Most people know about the millions of Jews murdered in Hitler's death camps; less is known about the 500,000 Gypsies who also died. Walter Winter is determined that this must change..
For many years, Walter Winter did not speak of the events that took place in his life between the ages of 20 and 25. After the war he put his head down and worked: in his family's funfair business and on the business of marriage, to Marion, with whom he raised six children in the corner of north-east Germany where the Winters had lived for as long as he could remember. At 84, he lives there still. "We are tough," he says, referring to his storm-battered family and, more generally, to the race to which it belongs. "We are tough because we have had to be."
Herr Winter and his wife live in a flat decorated with reminders of a world that has long since ceased to exist. There is a grandfather clock and a case displaying a china tea-set and, mounted on the wall, a violin surrounded by paintings of Roma scenes of yore: old-fashioned tubular caravans with horses out front and children tumbling over each other on the steps at the back. This way of life was still just about in evidence when Winter grew up, one of nine children, in the years before what he calls "the forgotten Holocaust". In 1943, Winter and two of his siblings were transported to the "Gypsy" camp at Auschwitz. His sister Maria's eight-year-old twin daughters died at the hands of Josef Mengele; Winter's wife, Anna, whom he met in the camp, and their new-born baby died after being transported to Ravensbruck. His brother Erich was sterilised.
"They want it to be forgotten," he says. "Ja. There is a tradition of persecuting the Sinti. Always, always."
There are not many written accounts of the half-million or so Roma or Sinti - travellers related to them - who died in the camps, because, says Winter, theirs is traditionally an oral not a literary culture. Unlike the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, many of whom came from the educated middle-classes, the Sinti generally made their living on the land. Winter's own family travelled in the caravan doing seasonal farm work and showbusiness. They were talented horsemen and women - Winter himself used to do a circus act, which involved jumping on to the back of a moving horse - and gifted mechanics and electricians. "They didn't weld," he says, "but everything else."
Even in the 1920s, they would be escorted to the border of each German county by the police. "An example," says Winter, through an interpreter, "was when I was six years old. My parents were having coffee in the morning, on a day we were due to move on. A policeman came to the door of the caravan and told us to leave right away. My mother said, 'We can't leave immediately, the children are having breakfast.' But the policeman didn't want to wait. He took out the baton and my father started to pack up, rapidly. But it wasn't fast enough for the policeman. He first whipped the horses, then he hit my father."
These and other scenes are recalled in his book, Winter Time, which has been transcribed by academics from interviews he has given them. It was not a happy experience, not so much for the pain of reliving the memories - although that was difficult enough - but for what Winter sees as the high-handedness of "experts" on the Holocaust. He is suspicious of people who rate education over experience and felt thoroughly patronised by the encounter. There is also some bitterness surrounding the divergent fortunes of the various survivor groups, although Winter voices these tentatively. "This is a terrible discussion," he says, of the hierarchy of pain, of who "owns" the Holocaust. But he feels compelled to point out that, while in most of Europe being openly anti-semitic is taboo, it is quite acceptable to be openly anti-Gypsy, a fact you don't have to look further than Britain's rightwing tabloids to confirm.
In 1939, the total population of Roma and Sinti in Germany and its occupied territories is estimated to have been just under a million. They spoke Romani, a language based on Sanskrit. In 1938 they were the subject of a circular by Heinrich Himmler entitled Combating the Gypsy Nuisance, in which all Sinti above the age of six were divided into three groups: Gypsies, part-Gypsies, and nomadic persons behaving as Gypsies. Attempts to exterminate them were less systematic than those directed at the Jewish population - they were classified as lower-priority enemies - but they were none the less identified in public by black triangles (for "asocials"), green patches ("criminals") or the letter Z (for Zigeuner - Gypsy) and transported in large numbers to the death camps.
The Winter family was settled at this time in the Wittmund region of north-east Germany, where they owned a house and where the children went to school, lodging with a teacher when their parents took to the road. They were, says Winter, "popular and successful". Several of his brothers played in the German national football squad, until they were kicked out in 1933 for being "non-Aryan". Similarly Winter was thrown out of the German navy, to the embarrassment of his peers, where he was on track for a commission. The training would save him more than once in the camps, when the SS responded to his comportment as a professional soldier.
