The 96-year-old Zilli Schmidt has made it her mission to tell the world what was done to the Romani people by the Nazi regime. She warns of contemporary parallels — and strikes a chord with many of her listeners.
It is September 2020 when Zilli Schmidt walks into Kulturhaus RomnoKher in the western German city of Mannheim, to attend a reading of her book about her memories as a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. "Your visit is a gift," is a common expression of gratitude among the many people who turn out to greet her.
The book is entitled God had plans for me: To keep alive the memory of the German Sinti and it tells of happy childhood days, as well as her incarceration, hunger, guards shooting at small children and mass murder.
In an interview with DW, she explains that it is her mission to say what the Nazis did to the Sinti, one of Europe's Romani tribes. "They were all gassed, my entire family, all my people." She says all the talk after the war was about the Shoah: "The Jews were all sent to the gas chambers. And all the Sinti are still alive?" She pauses: "Nobody was still alive."
The first time she spoke in public about her life was August 2, 2018, at a service for Europe's murdered Romanis at the memorial in Berlin: "I spoke only for my own people." She was pleased to see so many young people there: "Young people were never told. It wasn't taught at school."
Remembering is not easy, she says: "I often have the urge to cry but I don't show it. I swallow my feelings." But the memories torment her: "When I dream, I dream that I am back in Auschwitz."
Zilli Schmidt's daughter Gretel would be 80 years old if she were alive today. Schmidt, nee Reichmann, could have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But Gretel, her little girl, "did not grow up." In the camp, the girl saw the chimneys of the crematorium: "Mama, they are burning people over there." Zilli told her daughter that this was not true: "No, they are just baking bread."
Gretel's life ended when she was four years and three months old. Murdered on August 2, 1944, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, just like Zilli's parents, her sister Guki and her six children, when the Nazi SS paramilitaries decided to liquidate so-called gypsy families. On this night alone, the SS murdered about 4,300 screaming and crying people. It was one of the darkest episodes in the Romani genocide, known as the Porajmos.
Like other young concentration camp inmates deemed "fit to work," the 20-year-old was moved to a different camp before that night of murder. Her father wanted to protect Gretel and kept the girl close. When her young mother tried to run toward her family, SS doctor Josef Mengele slapped her and forced her back into the wagon. "He saved my life but did me no favor in the process." In the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, she was told what had been done to her family. She collapsed, screaming.
Zilli Schmidt was born Cäcilie Reichmann in 1924 in Thüringen, to a family of traveling performers who entertained people with their mobile cinema and music. "We were a happy family," she says in her book. The caravan that housed the Reichmanns on their summer tours was built by her father: "A real treasure," with the stove decorated with different images of birds and Meissen porcelain in the cupboard. Her brother bought and sold violins, while she and her mother went from door to door selling the finest lace.
Zilli and her little brother Hesso went to school wherever they stopped along the way. In the winter, they went to the same school for months on end, in Thüringen or Bavaria. The teachers would send them to the back of the class. Sometimes fellow pupils would chase and taunt them. "Gypsies, gypsies," chants Schmidt 90 years later, as she recalls the jibes. As a child, she would defend herself with her fists.
When the National Socialists seized power in 1933, her father still felt safe: "They're only arresting criminals." He had done nothing wrong and believed he had nothing to fear. World War Two began in 1939. Zilli's big brother Stifto served in the Wehrmacht, in Russia and France. But the Nazi regime had no interest in just rewards. It was focused on its murderous and racist ideology.
With some relatives already deported to Buchenwald concentration camp, the Reichmann family went on the road, traveling across Germany to France in a bid to stay one step ahead of the authorities. But they caught up with them: Zilli and her cousins were arrested in Strasbourg. "Crime: gypsy" read the police file.
Zilli was sent from jail to jail but managed to escape from the camp at Lety in the then German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic. But she was rearrested shortly afterward.
In March 1943, she was deported to Auschwitz, where an inmate tattooed the number Z1959 on her forearm. She was the first of the Reichmann family to end up in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the "gypsy family camp." Hunger, thirst, disease, violence, and death were part of everyday life there. Schmidt says she stole to help keep the children and others alive — potatoes from the kitchen, boots from the clothing stores. Each time, she knew she was risking her life.
Twice, her name was on the list for the gas chamber. Yet twice, she escaped, she says. She survived three days of captivity in a cell with room only to stand. Three days with neither food nor water, nor a toilet. "While I was inside, I thought 'Screw you. When I get out, I'm going to keep stealing.'"
One time, she recalls a sentry shooting at her and only narrowly missing. Later, she and her cousin Tilla were able to escape again, from a satellite camp. She survived the war against all odds. "God helped me, I would never have managed alone," says Schmidt. "I'm still here for a reason." She is one of the last eyewitnesses.
After the war, Zilli suffered from depression. At first, her medication worked and she built a new life. Then came a sense of guilt for having survived when her loved ones were murdered. She and her husband Toni Schmidt, also a concentration camp survivor, applied in Munich for compensation for the time they were incarcerated in concentration camps.
After years fighting red tape and bureaucratic dead ends, Zilli received a small amount of money: "But I was glad to get it. We were totally impoverished after the camps." It took until 1982 for the German government to acknowledge the racial persecution of Romani people.
The Mannehim reading was attended by many young women from the Romani community, who were visibly moved by Schmidt's story.
Verena Lehmann, Victoria Gross and Christina Schumacher — three young women from the Sinti and Roma community — were deeply moved by Zilli's story.
Christina Schumacher is a Romani born in Siberia, Russia. She came to Germany with her parents. Verena Lehmann's grandmother was in Auschwitz. Verena herself spoke at the memorial in Berlin on August 2, 2020: "We children learned at an early age what a concentration camp is and what a Nazi is. I was especially terrified of Hitler." This was years after the war and the death of the dictator — the trauma of persecution will go from generation to generation, she says.
Many members of the Romani community hide their identity for fear of discrimination. Victoria Gross is a nursery school teacher. When an acquaintance took part in protests against the accommodation of a Sinti family in their building, she told her that she, too, belonged to the minority group: "That information is doing the rounds now." She says her daughter is no longer invited to birthday parties. "She was in tears." Her ten-year-old daughter asks, "Why did you tell them?"
Victoria Gross says hiding is not a solution. Her recipe is to promote networking in the minority community, encouraging mutual support, and educating people. That, she says, is the reason why she does youth work.
Schmidt has lived through almost a hundred years of discrimination and alienation because she belongs to the ethnic minority of the German Sinti. "Dear children, you must stay strong," she urges. "The Hitlers are still agitating; they cannot be silenced."
The 96-year goes on: "I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I see it all on TV — that even the police have been infiltrated by Nazis." Schmidt's still experiences fear. Fear of a new breed of Nazi. "If they found out where I live, they would kill me."
This article was translated from German.