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January 27, 2011

The Roma community will for the first time be the guest of honor at official Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in Germany, after a long battle for recognition for Sinti and Roma victims of Nazi persecution.

The site of the planned memorial in Berlin
Berlin is planning a new memorial to Sinti and RomaImage: AP

A Roma Holocaust survivor, Zoni Weisz, 73, has been asked to address German parliamentarians in the Bundestag on behalf of the "forgotten" victims.

Romani Rose
Romani Rose has campaigned for more recognition for RomaImage: picture-alliance /dpa

Weisz was born in Holland to an instrument maker and grew up in the eastern town of Zutphen. His family was deported to the east in 1944 when he was 7, but he survived thanks to a policeman who helped him escape.

Weisz lived out the rest of the war in hiding, but his parents, sisters and younger brother were all murdered in Auschwitz.

"It is the first time that the fate of the Sinti and Roma of Europe has been placed at the center of the the commemorations - finally," said the head of the Council of Sinti and Roma in Germany, Romani Rose.

Historians estimate that between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti were killed by the Nazis, out of a total population of around one million in Europe before World War II.

The beginning of the end

January 27 marks the day when, in 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Around 1.5 million people were murdered there, the vast majority of them European Jews.

The entrance to Auschwitz
Around 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered at AuschwitzImage: AP

The anniversary was declared an international day of remembrance for the six million victims of the Holocaust by a 2005 UN General Assembly resolution. Germany has marked the day since 1996.

The Roma and the related Sinti, often known as gypsies, were, like the Jews, deemed racially inferior by the Nazis. They were also systematically persecuted, confined to ghettos and special camps, deported and killed. Some were also subjected to grotesque medical experiments.

West Germany did not recognize the genocide of Roma and Sinti until 1982.

In memoriam

German President Christian Wulff on Thursday was to attend the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - the first German president ever to speak at the commemoration. He was also scheduled to meet camp survivors with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

Meanwhile in Berlin a street will be renamed to commemorate the Sinti who were killed by the Nazis. The street in the eastern Berlin district of Friedrichshain will from now on be known as "Ede and Unku Way" after a 1931 book which tells the true story of a friendship between a German worker's son and a Sintisa girl before the Nazi era.

"Unku" was the nickname of the Sintisa Erna Lauenberger, who was deported to the east with her family and killed at Auschwitz.

"Ede and Unku" was banned by the Nazis and its author Grete Weiskopf, a Jewish communist writing under the name Alex Wedding, fled Germany in 1933.

Elsewhere in Berlin a high school will be named after the boxer Johann Trollmann, aka "Gypsy" Trollmann, who fought for Germany's light-heavyweight title in 1933. Although he won on points, the Nazis denied him his title for having a fighting style that was "un-German."

Trollmann, a Sinto who protested the decision by dyeing his hair blond, was later killed in a concentration camp.

Sinti and Roma children in a slum near Lyon, France
Sinti and Roma still face poverty and discrimination in Europe todayImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The fates of Erna Lauenburger and Johann Trollmann represent the fate of half a million Sinti and Roma victims of the genocide. But there has not been enough discussion of these crimes," said local councilor Jan Stöss.

Later this year Germany will inaugurate a national memorial to Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis.

Today there are about 10 million Roma in Europe, tens of thousands of whom live in Germany, many of them refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.

Author: Joanna Impey (AFP, AP, dpa)
Editor: Michael Lawton