IMAGE: Gypsies march from the former inmate barracks to the ruins of a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Czarek Sokolowski  /  AP
Gypsies march from the former inmate barracks to the ruins of a gas chamber Monday at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
updated 8/2/2004 4:57:19 PM ET 2004-08-02T20:57:19

Gypsies from across Europe gathered Monday at Auschwitz to remember hundreds of thousands of their murdered ancestors and to call for wider recognition of their suffering in the Nazi Holocaust.

The ceremony, exactly 60 years after the night the Nazis gassed the last 2,900 Gypsies in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, also heard warnings that today’s Gypsies still faced discrimination, especially in eastern Europe.

Calling Auschwitz “a symbol of the genocide perpetrated on our people,” Roman Kwiatkowski, the top Gypsy representative in Poland, said: “These crimes should be properly commemorated. We fear again that the Roma Holocaust will be forgotten.”

“Roma” and “Sinti” are names by which Gypsies in Europe are also known. Gypsy organizations put their total number at more than 7 million.

As many as half a million European Gypsies are believed to have perished at the Nazis’ hands during World War II, along with 6 million Jews, although the exact number is not known. Others were sterilized or subjected to grisly pseudo-medical experiments.

The Nazis considered Gypsies racially inferior and “anti-social.” Many were deported to a special section of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in occupied Poland.

The Nazis liquidated the Gypsy camp on Aug. 2, 1944, and gassed most of the remaining inmates, including many women, children and old people. Others were sent to German factories as forced laborers.

Hundreds walk trail of death
Monday, several hundred mourners, including camp survivors and envoys of several European governments, walked from the barracks area to the ruins of a gas chamber and crematorium where Gypsy representatives placed candles on the wall.

SS soldiers blew up the gas chamber and crematorium in early 1945 when the Nazis abandoned the camp as the Soviet army advanced. In May 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered.

Hugo Hoellenreiner, a German Gypsy who survived the camp, along with his parents, recalled the daily horror that included visits by camp doctor Josef Mengele, who used inmates for his so-called medical experiments.

“Even today, I cannot understand why they did it to us,” he said in a moving speech. “I can never forgive or forget what happened to us.”

Monday’s anniversary was observed with speeches and mournful music amid the ruins of dozens of prison barracks on a vast grassy area, still ringed by concrete fence posts, watchtowers and birch trees.

Germany’s envoy, Environment Minister Juergen Trittin, noted that Gypsies had struggled for wider awareness of their suffering under the Nazis.

“Like the Jews, the Sinti and Roma were brutally persecuted and systematically murdered with an inhuman determination,” he said.

“This genocide is part of our history. As Germans, we carry the historic and the political responsibility.”

Ceremonies in Hungary
At a half-dozen ceremonies across Hungary, Gypsies gathered Monday with candles, saying prayers for tens of thousands of Gypsies from that country who were killed.

Gypsy and civic leaders also called on Hungarians to help curb prejudice that still persists.

“It is not enough to fight extremism with laws,” said Jozsef Balogh, the mayor of Gyor, in western Hungary. “It must be condemned by the whole of society.”

Prejudice against Gypsies remains strong in Hungary, which has been under pressure in recent years from international organizations to do more to integrate them into society.

Surveys show that Gypsies remain less educated and less healthy and more likely to be poor and unemployed than the Hungarian average.

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