Improving the lives of Europe’s Sinti and Roma people will be one of Germany’s “central topics” during its European Union presidency, Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth said in an interview with French news agency AFP.
Nearly 10 years ago, the European Union Commission presented an initial strategy to better integrate with the approximately 6 million Sinti and Roma living in the EU.
“Unfortunately, the situation of the Sinti and Roma has hardly improved,” Roth said, adding: “There is still a lack of access to education, housing, health care, well-paid work and social participation.”
Roth warned Sinti and Roma “continue to suffer from exclusion, discrimination and oppression” throughout the bloc, adding that the German Presidency of the Council of the EU in autumn would present a new strategy for improving integration with the minority group alongside the Commission.
The Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with a population estimated to be between 10-12 million.
According to the minister, the EU’s credibility is “measured, above all, by how it treats minorities,” and that for this reason, the topic “remains a litmus test of our rights and community of values.”
Many German Sinti fought for Germany not only in the First World War but also in the Wehrmacht from 1939 on. In 1941 the German high command ordered all “Gypsies and Gypsy half-breeds” to be dismissed from active military service for “racial-political reasons.” Alfons Lampert and his wife Elsa were then deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
Eva Justin, a nurse and anthropologist, learned the Romani language to gain the trust of Sinti and Roma. As a specialist in so-called scientific racism, she traveled through Germany to measure people and create a complete registry of “Gypsies” and “Gypsy half-breeds” — the basis for the genocide. She and others researched family ties and and assessed churches’ baptismal records.
In the 1930s, Sinti and Roma families were in many places forced into camps on the outskirts of town, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by guards with dogs, like here in Ravensburg in southwestern Germany. They were unable to leave. Their pets were killed. They had to work as slave laborers. Many were forcibly sterilized.
In May 1940 Sinti and Roma families were sent through the streets of the town of Asperg in southwestern Germany to the train station and deported directly to Nazi-occupied Poland. “The dispatchment went smoothly,” a police report noted. Most of those deported traveled to their deaths in work camps and Jewish ghettos.
Karl Kling appears on this class picture from Karlsruhe in the late 1930s. He was collected from school in spring 1943 and sent to the “Gypsy Camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he became one of the victims of the genocide. Survivors reported that before being deported they had been marginalized in their schools and sometimes weren’t even able to take part in lessons.
“I can work,” thought nine-year-old Hugo Höllenreiner when he arrived at Auschwitz in a cattle car with his family in 1943. He was greeted by the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (“work will set you free”) above the entrance. It offered hope, Höllenreiner remembered later. He wanted to help his father work: “Then we could be free again.” Only one out of every ten people deported to Auschwitz survived.
Notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele worked at Auschwitz. He and his colleagues tortured countless prisoners. They mutilated children, infected them with diseases and carried out brutal experiments on twins. Mengele sent eyes, organs and entire body parts back to Berlin. In June 1944, he sent the head of a 12-year-old child. He escaped Europe after the war and never faced trial.
When Russia’s Red Army arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, children were among the prisoners. But for the Sinti and Roma, the liberation came too late. On the night of August 2-3, 1944, the officers in charge of Auschwitz ordered those remaining in the “Gypsy Camp” sent to the gas chambers. Two children came crying out of the barracks the next morning and were subsequently murdered.
After the concentration camps were liberated, allied and German authorities issued survivors certificates of racial persecution and imprisonment. Later, many people were told they had only been persecuted for criminal reasons, and their requests for compensation were denied. Hildegard Reinhardt (above) lost her three young daughters in Auschwitz.
In the early 1980s, representatives of the Sinti and Roma communities staged a hunger strike at the entrance of the former Dachau concentration camp. They were protesting the criminalization of their minority and calling for the recognition of Nazi persecution. In 1982, then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt officially recognized the Sinti and Roma as victims of Nazi genocide.
In 2012, a memorial for the Sinti and Roma victims of Nazi persecution was erected near the Bundestag in Berlin. The site is a reminder of the fight against discrimination for the world’s Sinti and Roma, particularly on International Romani Day. To this day, members of the minority still experience discrimination in Germany and around Europe.
Read more: Holocaust remembrance in Germany: A changing culture
For historical reasons alone, said Roth, Germany has a duty to stand up for the fate of the Sinti and Roma. “Germany bears a special responsibility that is based on our own tragic history,” he said. “Around 500,000 Sinti and Roma have fallen victim to Nazi terror.”
It is for this reason that Roth said the EU is in need of a better culture of remembrance.
“The systematic extermination of the Roma and their importance as Europe’s largest ethnic minority must be given much more attention in our schools.” Roth said, adding: “Germany must set a good example in the EU.”
The minister demanded more visibility for Sinti and Roma in society.
“What we lack so far are visible Roma role models in the media, science, economy, culture and above all in politics”, Roth said. This would be “important in order to achieve an even stronger Roma self-awareness.”