Auschwitz and the Testimony of Sinti and Roma

Karola Fings

The historian Karola Fings recently wrote the book “Sinti und Roma. Geschichte einer Minderheit” [Sinti and Roma. History of a Minority] published by C.H. Beck in the series “Wissen”. She is also the curator for Romarchive’s project “Voices of the Victims”,  featuring early Sinti and Roma testimonials which document Nazi persecution in 20 European countries. In the following text, she describes the testimony of Sinti and Roma at the Auschwitz trial.


„There is nothing you can compare Auschwitz to. If you say ‘the Hell of Auschwitz’, that’s no exaggeration. I think it’s not enough for me to say that I’ve dreamt of Auschwitz a thousand times since then, of that horrible time where hunger and death ruled. I was a young girl when they brought me to Auschwitz. When I left the camp I was sick, and I am still sick today.“[1]

Elisabeth Guttenberger, excerpt from an authorised version of an interview for the TV broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), 1962

Born in Stuttgart in 1926, Elisabeth Guttenberger, quoted above, was deported to the concentration and death camp in Auschwitz in March 1943. Like the survivor Max Friedrich, pictured together with his wife Grete in the photo, Ms Guttenberger was one of six witnesses of the Sinti and Roma minority whose testimony substantiated the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust in the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt am Main, regarded by many as a historic milestone.

Every year on 27 January, when we remember the victims of National Socialism, the survivors of the concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau are frequently the centre of public interest. On 27 January 1945, the Red Army liberated several parts of the Auschwitz camp where more than one million people, most of them Jewish, were murdered. In 1996, the German Federal President Roman Herzog declared 27 January as the day of commemoration for all victims of the Nazi regime, and in 2005, the United Nations officially designated it as the “International Holocaust Remembrance Day”. Today, there are only a few living survivors who can still testify to the crimes that were committed there. But their voices are heard, their stories are appreciated, and they themselves now receive attention and empathy.

But this wasn’t the case for many decades – and particularly so for the Sinti and Roma survivors of Nazi persecution. After 1945, the Federal Republic of Germany did not recognise their suffering as “racially motivated” persecution. Instead, the former perpetrators were able to convince the courts that members of this minority were “inferiors” or alleged “spies” who were deported for “crime-preventative” reasons. This position was largely accepted by the general public which meant that most of the crimes and their perpetrators went unpunished. The survivors and their relatives continued to suffer discrimination, received no acknowledgement of their anguish, and as a result, many of them were denied compensation.

The civil rights movements of the Sinti und Roma, which have been active in Germany and on the international stage since the 1970s, finally compelled the German government to acknowledge the genocide committed against the minority. The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, which officially opened in Berlin in 2012, is the most visible result of this long struggle for recognition. Throughout the debate, the testimony of survivors played a large role. Even among many of the Sinti and Roma survivors, it wasn’t until the TV series “Holocaust” aired in 1979 that they recalled their own suffering from Nazi persecution, which they had suppressed in order to get on with their lives. Against the background of this growing historical awareness of the Holocaust in the majority society, and consequently, the fate of the “forgotten victims”, along with intensified activities of the civil rights movements to document the history of persecution, a slew of reports, documentaries, biographies and autobiographies were published starting in the 1980s which have been very important for both the research field and educational work.[2]

All the more remarkable are the early testimonies by Sinti and Roma, presented in a social atmosphere of rejection and denial of the crimes. It is almost impossible to imagine what it meant for the victims to raise their voices against this wall of silence. The Auschwitz trial was one of the few legal proceedings in Germany, in which Nazi crimes against the Sinti and Roma were litigated – albeit only marginally.[3] The trial itself came about thanks to the commitment of the Hessian Attorney General Fritz Bauer who – facing heavy resistance in Frankfurt am Main and to an extent never seen before– initiated criminal proceedings against more than 1,200 individuals who were accused of having participated in crimes committed in Auschwitz.[4] On 7 October 1963, the Frankfurt District Court began proceedings against 22 accused individuals which, following testimony from 360 witnesses, concluded with the announcement of the verdicts on 20 August 1965. Most of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment or shorter prison terms for having committed murder or abetting joint murder. There were also three acquittals. Among the accused were six former SS officers who were also implicated in murdering the Sinti and Roma. Starting in March 1943, some 23,000 men, women and children were rounded up in the German empire, Austria and the German-occupied Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and the Netherlands, and deported to a special section of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. The conditions in the camp were so horrendous that within a matter of months, most of them died of hunger, illness or violent crimes.

