Whenever Roxanna-Lorraine Witt visits Berlin, she goes to the memorial to the murdered Sinti and Roma in Tiergarten, the city’s sprawling central park. It’s a special place for her. None of her grandmother’s five siblings survived the Nazi’s systematic murder of the Sinti and Roma.
The memorial may be under threat. Witt fears it won’t survive if a new track for the city’s commuter line gets built beneath it.
Read more: Nazis carried out mass murder of Sinti and Roma in Auschwitz
“It should be clear that this monument is sacrosanct,” she said. “There is a political responsibility to protect it.” That activists like her have to protest to protect it is itself a scandal, she added.
For Roxanna-Lorraine Witt the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma is a precious place
It has taken a long time for Germany to collectively remember the Sinti and Roma killed in the Holocaust.
The mass murder was called the Porajmos, meaning “devouring.” Exact numbers don’t exist, but 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed. For decades, Sinti and Roma said they felt discriminated against by German authorities and overlooked as a victim group.
The German government only acknowledged the murder as a genocide in 1982.
The memorial is close to the Reichstag — a triangular stone in a circular pool representing the badges Sinti and Roma were forced to wear by the Nazis
The memorial, just 50 meters (164 feet) from the German parliament building, was unveiled in 2012, and seen as Germany finally taking responsibility for the groups’ plight. It consists of a dark, circular pool of water upon which sits a triangular stone, which represents the badges Sinti and Roma were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps to identify them as such.
Read more: Holocaust remembrance in Germany is a changing culture
The proximity to the government quarter poses the problem. The new rail line is set to run right through it, which may lead to the monument being dismantled.
Plans for the new train line see it run right across the Sinti and Roma Memorial
“It’s inconceivable that something would happen to this monument without speaking to us,” said Romani Rose, the head of the Central Council of Sinti and Roma in Germany.
Rose has spent his life fighting for the recognition of Nazi crimes against Sinti and Roma. He’s known for leading hunger strikes in 1980 on the grounds of Dachau, the former concentration camp, to raise awareness of the Sinti and Roma role in the Holocaust.
Romani Rose is the top representative of Sinti and Roma in Germany
A spokesman for Deutsche Bahn says the company is “totally blown away” that the impact on a memorial could be problematic, according to the Tageszeitung newspaper. Witt organized a protest against the rail construction in June.
“The memorial is a gravesite for those whose ashes are still in Auschwitz. This is a holy place not only for Sinti and Roma, but for all people,” Witt said, adding she is furious that the memorial’s future could be “negotiable” in a way others are not.
Read more: Jewish memorial stones dug out and taken to construction dump
Deutsche Bahn seemed to bend to the uproar in Berlin and online. Though declining to comment to DW, a company news release said “the memorial will not be touched.” It also noted that the project is only in its early stages, and a long way off from seeking actual building permission.
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.
The row over the memorial’s fate is, for Witt, a symbol of the discrimination she said many Sinti and Roma experience. Deutsche Bahn, as the successor to the Nazi-era Deutsche Reichsbahn, which was complicit in transporting concentration camp victims, needs to show more sensitivity to these groups, she said.
Read more: A new digital archive of the Roma reflects diverse cultures
Rose, the central council head, said the issue is part of a decades-long refusal to accepting the genocide. “There are some institutions that still have not done enough to confront this history,” he said. “This was a genocide unto itself driven by Nazi racial ideology.”
The protests have also taken aim at the Berlin Senate, which announced they would review the plans for the new track. “Our goal is, on one hand, to build the line as quickly as possible, but on the other hand, provide maximum protection for the memorial,” said Ingmar Streese, Berlin’s transport secretary.
Discussions are scheduled to resume after the summer break.
Rose now sits at the table with rail and legislative representatives. That gives a voice to the Sinti and Roma in deciding how the construction plan gets implemented. The focus, for now, needs to be “live up to the memory” and “show responsibility,” he said.
What that might mean in practice reveals a certain paradox about the conflict. Digging under the memorial could bring to fruition a long-sought desire by the council: an information center, which could be underground, similar to what was created in 2005 for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.