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The Romani Uprising in Auschwitz, 16 May 1944

16.5.2017 0:01
Auschwitz (PHOTO:  Gabriela  Hrabaňová)
Auschwitz (PHOTO: Gabriela Hrabaňová)

On 16 May 1944, in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, something completely extraordinary occurred:  Romani people imprisoned in the so-called "Gypsy Camp" there rebelled against the SS. This historical event is still almost unknown in the Czech Republic, but 16 May is becoming more and more popular worldwide as Romani Resistance Day.  

What happened in Auschwtiz on 16 May? News server Romea.cz publishes below in full translation a never-before published study by historian Michal Schuster that describes the Romani uprising there.

The "Gypsy Family Camp" in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, 1944

The year 1944 can simply be called the closing phase of the so-called "Final Solution to the Gypsy question" in Nazi-occupied Europe, including on the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. After transporting most Roma to the Auschwitz complex during 1943, smaller transports there took place during 1944. On 16 May 1944 the first attempt to annihilate all the members of the so-called "Gypsy Camp" at Auschwitz-Birkenau took place and was prevented by an uprising of the prisoners there. The most tragic event did finally take place and the camp and its inhabitants were entirely destroyed at the beginning of August 1944.  

First attempt to destroy the "Gypsy Camp" and the Romani prisoners' uprising

The commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, ordered at the beginning of 1944 the acceleration of the work already underway in one section of Birkenau, primarily the construction of ramps and the rails for the three-rail branch of the Oświęcim-Katowice railway line, which led to Crematorium I and Crematorium II. The commander of all the crematoria, SS Otto Moll, had to ensure, during the course of one week, repairs to all the crematoria, completion of the construction of the buildings, and the start of new construction, as well as the erection of several rooms where the prisoners were stripped near the repaired Bunker II and behind Crematorium V. The prisoners also dug two big pits for burning corpses.1

All of the preparations were performed in order to receive a transport of Jews from Hungary. Those new prisoners who were labeled capable of work during the selection would need accommodation, so the highest SS command at the main camp decided on 15 May 1944 to kill everyone in the "Gypsy Family Camp". That would free up space in all of camp B-II-e for more of the Jews from Hungary. 2

The final action was to have been performed on the evening of 16 May, when the gong was rung announcing a ban on leaving the camp (the so-called Lagersperre) and it was closed. Trucks drove up and parked in front of the gate to the camp; 50 -60 members of a special SS commando unit jumped out of them and called on the prisoners to quickly leave the residential blocks. Inside the blocks, however, a tense silence prevailed and the prisoners refused to come out, barricading the doors and desperately preparing to defend themselves with rocks and work tools. The members of the SS commando unit were startled by this disobedience and their commander decided to postpone the action.3  

Romani Holocaust survivor Hugo Höllenreiner (born 1933 in Munich), who was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp with his family in 1943, later recalled those moments of resistance as follows:  "There were about seven or eight men, definitely, who came to the gate. Dad shouted out - the whole building trembled when he shouted:  'We're not coming out! You come in here! We're waiting here! If you want something, you have to come inside!' "4

The entire event was described in a report by Tadeusz Joachimowski (1908-1979)5, a former Polish political prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp who was assigned to be a "scribe" (a writer) in the "Gypsy Camp", as follows:  "The last commander of the Gypsy Camp and the current rapportführer [reporting officer] was Bonigut6. He was probably from Yugoslavia. He disagreed with the approaches and tactics of the SS. He was a very good person. On 15 May 1944 he came after me and said things looked bad for the Gypsy Camp. An order had been issued to destroy it and had reportedly already received confirmation from the political department through Dr Mengele. The Gypsy Camp was to be destroyed and its crew killed using gas. There were rougly 6 500 Gypsies in the camp at that time. Bonigut entrusted me with informing those Gypsies whom I trusted about what was ahead. He asked me to warn them so they would not go like sheep to the slaughter. He also told me that the signal for the beginning of the action would be the Lagersperre and that the Gypsies should not leave their barracks. Bonigut himself warned several Gypsies of the action. I also (secretly) performed this task. The next day at around 7 PM I heard the gong announcing the Lagersperre. Automobiles drove up in front of the Gypsy Camp and 50 - 60 SS men armed with machine guns got out of them. They immediately surrounded the buildings where the Gypsies lived. Some SS members entered this residential area shouting 'Los, los'. There was total calm in the barracks. The Gypsies, armed with handcuffs, knives, shovels and stones, waited to see what would happen. They did not leave the barracks. The SS members were appalled and left themselves. After a brief consultation, they went to find the Blockführerstube [the commander of that block] in order to inform the commander of the action. After some time I heard a whistle. The SS men who were surrounding the barracks left their positions, got back in the automobiles, and drove away. The closure of the camp was lifted. On the next day (17 May 1944), Lagerführer Bonigut came to me and said the Gypsies were rescued, for now...".7

While there was no open clash between the Romani prisoners and the SS members, this event played a significant role. It decidedly was not the habit in the concentration camps for the prisoners to resist a planned, prepared action en masse right before it was to be undertaken. There is absolutely no doubt that the armed SS commando could have suppressed this act of resistance, but decided not to go into an open confrontation with the prisoners and preferred to achieve their aims in another way. This event is unequivocally an uprising and occupies a significant place in the tragic history of the Holocaust of the European Roma.  

