The genocide of Sinti and Roma during the Nazi period is not widely known. Throughout Europe they were arrested, deported and murdered. Many were forced to do hard labour in camps and ghettos. Hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma died. Over half of the victims were younger than 14. Here, nine children speak on behalf of the murdered masses.
About Sinti & Roma
About this exhibition
József Forgács was born in Zalaegerszeg, a town in the west of Hungary, on 22 April 1935. His father earned his living as a wagoner and had his own horse and cart. József had three sisters and two brothers and they lived on a small farm. In March 1944 German troops occupied Hungary and the fascist Arrow Cross came to power in October 1944. As the Red Army approached, Hungarian Jews and Hungarian Roma were persecuted on a huge scale. They were arrested and taken to work camps and concentration and extermination camps. They were only persecuted for a short time, but it was effective, violent and extremely cruel.
It was the turn of the Roma from Zalaegerszeg at the beginning of November 1944. More than 1,000 Roma were arrested in a raid and were transported in cattle trucks to Fort Csillag in Komárom, in the north of Hungary. József and his family were among them. First, everyone in the fort was shaved completely bald, many people fell ill and there was hardly any food. After a week, all males over the age of 15 were deported, including József's father. He was probably deported to Auschwitz and killed there.
József was transported to the west (Austria, Germany) along with many other young Hungarian Roma. He ended up in a concentration camp complex with annexed camps where he had to carry out forced labor. József never found out exactly which camp complex he was sent to. He thinks that it was Mauthausen, but it is also known that many Hungarian Roma were transported to the large Dachau camp complex in Bavaria in the last months of the war.
In the camp József was only given one meal a day for months on end: either dry bread or something vaguely resembling soup. The work was tough, cleaning the buildings, and many prisoners died of hunger or disease. In April the camp was liberated by Soviet troops. Together with a few other Roma children, József tried to find his way back home on foot. The journey was hundreds of kilometers long, and they walked back, begging for food and sleeping in the fields under the open sky. When he reached Sopron, the first town after the border between Austria and Hungary, he looked terrible, but he knew that he was close to home. When he got back to Zalaegerszeg he found that his parental home had been totally destroyed and concluded that his father was probably no longer alive.
As everything had been destroyed or lost, József had to start all over again. Not only had he lost his father, but the horse and the carriage were gone too. József and his sisters and brothers who also survived the war, had to beg to stay alive. When he was twenty, he was called up for military service and became a border guard. He was still a soldier – though against his will – during the Hungarian uprising in 1956. He finally left the army when his first child was born, and he got a job at a Hungarian construction company. Later he became a foreman in a furniture factory in Zalaegerszeg, where he continued to work until he retired.
Every year a commemoration is held in Zalaegerszeg on the third of November, in memory of the deportations in 1944, and József has often participated. Tens of thousands of Hungarian Roma were killed during the war; it is generally estimated that the number of deaths amounted to 28,000. József never received any form of financial compensation for what he and his family suffered. He never found out exactly what happened to his father. In 2014 he went on a memorial trip to Auschwitz, where he shared his story with hundreds of young people, both Roma and non-Roma.
Stjepan Mavrović was born in the little village of Okić, about 30 kilometres from Zagreb, on 9 May 1932. His father Janko first lived with his common-law wife Bara Kovačević, with whom he had a son, Juraj, and two daughters, Jana and Ljuba. After Bara’s death in 1919, he lived with Ljuba Mavrović, with whom he had a daughter, Danica, and two sons, Miko and Stjepan. Janko worked as a trader and farmer. After Stjepan was born, the family lived in Klinča sela for a short time, where they had a house and a small plot of land. In 1935, Stjepan’s family moved to the nearby village of Žitarka in the administrative municipality of Stupnik, about 20 kilometres from Zagreb. Like many other local Roma, Janko occasionally also worked as a lumberjack or as a road worker.