By the mid-1930s, Winter's father was advising his family not to speak their language in public. Stories went around of Romani-speaking infiltrators, employed to befriend Sinti communities and betray them to the authorities. They were also identifiable by their names. "Most Sinti are Catholics," says Winter. "Since the camp, I don't want anything to do with the church. The priests opened the marriage licence books and showed the SS which names were Sinti." There was overlap between Jewish and Sinti names; Weiss, Rosenberg, Bamberger were common to both communities.
These methods of denouncement left a mark on the Sinti which has yet to disappear. In Sinti-populated regions of Germany, there is a move to put lessons in Romani on the curriculum, but Winter's generation are against it. "If people can speak our language, they can identify us," he says darkly. "Why does anyone else want to learn it?"
When his brother and sister were picked up by the police, they were living in a town some distance from their parents. Winter went to find out what happened and was himself arrested. The rest of his family escaped imprisonment thanks to the protection of the head of their regional government, who had been at school with Winter's mother. (Seven of his eight siblings are still alive, one of them a millionaire from having patented a funfair ride.) Winter and his siblings, plus two further cousins, were interned in the family camp in Auschwitz. This is a subject that arises during those terrible competitions over who suffered the most: the relative merits of being interned with, as opposed to separate from, one's family. Winter says, "Seeing family suffer could be even harder than being separated from them. But the comparisons are useless. It wasn't worse for one group or another. We had the same pain."
The Sinti had a reputation in the camps, he says. They were tough and courageous, and from long experience of odd-jobbing, could turn their hands to anything. They were also, he says, stunningly naive. On one occasion, Winter's brother hit a guard over the head with a spade handle when he tried to rape a woman from his block; incredibly, he wasn't executed. And Winter himself confronted Mengele over the starvation rations being issued to the camp children. Mengele was temporarily charmed by his chutzpah and marginally increased the rations; but it did not save Winter's nieces.
He wakes up sometimes and thinks he is still in the camp. It has been hard on his wife, Marion, this compulsion of Winter's to talk about what happened. She is 20 years younger than him, half-Sinti, half-Jewish, and, when I meet her husband, she is in hospital after a stroke. Winter tells me ruefully he is learning to cook for himself. He rolls up his sleeve in what I think is a gesture of domesticity. "Now," he says, extending his arm, "I will show you my number."
In the years after the war, unlike many Jewish survivors, the Winters went back to the area of Germany they had lived in before. So did most Sinti survivors. You have to understand, he says, they were not sophisticated people; they didn't speak English; the idea of emigrating to America was just too wild to countenance. So they picked up their lives as best they could. Almost immediately on their return, they were accused by their neighbours of "stealing water". Discrimination was no better than before the war, and, says Winter, the British soldiers stationed in Hamburg totally overlooked it. So it has pretty much continued over the years. In the 1980s, Winter testified in a war crimes trial against Ernst Konig, an officer in the gypsy camp at Auschwitz, who committed suicide after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Winter was shushed for his angry outbursts during the trial. "The judge said, 'Be quiet, we want a fair trial'. I said, 'And who treated us fairly?'"
These days, he says, "the neo-Nazis are more accepted than the Sinti in Germany". He is furious with Chancellor Schröder for, earlier this year, opening an art gallery funded by Christian Friedrich Flick, the grandson of a Nazi industrialist. "The exhibition was bought with dirty money from slave labour," he says. In protest, he has resigned his membership of the Social Democratic party. He has no quarrel with fellow survivors; they alone understand each other. But he wishes the activist children of survivors - he is talking of the Jewish population - could be more inclusive of the Sinti; he believes they are still looked down on for being working class. "Juden, juden, juden," he says. "Sinti, nix." He travels to Berlin regularly to campaign for the building of a memorial to the Sinti victims, so far in vain. "Here is this 84-year-old man," says the interpreter, "travelling to Berlin to demonstrate ..." his voice breaks and he gets up suddenly and leaves the room.
Sinti in public positions are still loth to admit to their ethnicity. So Winter goes into schools and universities and tells his story. From his years on the carousel, he is a natural showman. He believes the story still needs to be told because there are plenty of people who, to various degrees, deny it. A few years ago, Winter was on holiday in Gran Canaria when an elderly German couple asked what the number on his arm was. "You people are my age," he said. "You know what it is."
-Winter Time: Memoirs of a German who Survived Auschwitz is published by the University of Hertfordshire