The Porajmos in Berlin. The ‘Zigeunerrastplatz’ in Marzahn and the memorial sites which came too late (1933-2012)

Lager für Sinti und Roma, Berlin-Marzahn. © Bundesarchiv

A hard fate to realise has been the fate of the Gypsies in nazi Germany and its occupied countries – since one nowadays rarely sees a Gypsy and they are still outsiders of the society – at least, that is their reputation. Many European Gypsies – the gathering name of groups such as Sinti, Roma, Lallere and many others – were between 1933 and 1945 deported and worked till death or were gassed. A similar destiny to the terrible fate of the jews. Though it’s unclear if nazi’s hunted the Gypsies with the same fanatism as they hunted jews – the decision to deport all Gypsies out Germany was made already in 1938. It’s no overstatement to say that Gypsies went through an own genocide – which is called the Porajmos. Around the 500.000 European Gypsies did not survive the war.

Discrimination against Gypsies started as soon as Hitler took power – they were put in concentration camps in 1933 already and physical sterilisation programs followed in 1934. By 1936, there were already documents written about Die Endlösung der Zigeunerfrage (“the Final Solution to the Gypsy question”). In the same year, it was planned to build a camp for gypsies near the Plötzensee in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Direct cause was  to keep the Gypsies out the Reichshauptstadt during the Olympic games of 1936. Public protest of the surrounding neighbourhood made this camp impossible. In July 1936 – nazi’s erected this camp eventually in Marzahn, by then still a suburb of Berlin. In this Zigeunerrastplatz (‘Gypsie rest place’) – nazi’s concentrated over a thousand Roma’s and Sinti’s. The nazi’s were helped by Berlin’s police fairly well, which later guarded the camp. At this working camp, Gypsies had to work in agriculture or the surrounding arnament fabrics in bad conditions. In no case, Gypsies were allowed to develop contact with Germans – even working children had to eat their lunch outside. Due to the bad hygienic conditions, over a hundred Gypsies found death – who were burried at the nearby graveyard. Most of the Sinti and Roma from within the Zigeunerrastplatz were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in March 1943 – only a few survived the war.

Reimar Gilsenbach (1925-2001). © Unclear

It took many decades before Gypsies were recognized as a group of nazi’s victims in both Germanies. Surviving Gypsies didn’t get compensation payments for confiscated property, imprisonment or damaged health. Moreover, Leo Karsten – Berlin’s Officer of the Gypsy Affairs – didn’t find any consequences for his future career by his crimes during the war, while he was sued by Gypsies directly after the war. In the FRG, the Porajmos wasn’t recognized as a genocide before March 1982 – by then, the West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt recognized in a speech that the nazi genocide was based on racist motivations. Also in the GDR, it happened only on individual basis that Gypsies were compensated for their loss – and mostly with the help of human rights activist Raimar Gilsenbach (1925-2001).

In 1986, remembrance of the fallen Gypsies, Gilsenbach and an evangelic minister Bruno Schottstädt (1927-2000) erected succesfully a memorial stone which was made by Jürgen Raue. It was revealed at GDR’s Marzahner Friedhof – which is close to the former Zigeneurrastplatz. On initiative of Otto Rosenberg (1927-2001) – who was a survivor of the Porajmos – a white marble plate was added in 1990 with the text Atschen Devleha (Rest in peace). To its side, a bronse panel was erected in 1991 – informing the visitors about the Zigeunerrastplatz.

Friedhof Marzahn - Gedenkensemble für die Sinti und Roma. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Since 2007, the street and the square where the former Zigeunnerrastplatz was located is called the Otto-Rosenberg-Strasse – in remembrance of the survivor of not only Zigeunerrastplatz but also Auschwitz, Dora, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. Rosenberg was a co-founder of the Cinti-Union – which is renamed as the Landesverband Deutscher Sinti und Roma Berlin-Brandenburg. Since 2011, there are eleven information panels located at the Otto-Rosenberg-Strasse.

Otto-Rosenberg-Strasse. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.Otto-Rosenberg-Platz. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

In 1992, the government of the united Germany decided to erect another monument at the top location between the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag. Though the memorial site’s design by Dani Karavan (1930-) was chosen in 1992 already, it wasn’t finished and revealed before last October 24. Not only the finances – but also the content of the information delayed the monument’s development. Important questions were whether the term Zigeuner could be used – which is not as politically correct as the terms Roma and Sinti. Also, there was – and still is an ongoing discussion – whether the Porajmos was comparable to the Holocaust. At last, also a fitting quotation delayed its development, for which eventually the poem ‘Auschwitz’ by Roma poet Santino Spinelli was chosen for the memorial site’s inscription. The sober but sensitive memorial site shows a pool amidst broken stones. In the middle of the pool, a triangle goes down in the water once a day – and comes up with a fresh flower. A glass wall next to it informs the visitor about the Gypsies’ fate during the war. In her speech, Angela Merkel acknowledged that the erection of this monument took too long – and she welcomed the Sinti survivor of Auschwitz, Zoni Weisz (1937-). The Minister of State for Culture, Bernd Neumann, speeched that the fate of the Roma and Sinti have been ignored too long after the war.

Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus ermordeten Sinti und Roma Europas, November 2012, Berlin. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

So to speak, now – over 67 years after the end of the war – the memorisation of Gypsies are finally mapped in Berlin’s city centre. The destiny of the Gypsies may been hard to realise – as Zoni Weisz also said in his speech at the opening of it, the memorial site came too late for the few who survived the Porajmos.

Recommanded book: Tilman Zülch, In Auschwitz vergast, bis heute verfolgt. Zur Situation der Roma (Zigeuner) in Deutschland und Europa (Reinbeck 1979)

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