The Nazi Germans regarded Sinti and Roma (Zigeuner, as they were referred to in official German documents of the period) as enemies of the Third Reich, and therefore sentenced them to isolation and extermination.
Nazi Germany followed pseudoscientific arguments supplied by the Institute for the Study of Racial Hygiene and established strict principles for dealing with the Sinti and Roma, whom it regarded as racially alien, inferior, and “asocial.”
In the first years after they came to power, the Nazis introduced a range of anti-Gypsy restrictions, including an obligation for them to register and submit to “racial examination”; later, they introduced limitations on freedom of movement. A commentary on the German race laws, issued in Nuremberg in September 1935, stated that the Gypsies were just as racially alien as the Jews, and therefore could not enjoy the rights of citizens of the Reich.
Soon after the start of the war, the Germans decided to remove the Sinti and Roma from the terrain of the Reich. They were ordered to resettle in the General Government, where they were placed in Jewish ghettos and camps for Jews (over 5 thousand German Sinti and Roma were placed in the Łódź ghetto, and majority of them were murdered soon afterwards at Kulmhof extermination center).
Finally, on December 16, 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the deportation of all remaining Sinti and Roma to a concentration camp. The implementing regulations for this order, issued by the RSHA on January 29, 1943, specified that Auschwitz was the place of deportation.
As a result of this ruling, the Gypsy family camp known as the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp), which existed for 17 months, was set up in Auschwitz-Birkenau sector BIIe.
The deportation of the Sinti and Roma began in February 1943 and continued until July 1944. The Sinti and Roma imprisoned in the camp came primarily from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bavaria and Moravia, and Poland, with smaller groups arriving from France, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia/Croatia, Belgium, the USSR, Lithuania, and Hungary. There is also mention of Sinti and Roma citizens of Norway and Spain.
It is estimated that about 23 thousand men, women, and children were imprisoned in the camp. About 21 thousand were registered in the camp (including the more than 370 children estimated to have been born there). A group of about 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was murdered immediately after arriving at the camp, without being entered in the records.
Of the approximately 23 thousand Sinti and Roma deported to Auschwitz, some 20 thousand died or were murdered in the gas chambers.
Since they were treated as asocial prisoners, they were marked with black triangles. A series of camp numbers, prefaced with the letter Z, was given to them and tattooed on their left forearms. Sinti and Roma were not subject to selection after arriving at the camp, and families were not broken up. Everyone in the transport was directed to the barracks. Many of them could wear civilian clothing.
Since sector BIIe was still under construction, some of the men were assigned to finish the building work, and others were assigned to other kinds of camp work in internal labor details. A significant portion of them, however, did not have regular work assignments.
Insufficient food and the severe overcrowding in the so-called Zigeunerlager led to a dramatic deterioration in hygienic and sanitary conditions, which led in turn to frequent epidemics, especially of typhus and starvation diarrhea. These epidemics resulted in a high mortality rate among the prisoners.
The group of approximately 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma men, women, and children mentioned above arrived from Białystok on March 23, 1943. Cases of typhus were found among them. Fearing an outbreak, the camp authorities sent the group directly to the gas chamber. Several weeks later, on May 12, 1943, another group of Sinti and Roma from Białystok (468 men and 503 women) were placed in the camp. Since there continued to be a danger of a typhus outbreak in the Gypsy camp, the camp authorities ordered the selection of about a thousand Sinti and Roma —mostly from Białystok and Austria—on May 25, 1943. They, too, were killed in the gas chambers.
A group of 39 children (20 boys and 19 girls) from the St. Josefspflege orphanage in Mulfingen, near Stuttgart, was also sent to the Gypsy camp. Dr. Robert Ritter and Eva Justin of the Institute for the Study of Racial Hygiene carried out various tests on them before deportation. The main purpose of this research was to confirm that the supposed Gypsy traits were inborn; despite having been raised in a non-Gypsy environment, these children had allegedly been unable to overcome a disposition to theft, vagrancy, and resistance to assimilation.