In the so-called "Gypsy Camp" at Birkenau there were approximately 6 500 prisoners, half of whom were subsequently put into quarantine in the main camp, some at the end of May and start of June, others at the start of August 1944.8 They included prisoners from Bohemia, Germany, and Poland.9

The destruction of the "Gypsy Camp" at Birkenau

About 10 000 women from Hungary then arrived at the "Gypsy Camp" and were accommodated in the odd-numbered blocks, while the Romani prisoners were put on the even-numbered side. They moved a second time into the rear half of the camp when men from Hungary arrived and were put in the front section of the camp. In July 1944, Himmler decided to destroy the rest of the "Gypsy Camp".10 On the morning of 1 August, those prisoners fit for work were supposed to report for transport elsewhere, and Antonín Absolon-Růžička (born 30 September 1930 in the Moravian village of Mistřín) took advantage of the opportunity.11 He later recalled:  "One day in summer when I heard on the 

grounds12 that a new transport was leaving and lining up at the gate, I ran out there, naked, fleeing the blocks and heading for the canteen. I met my sister Jana on the way. She asked where I was running to and I told her I wanted to leave with the transport. She started to persuade me not to leave, saying we two were the only ones left, that I should stay with her. All I know is that I told her I had to go. I didn't even say good-bye I was in such a hurry...".13

On the next day, 2 August 1944, the final transports to the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Ravensbrück were put together out of all the female and male prisoners fit for work from the "Gypsy Camp". There were 918 boys and men sent to Buchenwald, of whom 151 had Protectorate citizenship. At the Buchenwald concentration camp, thanks to these transports from Auschwitz, the number of Romani and Sinti prisoners almost doubled.14 The Ravensbrück transports included 490 female prisoners. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to determine their state or territorial citizenship.15  Nevertheless, women from the Protectorate were certainly among them.

Through these six work transports, these female and male prisoners left the camp at Birkenau for good, because at the time the so-called "Gypsy Family Camp" was about to be destroyed and the fate of its remaining prisoners had been decided.16

After their departure, only the elderly, mothers with children and the fathers who didn't want to leave their families, and orphans remained in the "Gypsy Camp". During the late night of 2 August and the early morning hours of 3 August the block was closed (Blocksperre) and the 2 897 children, elderly people, the infirm and women were taken in trucks to the courtyard of Crematorium V. There their unexpected resistance had to be broken, after which they were herded into the gas chambers.17

Those horrible moments were described by a member of the so-called Special Division (Sonderkommando), Filip Müller (born 1922 in the Slovak town of Sered'):  "The room for removing clothing was stuffed full of people by midnight. The anxiety was growing minute by minute... desperate cries could be heard from all sides, accusations, lamentations, remorse. The voices called out in chorus:  'We are Germans of the Reich! We've done nothing wrong!' From elsewhere could be heard:  'We want to live! Why do you want to kill us?'... The liquidation proceeded as usual. Moll and his aides unlocked the safeties on their pistols and rifles and uncompromisingly called on those who had taken their clothes off to leave the room and go into the three spaces were they would be poisoned with gas. On that final trip many were weeping with desperation... Even from within the gas chambers, for a long time afterward, we heard intermittent calls and cries until the gas performed its work and the last voices were snuffed out."18

The bodies of the murdered, who included many prisoners from the Protectorate, were then burned in the pits near the Crematorium because it was not yet running.19

A recollection of the murder of those in the "Gypsy Camp" was also recorded by camp commander Rudolf Höss in his memoirs:  "They did not know what awaited them until the final moment; they only realized it when they were brought into Crematorium No.V. It was not easy to lead them into the chamber. I didn't see it, but Schwarzhuber told me about it, that no liquidation action of the Jews had been as difficult as the liquidation of the Gypsies."20

During this action, camp doctor Josef Mengele personally shot dead the male Romani twins on whom he had been performing experiments in order to subsequently use their bodies for autopsy. The female twins were transferred to the Hindenburg concentration camp. Irma Valdová-Krausová survived with her sisters because of that, and later recalled:  "On that day Dr Mengele came to the camp at 18:30 in order to take the remaining twins away, including my two sisters Anna and Alžběta. Of my entire extended family, I was their only relative left, and they did not want to leave me, no matter the cost. During the confusion they put me in the car as well, which saved me from a certain death."21

