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Mano Höllenreiner recalls surviving Auschwitz 'Gypsy Camp'

August 2, 2018

4,000 Sinti and Roma were murdered from August 2-3, 1944, in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ten-year-old Mano Höllenreiner and his family barely escaped death — but not unspeakable horrors. Andrea Grunau reports from Bavaria.

Hermann Mano Höllenreiner sits with his hands crossed on a table
Image: DW/A. Grunau

Hermann Mano Höllenreiner has an upright gait. When visitors arrive, the 84-year-old likes to come out to greet them at the front gate of his home in Mettenheim, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Munich. Inside, photos of him showing his Auschwitz prisoner tattoo to former German Presidents Christian Wulff and Joachim Gauck hang in the staircase. His prisoner number: Z 3526. The Z stands for "Zigeuner," the German word for Gypsy, which was the name given to the Sinti and the Roma, Europe's largest minority, by the Nazis. "Everybody wants to see the number," he says, as he pushes up his sleeve.

Mano Höllenreiner shows former German President Joachim Gauck his prisoner tattoo from Auschwitz
Mano Höllenreiner shows former German President Joachim Gauck his prisoner tattoo from AuschwitzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

The "Gypsy Camp" at Auschwitz-Birkenau was closed on the night of August 2, 1944. That night thousands of men, women and children were killed in the camp's gas chambers and their bodies burnt. Recently, historians at the Auschwitz Museum discovered that before the sun came up on August 3, at least 4,000 people died, far more than the 2,900 previously thought to have been murdered.

Shortly before this took place, Mano had been transferred with his parents and his sister Josefine, nicknamed Lilly, to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. He lost many relatives at Auschwitz: Cousins and their children, aunts and "my poor old grandmother, who I loved dearly — was also gassed." The Höllenreiner family lost 36 members to Nazi persecution. His mother also had Jewish ancestors; more than 100 members of her family were killed. The 84-year-old says he no longer returns to Auschwitz  it is too much for him to bear.

Hermann Höllenreiner and his wife Else walk through the gates of Sachsenhausen in winter
Mano and his wife Else visited Sachsenhausen in 2012, but he no longer goes back because it is too emotional for him Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik

Bodies stacked 'as high as my ceiling'

When the memories return, he can hear the screams from the death camp. He can hear and see the dead of Auschwitz in his home, there among his antique Bavarian furniture.

"When the children died, their mothers wailed. Then they [the guards] just took them and threw them into a pile," Mano says, recalling the brutal regime of the camp guards. He and his cousin Hugo, both just schoolboys, also helped carry away the dead at times. The bodies were stacked. "The dead were piled as high as my ceiling," he says as he points up with a pained expression, as if he could see them there now.

He says sometimes he would rather just forget, "but it always comes back." His wife, Else, speaks of nightmares in which he screams with an almost inhuman horror. Her husband looks at her gratefully: "You've been through a lot with me." And that is why Mano Höllenreiner actively fights to make sure the past will not be forgotten. He has given many lectures, often at schools, so that "young Germans know what we went through in the concentration camps and that the entire system was criminal." Mano was awarded Germany's Federal Cross of Merit for his educational work.

Read more: German state signs historic treaty with Sinti and Roma

Mano Höllenreiner carries a wreath through the grass along with Zoni Weisz
Mano Höllenreiner (center left) laid a wreath at the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism in Berlin in 2012 alongside Holocaust survivor Zoni WeiszImage: Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma

'We were Germans!'   

Mano, who was born in 1933, often ran away from school and hid behind the altar at the nearby church. His teacher was always bullying him, even though Mano describes himself as not looking like a Sinti. "He was a real little Nazi," Mano says of his teacher.

Johann Baptist Höllenreiner in the Wehrmacht uniform
Mano's father, Johann, served in the Nazi Wehrmacht until being let go for being a 'gypsy half-breed'Image: Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma

Mano's father, Johann, had a haulage company with horses, as did his brother. They were often called "Gypsies" as an insult. When the Second World War started, his father served in the army, and his family moved to the countryside. Mano played with farm children in the area: "I didn't even know I was a Gypsy," he recalls. His father and uncle were both discharged from the army on "racial-political grounds." An assessment issued by the Research Institute for Racial Hygiene, which systematically categorized minorities in Germany, registered the family as "Gypsy half-breeds" in 1941. Back in Munich, Mano's father and brother became forced laborers, cobbling streets under police supervision.

