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau / Ksiega Pamieci. Cyganie w obozie Koncentracyjnym Auschwitz-Birkenau, in collaboration with the Cultural and Documentation Center for German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg, trilingual edition English, German, Polish, 2 vols., Saur, Munich, 1993, xlvii+1674 pp., $265.-


Conflicting Numbers

On December 16, 1992, German newspapers, radio, and television reported on a commemorative ceremony in the Berlin Parliament marking the 50th anniversary of an alleged edict issued by Himmler on December 16, 1942. Various media reports stated that, as a result of this alleged edict, Gypsies from all Europe were deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 30,000 perished by the end of the War. They reported that during the memorial service, a list of names of Gypsies murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau was presented to Representative Renate Schmidt of the Bavarian Socialist Party. (They intended to say that a copy of the Memorial Book was presented.) On the very same day, December 16, 1992, puzzled viewers and listeners in Germany were informed that 500,000 Gypsies had been murdered in "Nazi Concentration Camps."

Since that time, I have been attempting to reconcile this crass self-contradiction. Which number is correct, and what were the sources on which the numbers were based? I have been unable to answer the first question, but I shall now attempt to deal with the second.

After several years had passed, it seemed that an answer to my question might be near. The BBC broadcast a report on the Nuremberg Tribunal, in which the so called "Principal War Criminals" were blamed for murdering 12 millions Jews and 500,000 Gypsies. Radio Television Luxembourg repeated the broadcast on January 18, 1998.

For several years the Reichenbach Publishing Firm has offered undated offset reproductions of the official proceedings of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which were first published in 1947. The title page of my copy has this remark:

"Released under auspices of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), by the Secretariat of the Tribunal, under the authority of the Supreme Control Commission for Germany."

The first of the 23 IMT volumes, the Introductory Volume, contains the entire list of the military tribunal’s charges. Under Charge Four are listed "Crimes against Humanity" and under Section B "Persecution for political, racist and religious reasons, in execution of and connection with the ‘Common Plan’ mentioned in Prosecution Point 1." The IMT goes on to charge that "opponents of the German government were murdered and persecuted. The persecutions were directed at Jews." There is no mention of Gypsies. Gypsies are mentioned in Charge Three, Group A, where several pages are dedicated to enumerating every conceivable kind of murder. The number of 500,000 is not mentioned, however. Neither Jews nor Gypsies are mentioned under the heading "Auschwitz" – only the estimated number of victims, "around 4,000,000." (p. 51)

I found one source for the extensively reported 500,000 number. That is Simon Wiesenthal’s memoirs, Recht nicht Rache (Justice not Revenge), published by Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main/Berlin, 1992. On page 272 he writes:

"[…] hardly anyone knows that probably a half million Gypsies also died in the extermination camps of the Third Reich."

He offers no documentation in support of his allegation. Obviously the "Holocaust Industry" is not going to part with that 500,000 number.

The 30,000 number

The 30,000 number was first named in conjunction with the Memorial Book which, interestingly, contains around 21,000 names. Gypsies were interned in other camps as well, however. According to Romani Rose/Walter Weiss, smaller collection camps were established exclusively for Gypsies outside the concentration camps, as for example in Frankfurt am Main. Refer to Rose/Weiss, Sinti und Roma im Dritten Reich. Das Programm zur Vernichtung durch Arbeit (Sinti and Roma in the Third Reich. The Program of Extermination through Work). Lamuv, Göttingen, 1991. Rose/Weiss mention the number 500,000 on page 7, but they do not elaborate or return to it again.

The number 30,000 appears as well. It is mentioned on page 19 in a neutral context, as the authors are reporting on a conference directed by Heydrich on 30th January 1940:

"At this conference it was decided that ‘as part of the last transport, all Jews in the new Eastern regions as well as 30,000 Gypsies from the Reich and Austria should be deported to the General Government [Poland.]’"

The authors name the German Federal Archives as their source, but that is the only identification they give. They make no attempt to identify documents in the archives.