World War II came to Croatia, then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, in the first half of April 1941. The pro-fascist Ustasha movement came to power with the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and established the Independent State of Croatia. A few weeks after taking power, the Ustasha authorities implemented racial laws, according to which Jews and Roma were deprived of civil rights and subjected to persecution and violence. The next step undertaken by the Ustasha authorities against the Roma was to draw up a census of all the Roma in the newly established state, in the summer of 1941. In this way, the Ustasha authorities prepared for the comprehensive persecution of the Roma which took place in May 1942, when all the Roma were deported to the largest Ustasha concentration camp, Jasenovac.
Stjepan’s childhood and relatively peaceful life came to an end on 2 June 1942 when the police arrived from Zagreb and took him, his family, and around thirty other Roma, away by force. The police only allowed them to take the most basic necessities, and they left their homes and furniture behind. About ten days after they were deported, the local authorities recorded that “no items were left” in Stjepan’s house (“hut”), except for the land planted with potatoes and corn. The local municipal authorities then demanded that all crops on Romani land should be harvested so that they could be used to “feed the people”. Of course, these “people” included only members of the pure Croatian population. As if the looting of Stjepan’s family house and crops had not been not enough, his “hut” soon burned down in a fire, which was blamed on three local village children, who were accused of having “set fire” to it. The municipal authorities recorded and reported the event to the competent state authorities, but there is no record of anyone ever being held responsible for this act of arson.
Within a few weeks, almost all the Roma in the newly created state of Croatia had been deported to the Jasenovac camp. Unlike other inmates (Jews, Serbs), the Roma came to the Jasenovac camp without having their names and surnames recorded. They were listed only according to the number of the train carriage they arrived in – the authorities probably didn’t consider the Roma worthy of systematic camp records. The newspapers at the time wrote that the Ustasha authorities had finally started to resolve the “Gypsy Question” by sending the Roma to the Jasenovac camp, where they would finally be taught how to be diligent and useful to the state, rather than “parasites” and “idlers”.
Upon arrival at the Jasenovac camp, the women and children were separated from the men, and almost all the Roma were killed in the following months. Some Roma managed to escape and join the Yugoslav anti-fascist movement (“Partisans”) led by Josip Broz Tito. Most of them never returned to their homes.
The preserved documents make no mention of what happened to Stjepan after this, but his fate can be reconstructed on the basis of the testimony of other Roma and non-Roma people around him. It is known that Stjepan was deported to Zagreb on 2 June 1942 together with 30 other Roma, and was then probably taken to the Jasenovac concentration camp. The Ustasha authorities often deceived the Roma when they were deported by promising that they would be resettled in another area, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo, where they could work and live in peace.
The train ride from Zagreb to Jasenovac would have lasted a whole day, while the conditions in the overcrowded carriages, which were originally intended for transporting livestock, would certainly have been frightening for a ten-year-old boy such as Stjepan. Furthermore, the Ustasha guards often denied the prisoners food and water, which made the inhuman treatment of the captive Roma even worse. Upon arrival at the Jasenovac camp, the local Ustasha authorities first confiscated the Roma’s property, and then separated the women and children from the men. Thus Stjepan ended up with his mother and brothers and sisters, and probably saw his father Janko for the last time. Stjepan was then probably sent to the small village of Uštica, where he was soon killed together with his mother and his brothers and sisters (who were minors).
There is no information to suggest that Stjepan survived the Jasenovac camp, so he probably shared the fate of the 5,608 Romani children identified by the researchers at the Jasenovac Memorial Area. They were killed and buried in one of the many mass graves of the Jasenovac concentration camp (there were many in Uštica). It was only about twenty years after the end of the war that the Croatian authorities put up a small marble plaque at the location where the Romani graves were found in Uštica. It bears the inscription:
“...The world is full of forces, but nothing is stronger than man…”
Maria Stancu-Costea was born in Pitesti (a town with an important Roma community) in southern Romania on 24 March 1936. The Stancus were well integrated. They lived there permanently, and had their own house on a street close to the town center. Maria herself was to start school in September 1942, while her two older sisters (Elena, aged 11, and Vasilica, aged 10) attended the school already. Another sister, Ioana, was 3 and the last one, Anicuta was just two weeks old (born on August 31 1942). Their mother, Alexandrina (aged 31) was a confectioner, producing and selling sweets in Pitesti and in neighbouring towns, while her father, Constantin (aged 35) was a chimney sweep and had recently been honorably serving in the Romanian army where he was wounded.
