Augsburg, WEST GERMANY, 03 July 1980
The world is slowly, very slowly, beginning to
acknowledge some of Auschwitz' other victims. Four decades after the notorious
camp was closed, a plaque here, a promised cultural center there, a possible
investigation of discrimination elsewhere, is all that commemorates the
martyrdom of the Gypsies.
But that's one more plaque, cultural center, and acknowledgment of prejudice
than the second-largest group of Hitler's victims -- after the Jews --
could claim a few weeks ago. and Franz Wirbel and his fellow Gyspies are
grateful for that.
As a boy, Franz Wirbel was expelled from school in 1936 for the crime
of being born into the wrong race. In 1938 his family was restricted to
the west Prussian town where they lived. In 1941 they were deported to
Poland and then interned, first in the Stutthof and then in other concentration
camps. His mother was separated from him in Auschwitz on Aug. 2, 1944,
at 4 p.m. and burned to death at 6. He lost sisters, brothers, cousins,
aunts, uncles, 39 relatives in all, in the Holocaust.
Because of his youth and hardy constitution he managed to survive Nazi
"experiments" in freezing, and was freed by the Americans in 1945. He married,
but the couple has no children, for his wife had been sterilized in the
Mr. Wirbel can still remember every stone in Auschwitz.
And he still bears the number Z9805 tattooed on his arm. Yet he does not
receive the usual monetary restitution for camp survivors, because, he
explains, officials told him back in the '60s that he hadn't filed his
documentation in time. He lives today by repairing musical instruments.
And he thinks the real reason he hasn't gotten reparations is that he is
By last spring, Mr. Wirbel had enough of second-class citizenship and
the absence even of public recognition that half a million Romanies --
the nonpejorative name for Europe's Gypsies -- perished in the extermination
He and eleven other Sinti (German Romanies) went on a hunger strike
at the Dachau camp memorial near the Bavarian capital, Munich, to demand
full "moral rehabilitation."
Among the other hunger strikers were Romani Rose, who lost thirteen
relatives in the camps; Jakob Bamberger, who was forced in Dachau to drink
nothing except sea water for eighteen days in "survival experiments"; Hans
Braun, whose mother, father, and nine sisters and brothers died in Auschwitz,
while his sons are still assigned schoolbooks saying that Gypsies steal
chickens, evade work, and eat snake meat and carrion; and Vinzenz Rose,
who was awarded the West German Distinguished Service Cross in 1978, but
was told a year later that an official dossier states (completely falsely)
that the Rose family had been thieves.
The hunger strike was resisted by Bavarian officials, by Jewish spokesmen,
and by most Dachau and Munich clergymen. But one Lutheran prodeacon let
the Sinti conduct their fast in the Dachau camp memorial chapel.
The eight days without food turned out to be an act of consciousness-raising
both for the strikers and for West Germany as a whole. The Bavarian government
was shamed into admitting that there had been postwar injustices against
Sinti and that the "necessary dismantling of prejudice and discrimination"
has yet to be achieved. The Bavarian Roman Catholic cardinal and Lutheran
bishop to counteract prejudice against "Gypsies" in their churches. The
West German justice minister telegraphed his personal support for the Sinti
A joint statement by the Bavarian Interior Ministry state secretary
and representatives of the three parties in the Bavarian legislature called
for tolerance and understanding of Sinti by the public and even Bavarian
Interior Minister Gerold Tandler -- who had previously termed the Sinti
complaints "slanders" and called their demands "unreasonable" -- finally
agreed to investigate any injustice in "individual" cases.
The hunger strike proved to be a catalyst for other actions. In May,
north German government officials offered the Sinti a memorial in the Bergen-Belsen
campsite. The Bavarian Cultural Ministry offered to finance a center where
young Sinti could study their native language and their people's heritage.
Bureaucrats became more sensitive to the miserly awarding of standard
reparations to Sinti, and to the bizarre postwar circulation of anti-Gypsy
The issue of reparations arises from West Germany's
unique program of making payments to the victims of Nazi persecution as
a gesture of contrition. In the case of Jews this program is well established.
But in the case of Sinti, up to ninety percent of those who should receive
compensation do not, according to Sinti spokesmen. Vinzenz Rose's humiliating
experience in a reparations office in 1979 is repeated many times over
every year -- and the documents cited to withhold payments are often as
scurrilous as the allegation that the Rose family had been thieves.
The reason for the West German discrimination in compensation -- and
the main object of the Sinti hunger strike -- is the long-lived heritage
of the Nazi police central office to combat the "Gypsy Pest" in Munich.
This office, which provided the files to round up Gypsies and deport them
to concentration and annihilation camps in the Third Reich, was dissolved
after the war.
A euphemistically named "Vagrants Center" was set up in Munich, however,
that preserved the old Nazi files and distributed them indiscriminately
to local police in West Germany to promote surveillance of the country's
And under a 1953 Bavarian law "nomadic tribes" had to carry identification
documents for their members that included fingerprints -- and they were
allowed to move only with permission of the Vagrants' Center.
In 1970, the Vagrants' Center was formally dissolved, and officials
of the Bavarian Interior Ministry in Munich say the old files were destroyed
over the next four years. Yet they still keep surfacing in cases where
reparations are denied Sinti applicants because of alleged criminality.
Thus, one Sinto woman was refused reparations because her own "serious
arrest" and prison term in Austria (in Nazi times) were held to disqualify
her for compensation. Yet the "serious arrest" and prison term -- in a
Nazi concentration camp -- were precisely what she was seeking compensation
Similarly, records of Sinti's insulting or accusing the Gestapo have
been interpreted as proof of their criminality when they have applied for
reparations. and Wirbel and his friends still have not won the full acknowledgment
they sought from the Bavarian Interior Ministry -- that the Vagrants' Center
practiced racial discrimination and violated the rights of the Sinti in
its entire postwar operation.
West Germany is far from the only European country
where Romanies encounter difficulties. Throughout Western and Eastern Europe
prejudice against and persecution of the five million Romanies have long
been a fact of life, various Council of Europe and other studies repeatedly
conclude. Yet little has been done to correct the situation.
In Eastern Europe, apart from Yugoslavia, forced denomadization and
assimilation is the rule. And in Western Europe those Romany who are nomads
frequently meet with police harassment when they stop for the night. (In
West Germany, moreover, they are explicitly forbidden access to public
trailer parks.) Only the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Britain,
have begun providing caravan sites for Romanies.
Romanies also find it hard to get jobs, because of their lack of training
and the widespread belief that they are thieves. Sweden seems to be the
only country to have begun a modest training and placement program for
Illiteracy is high, and no European country has come up with an education
program that effectively reaches Romany children and gives them decent
choices in the adult world. Only a few West German cities like Cologne
and Freiburg are beginning even to provide Sinti nurseries and youth clubs.
Franz Wirbel's consciousness-raising, it seems, still has a long way