They are German citizens and have lived in Germany for centuries. But Sinti and Roma have been persecuted since the Nazi era and are still discriminated against. A new treaty aims to strengthen the minorities' rights.
"We were here, before this country even existed", says Daniel Strauss, who is from the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. He is familiar with the feeling of being rejected. He is the chairman of the German National Association of Sinti and Roma. Together with State Premier Winfried Kretschmann he has signed an offical state treaty designed to herald a new era for the minority group.
The treaty, which has the standing of an international law accord, forms the basis of a relationship at eye level, which the Sinti and Roma have been waiting for for 18 years. Strauss called it a historic event "after years of mistrust and fear." Kretschmann emphasized that "this is our common country."
The treaty recognizes the culture of Sinti and Roma as part of the last 600 years of German culture. As a minority group, they should have the right to promote their culture and language. Similar regulations have been put in place in other parts of Germany, for minorities such as the Friesians, the Danish, and the Sorbs. In 2012, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein enshrined the protection of Sinti and Roma in the state constitution.
'Shamefully late political recognition'
The treaty also acknowledges that Sinti and Roma have been marginalized and persecuted since the Middle Ages, and that they were subjected to genocide in Nazi Germany.
A train from Stuttgart, for example, brought families to Auschwitz in 1943, including a baby of two months. Many people were killed in so-called gypsy camps; many people from Stuttgart died in Auschwitz. The injustice by the Nazis, says the treaty, has taken shamefully long to be recognized politically and has not been dealt with appropriately.
Daniel Strauss' grandmother, his aunts, uncles and cousins died in Auschwitz. Only 10 percent of Sinti and Roma are said to have survived persecution during the Nazi era. For decades, these crimes were not recognized and the victims were not being compensated. Strauss' house and family business were also taken by the government and never returned to the owner.
The treaty was discussed with all parties in the state parliament, to get as much support for it as possible. City councils were also included. Ernst Schilling, the mayor of Herbolzheim, a town in Baden-Württemberg, did not need convincing.
He helped the Spindlers, a Roma family, track their history. In 1942, Schilling's predecessor had made a petition to deport the "gypsy family Spindler" from Herbolzheim and 12 out of 14 family members died. Ernst Schilling travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the commemoration of the family. He said that the survivors have been humiliated twice - instead of granting the family compensation after World War II, they were questioned and criminalized.
But the new treaty not only deals with the past, says Daniel Strauss. "It is important that we recognize anti-gypsy sentiment as a problem in German society."
Political scientist Markus End has been researching this phenomenon for many years. He realizes that anti-gypsy sentiment is "racism against people who have been labeled "gypsies." According to End's findings, a German ethnologist would still write about "gypsy skulls" from the Nazi era in 1969.
The literary scholar Klaus-Michael Bogdal also writes about prejudice and clichés of minorities that have been handed down over many centuries in his book "Europe's Invention of the Gypsies: A History of Cultural Violence."
The media is also partially responsible, says Markus End. "That is what the case of the blonde Roma girl Maria, who was allegedly kidnapped, shows." In his antiziganism report he documents just how widespread prejudice and animosity are. He not only found examples among right-wing politicians, but also in the policies of the established parties or in the police force.
In the past, Daniel Strauss has had problems finding an apartment. Once, a landlord changed his mind just before handing over the keys. "You are a gypsy, you should have told me," he said. The Strauss family took him to court. The man said he did not want the family to light a bonfire in the living room. The judge agreed with Strauss, and two policemen and a bailiff opened the door to the apartment. But those three people were actually on the landlord's side. "They were not on the side of the law" Strauss remembers.
His children also suffered from discrimination, not just when it came to looking for apartments. When his son applied for jobs at banks, he was rejected despite his great grades. He was rejected because he speaks one of the Romani languages.
New joint council
Ever since the media started reporting on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, which include Roma, sentiment against travelers has increased. The National Association of German Sinti and Roma agrees to help integrate non-German Sinti and Roma in Germany in the new treaty.
Strauss is pleased with the idea that a joint council will be discussing the concerns of the minority on a regular basis. The state of Baden-Württemberg is known for its hard-working attitude and strong economy. Strauss hopes that in future "being the best will apply to Sinti and Roma too."