Sixty-First Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Gypsy Camp in Birkenau
August 2 marks the 61st anniversary of the liquidation of the so-called Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp. On that day in 1944, the Nazis killed 2,897 men, women, and children in the gas chambers. August 2 has been observed since 1997 as Roma Extermination Remembrance Day.
In terms of numbers, the Gypsies were the third-largest group of deportees to Auschwitz, after the Jews and the Poles. Gypsy transports reached Auschwitz from 14 countries. The first Roma arrived on July 9, 1941, when there were two Polish Roma among a group of nine prisoners sent to the camp by the German criminal police in Katowice.
In December 1942, the Germans decreed that Gypsies should be imprisoned in concentration camps. Auschwitz was the camp chosen. Entire Gypsy families were deported to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The first transport arrived on February 26, 1943, when the Familienzigeunerlager was still under construction; when completed, it comprised 32 residential and 6 sanitation barracks.
A total of 20,967 men, women, and children were imprisoned in the Gypsy camp between February 26, 1943 and July 21, 1944. This figure does not include about 1,700 Roma from Białystok, who were not entered in the records. Suspected of carrying typhus, they were sent straight to the gas chambers and exterminated.
Diseases killed the majority of the nearly twenty thousand prisoners in the Zigeunerlager. Children deported to or born in the camp were particularly at risk, with noma (“water cancer”), scarlet fever, measles, and diphtheria all endemic. Some children also became subjects of Dr. Josef Mengele’s criminal experiments.
The Germans intended to exterminate the Roma completely as early as May 1944. On May 15, Gypsy Camp director Unterscharfuehrer SS Georg Bonigut ordered the inmates to stay in their barracks. The next day, 50 to 60 SS men surrounded the camp. They attempted to force the prisoners out of the barracks, but failed to do so. Fearing casualties, the Germans withdrew. There were significant numbers of Wehrmacht veterans among the prisoners. The Germans also feared that a mutiny could spread to other parts of the camp. On May 23, over 1,500 Gypsies were transferred from Birkenau to Auschwitz, from where they were subsequently transferred to Buchenwald. Two days later, 82 Gypsies were shipped to the Flossenburg camp and 144 Gypsy women to Ravensbrueck. Fewer than 3,000 people remained in the Family Camp.
The extermination of the Gypsies in Birkenau occurred on the night of August 2/3, 1944, on orders from Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler. A ban on leaving the barracks was imposed on the evening of August 2. Despite resistance by the Gypsies, 2,897 men, women, and children were loaded on trucks, taken to gas chamber V, and exterminated. Their bodies were burned in pits next to the crematorium.
A total of about 23,000 Roma were imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau; approximately 21,000 of them perished. The remainder were transferred to other camps. They labored in industry. Roma were also subjected to criminal medical experiments. They were used as subjects in experiments at Buchenwald on the effects of drinking sea water. It is estimated that about half of the Romany in lands occupied by the Third Reich died as a result of German persecution and terror.
Today, Gypsies remember the murdered members of their families. On August 2, 1997, two Roma survivors, Herbert Adler (no. Z 2784) and Adolf Labinger (no. Z 41121), unveiled a restored memorial plaque on the ruins of one of the Familienzigeunerlager barracks. A permanent exhibition commemorating the martyrdom of the Gypsies was opened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 2001.