On 25 May 1942, the Romanian police conducted a special census of the so-called “problem Gypsies” nationwide. 11,441 nomadic Roma were deported, starting on 1 June 1942. The deportation of the sedentary Roma who had settled permanently followed in September 1942: 13,176 settled Roma from all over the country were deported to Transnistria in nine special trains. 1,006 of the Roma deportees were from Pitesti. The local police rounded them up during the night of 10/11 September 1942 and took them to a cattle fair near the railway station in Pitesti, where a selection was carried out. The Roma were then escorted to the railway line where a special train was waiting. During the night of 11/12 September, they were forced into locked cattle trucks. The train left Pitesti for Transnistria at 9.20 on the morning of 12 September. Two days later, on 14 September, the Roma were handed over to the Romanian authorities in Transnistria. Maria and her family were among them.
During the winter of 1942 to 1943, thousands of Roma were forced to live in overcrowded, decommissioned army barracks, packed together, with no food or heating. Typhoid raged relentlessly. About half of all the Roma deportees had died in Transnistria by 1944, mainly as a result of malnutrition, cold, typhus, etc. Maria’s family was also badly affected. They were deported to Alexandrudar and then to Certovata (in the Oceacov district, in south-eastern Transnistria), where they had to share a tiny room with other families. As there were no beds, they slept on the floor. Maria almost immediately lost some of the members of her family. Her paternal grandparents and two uncles died, followed by her maternal aunt, Anica, together with uncle Dumitru and two cousins, Elisabeta and Gheorghe, both of Maria’s age. Maria’s younger sisters, Ioana and Anicuta died of starvation shortly after their arrival in Transnistria. Maria herself was infected with typhoid but survived. Starting in the spring of 1943, Maria and her sisters did different types of work which gave them a better chance of survival. They tried to run away from Transnistria but were unsuccessful. They were caught and beaten by the police who took them back to the camp in Certovata.
When the Soviet Army approached in the spring of 1944, Transnistria was abandoned by the German and Romanian troops. However, Maria’s family managed to escape before that in February 1944, thanks to their aunts back home. In September 1942, when Maria and her family were deported, her aunts, Vasilica and Ana, escaped mainly because they were not in the town during the round-up. When they returned home, they realized that almost all their relatives had been deported. They tried to convince the Romanian authorities to bring them back home, and wrote petitions, but in vain.
The authorities refused to let Maria’s family return home, so her aunts had to think of another way to save them. They found a certain Roma soldier called Ion Ciobanu who had connections, paid him to go Transnistria, find Maria and her family and bring them home. He managed to get to them, bribed different local authorities in Transnistria, smuggled them first to Odessa where their hair was cut, they were washed and given clean clothes, and then they finally came back home by train. They didn’t find the house as it had been demolished and they had to stay at their aunt’s place.
By 1944 only half of the 25.000 Roma deportees had managed to survive and return home. However, the genocide of the Roma was ignored in Romania. Their fate remained largely unknown. In 1948, the newly established communist regime outlawed Roma organizations. They were not recognized as an ethnic group until 1989, and thus they could not publicly commemorate their deportations. Even after the fall of communism (1989), the situation of the survivors did not improve significantly. The victims received neither recognition nor compensation. Although the Roma had been deported from hundreds of towns and villages all over Romania, no monument, memorial stone or commemorative plaque has been dedicated so far to the Roma victims of the Holocaust in Romania.
