Extermination

The Sinti girl, Settela Steinbach, during transport from the transit camp of Westerbork (Netherlands) to Auschwitz on 19th May 1944. She was murdered in the gas chamber together with her mother and nine brothers and sisters on the night of 2nd to 3rd of August 1944. (NAA Rijswijk)

On 16th December 1942, Heinrich Himmler issued a decree that all Sinti and Roma remaining in the Reich territory were to be deported to Auschwitz as part of the "final solution". His goal was the industrial murder of the entire minority. Similar decrees were issued for the occupied territories a short time later.

From February 1943, almost 23,000 Sinti and Roma from 11 European countries were deported to the extermination camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The majority originated from the Reich territory: more than 13,000 men, women and children. However, many Sinti and Roma were already in concentration camps or had become the victims of mass shootings in the occupied territories.

The Sinti and Roma families who were not yet under detention in concentration camps were arrested at their apartments in the early morning or picked up directly from their workplaces. They had to leave almost all of their personal possessions behind. Personal papers were taken from them, property and assets were confiscated for the benefit of the Reich. Crowded together in goods vans, many of them died during the journey to Auschwitz, which lasted several days.

The collaboration between the Reichsbahn, SS and state authorities functioned smoothly. Nevertheless, in spite of the ordered secrecy, a few Sinti and Roma succeeded in escaping the deportation by fleeing and going underground. However, most of them were discovered after a short time and also deported to Auschwitz.

"As requested by the chief administrative office in Mosbach on 22nd March 1943, I and four gendarmes of the reserves transported 53 gypsy hybrids from Mosbach to Auschwitz by special transport and delivered them to the concentration camp there. The detention documents were handed over at the same time. Confirmation of the delivery of the 53 gypsy hybrids is enclosed... In general, it may be said that the transport proceeded according to plan. The route and times were complied with as had been prescribed... The days and nights were hard for the transport driver and the escorts. After agreement with the District Leader, I therefore gave the guard detachment one day for recuperation and cleaning after their return." (Report of the gendarmerie post in Oberschefflenz to the District Administrator in Mosbach of 28.3.1943)

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau (State Museum Auschwitz)

The Sinti and Roma families arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau were held prisoner in camp section B II e, referred to by the SS as the "gypsy camp". There were 20 accommodation barracks on each side of the camp road. Up to 800 people were crammed into one barrack. There were also so-called "function barracks" such as the sick-bay or the office. The entire section of the camp was surrounded by an electric barbed-wire fence.

The prisoners arriving at the "ramp" were first of all selected as "capable of work" and "incapable of work". The people who were classified as "incapable of work" were immediately taken to the gas chambers and murdered there. The prisoners who were "capable of work" were entered in ledgers separated according to gender. A "Z" with a number was also tattooed on their arms; small children were tattooed on their thighs.

Franz Rosenbach with his mother a short period of time before the deportation to Auschwitz

"In March 1943, I was picked up by the Gestapo directly from my workplace at the station and deported together with my mother and my uncle and his three children to the so-called 'gypsy camp' of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was then 15 years old. My three older sisters and my father had already been deported there. I discovered from my sisters in Auschwitz that my father had been beaten to death by the SS two days before our arrival.

The so-called 'gypsy camp' was located right next to the section where the Jews were accommodated; we were separated by an electric barbed-wire fence. 500 to 600 people were crammed into our barrack, we were packed into the bunks like sardines.

The damp and the cold were almost unbearable. Soon after our arrival, I was assigned to do forced labour in the drainage ditch squad in Birkenau, which consisted only of Sinti and Roma. There were no shoes, no stockings, we had to shovel dirt non-stop during storms and rain. The emaciated prisoners were driven to complete exhaustion by the use of large sticks; every evening we had to bring back some dead." (Franz Rosenbach)

The first mass gassings, in which more than 2,700 men, women and children were murdered with the poison gas, Zyklon B, took place in March and May 1943. Furthermore, Sinti and Roma in Auschwitz and also in other concentration camps were abused in barbaric medical experiments. Most of the almost 23,000 Sinti and Roma deported to Auschwitz fell victim to the terror of the SS, forced labour or the inhuman living conditions there. In particular, the babies born in the camp and the small children had virtually no chance of survival.

After selection by the SS, around 3,000 Sinti and Roma were deported to other concentration camps in the Reich territory for "annihilation through work" in the spring and summer of 1944. 2,900 people remained in Auschwitz, mainly old men, women and children. All of them were murdered in the gas chambers by the SS in the "liquidation" of the "gypsy camp" on the night of 2nd to 3rd of August 1944.

More transports with Sinti and Roma arrived at Auschwitz even after these murders. For example, 200 Sinti and Roma - most of them children and teenagers aged between 9 and 15 - were deported from Buchenwald to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers two weeks later. Shortly before the end of the war, the last survivors were sent on "death marches" or murdered directly in the concentration camps.

In spite of the atrocious conditions, the Sinti and Roma in the camps repeatedly put up desperate resistance and defied the National Socialists until they were killed.

"The wagons were locked from the outside, we were imprisoned and cut off from this world. The train started off, overcrowded with people, families with their children and babies. The air inside was oppressive and difficult to breathe. The screaming of the mass of people was unbearable. I don't know how long we travelled until we stopped to clean the wagon of rubbish. These few minutes were hardly enough to fill our lungs with fresh air. SS Death's Head men with cocked submachine guns stood at the stopping places. Many people panicked and ran away on all sides, where they were then met with a hail of bullets. We were in incredible despair. We all clustered together and tried to give ourselves mutual protection.

Then we were forced back into the wagons with kicks and rifle butts. Many of the old people and small children did not survive the transport; the dead lay amongst us for days on end. When we stopped, they were simply thrown off. The journey and our misery went on and on. We were just thinking we would suffocate in this cattle truck when the doors were torn open from the outside at last. We were dragged out and counted by the SS at Katowice station. Mother and I looked at each other, she looked worn out. The sight that met our eyes inside the wagons was much worse than eternal death: The corpses of the babies, the corpses of the old people lay between rubbish and filth. It was merciless what was being done to the people here!

We were forced into rows with truncheons, while requests and pleadings were answered with kicks. The SS drove us ever further, many just could not keep up and simply fell down, others attempted a desperate escape, but the answer was only screams and bullets. Some trucks with SS men rolled up alongside us and took the bodies away. They didn't ask if any of the people were still alive, men, women and children, they were all thrown into a pile in the body trucks. I don't know how long we had to march, it seemed to be never ending. During one short stop, we saw metre-high barbed-wire fences, many barracks and watchtowers. Even more guards met us on both sides. Now we were driven onwards really mercilessly, faster and faster, until at last we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

It was a cold winter and we were almost frozen stiff by the cold during the march. But even in the barracks which we were crammed into, it was icy cold. We all huddled together so as to warn each other up. We were half-crazy with hunger. Some were wailing and calling in despair for their relatives. Mothers with babies had no food for them and they were already more dead than alive. The crying of the children echoed through the block, it was hell on earth; no one could help, no one intervened: Everything which happened here was incomprehensible." (Barbara Adler recollecting her deportation to Auschwitz)