“The worst thing,” according to Elisabeth Guttenberger in her report, “was the hunger. The hygienic conditions were indescribable. There was hardly any soap or possibilities to wash up. (…) The children died first. Day and night, they cried for bread; soon they all starved to death. (…) In our work brigade we had to do everything in double time. An SS Block Leader rode a bicycle alongside us. If a woman collapsed because she was too weak, he would beat her with a baton. Many died as a result of this physical abuse. (…) The SS Camp Doctor, who was in charge of the Gypsy camp, was named Dr Mengele. He was one of the most dreaded camp doctors at Auschwitz. In addition to everything the SS doctors were guilty of at Auschwitz, he carried out experiments on the handicapped and twins. He also used my cousins, who were twins, as “guinea pigs”. (…) I lost about 30 relatives in Auschwitz. My siblings and my father literally starved to death within the first few months. My youngest brother was 13 years old. He had to carry stones until he had been reduced to a mere skeleton. He also starved to death. And finally, my mother starved to death.”[5]

The only ones who had a chance of surviving were those who were transferred to other camps to do forced labour. Among them was Elisabeth Guttenberger, who was transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp on 1 August 1944, and then sent further to a subcamp of the Flossenbürg concentration camp. The remaining 3,000 or so Sinti and Roma were murdered in the gas chambers at Birkenau in the night of 2 to 3 August 1944.

(c) Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, Heidelberg (Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma, Heidelberg)
Grete and Max Friedrich, ca. 1940/41
(Source: Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, Heidelberg)

The survivors Max Friedrich, Waldemar Schröder, Paul Morgenstern and Bruno Stein provided testimony on the crimes committed in the “Gypsy camp” during the Auschwitz trial. Elisabeth Guttenberger’s statement was read aloud to the court as she was not able to attend the trial for health reasons. The same applied to the survivor Hilli Weiß.[6] Max Friedrich gave his testimony on 11 December 1964. Thanks to extensive documentation of the recordings of the trial, published by the Fritz Bauer Institute, founded in 1995, his testimony is now available as a transcript and audio document.[7] Born in 1909, the Sinto Max Friedrich was called to serve in the German Wehrmacht shortly after the outbreak of war, but was soon discharged for “racial reasons”.[8] After several years of forced labour, he was deported together with his family to Auschwitz. Shortly before all Sinti and Roma were systematically killed at Auschwitz, he – along with a number of fellow prisoners in the “Gypsy camp” who had also served in the Wehrmacht – was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp to undergo forced sterilisation. Following the procedure, the group was sent to the front as “cannon fodder”. Many of his family members, including his wife Grete and his youngest daughter, were murdered in Auschwitz. This briefly related story of his persecution played hardly any role in his examination as a witness on 11 December 1964. As was typical in such trials, the judge, the prosecution and defence lawyers were primarily interested in whether Max Friedrich had witnessed a concrete instance of criminal complicity with his own eyes. The cross examination reads more like an interrogation which aims to call the witness’s integrity into question by repeated inquiries and accusations of alleged inconsistencies. In several passages, it is exceedingly obvious how much this must have upset Max Friedrich, especially when questioned by the defence lawyer. But even the questions by the judge and prosecution revealed a general lack of sensitivity in dealing with a severely traumatised survivor. The attorney for the defence, in particular, took advantage of every opportunity to cast doubt on the credibility of the witness in a degrading manner.[9]

Nonetheless, the Auschwitz trial was a breakthrough in the assessment of Nazi crimes – also those against Sinti and Roma. Indeed, the testimonies resulted in convictions against three of the accused for committing homicide on Sinti and Roma.[10] Some of the accused received relatively mild sentences even by the legal standards of that time. This was due to the prevailing legal position that the perpetrators could only be convicted of murder if they killed another human being “on their own initiative, for ulterior motives and in a cruel and insidious manner”. Those who were able to convince the court that they were simply following orders without making them their own were regarded as an “accessory” to murder and sentenced to a lesser punishment.[11]

Thanks to this construct, a large number of Nazi perpetrators were able to escape punishment for their crimes. It wasn’t until John Demjanjuk was brought to trial in May 2011 that a German court concluded that merely working at Nazi death camp sufficed for a conviction as an accessory to murder.