The Romanian authorities agreed to give the Holocaust survivors some rights at a very late stage. Nevertheless, although the legal framework allowing the survivors a small pension was created in 2000, Romania has delayed the implementation of this framework for hundreds of Roma. The authorities interpreted the law as they saw fit, unreasonably asking the Roma for all sorts of documents and evidence.
This was also the case for Maria. After WWII, she married and had three children. In 2014, she tried to obtain her legal rights as a Holocaust survivor, (a monthly allowance of 50 euros). In the months from October 2014 to August 2015, the Romanian authorities invoked every imaginable pretext to deny her her rights. Initially they informed Maria that "Law 189/2000 is not for Gypsies". Then they told her that she had not been deported, and even that she had gone to Transnistria willingly. In August 2015 the authorities finally accepted that she had been deported to Transnistria, but they still refused to pay her the monthly pension because she could not provide evidence of her return from the camps in Transnistria. Despite the archival documentation proving her deportation, she was denied her legal rights under the absurd pretext that documents proving the deportation were not sufficient unless she could also prove the date of return from Transnistria (Decision 1393 / 08.31.2015 of the CJP Bacau vs Costea Maria). Two years later, in 2017, Maria died at the age of 81, without ever obtaining her legal rights.
Karl Stojka was born on 20 April 1931 in Wampersdorf, a small village in Lower Austria. His family belonged to the Lovara, a sub-group of the Roma, who had settled in the region in the 19th century. His parents and grandparents spent the summers as itinerant horse dealers in the countryside. Winters were spent in their houses in the city of Graz and the village of Jois in the province of Burgenland. After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, travelling became increasingly difficult. The family was forced to give up selling horses altogether and moved to a working-class district of Vienna.
In 1940, Karl’s father was arrested by the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. From there he was transferred to the concentration camp at Mauthausen, where he died three months later, allegedly of a heart attack. One day in 1941, when Karl and his brother Mongo went to visit their grandparents, who were staying at a traditional Roma site with 200 to 300 other Roma, they found that everyone had been deported. Karl never saw his grandparents again. They were probably sent to the Jewish ghetto at Łódź in Poland via the ‘Lackenbach gypsy camp’. Some time later, their older sister Kathi was also arrested and deported to Lackenbach.
In March 1943, the mass deportation of the remaining Roma and Sinti families to Auschwitz began. Karl was arrested in his classroom on the 3rd of March. Karl: ‘The door opened and in came the caretaker of the school, the headmaster and some men in heavy leather coats: the Gestapo. We all had to jump up and shout “Heil Hitler!” Of course, I joined in, but then they began to whisper with our teacher who suddenly turned to me and said sadly: “Come, Karli Stojka, you have to go with them now!” So I took my things, and downstairs there was a police car waiting for us along with a lorry that was already full of gypsies.’
On the 30th of March, the family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a large transport of 2,572 Austrian Sinti and Roma, where they arrived the next day. On arrival, Karl Stojka had the number ‘Z-5742’ tattooed on his left forearm. In the camp, hundreds of people lived together in overcrowded barracks, packed together on wooden beds. Among the prisoners they found their sister Kathi who had been deported to Lackenbach more than a year before. Karl was fortunate, as he got to work as a waiter in the canteen for the SS guards and was able to take some leftovers back for his family from time to time. These scraps of food made all the difference between starvation and survival.
When Auschwitz-Birkenau was evacuated due to the approach of the Soviet army, Karl’s mother managed to smuggle him into the group selected for Buchenwald, although officially he was too young. Karl: ‘An uncle of mine, called Lulo, died voluntarily, although he could have saved himself. He had passed the selection, but his wife and three children had remained behind. When we started to march away, she stood at the other side of the fence, looked at him and said: “Lulo, are you going to leave us here alone?” He managed to get back inside the camp, went to stand with his family, took them by the hand and watched us as we marched off. He was a hero, but one of those nobody ever talks about.’ On the evening of 2 August 1944, the SS surrounded the Zigeunerlager at Auschwitz-Birkenau and all the remaining 2,900 prisoners were gassed.
