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Sinti survivor of the Nazis fights for compensation

Nadine Michollek
April 8, 2022

Frieda Daniels is 89 years old, a high-wire acrobat — and Sinti. She and her family were persecuted under the Nazis, and Frieda is still fighting to obtain proper compensation for the injustice they suffered.

Black-and-white photo of a laughing Frieda Daniels in front of the family caravan
Frieda Daniels, aged 18, in front of the family caravanImage: Privatarchiv

Frieda Daniels, née Lemoine, is talking about her family's persecution by the Nazis, and the ongoing lack of compensation. The subject is a sad one, yet Frieda laughs often, with gusto. Clearly this is the habit of a lifetime: Her face is criss-crossed with laughter lines. It's difficult to believe she's 89 years old; she comes across as thirty years younger.

Frieda is a former highwire acrobat, and she still walks the tightrope in her garden. "It's my party piece," she laughs.

The first time Frieda stood on a tightrope, in Stade, Lower Saxony, she was five years old. "Everyone stood still, watching, and I walked across. All the people in the marketplace came over to the tightrope. Afterwards, they each gave me a little money. It was wonderful!"

Frieda Daniels, wearing sungalsses, walking a low tightrope in her Californian garden
Frieda Daniels still walks the tightrope in her garden in CaliforniaImage: Privatarchiv

All of Frieda's family were highwire artistes. Their base was in Hamburg, but they traveled all over Germany in their caravans in the entertainment season, putting on shows.

Showmanship deemed a "fraudulent profession"

When Frieda first stood on her tightrope, in 1938, Hitler had already been in power for five years. Sinti and Roma who refused to abandon their showman professions were already being deported to concentration camps. Many were traders, musicians, or artists – occupations that from 1933 onward were deemed "unproductive or fraudulent professions."

Frieda's family was banned from performing in 1942. They were detained, and forced to remain in one place, which was the Nazi regime's preparation for deporting and exterminating them. Along with many other Sinti and Roma, Frieda's family were unable to practise their profession, and sank into poverty.

A program from 1947 for a highwire performance by the Lemoine family
A program from 1947 for a highwire performance by the Lemoine familyImage: Privatarchiv

"It was very bad," says Frieda. "Not easy," she adds, in English. Her German is peppered with English words: She emigrated to the United States in 1954, where she lives in Temecula, California. Our conversation takes place via video call.

"They knew we were Gypsies"

Frieda tells us that they suffered hunger during their detention. Sinti and Roma received far fewer food stamps than other people. Frieda and her siblings were no longer allowed to go to school. The other children insulted them, and called them "Gypsies." No one would let them into the shelter when there was an air raid. "They knew we were Gypsies, because we had dark hair, dark eyes. My mother was pregnant, with ten children, the bombs were falling, and no one would let us in. It was terrible."

The Nazi regime made all Sinti and Roma register with the police, and made a record of their "racial biology." Frieda's father Johann was made to undergo a humiliating "racial biology examination," in which the Nazis would photograph and take measurements of Sinti and Roma people – often by force – and put together so-called "racial reports." In the eyes of the regime, they were an "inferior race."

Constant fear of deportation

Once registered, fleeing was almost impossible. During the detention, Frieda's father had to report to the Gestapo every two weeks, and take two of his children with him. On one occasion, Frieda went with him. She was separated from her father and interrogated. To this day, she still feels anxious whenever she sees a policeman or has to pay a visit to the authorities. Her mother was the one who found the Nazi interrogations hardest. "She always cried, because she didn't know if we would come back," says Frieda. The Nazis had already deported many of her relatives.

Frieda's parents often argued about whether to stay or flee. If they stayed where they were, they risked being deported to a concentration camp sooner or later – but perhaps there was also a chance the Allies would liberate them before that happened. Whereas if the Nazis caught them trying to escape, they would be deported on the spot.

Black-and-white photo of the caravans in which the Lemoine family toured Germany
The caravans in which the Lemoine family toured Germany after World War II Image: Privatarchiv

Frieda jumps up from her chair and fetches a photo of her father to show me. Slim, proud, black suit, black hair. He would have made a good diplomat, she says, smiling. He always had lots of contacts, good connections. When they had no food, he got hold of some. When they had nowhere to stay, he found them somewhere. When they had to flee, he organized train tickets.

Frieda and her family fled the Nazis

"My father was secretly listening to the BBC. That was how he found out that Hamburg was going to be heavily bombed," Frieda explains. In their caravans, the family wouldn't have stood a chance. They left everything behind, caught a train in the middle of the night, and went into hiding in Thuringia with Frieda's maternal grandmother, who was not Sinti. They had planned to return, but their caravans were completely destroyed. Perhaps that was lucky, says Frieda. Perhaps the Nazis thought they had died in the bombing.

Black-and-white photo of Frieda with her brother Karl, performing a highwire act
Frieda with her brother Karl, performing a highwire act in the late 1940sImage: Privatarchiv

Frieda holds up photos taken in the post-war period. She wants to show me everything. The family lived in Kassel, but they toured all over Germany with their highwire acts. She has no photos from before 1945; they were all destroyed in the bombing. Frieda has asked her daughters and grandchildren to keep sending her more pictures.

I see Frieda, in black and white: aged 18, in front of her family's caravan; on the highwire, aged 20; dancing with her father at the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood.

Still fighting for compensation

To this day, Frieda has not received proper compensation for the injustice she suffered. A one-off payment of about 2,000 euros, she says – that was all. She is fighting for ongoing compensation payments for the years she was not allowed to go to school, for the financial harm that resulted from the loss of her profession, and for physical and psychological damage. 

Hers is not an isolated case. To this day, the German government does not recognize the order to remain in place as an act of persecution specific to the Nazis. Historians, however, take a different view. From 1939 onwards, the Nazi regime's objective was to deport the remaining Sinti and Roma population in its entirety from the German Reich. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer, or leader, of the SS, issued the detention order in preparation for full deportation.

Colour photo of the Lemoine family in the 1980s - Frieda with her mother, Helene, and her ten brothers and sisters
Frieda in the 1980s (back row, third from right), with her siblings and her mother, HeleneImage: Privatarchiv

In 2021, the Independent Commission on Antiziganism published a report demanding that the few remaining survivors of the detention should finally be paid proper compensation. The German government had instructed the commission to spend two years investigating the situation in the Sinti and Roma community. Along with the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, Frieda, too, is still fighting. They're not asking for much: only 400 euros a month.

"That would be wonderful! But the Central Council says they're still discussing it. How much longer will it take? We're all almost 90. We were there – we went through this!"

This article has been translated from German. 


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