Let us return to the memorial ceremony at the German Federal Parliament. I have before me several reports from various press services which covered the event:

  1.  Deutsche Presse Agentur Basisdienst Hamburg (German Press Agency, Hamburg)

  2.  Deutscher Depeschen Dienst (German Dispatch Service) – 2 reports

  3.  Evangelischer Presse-Dienst (Evangelical Press Service), Frankfurt am Main – 3 reports

  4.  Katholische Nachrichten Agentur (Catholic News Agency), Bonn – 3 reports.

The Report Written by the German Press Agency (DPA)

The DPA states that the memorial ceremony was dedicated to "the more than 500,000 murdered Sinti and Roma" and that speeches were given by the chairperson of the German Central Council of Sinti and Roma, Romani Rose; by Minister of the Interior Schnoor of the German province of Northrhine-Westphalia; by Mayor Diepgen of Berlin; by German Member of Parliament Renate Schmidt; and by president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Ignatz Bubis. It describes the presentation of the Memorial Book containing the names of 10,849 Gypsy women and 10,094 Gypsy men allegedly murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau and claims that an edict issued by Himmler provided for the deportations of racial minorities from 11 European countries to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were to be murdered. It states that of 22,000 murdered Gypsies, 10,000 had come from Germany, and that preparations for genocide had begun as early as 1939. It concludes with the statement:

"In the course of this racist genocide, over 500,000 members of this ethnic minority lost their lives."

Reports by the German Dispatch Service (DDD)

In the first report, Renate Schmidt repeats warnings about persecution and reminds us of the 500,000 murdered Gypsies. The second report quotes Romani Rose as saying that violence in the streets (against foreigners) is disquieting, but public applause and political apathy toward violence is terrifying. It quotes an Auschwitz survivor as saying "It is frightening that, 47 years after the end of the terror of the Third Reich, a comparable terror again reigns." Referring to Himmler’s alleged Auschwitz edict, it states:

"Gypsies from 12 European countries were transported to Auschwitz, where most of them died in the gas chambers."

Reports by the Evangelical Press Service (EPD)

The first of the EPD reports expresses pronounced remorse because:

"The suffering of the 500,000 Sinti and Roma murdered in the Nazi camps during the Third Reich was ignored for many years."

In describing the presentation of the Memorial Book to Renate Schmidt, it states that the book

"contains the names of almost 21,000 Sinti and Roma murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The original list of names had been hidden by Polish prisoners before the planned demolition of the camp in August of 1944."

The second EPD report states:

"The background to this was Himmler’s Auschwitz Edict of December 1942, which introduced the final phase of the planned total extermination of the Sinti and Roma. All together, 500,000 members of this minority fell victim to the genocide."

Reports by the Catholic News Agency (KNA)

The report by the Catholic News Agency in Bonn is more cautious than the others. It qualifies the 500,000 number as "according to Rose" and explains that the Memorial Book refers to families that were deported to Auschwitz, not families that were murdered. In a later report the KNA, like the other agencies, states that approximately 21,000 Sinti and Roma had been "registered in order to subsequently be murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau." It does not, however, state that the 21,000 were actually murdered, as this does not necessarily follow.

The KNA is the only agency that quotes a significant part of Berlin Mayor Diepgen’s speech which the others left out. It quotes Diepgen as saying:

"The Germans are obligated to show the surviving Sinti and Roma ‘a sense of our common humanity, a sympathy with our fellow citizens which overcomes those difficulties that are sometimes unavoidable in encounters between differing ways of life.’ He stresses that both sides must practice the conduct and tolerance required by citizens of the same country and he dares to advocate ‘respect for the orderly inclinations of the majority social group.’"

The Memorial Book

Most of the Memorial Book presented to Renate Schmidt is written in three languages: German, English, and Polish.

Volume 1 contains introductory chapters along with an eight page overview entitled "The History of the Camp for Sinti and Roma at Auschwitz-Birkenau." This is followed by the "Principal Book of the Gypsy Camp for Women," 680 pages long. Volume 2 consists of around 600 pages entitled "The Principal Book of the Gypsy Camp for Men." It is a register of names, birth places, survivors’ accounts, a calendar of persecutions, and documents. The postscript lists the names of the "SS Members of the Camp for Sinti and Roma at Auschwitz-Birkenau."

There are several problems concerning prisoner identification numbers. The women’s list is consecutively numbered from 1 to 10,849 while the men’s list likewise begins with 1 and continues to 10,094. It is alleged that these are the prisoners’ ID numbers. To me this seems unlikely, since it means that all the numbers would have to have been issued twice.

Furthermore, the story of the rescue of the principal books is implausible. We are told that a Polish clerk and two prisoners from the Gypsy camp had stolen them near the end of the War, wrapped them in clothing, buried them in a bucket between two barracks in July of 1944, and exhumed them in 1949. Here the authors were quite careless. They give the names of two of the participants as Ireneusz Pietrzyk, ID No. 1701, and Josef Penuzilka. The latter had already died in July of 1943.