During transport, Karl’s family were separated. Karl and his brother Mongo were deported to Buchenwald, while his mother and sisters were first sent to Ravensbrück and later on to Bergen-Belsen. From Buchenwald, Karl and Mongo were transferred to the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, where they had to work in a stone quarry. In March 1945, the Flossenbürg camp was closed down and the prisoners were forced to head south by foot on death marches. There was no food and anyone too weak to walk was shot by the SS guards. On 24 April 1945, the SS guards fled and the prisoners were liberated by American troops. During the final death march, 5,000 former prisoners of Flossenbürg died of exhaustion or by execution.
Karl and Mongo were taken in by a German farmer’s family who nursed and fed them. In 1946 they learned that their mother and three sisters had all survived and were living in Vienna. It is a miracle that Karl and his family were able to survive, given that 90 per cent of the Austrian Roma and Sinti perished in the genocide. During the following decades, Karl worked as a carpet dealer and lived with his family in Italy, Portugal and the USA. In 1985 he returned to Austria and began a successful career as a painter. In his paintings he depicted his traumatic experiences in the concentration camps. In the years that followed, Karl became an active campaigner for the recognition of the Austrian Roma and Sinti as a national minority and for the recognition and commemoration of the Roma and Sinti genocide between 1938 and 1945. Karl Stojka died at the age of 72 in April 2003.
In Nazi Germany, the persecution of Sinti and Roma began as early as 1933. In June 1938, the father of Amalie Reinhardt was arrested and deported to the Dachau concentration camp. Soon after, the same fate befell her mother. Nine-year-old Amalie and her four younger brothers and sisters were treated as orphans and put into various children’s homes by the Nazis. A little over a year later, Amalie found herself in the Sankt Josephspflege Catholic children’s home in Mulfingen in southern Germany. All 41 Sinti children from Württemberg were to serve as study material for National Socialist racial research.
By 1936, the National Socialists had set up a ‘Research Institute for Racial Hygiene’ where they intended to ‘scientifically prove’ the ‘inferiority of the gypsy race’. Eva Justin, the closest assistant of the director of the Institute, had selected Amalie’s children’s home to carry out her doctoral research. Justin had the 41 Sinti children undergo all kinds of pseudo-scientific tests designed to prove that they were mentally deficient because they belonged to an ‘inferior’ race. As part of this research, she extensively filmed and photographed them. Once Justin had finished her research and written her thesis, the children were doomed.
On 9 May 1944, Amalie and 32 other Sinti children were taken from the children’s home to the station by bus, on the pretext of a school trip. From there, they went by train to Auschwitz. Amalie: ‘I can still remember Dresden; there was an air raid going on. All around us, bombs were falling and we children were scared to death, because the SS had locked the wagon and left us there.’ Four days later, they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Amalie had the number Z-10636 (Z for ‘Zigeuner’) tattooed on her forearm and was forced to do hard labour building roads.
In the summer of 1944, the Nazis started dismantling the Auschwitz-Birkenau Zigeunerlager due to the approach of the Soviet army. For this reason, in early August all ‘gypsy’ prisoners underwent a selection process to assess their fitness for work. Amalie, who was 15 years old at the time, passed the selection process and was transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her brother and sisters did not make the selection.
Amalie: ‘The last time I saw my younger brother and sisters, my youngest sister said when we parted: “You’re going away and we’re going to be burned.” Those were her last words. I will never forget it!’ A total of 2,900 Sinti and Roma were classified as ‘unfit for work’, in particular many elderly, infirm people and children, but also most of the children who had been in the children’s home with Amalie, as well as her brother and sisters. They were all gassed in the night of 2-3 August 1944. Amalie was forced to do hard labour in Ravensbrück and eventually ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she was liberated.
