The gypsy camp at Auschwitz II - Birkenau

Roma from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and other parts of Europe were transported to what was known as the gypsy camp in the BIIe section of the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp. It was set up on the basis of an order signed by Himmler on the 16th of December 1942 (link in Czech), and the first groups of prisoners came to it in February 1943 from Germany. The camp soon began to fill up with newly-arrived transports.

The camp measured 150 by 170 m. In this area were 32 wooden buildings, without any kind of insulation. The buildings were designed for 300 to 400 people, but during the camp's existence 1 000 to1 200 people were squeezed into them. Unlike in other parts of the Auschwitz complex, the Roma families were accommodated together. (The only comparable exception was the Terezín family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau). In some cases, up to 15 people were squeezed on to bunk beds that were 185 cm long and 280 cm wide.

Upon their arrival at the camp, Roma were driven out of the trucks with cursing and beating, and ordered to form rows of fives, in which they were taken from the train to the camp. After arriving at the camp, there was a communal bath, accompanied by mocking comments from the SS men. The communal bath was a source of shame for many Roma, since according to tradition a woman should not strip off in front of strange men. After the bath, the prisoners were given the black triangles used to mark asocials, and which they had to sew onto their clothing, since unlike other prisoners they were allowed to wear their civilian clothes. They also had a number tattooed on their left forearm, starting with a large letter Z (German Zigeuner - gypsy).

Portrait of unknown Roma prisoners in the Auschwitz II - Birkenau concentration camp, drawn by Dina Gottlieb, a Jewish prisoner from the Protectorate, on the orders of Josef Mengele in 1944. (Panstwowe Muzeum Osviecim, photo: Museum of Roma Culture)

The prisoners were forced to obey orders blindly and to carry out the most senseless wishes expressed by their supervisors. Human beings became mere numbers. Unlike those in other concentration camps, the prisoners in the Roma camp were not included in labour commandos outside the camp. They mostly worked inside the camp, which often meant unnecessary work with no aim. Instead of being destroyed by labour, however, they were killed by catastrophic living conditions and shortage of food.

The Roma prisoners came from various social groups, ranging from people on the fringes of society to traders, former soldiers on the front or even members of Nazi organisations. Their reactions to being in the camp also varied. Some sought to enjoy the last moments of their lives as much as possible, and so prostitution and carousing appeared. Others tried to ensure they had enough food by stealing it, something for which fierce punishments were meted out, often resulting in death. The only hope of survival was to escape, but this was complicated by the fact that most of the prisoners did not go to work outside the camp. Nevertheless, some 80 unsuccessful escape attempts were recorded, most of them ending in execution.

The gypsy camp was one of the focuses of the pseudo-scientific experiments of Dr. Mengele, who acted as the camp's doctor. He was particularly interested in Roma twins. Jewish prisoner Dina Gottlieb was ordered to draw portraits of imprisoned Roma for him.

In all, over 20 000 people were recorded as having been imprisoned in the gypsy camp. Those not recorded included, for example, a group of 1 700 Polish Roma, in which typhus appeared. They were taken away to the gas chambers without being recorded. The largest group consisted of German and Austrian Roma, followed by Roma from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the territory of the Generalgouvernement. Smaller groups of Roma came from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries.

Their one and only hope of survival became transports to other concentration camps. On the 15th of April 1944, 883 men were transported to Buchenwald and 473 women were taken to Ravensbrück (link in Czech). The last to leave was a transport of 918 men to Buchenwald and 490 women to Ravensbrück on the 2nd ofAugust 1944. After these transports left, the remaining 3 000 Roma, mostly those who were old and ill, women and children, were sent to the gas chambers.

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