Early one morning in March 1943, there was a knock on the door. It was the police. The family was ordered to leave immediately. Mano had to leave his tiny dog behind. "We were Germans!" Even today, Mano Höllenreiner is still stunned by the baseless persecution. "My grandfather and my great-grandfather were in the army. We are German Sinti!" The Höllenreiner family had lived in Bavaria for centuries.

A miracle to be alive

But none of that mattered 75 years ago. The family was locked in cattle wagons with thousands of others at the city's South Train Station, with no provisions and no toilets, Mano remembers. His father told him that he had been promised a farm in Poland. The journey took days, but to the 9-year-old it seemed like an eternity. The first people began to die along the way.

When they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau it became clear that the farm story was a lie. Each passenger was tattooed with a number, and their heads were shaved. Families were forced into barracks known as the "Gypsy Camp." The only thing to eat was a bit of bread and rotten turnips. Prisoners were required to line up each morning at four. In winter, they stood in deep snow. "Old women fell over and died," says Mano. "Its a miracle that we are still alive."

Barracks at Auschwitz extend towards the horizon
In the "Gypsy Camp" at Auschwitz, Sinti and Roma were packed into barracksImage: Staatliches Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau

'We thought we would be gassed'

He also encountered the infamous SS physician Josef Mengele. Mano had to carry medical jars containing specimens: The organs of children that Mengele had murdered in the Gypsy Camp. Mengele's barbarism was notorious: "He had little twins jump from third-story windows and then he would put them back together." Mengele operated on Mano's cousin Hugo and his brother, leaving both with severe abdominal injuries.

Everyone in the Gypsy Camp knew the nearby crematorium — the smoke from its chimney and the smell of burnt flesh. When the camp was scheduled to be shut down in 1944, the Höllenreiner family was among those who were to be sent to another camp. When they had all gotten on board the train to leave, it suddenly began rolling backwards — toward the crematorium. Everyone began to scream. "We thought we were going to be gassed," explains Mano. Then the train lurched off in the right direction. The survivor draws a deep breath, he sounds very agitated: "The mothers and fathers all screamed. Such a thing must never happen again!"

Again and again, he interrupts himself: "One cannot possibly explain how it really was at Auschwitz, at the death camps. It was so much worse than what I've told you."

Forced sterilization, rats and pudding

Joseph Mengele
In Auschwitz Mano encountered the notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele, who performed heinous medical operationsImage: Imago/United Archives International

In the Ravensbrück camp where the Höllenreiner family arrived, men and women were separated. Mano's mother and sister Lilly were sent to the women's camp. He feared they would be killed. He says a doctor used one knife to sterilize his father, uncle and cousins. He and a young Polish boy hid under the triple bunk beds for days. He recalls that there were huge rats there: "I almost died."

His father and the others were extremely weakened by the brutal invasiveness of their operations. Mano, then just 10, snuck into the prisoners' kitchen, where he was able to steal a container of pudding for them. But later he was caught. An SS officer forced him to continuously jump over a wooden bench as punishment: "First left, then right, until I couldn't go on," he says. Exhausted, Mano eventually fell, injuring his leg before losing consciousness. Yet, to this day the fact that the others were able to eat the pudding before he was caught gives him great satisfaction. He says he still has a scar from his fall.

Much later he also found out that his mother underwent forced sterilization in Ravensbrück, as well.

Traumatic death march: 'It would be a waste to use two bullets' 

Mano and his father were then transported from Ravensbrück to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. The war was getting closer. His father and the other ex-soldiers were sent to the front. They were put in SS uniforms and forced into the arms of the approaching Russians, says the 84-year-old, full of indignation at the thought. It was only good fortune that men bearing Auschwitz tattoos were not shot.

