On the night of August 2/3, 1944, in Auschwitz II-Birkenau the Germans liquidated the so-called family camp for Gypsies (Zigeunerfamilienlager). About 4,300 children, women and men, the last Roma prisoners of the camp, were murdered in gas chambers. Today, August 2 is celebrated in Poland as the Sinti and Roma Genocide Remebrance Day. The ceremony was attended by representatives of state authorities, ambassadors, representatives of local authorities, cultural institutions and museums. During the celebrations, Director Cywiński presented Romani Rose with the “Light of Remembrance”, the highest award at the Memorial, which is awarded to people who have contributed most to education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
Several hundred people met at the monument commemorating the extermination of Roma and Sinti people on the site of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Wreaths were laid and homage was paid.
“Today, more than 76 years after Europe’s liberation from National Socialism, the voices of those who can bear witness gradually fade away. That is why it is up to us, subsequent generations, to keep their heritage alive and to ensure that Auschwitz will never be forgotten,” said Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.
“Auschwitz is a conscience that appeals to all of us to raise our voices against murderous racism that is raging again today and many people are dying because of it. Memory is not about passing the blame on to today’s generation, but about a shared responsibility for the future of all of us. [...] By educating and constantly commemorating the atrocities of World War II, Nazi terror and the Holocaust, it is up to us to revive the vision of a united and peaceful Europe, and preserve the future of future generations,” he added.
Werner Friedrich shared his story with those gathered during the celebrations. “It is a great honour and responsibility for me to be one of the last witnesses to speak here today,” he said. “My sister had to go through the torments of the concentration camps, like many of our relatives. She was lucky not to be herded into a gas chamber right away. My mother told me that I cried day and night because my beloved sister Loni was no longer there. […] Many of my relatives, such as my father’s and mother’s brothers and sisters, were herded into gas chambers and burned, along with their innocent little children. My father and mother never saw or talked to their siblings again,” said Werner Friedrich.
Concluding his speech, he appealed. “I would like to address young people, the coming generation from East and West, South and North. You who have come today for this European Sinti and Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day. I ask that you fight against racism wherever you come into contact with it, so that such commemoration days will no longer be needed in the future. Despite my terrible childhood experiences, I still believe, even after 84 years without hatred in my heart, in the good of people,” he emphasized.
During his speech, Piotr M. A. Cywiński, PhD, Director of Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, pointed out that although three generations have passed since then, a lot of bad things are still happening. Therefore, he paid attention to the role and importance of education. “We believe in education very much. This is our human experience. A child learns from its mistakes and failures, and thus grows to maturity. And we want to think that thanks to its work we are also slowly maturing. We know very well that education alone is not enough, but we know that it is a foundation of what can help us mature,” noted the director of the Memorial.
Handing Romani Rose the highest educational award of the Museum, he emphasized: “No one in Europe has done more for education about the extermination of Roma and Sinti than Romani Rose, who is here with us. [...] There will be no better place than this place, there will be no better day than today, to express my gratitude to Mr. Romani Rose on behalf of everyone, giving him our Light of Remembrance.”
So far, the “Light of Remembrance” has been awarded to: Professor Władysław Bartoszewski, Krystyna Oleksy, Avner Shalev, Serge Klarsfeld, Sara J. Bloomfield and Luis Ferreiro.
The letter from the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki to the participants of the celebrations was read by Włodzimierz Bernacki, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Education and Science.
“We pay tribute to all the Roma victims of World War II. We do so in the belief that our duty to the world is to record these dramatic events in our collective memory and pass them on to future generations. The extermination of the Roma is a tragic chapter of this heritage, often unspoken of. We all have a duty to uphold the memory of the Roma victims of World War II, and to ensure that it fully returns to the pages of history; that the knowledge of the Roma extermination would become common. The lesson on the Roma chapter of the Nazi genocide cannot be forgotten,” wrote Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
“On the 77th anniversary of the liquidation of the Roma camp, here in the largest Sinti and Roma cemetery known as “Roma Golgotha”, we once again undertake the commitment that we will do everything to ensure that times of contempt never return. We will guard with all our strength what is most precious to us - peace and an attitude of respect towards others. Today, bowing our heads over the ashes of the murdered, we jointly say the words: “We remember and we will remember”,” we read in the Prime Minister’s letter.
Roman Kwiatkowski, president of the Roma Association in Poland, emphasized the individual tragedy of the victims hidden behind large numbers. “Half a million victims is not a dead record, a statistic of the cruellest war in the world. It’s half a million broken dreams and plans, half a million human stories, none of which have been told to the end. Today we are trying to make them remain in our memory at least,” he said.
“The years of extermination have taught us, however, that there cannot be a morality that grants rights only to the elect, that limits them on the basis of race, language, nationality, denomination or orientation. Therefore, we emphasize every year as citizens of our countries, as citizens of a united Europe: the Roma must enjoy a position that is equal to others before the law. This is not a privilege; it is a fundamental right of every human being,” appealed Roman Kwiatkowski.
The Nazis regarded the Roma as a “hostile element”, “by inheritance” conditioned by a propensity to commit crimes and anti-social behaviour. From 1933, alongside Jews, they became the target of racist persecution: first by registration, depriving them of the right to practice certain professions, prohibiting mixed marriages, then forced labour, and finally imprisonment in concentration camps.
After the outbreak of World War II, a decision was made to relocate German Roma to occupied Poland. The German police authorities began to arrest and execute Roma in the occupied territories, including those at the rear of the eastern front, where they were massively murdered together with Jews by the so-called Einsatzkommando.
On the order of Heinrich Himmler to send them to Auschwitz, from 1943 the Sinti and Roma, mainly from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland, were deported there. In total, the Germans deported about 23,000 Roma to Auschwitz, of which 2,000 were murdered without being entered into the camp records. 21,000 people were registered in the camp, of which about 19,000 died - they died of starvation and diseases, and were murdered in gas chambers at the time of the liquidation of the “Gypsy camp”.
In block 13, at Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is an exhibition commemorating the extermination of the Roma and Sinti, which shows the extraordinary dimension of the Nazi genocide committed against the Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe. In the former Birkenau camp, in sector BIIe, there is a monument commemorating the victims of the Roma nationality.
(Bartosz Bartyzel - Spokesman Auschwitz Memorial)