Toby Sonneman

Among the Gypsies


My father raised me to despise all things German. Never should I forget that it was Germany that had rejected him, ripped away his job and forced him out of his homeland. Never should I forget that Germany was responsible for killing the Jews, our relatives, our people. After my father came to America from Germany in 1939, he spoke German to his parents, but to no one else. Sometimes he would teach my brother, sisters, and me a German phrase or two, like bitte shn to say ‘please’—but on the whole, he didn't encourage us to learn German. It was an ugly language, the language of the Nazis, I thought. It left a bitter taste in my mouth when I tried to speak it. My father never bought anything "made in Germany" and if anyone even mentioned buying a Volkswagen—the very car inspired by the Nazis—he delivered a scathing denunciation.

Born ten years after my father’s arrival in America, I didn’t always understand the weight of my father’s experiences. When my school friends talked about being part Irish, Italian, or French, I wondered if I were part German. But when I came home and asked, my father frowned, his eyebrows lowering ominously. "No! You are all, one hundred percent, American. You are Jewish and you are American. You are not German."

First for my father, and then for myself as well, the name of Germany was synonymous with pain. I never would have considered going to Germany at all—were it not for the Gypsies.


I can’t remember when I first became interested in Gypsies—it seems as if I was always drawn to them—but it was not until I discarded my romanticized notions and recognized their connected history with Jews that I found a purpose to be among them. Shocked by what I'd learned about the victimization of Gypsies in the Nazi era and the resurgence of violence against them in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism, I helped found a coalition organization of Gypsies and Jews, and worked to inform the public about the Gypsy's current plight. But still I felt pulled toward the past, hungry to learn more about what has been called "the forgotten Holocaust" of the Gypsies.

I had learned about the Jewish Holocaust through my father's stories and by reading memoirs of Jewish survivors, stories which touched me more deeply than any history book; now I wanted to understand the Gypsy experience on such a personal level as well. But there were very few similar personal accounts of the Gypsies' experiences. Not until recently were the testimonies of Gypsies deemed worth retrieving, and not until recently did Gypsy survivors begin to tell those stories. Besides their fear and superstitions of speaking about personal humiliation and pain, they found no practical or emotional value in the telling. Some survivors had to tell their wrenching stories many times in applications for reparations, to little or no avail. Now they were aging, dying off, and their stories were dying with them.

Though I was determined to help in the effort to record oral testimonies, I didn't know how to locate Gypsy survivors. Few of them lived in the United States, and fewer still were willing to reveal their identity for fear of prejudice, much less talk to a non-Gypsy about their painful experiences. Then I met Reili, a German-born Gypsy woman who lived in the United States. As a child, she had fled with her family to Italy, Romania, and Yugoslavia, where her family was finally arrested and interned in a concentration camp. Reili wore a gold Mogen David on a chain around her neck -- "to remember my Jewish friends," she said. She told me long fascinating stories about her relatives in Germany, and their varied experiences of persecution under the Nazis. They would talk to me, Reili said, if we could go to Germany together. They would trust me, she explained -- because I was her friend, and because I was a Jew.


In Munich, the city where my father's grandparents, aunts, and uncles once lived, I listen to my new friends as they tell me their stories in German, the language I learned to hate. Reili translates into English, but I listen to the sounds of the German too, and watch the expressions on their faces as they talk. And bit by bit, I begin to overcome my bias against the language.

Most of the Gypsies I talk to in Germany lost scores of relatives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where approximately four thousand Gypsies were murdered in a single night in August, 1944. But this isn’t true of Rosa, Reili's 72-year old aunt. Though she's a survivor of Auschwitz and other camps, she lost most of her relatives years before, in 1941.

Rosa is Austrian-born and belongs to the Sinti, a subclass of the ethnic Gypsy population who settled in Northern Europe in early 1400s. Like the German Sinti I meet, her family contradicts the stereotype of the traveling Gypsies; they had been settled in Vienna for generations, lived in houses rather than Gypsy wagons, and invited their non-Gypsy neighbors to their home for coffee. Rosa shows me a family photograph album from the late 1930s: the people are dressed elegantly, and apart from the men with violins, their appearance flies in the face of Gypsy caricatures. Rosa’s sister, a handsome woman with long blond braids, might have been a model "Aryan" with her classic Germanic looks (the irony is that Gypsies, originating from India were true Aryans, the Nazis never recognized them as such). Looking at Rosa, with her thick dark hair, brown eyes, and walnut-colored skin, I wouldn't have imagined that the woman in the photograph was her sister. She holds two smiling young children, Rosa’s nephews. I linger at the picture. The mother and the children look so happy…and so Germanic. The children are even wearing lederhosen.

Rosa brings me back to reality. "Dead. All of them. In Litzmannstadt."

