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Roma commemorate victims at Auschwitz-Birkenau
03-08-2004 - Dita Asiedu

On Monday hundreds of Roma, including representatives of Czech Romani groups, visited the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, southern Poland to commemorate thousands of victims of the Roma Holocaust. The ceremony was held on the 60th anniversary of the darkest hour of the Roma Holocaust when, on the night of August 2-3, 3,000 Roma were sent to the gas chambers as the liberation forces drew nearer.

Commemoration of victims of the Roma Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau, photo: CTK Antonin Hlavacek was still a young boy when he was sent from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz in March 1943. Sixty years later, he still has vivid memories of the year he spent at the death camp:

"The transports would come in at around 10 p.m. when it was dark. We weren't allowed to go outside but heard it all. They'd pull everyone out of the train, pile up their clothes and belongings on the floor and send most of them straight to the showers. But instead of water, it was gas that came out of the pipes. There was also a group of prisoners, selected every three months, that was given more food and made to work in what we thought was a bakery. Only much later did we realise it was a crematorium, where they burned people. The toilet was far away at the end of one of the blocks. It was just one big hole with a piece of wood over it and in order to get to it, we had to move aside dead bodies because they were only taken away every three days."

Antonin Hlavacek At Auschwitz-Birkenau, a special camp called the "gypsy family camp" was set up in 1943 for the Roma, who were marked with black triangles. For the next year and a half, close to 23,000 Roma, who the Nazis considered 'asocials', had to suffer starvation, disease, torture, murder, and even the sick experiments of the infamous Josef Mengele. Antonin Hlavacek again:

"Those whose lives were spared were tattooed camp identification numbers. However, children and the elderly had them written with ink as it was expected that they wouldn't live long anyway. I remember my number -1,996. Numbers were what we had to answer to. I would never do to them what they did to us. Not all Germans were the same. The Germans from the German Reich were okay, but the Sudeten Germans who joined the Nazis were the worst. But people from all countries were involved - the Poles, many Slovaks, and there were numerous Czechs too."

Commemoration of victims of the Roma Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau, photo: CTK Antonin Lagrin is from Brno. His parents and grandparents who survived Auschwitz have told him numerous stories about the camp. Mr Lagrin took part in the commemorations this year, to honour the victims, especially members of his family who he never met because they weren't lucky enough to survive:

"I saw a list of names of prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau which had the names of about fifty relatives. That came as a big surprise. I didn't know there were so many of us there. I just know of my close relatives - parents, brother. My great grandfather was shot there and my great grandmother was kicked to death just because she tried to get snow off her head when she was working outside in the freezing cold. From my parents I know that camp prisoners must have gone through horrific things. But my parents don't like to think about them."

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