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The Gypsies: One Boy's Story

Who are the Gypsies? Where did they come from? Why were they discriminated against in Europe, and why did they become victims of the Nazis?

Misinformation and stereotypes -- both negative and romantic ones -- about Gypsies are so prevalent that few of us can give accurate answers: Gypsies, more properly called Roma and Sinti, came into Europe from India in the middle of the thirteenth century and were mistaken for the feared and hated Islamic conquerors. Prejudice and superstition followed on the heels of their arrival. In Eastern Europe, about half the population was enslaved; in Western Europe, discrimination became legalized. (In some countries, during the Middle Ages, Gypsies were even considered as wild game, and could be hunted for sport.) When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they didn't have to create new laws to discriminate against Gypsies -- the laws were already in place.

I mention these few facts about Gypsy history just to illustrate how little information most of us have -- and when it comes to the Gypsy experience under the Nazis, we can hardly be blamed. Though tens of thousands of books have been written about the Holocaust, perhaps only a couple dozen have fully considered that Gypsies, were victims of Nazi crimes against humanity. And most of those books are written for a scholarly audience, rather than the general public. No wonder the Nazi persecution of the Gypsies has been called "the forgotten Holocaust."

How can we teach students to recognize what happened to Gypsies in the Holocaust, in a meaningful way -- giving them something more than a superficial mention of a number of victims.

I believe that real recognition depends on caring, on developing a personal connection with another human being. Of course, many students experience such an emotional connection with Jewish survivors by listening to a survivor speak, watching a videotaped testimony, or reading Anne Frank's Diary. But unfortunately there are very few such memoirs and testimonies from Gypsy survivors -- and we need them.

One notable exception is The Story of Karl Stojka: A Childhood in Birkenau, a catalogue of paintings by Stojka (published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) that recounts his boyhood in Vienna after 1938, and his incarceration in three Nazi concentration camps. A short biography, photographs of the family, and Stojka's powerful artwork, can begin to give students a sense of the Gypsy tragedy under the Nazis -- through one boy's story.

When I think of what happened to Gypsies in the Holocaust, I also remember one boy's story. I met Hugo in Germany in 1993, when I was interviewing an extended family of Gypsy survivors. The experience challenged my own stereotype of traveling Gypsies, bound to no nation: this family had lived in houses and apartments in Germany for generations; they even proudly displayed a coat of arms given to their ancestors by a duke in 1439. Yet after 1938, these German citizens were labeled "asocials," and fingerprinted and registered like criminals. Nazis warned of "the Gypsy plague," and appointed "racial scientists" who performed racial/biological examinations on Gypsies in Germany and Austria, then recommended sterilization or concentration camps for 90% of the Gypsy population.

Hugo was one of those Gypsies, just nine when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz in March of 1943. After just two weeks in the Gypsy family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Hugo was nearly starved, so thin that his mother cried when she saw him. He survived, though, and even made a friend named Albert, and the two of them often played with a rag ball Albert had made. One day the ball came too close to the barbed wire fence, and Albert chased after it. The SS guard shot Albert, and Hugo watched, as his friend bled to death.

If I were telling students about the Holocaust, I'd want to tell them about Hugo's story. The grown-up Hugo, the survivor I met, is not as forthcoming as many Jewish survivors, but his story is equally powerful.

I'd want to tell students how Hugo and his immediate family were transferred out of Auschwitz, and thus escaped the liquidation of the Gypsy camp there in August, 1944, when 3,000 Gypsies were killed in a single night. (All together, some 23,000 Gypsies were sent to Auchwitz-Birkenau -- and 20,000 of them died there.)

But I'd also have to tell them that Hugo and his family did not escape the pain. His father, 12-year-old brother, and 14-year-old sister were subjected to brutal sterilization operations at Ravensbrück -- victims of the Nazis' plan to exterminate future generations of Gypsies. And Hugo will forever be tortured by his experiences at Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp crammed with half-dead inmates from the death marches, where only starvation, disease, and death prevailed amidst the chaos. Anne Frank was this camp's most famous victim of typhus, a disease that nearly claimed Hugo's mother. And Hugo's young cousin, a girl of about Anne Frank's age, also died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Her body was thrown out of the barracks and soon the rats came to feed upon it. Hugo saw all this as he stood next to his aunt, the girl's mother, and listened to her sobs.

Hugo's story shows us that even after liberation, victims continued to suffer emotionally. When Hugo and his family returned to Munich after the war, they learned that 38 of their relatives had died. Hugo was two years behind in his schooling, and the children teased him relentlessly. How could he even begin to explain what he'd seen? He was silent, embarrassed and ashamed. When his teacher made him talk, he struggled, stammered. He had lost all ease with words.

"To this day, I still don't understand why they did that to us," Hugo tells me. The stammer haunts him still, but Hugo's words, like those of all survivors, have all the power of first-hand tragedy, recording a life ripped apart. "I was a Munich boy, but it didn't count," he says. "I was a Gypsy."

I want to tell students Hugo's story, so they can imagine him, and care about him enough to learn more about what happened to Gypsies in the Holocaust. And if they have enough imagination and empathy, perhaps Hugo will become a boy, in their eyes, once again.

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