In 1940, Rosa’s family was sent to Lackenbach (a Zigeunerlager, or forced labor camp for Gypsies) and then deported to Ldz Ghetto in Poland—which the Germans renamed Litzmannstaadt —in November of 1941. Rosa, then seventeen, escaped from the train bound for Ldz by crawling through an air hole.

"I run away. I crawl up and I go. My people goes with the Jewish people to Litzmannstadt—Ldz you say today. Ldz."

No Gypsies lived to tell about Ldz Ghetto. Those who didn't die of typhus in the two months the Gypsy camp existed were taken to the extermination camp of Chelmno and forced into trucks that served as mobile gas chambers. Rosa drives this point home to me as she shows me her photo album. "Kill all of them, the Jewish people and the Sinti, all of them. All of them!" At each photograph, her finger pauses beside a face, and she tells me a name. Each name is followed by the litany: "Tot. Dead. Litzmannstadt."

* * *

Rosa, like many of the survivors I meet, is alive because she was transferred out of Auschwitz-Birkenau shortly before the liquidation of the Gypsy camp. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler had ordered the deportation of all German Gypsies to Auschwitz in December of 1942; in March of 1943, most of the Gypsies in Munich -- where Rosa had gone after her escape from the train bound for Lodz -- were arrested and sent to Birkenau where a special camp, composed of thirty damp and filthy barracks, had been set aside for them. From their barracks, they could clearly see the gas chambers and crematoria nearby, where most of them would be murdered.

But how had all this come about? Long before Himmler had given the Auschwitz order, Gypsies had been arrested, sterilized, sent to special concentration camps. And long before Nazis came to power, ever since the Gypsies had arrived from India in the middle of the thirteenth century, the Gypsies were Europe’s scapegoat—along with the Jews—discriminated against and persecuted by both church and state. Though Gypsy culture has little in common with Jewish culture, the two groups were bound by difference from the majority in Europe, and both suffered the effects of xenophobia: marginalization, persecution, and suffering. The Middle Ages brought ludicrous blood libel accusations of child stealing, well-poisoning, and cannibalism; in the 1600s, laws in Germany, Finland, and England decreed it a hanging offense even to be born a Gypsy. Some places even instituted "Gypsy hunts, "declaring "open seasons" when Gypsies could be tracked down and hunted for sport. By the nineteenth century, the Romantic interest in the Gypsy as ‘noble savage’ had brought about a reduction of outright persecution, but Gypsies were never accorded equal status as citizens.

So the Nazis didn’t have to create new legislation against the so-called "Gypsy menace"—it already existed. In Germany, Gypsies had been photographed and fingerprinted like criminals from 1922. But with Hitler, a new rationalization was given for persecution: the allegedly inferior racial character of Gypsies. To prove the Gypsies’ inferiority, the Racial Hygiene Demographic Biology Research Unit was created to register all of Germany’s 30,000 Gypsies and collect genealogical and racial data on them -- in order to prove the links between racial characteristics and criminality. Dr. Robert Ritter, a psychologist and psychiatrist, headed the project; his colleagues included anthropologists and zoologists. By 1942, Ritter had completed his files and recommended that over ninety percent of Gypsies be sent to labor camps.

Eva Justin, Ritter's assistant, was an even more treacherous "racial scientist." She had visited Gypsy settlements posing as a missionary, and the Gypsies—never imagining that she worked for the Nazis—had nicknamed her ‘Loli Tschai’ or ‘red-haired girl. Eva Justin concluded her research on Gypsies by claiming they could not be integrated. They had a primitive way of thinking, she said, and she recommended that "all educated Gypsies and part-Gypsies of predominantly Gypsy blood, whether socially assimilated or asocial and criminal, should as a general rule be sterilized."

This depraved marriage of Nazi ideology with science and academics led directly to the August night in 1944 known as Zigeunernacht, the Gypsy night. Rosa, like several other of the Gypsy survivors I spoke with, had been transferred out of Auschwitz in June or July, shortly before the liquidation of the Gypsy camp. As she was leaving the camp, she says, she looked at the people who had to remain behind. They knew they would die, Rosa says, and so they cried out to her: "When you see my husband, tell him. When you see my son or daughter, tell them."

Rosa pauses, her eyes watery, and reaches for another cigarette.

"…I cannot explain how that was."

* * *

"I no like the Germans," Rosa says, frowning severely. She is cooking, a warm potato salad like my father makes, only with the addition of some greens that she calls 'field salad.' "It’s the Sinti cooking," she says proudly. Her sleeves are rolled up and I can see the faded blue Auschwitz tattoo on her right forearm. The pale numbers are preceded by the letter "Z" for Zigeuner, the German word for Gypsy which derives from the Greek root meaning "untouchable." Rosa hates the word Zigeuner, the word that the Nazis seared into her skin to show that they considered her, and all her people, subhuman.

