‘They didn’t stand a chance, but it shows great heroism’: The Roma gypsies who defied SS beasts in Auschwitz revolt 75 years ago

Doomed to failure, the Roma who were kept in the so-called Gypsy Camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenhau decided to take their fate into their own hands. PAP/DPA

A lesser-known revolt of WWII took place 75 years ago today when Roma gypsies being held in Auschwitz rose up against their German guards.

Doomed to failure, the Roma who were held in the so-called Gypsy Camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenhau nonetheless decided to take their fate into their own hands.

President of the Association of Roma in Poland Roman Kwiatkowski said: “They didn’t stand a chance, and yet they put up resistance.

“They knew that their position was lost but they didn’t want to die without a word.

“It shows great heroism, which will remain in the memory forever.”

The Germans deported 21,000 gypsies to the camp, not counting about 1,700 Roma from Białystok who, suspected of having typhus fever, were sent straight to the gas chambers.Bundesarchiv, R 165 Bild-244-48 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The so-called Gypsy Family Camp existed at Birkenau from February 1943 until August 1944.

The Germans deported 21,000 people to the camp, not counting about 1,700 Roma from Białystok who, suspected of having typhus fever, were sent straight to the gas chambers.

Prisoner numbers were decimated by disease and starvation. Children suffered especially, as they were used for experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.

German troops round up Romani in Asperg, Germany in May 1940.Bundesarchiv, R 165 Bild-244-52 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

On May 16, 1944, the Germans intended to liquidate the Gypsy Camp by murdering the prisoners. Around 6,500 Sinti and Roma are believed to have been gassed at that time, but the SS’s plans were thwarted by the revolt.

A day before the planned liquidation, one of the SS officers let on to a Polish prisoner about the plans and recommended that the Roma not leave the barracks.

The following evening, cars drove up to the camp and several dozen armed Germans got out. Several went to a residential barracks to expel the prisoners.

Sinti and Roma armed with knives, shovels, crowbars and stones refused to leave. After a while, the SS withdrew and called the operation off for fear of losses.

President of the Association of Roma in Poland Roman Kwiatkowski said: “They didn’t stand a chance, and yet they put up resistance. They knew that their position was lost but they didn’t want to die without a word. It shows great heroism, which will remain in the memory forever.”Jacek Bednarczyk/PAP

Following the event, 200 young and strong Roma were sent to other camps and around 1,500 were transferred to Auschwitz I. Most of them were subsequently moved and many survived the war.

Kwiatkowski explained: “Were it not for the rebellion, there would be nobody to bear evidence of what was done.” He added that remembering the events of 75 years ago was a moral obligation on their successors.

The camp was finally liquidated on the night of August 2, 1944, in an operation for which the Germans were well prepared.

The order was given by SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and the Germans gassed the remaining 2,897 prisoners.