Most likely, the story unfolded as follows. The lists do indeed contain the names of former prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau, both those who died and those who survived, but the names were not taken from a bucket that had been buried for five years. They probably came from the documents of the Gypsy collection camps where these persons had been registered before deportation, as the KNA reported. The lists presented by the Central Committee of Sinti and Roma were compiled before the 46 death registers of Auschwitz were made available for research, either in 1989 or 1992. The official death rolls had been seized by the Red Army at the end of the War and taken to Moscow. Lead publisher Jan Parcer refers to them on page xxxviii, Volume 1 of the Memorial Book.

The Alleged Himmler Edict of 16th December 1941

None of my inquiries with the German Sinti and Roma Center for Documentation and Culture at Heidelberg, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, or the Federal Archives of Germany have yielded proof of the existence of such an order. There is simply no "Himmler Edict" in any of these archives. This does not mean that such an edict never existed, of course. I did receive photocopies of a suggestive five-page Schnellbrief (priority letter) from the very helpful Institute for Contemporary History. Dated 29th January 1943, it originated with the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Headquarters, Department of Reich Security) in Berlin and contains the heading

"Transfer of Persons of Mixed Gypsy Blood, Roman Gypsies and Balkan Gypsies to a Single Concentration Camp."

The first sentences read as follows:

"By authority of the Reichsführer of the SS: dated 16th December 1942 / Order No. I2652/42 Ad./RF/V. In the coming weeks, Persons of Mixed Gypsy Blood, Gypsies from Rome, and non-German Gypsy tribes from the Balkans are to be segregated according to certain criteria and transported to a single concentration camp: Auschwitz Gypsy Camp."

In contrast to the usual allegations concerning deportation of Gypsies, there is no mention of any order to exterminate Gypsies. Also in contrast to the usual assumptions, many Gypsies were excluded from involuntary transfer. The letter lists ten points as guidelines for excluding detainees from transport, the first four of which are:

"1. Pure blooded Sinti and Lalleri Gypsies;

2. Mixed-race Gypsies who, within the Gypsy context, are considered to be of good character;

3. Gypsy-like persons who are legally married to Gypsies of German blood;

4. Gypsy-like persons evincing habits of social integration, who were employed on a regular basis and who had a permanent residence before the general detention of Gypsies."

Point 6 is especially interesting:

"Gypsy-like persons serving in the armed forces, or who in the present war have been disabled or discharged with distinction, are also exempt from deportation."

Point 10 is also of especial interest. It exempts all

"Gypsy-like persons who can prove possession of citizenship in a foreign country."

This is followed by a noteworthy remark:

"Exceptional treatment will not be granted for Gypsies or Gypsy-like persons who have a severe record of felonies."

The term "Exceptional treatment" (similar to "special treatment") is clearly used here in a positive sense, that of a privilege not granted to convicted felons. The Schnellbrief supports conformist assumptions about one aspect of the treatment of Gypsies. Part III directs that, in cases other than 1 and 2 ("pureblooded" and "good" Gypsies), all other Gypsies not deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau will be asked to voluntarily accept sterilization. This includes both adults and their children. The question immediately comes to mind: what if they do not voluntarily submit? In that case, "after consideration of the reasons, the criminal police will make the decision." This sounds very bad, even though we do not know what decision the criminal police would make.

Part IV included long winded and highly detailed instructions regarding preventive custody, that is, detention before deportation. A positive aspect is the instruction that families should remain together and not be separated. It also stipulates that identification papers and food ration cards should be surrendered and all material possessions "left behind and secured in an appropriate manner until further notice." Cash, stocks, and bonds were to be surrendered after being inventoried "by lists, stating all personal details pertinent to the owner. These lists and receipts are to be delivered to the appropriate depository, the central criminal police station." We would like to know whether these lists were returned to the survivors after the war, or whether they are still in existence.

This is followed by two pages of detailed instructions about placing Gypsies under arrest, including three enclosures: Sample patterns for forms and catalog cards. Children’s names were to be entered on the catalog card of the mother and a card was to be completed for each child as well. Duplicate receipts for prisoners were to be sent to a special branch of the German national criminal police headquarters, Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung des Zigeunerunwesens (Reich Center for Combating Gypsy Mischief) at Berlin C2, Werderscher Markt 5/6.

Further Reading


First published as "Zum Schicksal der Zigeuner im Dritten Reich" in Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung 3(4) (1999), pp. 464-466. Translated by James Damon.


Source: The Revisionist 2(3) (2004), pp. 331-333.


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