Until long after the war, the genocide of the Sinti and Roma was denied or ignored in Germany. Perpetrators like Eva Justin were free to start new careers, while the victims received neither recognition nor compensation. Attempts to get Justin to stand trial failed. Many Sinti and Roma who had survived the war quietly withdrew and tried to hide their identities as Sinti and Roma. Amalie, too, long kept her silence before speaking of her sufferings for the first time in a TV documentary broadcast in 1994. This documentary was also the first time the role of the Catholic Church was publicly challenged.
Anna Maria – known as Settela – Steinbach was born on 23 December 1934 in Buchten in the Dutch province of Limburg and grew up in a wagon. She came from a large family. Her father was a trader and violinist, her mother ran the household in their wagon. Searching for work, they moved from village to village. The local authorities did nothing to improve the miserable conditions at the sites where the wagon dwellers stayed. They would rather be rid of them.
Sinti and Roma formed but a small part of all wagon dwellers. Zigeuners (‘gypsies’) as they were called, were deeply distrusted, and regarded as exotic and eccentric. They would often be turned away at the border. In the early twentieth century, they were repeatedly shunted back and forth across the Dutch, Belgian and German borders. Settela and her family were regarded by the authorities as ‘Dutch gypsies’.
The Steinbach family originally came from Germany. Settela had probably heard a lot from her family members about the worsening situation there. After 1933, a number of Sinti and Roma were forcibly sterilised under the ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’. In 1935, they were even stripped of their German citizenship. From the mid-1930s, the German Sinti and Roma were locked up in camps. A series of discriminatory measures soon followed.
In 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. At first, there was little sign of harsh German measures against Sinti and Roma. Then, in July 1943, the German occupying forces instituted a prohibition on the movement of wagons. Eventually, all wagons were concentrated in 27 guarded assembly camps. Many wagon dwellers, probably including Settela’s family, tried to evade these measures. Nevertheless, Settela’s family ended up at the Eindhoven central assembly camp. After that, things went ominously quiet – until 14 May 1944. On that day, police throughout the country received an order by telex: all ‘gypsy families’ were to be transferred to the Westerbork transit camp by Tuesday 16 May. Settela’s family and her aunt Theresia were arrested at four o’clock that Tuesday morning during the round-up.
Over the course of 16 May and the days that followed, trains carrying those arrested during the general round-up arrived at the Westerbork transit camp; there were 574 people altogether. Two families, 64 people in total, carried foreign passports (including Swiss and Italian) which offered them protection. For this reason, almost all of them were released on 20 May 1944, along with the ‘wrongly’ arrested ‘non-gypsies’. On 19 May 1944, the 246 people designated as ‘gypsies’ were forced to board a train for ‘transportation’ to the east. The Sinti and Roma, including Settela and her family, were in goods wagons 12 to 17. Just at that moment, film recordings were being made on the orders of camp commander Albert Gemmeker. During the filming, the camera caught the gaze of Settela, who was staring out – immediately before the train departed for Auschwitz.
On 21 May 1944, the Dutch Sinti and Roma arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they were registered and housed in the Zigeunerlager, a special section of the main camp. The notorious camp doctor Dr Josef Mengele performed medical experiments on prisoners from this ‘gypsy camp’, including children and twins. Between late July and early August 1944, this part of Auschwitz was cleared. At the end of the evacuation, nearly 2,900 Sinti and Roma who were deemed unsuitable for forced labour were gassed. Together with her mother, two brothers and two sisters, Settela died, probably during the night of 2-3 August 1944, in one of the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The haunting image of Settela, standing in the closing doors of a goods train at Westerbork concentration camp, became famous after the war. The image was much used in documentaries and books. The ‘girl with the headscarf’ became a symbol of the persecution of the Jews. In the early 1990s, Dutch journalist Aad Wagenaar started an investigation into the identity of the girl. He discovered that she was not Jewish but Sinti. And he discovered her name: Settela Steinbach.