Mano and his sister Lilly hold their father's hands in happier times before the Holocaust
Mano and his sister Lilly hold their father's hands in happier times before the HolocaustImage: privat

Mano was forced to leave Sachsenhausen on a merciless westward death march that few survived. Those who were too slow in getting up out of the deep snow after a break were simply shot. One scene, in particular, is seared into his memory. He says an SS officers told a Jewish father and son that, "It would be a waste to use two bullets" to kill them. So the two were forced to stand one behind the other, the son in front with his mouth wide open. The SS officer then put his pistol in the boy's mouth and pulled the trigger. Mano saw what the bullet did to the men — he was standing right next to them when it happened.

Paris instead of Munich: 'Don't say you're German'

Mano was finally able to escape with his cousins and a few other boys. He tells of how they watched as SS men stripped off their Nazi uniforms and put on striped prisoners' clothing as Russian troops gained ground. 

Mano could barely keep going when freed French prisoners pulled him onto their wagon. They drilled him: "Don't say you're German."

Suddenly, the war was over and 11-year-old Mano was standing in Paris. An Alsatian woman who spoke German took him home with her. She eventually became his "Aunt Fifine" and her son Paul was like a brother to him. Mano did not return home to his family in Munich, who had been looking for him, until December of 1946.

Mano and his family gather around a table while reviewing photographs
Mano was reunited with his family in December 1946Image: Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma

Not long ago, he told his story to author Anja Tuckermann. She retold it in her book Mano. The 84-year-old says he thinks it is important that people know exactly what happened during the Nazi era. He is utterly disgusted by comments like those recently made by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) politician Alexander Gauland, who brushed off the period by saying it was, "just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history."

Enmity and support

The Höllenreiners continued to experience racism and hostility long after 1945. Else Höllenreiner says one person in their town of Mettenheim wanted to cleanse the area of "Jews, Turks and gypsies." And when their daughter Carol opened a children's clothing store, people said it was a place for washing "Gypsy money" — perhaps out of envy for the success of the family antique shop. Else Höllenreiner confronted those people and reported them to the police. She says they didn't learn that there had been a concentration camp in Mettenheim until after they built their house.

Read more: Poland's Roma community battles discrimination

Attacks on Roma people

But she says they have had many positive experiences, too. Maxi, the young neighboring boy, for instance, read the book Mano at school. The survivor himself is thankful that so many students have been able to learn his story in that way. A regional school also made a documentary film about Mano. And many young people showed their support for him at a demonstration against right-wing extremism, at which the mayor promised he would always be there for Mano at anytime.

Fear and the desire to protect

The bookcover of Mano.: Der Junge der nicht wußte, wo er war (von Anja Tuckermann)
The book 'Mano: The young boy who didn't know where he was' tells the Auschwitz survivor's storyImage: Hanser

Two dogs, Cathi and Simmerl, scurry around the Höllenreiner's house. They belong to their daughter Carol, who loves animals just as her father does. After his daughter leaves, Mano starts to get nervous. "I'm scared," he tells his wife. "Give her a call on her cellphone." His parents were barely able to protect him; he worries about his daughter who reached adulthood long ago.

Carol and Mano's wife Else also want to protect him in return. They know that speaking about the past awakens memories that no person can bear. Else intervenes whenever her husband begins to get nervous. When his hands start to shake, she shows his documents and photographs for him. The two have been married for more than 60 years.

When the Höllenreiners serve traditional Bavarian white sausages and soft pretzels, the dogs begin to beg, and Mano indulges them. Animals, he says, were always a comfort. When he was too scared to say who he really was in France, he spoke to ants and chipmunks. He says he sobbed while thinking about his family under the watchful gaze of a blackbird.

Mano Höllenreiner could easily be bitter after everything he has been through; he could be a misanthrope. But he is nothing of the sort. Instead, he lovingly and protectively accompanies his visitor out to the garden gate and implores: "Please let us know when you have gotten home safely." 

Mano and wife Else stand should to shoulder Höllenreiner.
Mano and his wife Else both actively fight right-wing ideas and movementsImage: DW/A. Grunau
Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author
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