Heidelberg, Germany: Museum explores Nazi persecution of Gypsies during Holocaust
Anneliese Franz smiles for the camera as she stands on Heidelberg’s Philosopher’s Way, the castle ruins visible behind her. She’s a young woman with dark hair wearing a pretty dress, and although it’s 1944, she has somehow not been rounded up by the Nazis and murdered.
Franz was a Sinti — a Zigeuner, or Gypsy, according to the Germans. That made her, like the Roma Gypsies of eastern Europe — and 6 million Jews — part of the “alien strain” the Nazis rooted out, dispossessed, deported and killed during the Third Reich.
The photo of Franz is one of many portraits at a unique Heidelberg museum: the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma.
“It’s the only exhibition about the Sinti and the Roma and the Holocaust in Europe and the whole world,” said Joschi Rose, a center employee.
The center opened in 1997, 15 years after the German government formally acknowledged the genocide against the Sinti and Roma, the preferred name of the ethnic group that originated in India, came to Europe about 1,000 years ago, and is still subject to discrimination and derogatory stereotypes.
The Nazi genocide of the Roma and Sinti is less well-known than the Holocaust, in part because the Roma and Sinti were more marginalized than Jews before the Nazis came to power because of greater levels of poverty and illiteracy and less organization by Roma and Sinti communities, historians say. In fact, because of the number of Sinti and Roma living before the Holocaust isn’t clear — many of them were nomadic — neither is their death toll.
Both had been stigmatized and persecuted for centuries.
“But there were many ways they lived together normally (with Germans),” Rose said. “Before 1933, Sinti and Roma were more integrated into the community.”
Historians estimate 500,000 were exterminated as part of the Nazis’ attempted annihilation of entire peoples they deemed subhuman. The center describes how it happened, through documents and photographs from the Nazis juxtaposed with family photographs of the murdered and some of their personal histories.
Visitors to the center can see an image of Johann Trollmann, a young Sinti boxer who was stripped of his light-heavyweight title by the Nazis in 1933 after winning a fight. Trollmann avoided earlier deportations by being sterilized — the same way that Franz escaped death. She was sterilized at the University of Heidelberg.
Trollmann, though, was eventually sent to a concentration camp, where he was beaten to death.
Roma and Sinti were all identified, measured and recorded with the help of the doctors at the Research Center for Racial Hygiene, established in 1936. According to the center, “24 details on the head alone” were measured in the pseudoscientific pursuit of classifying people.
One of the most haunting images is of four young Roma girls, starved into near skeletons, who were part of Joseph Mengele’s unspeakable twin experiments at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.
In fact, historians say, Roma and Sinti suffered disproportionately in the experiments carried out by Nazi doctors and anthropologists.
“Mengele once had a family of eight murdered so that their different colored eyes could be sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology in Berlin-Dahlem,” says the voice on the tour headset.
The Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma is located in Heidelberg’s old town at Bremeneckgasse 2, Heidelberg 69117. The closest parking is a multistory parking garage P12, Kornmarkt/Schloss.
The center is open 9:30 a.m.- 7:45 p.m. Tuesday; 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; and 11 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. weekends. Closed Mondays.
Admission is free.
There are plenty of restaurants with a variety of price ranges just a couple of blocks away on the city’s main pedestrian street.
Call 06221-981102 or visit sintiundroma.de. Interpretive headsets in English are available at no charge. If planned in advance, a tour guided by a historian is also available at no charge.