Sunday 8 April 2018

'The (Roma) Boy Who Lived' by Karen Maitland

Rounding up of Roma in Occupied Yugoslavia 
Between 1941-1944
Two of my medieval thrillers feature dwarfs as main characters. One is a natural-born dwarf sold by their family into a brothel, the other was artificially made into a dwarf as a baby so that he could be sold as a jester. Perhaps, that is why I was so moved when I came across the true story of a child who survived the holocaust by pretending to be a dwarf. The child in question was a Romani and today, 8th April, is International Romani or Roma Day, when our thoughts focus on the Sinti and Roma who perished in the Holocaust.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many European Roma were murdered between 1939 and 1945. Estimates range from 220,000 to 500,000. Proportionately, they suffered greater losses than any other group of victims except the Jews. The Sinti and Roma did not match the racial ideal of Aryan appearance and their itinerant lifestyle was considered ‘asocial,’ even ‘criminal.’ Ironically, pure-blood Roma were thought to be harmless by the Nazis, but the majority of the Roma community were believed to be of mixed race and therefore ‘degenerate’ and ‘dangerous.’ The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 aimed at the Jews were soon amended to include them.

Memorial to Sinti and Roma in Nuremberg near where,
on 15th Sept 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were adopted.
Photo: Aarp65
July 1942. Serbs and Roma being marched to Kozara and
Jasenova concentration camps.
As early as 1936, Roma were beginning to be sent to labour camps on the grounds of antisocial behaviour or ‘criminal tendencies’. After 1939, 30,000 Roma from Germany and from the German-occupied territories were sent to the Jewish ghettos in Poland including Warsaw and Lublin, where many perished within months from hunger, cold and sickness. Those married to Germans were exempt, but were sterilized, as were their children.

On 16th December, 1942, Himmler issued an order that all Roma were to be rounded-up and taken to the concentration camps. There were exemptions – those who could prove they had ‘pure gypsy blood’ dating from ancient times; those of Roma descent who had integrated into German society and did not ‘behave like gypsies,’ and the families of those who had served with distinction in the German armed forces. But in practise, local authorities often ignored these niceties during their raids. The police even deported Roma soldiers who were on active service in the German military, when they came home on leave.

Around 23,000 Roma from Germany and some parts of occupied Europe were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a special Roma ‘Family Camp’ was built. In Poland, many of those not sent to Auschwitz were shot by the local police, including nearly 1,000 in the Krakow district alone. Others from occupied Europe were dispatched to other camps including Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Ravensbrück and Treblinka.

Nazi doctors experimented on some Roma women, particularly when trying out barbaric methods of sterilization. And as he did with the Jews, the infamous Mengele selected Roma twins and dwarfs for his human experiments, including amputation of healthy limbs.

Monument to the memory of the Roma who were murdered
erected on the site of Nazi crimes, Borzencin Village, Poland.
Photographer: Zygmunt Put
In May 1944, the SS guards surrounded and sealed off the Roma ‘Family Camp’ at Auschwitz intending to liquidate all inside. But the Roma had been warned and had armed themselves with tools and iron pipes and refuse to walk out to their deaths. The SS withdrew. Over the next few months, around 3,000 Roma deemed fit for work were sent to Auschwitz I and to the German factories as slave labour, leaving the sick, the elderly and children in the family camp. Then in August, the SS rounded up the remaining 2,898 inmates. Most were murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau. Then they systematically hunted down the children who had hidden during the operation and slaughtered them. It is estimated that around 19,000 of the 23,000 Roma sent to Auschwitz died in that camp either from disease, starvation or deliberate murder.

It was only in 1979 that the West German Federal Parliament recognised the Nazi persecution of Roma as ‘racial’, which allowed survivors to apply for compensation, but by then many had already died.

The larger the number, the harder it is to comprehend the full scale of the human misery involved in events like this, but in the end it is not so much the numbers that matter as much as the knowledge that each person who suffered and died was an individual human being who loved and was loved.
1941. Serbian Roma being taken to their executions. 

One such, was a little boy called Karl Stojka who was born in 1933 to Lowara Roma parents in eastern Austria. Little Karl had five siblings and spent his summers travelling in their caravan, as his family worked as horse-traders. But in March 1938, just before Karl’s 7th birthday, they were camped on their usual winter-site in Vienna when Germany annexed Austria. They were told they could not move on. Karl’s parents were forced to convert their caravan into a static wooden house, which the children found hard to cope with, unused to being caged within permanent walls. Karl’s father and oldest sister were recruited to work in a factory, and the children were sent to school.

Arriving at Auschwitz II - Birkenau Camp
Photographer: Lubomir Rosenstein
But if Karl felt trapped by walls, it was nothing compared to the barbed wire, guards and search lights he was about to face, for by 1943, the family had been deported to Birkenau camp. Having witnessed the death of thousands of fellow Roma, Karl, still only 10 years old, was one of 918 transported to Buchenwald as slave labour. But on arrival they went through another selection process, and the officers pulled out 200 deemed incapable of working, who were to be returned to Birkenau to be gassed. Karl was one of those chosen to be sent back to his death, because the officer thought him too young to be of any use. But his brother and uncle insisted that he was 14 years and just appeared short because he was a dwarf. That was quite a gamble as dwarfs were often used for barbaric experimentation, but he was kept as a worker.

Karl was eventually moved to Flossenbürg concentration camp, before finally being freed by American troops on 24th April, 1945.

More details of Karl’s young life can be found in 'The Story of Karl Stojka: A Childhood in Birkenau' (Washington, D.C., 1992), published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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