3.5. Persecuted and incarcerated as a "gypsy" under Hitler
Encounters with the Sinto Gottfried “Friedel” Weiß
When we still were children, we probably met from time to time. The big family Weiß was living at the campground on the Wasmerstraße in Marburg back then, close to where we were living until 1937. Us boys used to yell “Gyp, Gyp, Gypsy!” over the fences around their caravans, and sometimes stones flew. One time, somebody threw one back and hit me on the leg, so I ran back home crying. “If that happens again”, my mother told me, “you scream: “I tell that to father Weiß!’. Then you will see how those gypsy children will run away”.
“My grandfather”, Gottfried Weiß is nodding. Today, he lives with 45 other Sinti families in Georgswerder, where he is sitting in front of me in his apartment. A friendly, open-minded man, born in 1928, about three years older than myself, grown up in the so-called gypsy camp, “Father Weiß” was the head of his family.
Now and then I would pass the camp on a Sunday stroll with my parents. What a picturesque idyll! Lots and lots of children; old women who smoke the pipe; horses were running around and dogs and … goats? “Yes, yes”, confirms Gottfried Weiß. “And sheep.” One day an older, chubby gypsy woman was standing on the porch of my grandmother’s house, which was close by, together with a small wheel. “Good hands”, said the foreign woman after she had inspected the lines in my hand. “That was Rosa”, smiles Gottfried Weiß. I see. And then I remember a rather tall, strikingly light-skinned man with red hair. Was he a Sinto, too?
“Yes. Robert Weiß, my cousin. He died one and a half years ago.”
All of a sudden, after more than six decades, these people start getting names for me, their fates become alive. We flip through the documentation entitled “When the music fell silent” by the pupil Viviane Wünsche from Harburg (available for download under www.RomNews.com). Robert Weiß, I read there, had to do heavy labour from 1942 to 1944 in the carbonide factory Dr. Steinike in Harburg, but without a heavy worker card, also without special food rations, and with much higher taxes than the other colleagues. And: The pupil Gottfried Weiß was assigned to a different school in 1939/40 and had to join a special “gypsy class”.
“For my father”, my conversation partner adds, “the backlash started even earlier. He was taken away in 1938 already and forced under beatings to help build the later concentration camp Sachsenhausen. At his dismissal he was threatened and had to keep silent about his experiences. At one time, we received a postcard from him, with a note on the edge: Special greetings to uncle Baribok. That meant as much as: big hunger.”
He and his siblings grew up bilingual, reports Gottfried Weiß. “We speak Sinti [Sintiza] and German; the olders also spoke Romanes.” No, ‘gypsy’ is not necessarily an insult for him, although he is aware of the defaming association the word carries in German, suggesting ‘moving crooks’. “Dirty gypsies – now that’s something else!” he says. “That I won’t allow. The Roma and Sinti, originating in India, live in Europe for many centuries now, but they were always suppressed and persecuted.”
A picture forces itself inside my head. The gypsy camp in Harburg – empty. The gypsies? Taken away? Grandmother, why? I don’t know. All gone, over night. To where? Shrugging. Me, the nine-year-old, of to the camp. Two or three caravans were still standing there. Silent witnesses. In the bakery next door, the customers, what did they say? “Hopefully somebody took care of the animals. After all, they are not to blame.“
„It happened on May 16th,“ Gottfried Weiß reports. “I was eleven years old. We had to get up at four o’clock in the morning. Police, SA, SS – the whole place was surrounded. We were to be resettled, they told us, to the general gouvernant of those days, we should only pack the most necessary things. We would get everything anew there, furniture, clothing and so on. We were brought to the harbour in Hamburg on trucks.” There, at the Baakenbrücke 2, a spot today marked by a memorial plaque, 910 Sinti and Roma from Northern Germany were eventually registered.
“We all had to undress in the big fruit warehouse – men, women and children. We were searched for money, valuables and jewelry, also our clothes. It was unutterably humiliating and embarrassing for the adults, to have to get naked in front of the children. They weren’t used to that, you know?”
It was the first station of his five-year long, agonizing ordeal, with the concentration camp Belzec in Poland at the beginning, and the extermination camp of Bergen-Belsen at the end, for Gottfried Weiß “the most horrible camp of them all”. His experiences: horrendous, beyond any humaneness. Once during this time, the beards of orthodox Jews were set on fire, to enjoy their suffering. At another time he had to witness how a nine-year old, dying girl was thrown, fully conscious, into a ditch with corpses, sprinkled with chloride lime and then buried alive.
One day before the bombing of the Warsaw ghetto, a guard advises him and other prisoners to flee. “That saved our lives, although we were immediately arrested again the next day.” 1945 finally, at Bergen-Belsen, after they had literally walked over dead bodies – there was no fuel left to set them on fire – the camp was freed by British troops on April 15th. One of the hundreds of thousands of victims of those days, besides other relatives, was Helmut Weiß, Gottfried’s younger brother. Gottfried’s parents, though, as well as three of his siblings had miraculously survived like him.
But there in Harburg, at the place where they had once lived, the Sinti were no longer welcome. “It was like a second deportation.” Was there at least financial compensation? “For those five years, I received 3,050 Deutsch-Marks in total. Many of us didn’t get anything, and you know why? Because they couldn’t read or write and thus didn’t know about the ultimatum that was set for them in the official letter.”
Gottfried Weiß. Having met him has moved me. He could have been bitter after everything that has been done to his family and especially to himself, but he sees, firm in his Christian beliefs, at first a friend in every human being, and has even forgiven the murderers of the Nazi regime. In good hands within the circle of his family, every new day fills him with thankfulness – an impressive man, who commits himself in the board of the Roma and Sinti Union and in addition to that fights against forgetting of the past as a contemporary witness everywhere where young people want to listen to him: in Germany, Russia, England, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Israel.
Gottfried Weiß suffered more than 2.5 million minutes in fear and horror during his five-year incarceration in different camps.
More than half a million Roma and Sinti were killed in the extermination camps of the Nazis.
The racial-biological research of the Nazi physicians laid the foundation for the gene research of today.
Notice: May 16th
Police station Nöldekestraße, Hamburg-Harburg, commemoration ceremony lest we forget
In the Warsaw ghetto, there was about one square meter of living space for each inhabitant. In a 20-square-meter room, you had 20 persons. Try to measure out a small room and fill it with one pupil per square meter.
Mr. Gottfried Weiß remembers:
“For 200 grams of bread more, I volunteered to collect the corpses in the Warsaw ghetto and cart them to a common grave. It was a terrible work. But otherwise I would have died of malnutrition and exhaustion, like all the people. I remember that I once even picked up a piece of bread out of the hands of a dead man.”