Emílie (knows as Elina) Holomková was born on 25 November 1926 to a family of Czech Roma in the village of Svatobořice (southern Moravia). Elina had many family members in the village; the Holomeks were well integrated. Elina’s uncle, Tomáš Holomek, for example, was one of Czechoslovakia’s first Roma students. He later became a lawyer and championed the interests of Roma. In 1934, Elina, her parents and two brothers moved to the village of Nesovice. Itinerant Roma were subject to a discriminatory law passed in 1927.
When Nazi Germany occupied large parts of Czechoslovakia in 1939, more and more measures and decrees were issued against Zigeuner (gypsies). People who travelled around in wagons were forced to live in houses. Those who resisted were sent to the internment camps of Lety and Hodonín. In the eyes of the Nazis, all Roma were Zigeuner, a so-called inferior race, so Elina was forced to leave school, as was her eldest brother. She was put to work in a factory in the Moravian city of Slavkov.
In 1942, various new laws and measures were introduced that excluded Roma from society even further. Among those confined in the Hodonín concentration camp were several members of the Holomek family. In August 1942, thousands of ‘Zigeuner' and ‘half-blood Zigeuner’ were arrested, sent to Lety and Hodonín and forced to do hard labour. Elina and her immediate family were allowed to stay in their home, but were subjected to permanent monitoring by the police and forbidden to leave their place of residence.
Between March and October 1943, 5,500 Czech Roma were taken to Auschwitz. Only 500 of them managed to survive. The extended Holomek family was badly affected as well, and many of them died. Elina, her parents and brothers were fortunate: they enjoyed the protection of the brave mayor of the village of Nesovice, and escaped deportation. Elina’s parents even managed to hide a 3-year-old niece, Růženka, in their house until the end of the war. In order to avoid the compulsory and forced sterilisation that awaited those Roma women who had not been deported, Elina had to go into hiding with relatives living far away in the city of Olomouc from the summer of 1944 onwards.
After the war, Elina married Jan Machálek. Henceforth known as Elina Machálkova, she got an office job and had four children. Her great passion was singing; she became famous throughout Czechoslovakia for her interpretations of traditional Roma folk songs. She performed extensively, won awards and recorded albums. Her repertoire includes the song Aušvicate hi kher baro (In Auschwitz stands a big house), a song originally sung in the Zigeunerlager of Auschwitz.
Together with her brother Miroslav and her uncle Tomáš, Elina worked to establish the new Muzeum romské kultury in Brno, the first museum in Europe focusing on the history and culture of the Roma. In 2004 she published a book, part autobiography, part history, on the Holomek family. To this day, Elina devotes much of her time to meetings and discussions with groups of young people. She wants to pass on the Roma culture and the story of their persecution by the Nazi regime to the following generations.
Krystyna Ciuron was born on 5 November 1938 in Szczurowa, a small village of a few thousand people in the south of Poland. Szczurowa was home to two groups of minorities: over one hundred Jews and nearly one hundred Polish Roma. Krystyna belonged to the latter group. The Roma had been part of the village community for centuries. There even was some intermarriage between Poles and Roma in Szczurowa.
Krystyna was less than one year old when the German army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. The behaviour of the occupying forces was harsh and cruel, towards Polish citizens but particularly towards minorities such as Jews and Roma. In 1942, all the Jewish residents of Szczurowa were gathered together and taken away; they were to die in the gas chambers of the Bełżec extermination camp. The fate of the Roma was sealed on 3 July 1943. A German police unit used local farmers to take the Roma of the village to the local churchyard on carts. There they were shot and buried in a mass grave.
The murder of the 93 Szczurowa Roma was not an isolated incident. There is documentation of over 180 sites in Poland where Roma were executed in large groups, sometimes together with Jews. So the Polish Roma were not only killed in extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, but also on a large scale during mass executions. Others were sent to ghettos (such as Warsaw and Łódź), hanged from makeshift gallows, or burned alive.