In his autobiography, the first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, devotes a great deal of space to the extermination of the Sinti and Roma, stressing that the conditions in Birkenau made it impossible to run a family camp there. He mentioned Heinrich Himmler’s visit to the so-called Zigeunerlager, during which the Reichsführer listened to reports about the high mortality rate, especially among children. Himmler also saw the overcrowded barracks, the unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, the hospital barracks full of patients, and sufferers from noma.
From the end of May 1943 to August 1944, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele held the post of head physician in the “Gypsy camp.” At the same time, as camp physician, he was on duty at hospitals and outpatient clinics in other parts of the camp. At the behest of the Institute for Anthropological and Biological-Race Research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem, he undertook anthropological studies of various racial groups, mostly Sinti and Roma and also of twins, especially identical twins. Part of the bathhouse (sauna) barracks in block 32 was set aside as a laboratory for him, where he carried out anthropometric studies of the twins at his disposal. A disease known as water cancer (noma faciei—gangrenous stomatitis), appeared in the Zigeunerlager in the summer of 1943. Previously unknown among prisoners, it attacked children and young people especially. Mengele began research on its causes and treatment.
Mengele ordered that a “Kindergarten,” a sort of nursery and preschool for children up to the age of 6—and also for those of special interest to him—be opened in the Zigeunerlager. At first, the children there received better food. However, this was purely a propaganda move. High-ranking SS officers and civilians on inspection trips to Auschwitz were taken to see the Kindergarten and photographed playing with the children.
Another area of research interest for Dr. Mengele was the biological anomaly known as heterochromia iridis, the appearance of differently colored eyes in the same person. Many Sinti and Roma prisoners who suffered from heterochromia were killed in the camp by order of Dr. Mengele. A number of examples of this phenomenon were collected in the camp sauna barracks, and later shipped to the Reich as prepared samples.
Mengele held the post of head physician of the Zigeunerlager until its liquidation. Later, he became camp physician (Lagerarzt) for the entire Birkenau camp.
During the time that the Zigeunerlager was in operation, some of the people imprisoned there were transferred over time to camps in the depths of the Reich where they labored in factories. Some of the people transferred were used in pseudomedical experiments. A few Gypsies were released on the condition that they undergo sterilization.
There were other cases of the sporadic release from Auschwitz or transfer to camps in the Reich of Sinti and Roma who had served in the German army or received military decorations, and who came from mixed marriages. The most frequent reason for release was intervention by non-Gypsy relatives.
The Sinti and Roma tried as best they could to cope with the misery of the camp; the fact that they remained with their loved ones surely helped. Many of them had musical instruments, and they set up an informal orchestra, which often played during visits by high-ranking officers.
Zigeunerlager in Birkenau existed until August 2, 1944. That evening, the approximately 3 thousand men, women, and children left in the camp were loaded onto trucks and driven to the gas chambers. The prisoners attempted to resist, but the SS crushed their opposition brutally.
Eyewitness accounts speak of the desperate attempts by Helene Hannemann, a German woman whose husband was a Gypsy, to save her life. She supposedly obtained a personal promise from Dr. Mengele that she and her five children would be spared. When SS men searching the abandoned camp found them in the Kindergarten barrack, they offered her a chance to go free on the condition that she leave her children behind. The disconsolate mother refused, and died with them in the gas chamber.
The so-called Main Gypsy Book (Hauptbuch), saved by Polish prisoners assigned to work in the scribe chamber, contains the names of about 21 thousand Sinti and Roma imprisoned in Auschwitz. It is an invaluable source of information about the extermination of the Sinti and Roma there. An exhibition commemorating the destruction of the Sinti and Roma as well as explaining a particular dimension of the Sinti and Roma genocide in Nazi occupied Europe is located in block 13 on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and there is a monument commemorating the Sinti and Roma victims at the site of Birkenau sector BIIe.