She tells me a story about an 80-year old German man who lives in her apartment complex. One rainy day, Rosa’s daughter had left a baby stroller in the entryway and the man slapped her. Rosa’s daughter slapped him back. Shortly after this incident, Rosa ran into the old man by the mailboxes by the entryway. He eyed the envelope with her pension check. "Why can’t I get a pension check when you Ziguener get a pension?" he asked provocatively.

Why can’t you get a pension? I’ll tell you why," Rosa snapped back. "It’s because you are a Nazi swine. You ever call me a Ziguener again and I will call you a Nazi swine again!"

In her seventies, frail and ailing, Rosa is energized by the force of her anger. Her eyes flash defiantly. "I no like the German people!" she says again, raising her voice emphatically. "Why they kill the Sinti? If a person steals, does something wrong, you put him in jail. But you no take the grandparents, the little babies, kill them all…"

* * *

On a day when there are no interviews, I walk around Munich -- and despite my ingrained attitudes, I find it a charming city with its cobbled streets and steepled churches, lovely parks, beer and wine gardens, toy museum, and marionette theater. At the Viktualienmarkt, the food market, I admire the stands full of fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, cheeses, sausages, and olives. I stop at a juice stand to order a glass of red currant juice, Johanisbeersaft. Drinking it, the deliciously tart flavors awaken the taste buds of my childhood and I remember how my parents grew currant and gooseberry bushes in the backyard of our home on Chicago's South Side. We helped pick and wash and clean the berries so my mother could make gooseberry pie and currant jelly, to recharge my father's culinary memories -- the tastes he longed for, from his youth in Germany.

For in truth, my father had retained one strong affection for Germany: his love for German food. Crusty breads, kuchens and strudels, rich pies and cookies, sausages and potatoes -- he loved them all. Sometimes, in the little kitchen of our red brick house, he would cook Schmarn, an eggy scrambled pancake, or make a warm potato salad in vinaigrette. Other times he took the family to a German-style beer garden, where we sat outside beneath ivy-laced stone walls and devoured liverwurst sandwiches on crusty rye bread, washed down with mugs of root beer.

This passion for food seemed to run in the family. My father liked to tell the story about his uncle who would bribe the conductor of the express train to Frankfurt to make an unscheduled stop in his hometown -- just so he could get off and have a piece of his mother's currant pie. My Oma baked fresh cherry pies for us in her apartment kitchen, using her special German Mrbteig pie crust, a rich, tender crust made with flour, butter, sugar, egg, and a touch of brandy.

But when I was a child, washing down my Oma's delicious cherry pie with swallows of brash American Coca-Cola, I never realized how fortunate I was even to know my grandparents, never contemplated their wrenching departure from Germany in 1939 -- just before all the Jews in Mannheim, including my grandmother's sister whose name I bear -- were deported to concentration camps in France. Yet along with the pies and the kuchens, I had absorbed the awful contradiction of my German heritage: the loss of the country where my ancestors had once belonged, the terrible betrayal.

The Gypsies I meet in Germany have an even more vivid sense of betrayal. Only 5,000 German Gypsies survived the prewar population of 30,000, and most of them continue to live in Germany. When I ask Rosa if she has ever thought of leaving Germany, she just shrugs. "I hate it, I don’t like it," she replies. "Where can I go? I’m old too. I no have nobody." The Gypsies had no Palestine to go to, no relatives in America to support them and help them rebuild their lives. So the survivors returned to live in the nation that betrayed them. They speak German and are full German citizens, yet they abhor the very idea of Germany. The word "Germans" to them refers only to non-Gypsies; they call themselves "Sinti," always. They never—never—refer to themselves as Germans.

I want to ask Rosa more questions, to somehow understand how it came to be that our dissimilar peoples were forged by the terrible bond of the crematorium. "If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past," says John Berger. But the Birkenau mud of the past seeps into the present for Rosa, and for me. The present and the past are hopelessly entangled.

So instead of asking more questions, I sit beside her on the sofa, our shoulders touching, and we sip sweet creamy coffee from thin china cups. I offer her slices of Zwetchgenkuchen, an exquisite plum torte made only in the fall, that I've bought at the Konditerei near her apartment. The cake is one of her favorites, she says, speaking in the fragmentary English that she learned from selling supplies to American soldiers after the war. I draw on my minuscule vocabulary of German to tell her how I learned the recipe for the cake from my father and my grandmother, and make it every fall. In turn, she tells me about her recipe for apple strudel and she promises to make some for me the next morning.

I want to tell her more: about my great-great grandmother, who published cookbooks in German verse more than a century ago; about my grandfather, a music critic and poet in Mannheim who once published a poem -- in German of course -- entitled "The Gypsy," about a Gypsy violinist and the pain expressed by his music. I want to hear more about her childhood before the Nazis, and about her life after 1945.

For as we sit and talk about recipes and our coinciding histories, I start to see something. This may be the only clear aspect of the present for me in Germany -- here, in this moment together, in our bittersweet connection. For now, it will have to be enough.

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