With the help of her grandmother, Krystyna managed to escape the massacre. After the war, Krystyna related: ‘My mother, my ten-year-old brother, my two-year-old sister, an aunt with four children and two other aunts were also on the farmer’s cart. My grandmother, a Polish woman, was standing by the side of the road with a few other people. My mother managed to lift me out of the cart unnoticed. She told my grandmother: “If you survive, at least you will still have her.” My brother didn’t want to get off the cart. He was a bit older than me and he said that if mummy died, he wanted to die with her. Then they were taken to the churchyard.’ Krystyna had to hide with non-Roma relatives for the remainder of the war. By the end of the war, Krystyna ended up in the Płaszów transit camp with her aunt, where she was saved by a German. He opened the gate of the camp and shouted: ‘get out of here!’
After the mass execution, the houses of the Roma who had been killed were burned by the Germans, but the dead did not lose their names. The names of the victims were written down in the parish book of Szczurowa’s church. Since so many of the villagers had witnessed the massacre of the Roma, the tragedy of 3 July 1943 remained fresh in the collective memory of Szczurowa after the war. In 1956, a large memorial stone was placed on the mass grave, the first monument in Poland dedicated to victims of the Roma genocide. In 1993, a large wooden cross was placed beside the monument, which pupils of the local school tend to this day. Every year on 3 July, a Szczurowa memorial service is held at the churchyard. Krystyna, who married after the war and is now called Krystyna Gil, attends every year.
Johan – known as Zoni – Weisz was born in The Hague on 4 March 1937 as the eldest son of Jacoba and Johannes Weisz. His father was a Sinto, and a musician and instrument maker by trade. The Weisz family made a living by travelling all over the country in a wagon. They also performed as a family orchestra.
During the early years of the occupation, the Weisz family learned from their family in Germany that, along with the Jews, Sinti and Roma were suffering increasingly harsh discrimination at the hands of the Hitler regime. The Nazis regarded the ‛gypsies’ as an inferior race. The situation in the Netherlands was initially calm, but in July 1943 the German occupying forces instituted a prohibition on the movement of wagons. Many itinerant families were forced to move to assembly camps. In order to avoid drawing attention to themselves through their wagon, Zoni’s father rented a shop in Zutphen, in the east of the Netherlands.
16 May 1944 proved to be a fatal day. The entire Weisz family was arrested in Zutphen by Dutch policemen and taken to the Westerbork transit camp. With one exception, that is: Zoni escaped the round-up because he happened to be staying with his aunt Moezla in the neighbouring village of Vorden. That day, a total of 578 people were arrested in a general round-up all over the Netherlands and transported to Westerbork. There, the German camp authorities decided on the spot who would be labelled as ‘gypsies’. Three days later, on 19 May 1944, 246 people were deported by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau in locked cattle wagons. Only 31 of them survived the war.
Zoni spent the last year of the war hiding in forests and with farmers. He ended up with his grandparents, who lived in Nijmegen. After the Liberation, Zoni remained in the dark for years about the fate of his nearest relatives. His mother, his sisters Rakli (6 years old) and Lena (4 years old) and his brother Emil (8 months) were almost certainly murdered in one of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau during the night of 2-3 August. Only in the late fifties did Zoni receive an official death certificate for his father, Johannes Weisz. He had been deported from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp – most likely via Buchenwald – where he died as a result of forced labour.
After the Liberation, Zoni went back to school and later on to a horticultural college. He worked for a well-known florist and started studying garden and landscape architecture and art history. He married and had children. As a florist, he gained an international reputation for his exhibitions. Only in the mid-1990s was he able to speak in public about the loss of his family and about the fate of the Sinti and Roma during the Second World War. But when he did, he proved himself to be a compelling speaker, and he gained international renown as a Sinti and Roma advocate. On 27 January 2011, Zoni Weisz became the first representative of the Sinti and Roma to address the German Bundestag.