This mass murder was followed by the brutal killing of the female and male prisoners who, after being transported elsewhere, had been sent back to Auschwitz-Birkenau to die in the gas chambers because they were exhausted and unfit for work. For this purpose, 200 Roman boys were sent from the concentration camp at Buchenwald on 26 September 1944 and 800 Romani men were sent on 10 October 1944. On 11 October 1944 and then on 14 October 1944 a total of 217 Romani girls and women were sent back to Auschwitz from the work commando units at Ravensbrück concentration camp. Some underwent a second selection and were once again transported back to Ravensbrück, while the rest ended up, like all of the boys and men who were returned to Auschwitz, in the gas chambers.22

International Romani Holocaust Day

The year 1944 and its place in Romani history remains alive, and what is important is that the tragic events of the Roma Holocaust are finally earning a firm place in European and world history. The year 2014 marked 70 years since the mass annihilation of the so-called "Gypsy Family Camp" at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

On 2 August 2014 the former camp at Birkenau was the scene of a commemorative gathering featuring representatives of European Romani organizations, representatives of the Polish Government, authorities and local municipalities, diplomats, survivors, witnesses and relatives of the prisoners. The day of 2 August has been designated International Romani Holocaust Day and is a significant state day in Poland.23

Footnotes:

  1. Kladivová, Vlasta: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, pp. 77-78
  2. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p. 78.
  3. Nečas, Ctibor: Holocaust českých Romů, 1999, s. 170; LEWY, Guenter: The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies. Oxford University Press, 1999, p 320; Right to Remember – A Handbook for Education with Young People on the Roma Genocide. Council of Europe, 2014, p 81; BASTIAN, Till: Sinti und Roma im Dritten Reich: Geschichte einer Verfolgung. München: C.H.Beck Verlag, 2001, p 62.
  4. For the testimony of H. Höllenreiner, see Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte, Signatur: zz-1460.03, http://www.hdbg.eu/zeitzeugen/video.php?id=563
  5. Along with the other prisoners, he saved the prison's inventory books from the "Gypsy Camp"; see Die Sinti und Roma im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau / Memorial Book. The Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau / Ksiega Pamieci. Cyganie w obozie koncentracyjnym Auschwitz-Birkenau, ed. State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in cooperation with the Documentation and Culture Center of German Sinti and Roma (Heidelberg), Volume 1, München/London/New York/Paris 1993, p. XXXI.
  6. Georg Bonigut worked at the "Gypsy Camp" from 13 December 1943 as reporting officer (Rapportführer) for Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the end of May 1944 he was appointed commander of the camp (Schutzhaftlagerführer) in the "Gypsy Camp", where he remained until it was destroyed. He then became commander of the block and commander of reporting at the Auschwitz III-Charlottengrube concentration camp. See Gedenkbuch. Die Sinti und Roma im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau / Memorial Book. The Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau / Ksiega Pamieci. Cyganie w obozie koncentracyjnym Auschwitz-Birkenau, ed. State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, in collaboration with the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma (Heidelberg), volume 2, München/London/New York/Paris 1993, p 1647.
  7. Nacistická genocida Sintů a Romů: katalog ke stálé výstavě ve Státním Muzeu v Osvětimi. Romano džaniben, 2009, p. 288-289.
  8. Nečas: Holocaust českých Romů, 1999, p 170.
  9. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 79.
  10. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 80.
  11. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 81.
  12. The grounds of the military hospital (Häftlingskrankenbau).
  13. Nemůžeme zapomenout = Našťi bisteras: nucená táborová koncentrace ve vyprávěních romských pamětníků, shromáždil a uspořádal Ctibor Nečas. 1. vydání. Olomouc: 
    Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci, 1994, p 64.
  14. Nacistická genocida Sintů a Romů, katalog, 2009, p 300.
  15. Nečas: Historický kalendář, 2008, p 64.
  16. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 79; Nečas: Holocaust českých Romů, 1999, p 170.
  17. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 82; Nečas: Historický kalendář, 2008, p 64.
  18. Nacistická genocida Sintů a Romů: katalog ke stálé výstavě ve Státním Muzeu v Osvětimi. Romano džaniben, 2009, p 294.
  19. Nečas: Holocaust českých Romů, 1999, p 171.
  20. Wspomnienia Rudolfa Hössa, komendanta obozu oświęncimskego, Wydawnictwo prawnicze Warszava, 1956, p 116; Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 88.
  21. Kladivová, V.: Konečná stanice Auschwitz-Birkenau. Olomouc 1994, p 83.
  22. Nečas: Holocaust českých Romů, 1999, p 171.
  23. Schuster, Michal: Genocida Romů v českých zemích a její reflexe. In: Romano voďi 25.10.2012, ps.
Michal Schuster, Museum of Romani Culture, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Holocaust, Mezinárodní den obětí holocaustu, Auschwitz, Druhá světová válka



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