Sinti and Roma also testified on crimes committed in Auschwitz in connection with a criminal investigation by the Cologne state attorney in 1961 which aimed to reveal the complete extent of the “National Socialist eradication measures against the Gypsies.” The investigation focused on no less than 46 individuals accused of participating in Nazi persecution of the Gypsies, but not a single case resulted in a conviction.[12] It wasn’t until the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma initiated proceedings against the former SS foreman Ernst-August König, the “Block Leader” of the “Gypsy camp” as of spring 1943, did the suffering endured by the Sinti and Roma in this death camp become the focus of investigation in a German court of law. In a trial that lasted four years and called numerous survivors to the stand, in 1991 the district court in Siegen sentenced König to life imprisonment for committing multiple murder.[13]

Translation from German: Robert Brambeer

1. Elisabeth Guttenberger, “Das Zigeunerlager”, in: Auschwitz. Zeugnisse und Berichte, H.G. Adler, Hermann Langbein, Ella Lingens-Reiner (eds.), 2nd rev. edition 1979 (first edition 1962), pp. 129-132, here: p. 132.

2. Cf. Silvio Peritore / Frank Reuter, “Das lange Schweigen. Zeugnisse überlebender Sinti und Roma und ihre Bedeutung für die historische Aufarbeitung”, in: Informationen. Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift des Studienkreises Deutscher Widerstand 1933–1945. Nr. 78: Zeitzeugen, November 2013 (38th year), pp. 20–24.

3. To this day, there is no scientific investigation of the legal appraisal of the crimes committed against the Sinti and Roma. For an introduction to this topic, cf. Ulrich F. Opfermann, “Genozid und Justiz. Schlussstrich als ‘staatspolitische Zielsetzung’”, in: Karola Fings / Ulrich F. Opfermann (eds.), Zigeunerverfolgung im Rheinland und in Westfalen 1933-1945. Geschichte, Aufarbeitung und Erinnerung, Paderborn 2012, pp. 315-326; Herbert Heuss / Arnold Roßberg (eds.), Schonung für die Mörder? Die justizielle Behandlung der NS-Völkermordverbrechen und ihre Bedeutung für die Gesellschaft und die Rechtskultur in Deutschland. Das Beispiel der Sinti und Roma (= publication series of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, vol. 9), Heidelberg 2015.

4. The trial and the events which preceded it are extensively documented at Audio recordings, transcripts and background information can be found at (accessed 23 Jan. 2017). We also recommend the detailed edition of the Fritz Bauer Institute, cf. Raphael Gross / Werner Renz (eds.), Der Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess (1963-1965). Kommentierte Quellenedition, 2 vols., Frankfurt am Main / New York 2013.

5. Guttenberger, Zigeunerlager, excerpts from pp. 129-132.

6. Cf. Hermann Langbein, Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Eine Dokumentation, Vienna 1965, 2 vols., vol. 2, p. 977, 983.

7. Cf. (accessed 21 January 2017). The same applies to Waldemar Schröder (testimony given on 10 July 1964), Paul Morgenstern (16 July 1964) and Bruno Stein (22 April 1965).

8. Cf. the short biography on and (accessed 22 January 2017)..

9. Cf., for example, the concluding arguments by the defense attorney Karlheinz Staiger on behalf of Franz Hofmann on 21 and 25 June 1965, in: (accessed on 22 January 2017).

10. Cf. the corresponding passages in the verdict by the district court of Frankfurt am Main in the criminal case against Mulka and others on 19/20 August 1965, in: Gross / Renz, Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess, p. 827 (Defendant Schlage: Participation in firing squad execution of prisoners of the Black Wall), p. 833 (Defendant Hofmann: The killing of a prisoner with thrown bottle), p. 852f (Kaduk: The killing of a gypsy in summer 1944 in the base camp).

11. Cf. (accessed 22 January 2017).

12. Ten cases in the Cologne proceedings were dropped due to the death of the accused. The criminal prosecution of another 23 individuals was dismissed as a result of limitation statutes. And on 20 April 1963, the state attorney dropped the charges against the remaining twelve for lack of evidence. Only Hans Maly, who was serving as the chief of police in Bonn at the time, and who in his position at the “Imperial Central Administration for the Eradication of the Gypsy Blight” organised the transport of prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau from January to September 1943, was charged with deprivation of liberty in office resulting in death on 20 February 1964. But even this case ended with no conviction following Maly’s death on 28 October 1971. The files of the court proceedings can be found at the State Archive of North Rhine-Westphalia, cat. no. Ger. Rep. 231/1525-1548.

13. Arnold Roßberg, “Die Aufarbeitung des NS-Völkermordes an den Sinti und Roma – Ermittlungsverfahren gegen die Täter und Anmerkungen zu dem Prozess beim Landgericht Siegen über das sog. ‘Zigeunerlager’ Auschwitz-Birkenau”, in: Heuss / Roßberg, Schonung für die Mörder?, pp. 94-113.




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