The Permanent Exhibition in Heidelberg

(Foto Lossen)

In March 1997, the first permanent exhibition on the National Socialist genocide against the Sinti and Roma was opened to the public at the Documentation and Cultural Centre for German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg. The documentation, which is displayed on three levels and covers a total area of almost 700 square meters,  traces the history of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma under National Socialism. The narrative starts with their gradual exclusion from society, showing how the state deprived them of their rights before proceeding with their systematic extermination in Nazi-occupied Europe. The exhibition takes a close look at the holocaust visited upon the Sinti and Roma: an unparalleled crime against humanity that was conducted on a scale still unimaginable today.

On the basis of National Socialist racial ideology, Sinti and Roma of all ages - from babies to old people - were (like the Jews) registered, deprived of their rights, ghettoised, and finally deported to extermination camps.

On 16 March 1997, at the opening of the Documentation and Cultural Centre, the then President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Roman Herzog reminded us that:

"The genocide against the Sinti and Roma was inspired by the same motive of racial fanaticism and the same wilful intention to exterminate them systematically, once and for all, as that which underlay the extermination of the Jews. Everywhere in the National Socialists' sphere of influence, they were systematically murdered family by family, from the very youngest to the very old."

The exhibition aims to show visitors that a large part of German society as well as the state institutions of the "Third Reich" were involved in this crime of genocide. The mass extermination of human beings in Auschwitz, carried out on an industrial basis by a modern, bureaucratic state apparatus, was  the culmination of the persecution of Sinti and Roma during the National Socialist era. It was also, of course, a radical break with civilisation itself.

The history of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma is the history of the reduction of a people to the state total victims. Individual biographies form the focal point of the exhibition in which the documents produced by the National Socialists, designed to systematically dehumanise and depersonalise the Sinti and Roma, are contrasted in a striking manner with the testimonies of the victims and the reports of survivors.

Old family pictures play a central role, because they provide a glimpse into people's personal lives and show the various ways in which Sinti and Roma were integrated both into society at large and into local communities before the Nazis began to exclude them systematically.

(Foto Lossen)

At the exhibition, these two levels - the normal, everyday life of a minority on the one hand, and the persecution apparatus and terror on the other - have been kept deliberately separate, both spatially and in the exhibition design itself. At the same time, they are related to one another in a way that creates a constant tension, which not only challenges visitors to reflect critically on the documents produced by the perpetrators, but also urges them to show empathetic understanding for the victims.

Throughout the exhibition, the old family photos serve as a constant reminder of the countless destroyed lives and tragic fates behind the abstract documents recording their bureaucratically organised annihilation.

he history of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma is complemented by other sections dealing with more general aspects of the history of National Socialism, such as the establishment of the National Socialist dictatorship and the expansion policy pursued up to the start of the Second World War. These clearly show that the process whereby the Sinti and Roma were deprived of their rights, deported and finally exterminated formed an integral part of the Nazis' domestic and foreign policy. Special exhibition panels also remind visitors of all the other victims of the Nazi Holocaust, which included the European Jews, the disabled and the sick.

Our tour of the exhibition ends on a walkway through the building's historic attic. This, the third and final level of the exhibition, is devoted to the memory of the genocide victims. An eternal flame commemorates the more than 500.000 Sinti and Roma estimated to have fallen victim to the Holocaust in Europe. The final section of the walkway leads the visitor to a wall displaying the names of the more than 21.000 Sinti and Roma who were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where almost all of them were murdered. The walkway stops before a large photograph of the gate to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp: the symbol of a crime that defies all historical comparison.

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