Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day
73 years ago, on the night of 2 to 3 August 1944, the Germans liquidated the so-called family camp for Gypsies (Zigeunerfamilienlager) in Auschwitz II Birkenau. At that time, nearly 3 thousand children, women and men the last Roma prisoners of the camp were murdered in the gas chambers. In connection with these tragic events, August 2 is commemorated as the Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day.
The anniversary ceremony, which took place at the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was attended by several hundred people. Tribute was paid and wreaths were laid at the monument commemorating the victims of the extermination of Roma and Sinti. Among the participants of the anniversary event were: former prisoners and survivors, representatives of Roma organizations, the Polish government and parliament, European institutions, the diplomatic corps, the Jewish community, representatives of regional and local authorities, as well as the management and employees of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
'The historic date of August 2 is firmly rooted in the collective memory of our minority. It was in fact on this day in 1944 that the last remaining members of our minority who until that moment managed to survive the terror and extermination in Auschwitz-Birkenau, died in agony, in the gas chambers,' said Romani Rose, chairperson of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.
'Nearly three thousand Sinti and Roma, mainly women, children and the elderly were sent to the gas chambers, and their bodies burnt, so no traces were left behind. However, traces remained after them - nothing will erase them from our memory, and our annual presence in this place on the second day of August is proof of that,' said Roman Kwiatkowski, President of the Roma Association in Poland. 'We venerate the memory of our sisters and brothers here and in other places of torture. [...] Auschwitz-Birkenau is also a place of unimaginable suffering of the elite of the Polish nation. As a Polish Roma - as a Roma and as a Pole, I bow to the suffering of my compatriots and thank you for coming to pay tribute to them, many of whom were also your loved ones. [...] Your presence today is also a sign of solidarity. A sign of hope that such a horrendous crime will not be possible again in the future,' stressed Roman Kwiatkowski.
'The name “Auschwitz” is not only a symbol of the genocide carried out against our minority, but also a departure from everything created by humanity and civilisation,' emphasized Romani Rose. 'After this terrible historical experience, the nations of Europe in the arduous process of reconciliation and integration created a vision of democratic states of law that underpins common European values. It seems today that the achievement of an open, democratic society is increasingly being questioned. Nationalist and populist movements are increasingly dividing Europe. Many countries are threatened by growing polarization of society and radicalization of political views. In Germany as well, nationalist and populist groups are growing in strength, disseminating radical and discriminating views,' said Roman Rose.
'What our brothers and sisters suffered here cannot be compared with anything else,' said survivor Leon Strauss-Dreissig, who told the story of her godmother, Lona Veronika Sattler from the house of Höllenreiner, her husband Karl and their five daughters - Munich Sinti. 'Their names are passed from generation to generation in my family, this way we honour them and swear they will never be forgotten. We owe this to them and all those who were murdered here. I would love to thank all who fought and will continue to fight for us to commemorate our loved ones here and ensure that their memory is not forgotten, said Leon Strauss-Dreissig.
Peter Höllenreiner, a survivor, who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of four recalled: 'I received the camp number Z3531. 8 March 1943, was for me the beginning of two years filled with fear and senseless killing of people, young and old. Two years, during which we were deprived of dignity and respect for ourselves. The death machine at Auschwitz engulfed everyone. I remember as a child sleeping with my head on my mother’s knees. Not because I so much wanted to sleep, but because she had a few crumbs of bread on her knees. I felt them under my cheek and I felt safe because I knew I would not die of hunger'. Höllenreiner in his speech also referred to the post-war and contemporary times: 'As an adult, I wanted to erase that period from my memory. I removed the camp number, because I believed in a future full of opportunities and possibilities. But the systematic marginalization and discrimination of the Roma and Sinti continues to date. [...] Racism and antiziganism in Europe is still undefeated, on the contrary: the old prejudices and stereotypes are experiencing a renaissance, and again we are witnessing the emergence of extreme right-wing tendencies,' he pointed out.
Adam Bodnar, the Ombudsman also addressed the participants. 'Unfortunately, a large part of the Roma community, both in Poland and Europe is still experiencing discrimination, humiliation and unequal treatment because of their ethnicity. Several Roma families still live in conditions that are an affront to human dignity. There are numerous negative stereotypes about the Roma behaviour in the public consciousness. There are sometimes acts of aggression towards them. Why do xenophobic sentiments strive in some environments?' he said.
'The extermination of the Roma and Sinti was not only an act of barbarism on an unprecedented scale, but also a state crime. The elite of the then Third Reich and numerous authorities of Nazi occupied nations or Hitler German allies were entangled in it' said Józef Gawron, deputy governor of Małopolska in his address. 'Auschwitz also breeds obligation for future generations - a commitment to live together in respect for human dignity and actively oppose all manifestations of hatred. Because it is here, on the largest cemetery in the history of the Old Continent, without graves that we can fully understand the foundations on which we should build the European community and the world. In designing the future, we must rely on the strong foundations of our memory,' emphasized the Deputy Governor.
The representative of the Jewish community also gave a speech during the celebrations. 'The occupant prepared for us Jews and the Roma a horrible fate. Were those brutally murdered bad people? No! Reason: Some were Romani and the others were Jews. That is why this day is special. It is one of the most important days for the Roma, Jewish and international communities. As long as we keep commemorating them, so long will they live in our hearts,' said Tadeusz Jakubowicz, Chairperson of the Jewish Religious Community in Cracow.
It is estimated that the Germans imprisoned a total of about 23 thousand Roma people - men, women and children in the Auschwitz camp. Approximately 20 thousand died or were murdered in the camp. An exhibition is on display at the premises of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, in block 13 commemorating the extermination of the Roma and showing in particular the dimension of the Nazi genocide against the Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe. Since 2011, August 2 is the official Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day in Poland.
The story of the Roma victims of the camp is presented by the online lesson, “the Roma people in Auschwitz”, as well as the 7th Volume of the educational series - Voices of Memory. An exhibition prepared by the Museum is also available on the website of the Google Cultural Institute titled “The Roma in Auschwitz”.