VINZENT (Vinzenz) DANIEL was born on August 15, 1919 in the village of Smrčná in Czechoslovakia. After being arrested in Prague by the criminal police he was deported to Auschwitz on April 29, 1942. In the camp he received number 33804 and was registered as a Czech, even though in fact he was of Roma origin.
Vinzent (Vinzenz) Daniel was assigned to the Buna Kommando, which worked within the premises of the chemical plant constructed by the IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) concern. On May 27, 1942 around noon, he escaped from his workplace in the vicinity of the village of Zaborze.
According to the account of the witnesses, the escapee ran across a field, then through the bottom of a drained pond and headed towards the nearby forest. Running, he took his striped uniform off and continued the escape only in underwear. His fate remains unknown.
A dozen inhabitants of the village of Zaborze had to face repressions, as their houses were located near the escape route. They were arrested by the SS men and transported to the camp, where women and children were separated from men and accommodated in the attic of block 6. After being investigated for three months, they were released, while several men were incarcerated in the camp, where they perished.
Testimony of Marian Skorupa, aged 14 at the time of the described events. APMA-B, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 119, pp. 147, 150‒151.
“On May 27, 1942 … the four of us were working at the pond. It was scorching that day, the sun was shining. Suddenly, around noon, we saw a man running onto the edge of the pond where we were working. We were surprised because he was wearing only his underwear. The man was running quickly through the pond, which was still drained at the time, then headed in the south-eastern direction, towards the forest located there.
My incarceration in block 6 lasted a few weeks, nearly a month. One day, as many times before, I was called for the next questioning, together with my mother and Stanisław Smętek, who was younger than me. After the questioning my mother was led again to block 6 in Auschwitz, while I and Stanisław Smętek were led towards the barrier gate, located near the Soła river. It was the place where the SS man escorting us handed us over to the SS man standing on the other side of the barrier. Maybe he mentioned something about releasing us, at least that is what I think. The second SS man asked us in Polish if we would be able to get home. I said that no, as I was afraid of marching alone next to the tower and through the territory belonging to the camp. The second SS man who I already mentioned escorted us along the road, or rather the embankment on the Soła river to the bridge next to the city of Oświęcim. When we reached the bridge, we told him that we would be able to get to our houses from there. We did not receive from the SS man any confirmation of our incarceration in Auschwitz or of the release from the camp.”
At a conference held in Berlin on January 30, 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war, a decision was taken to expel all the Roma inhabitants from Germany. They were therefore progressively resettled to the General Government (occupied Poland) and held in the ghettos and camps intended for Jews. The reports of the SS Einsatzgruppen which operated in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union mention the murder of thousands of Romas along with the massive extermination of the Jews in these areas. Following the pseudoscientific arguments of the Institute for the Study of Racial Hygiene, the Nazi established strict rules for dealing with the Sinti and Roma, who were considered racially alien, inferior and asocial.
Already in the first years after the Nazi takeover of power, a number of legal restrictions were imposed on the Roma, such as: compulsory registration, the obligation to undergo racial tests and later also restrictions in their freedom of movement. A comment to the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 stated that the Roma were racially inferior in the same way as the Jews and therefore they could not acquire the rights of Reich citizens.
Their deportations and executions came under Himmler’s authority. On December 16, 1942, he issued an order to send all Roma to the concentration camps. The deported Romas were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a special Roma camp was erected. The Roma were considered enemies of the Third Reich and therefore condemned to be isolated and ultimately killed.
As a result of this ruling, the Gypsy family camp known as the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp), which existed for 17 months, was set up in Auschwitz-Birkenau sector BIIe. Since sector BIIe was still under construction, some of the men were assigned to finish the building work, and others were assigned to other kinds of camp work in internal labor details. A significant portion of them, however, did not have regular work assignments.
The deportation of the Sinti and Roma began in February 1943 and continued until July 1944. The Sinti and Roma imprisoned in the camp came primarily from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bavaria and Moravia, and Poland, with smaller groups arriving from France, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia/Croatia, Belgium, the USSR, Lithuania, and Hungary. There is also mention of Sinti and Roma citizens of Norway and Spain.
Insufficient food and the severe overcrowding in the so-called Zigeunerlager led to a dramatic deterioration in hygienic and sanitary conditions, which led in turn to frequent epidemics, especially of typhus and starvation diarrhea. These epidemics resulted in a high mortality rate among the prisoners. It is estimated that about 23 thousand men, women, and children were imprisoned in the camp. About 21 thousand were registered in the camp (including the more than 370 children estimated to have been born there). A group of about 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was murdered immediately after arriving at the camp, without being entered in the records.
The group of approximately 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma men, women, and children mentioned above arrived from Białystok on March 23, 1943. Cases of typhus were found among them. Fearing an outbreak, the camp authorities sent the group directly to the gas chamber. Several weeks later, on May 12, 1943, another group of Sinti and Roma from Białystok (468 men and 503 women) were placed in the camp. Since there continued to be a danger of a typhus outbreak in the Gypsy camp, the camp authorities ordered the selection of about a thousand Sinti and Roma —mostly from Białystok and Austria—on May 25, 1943. They, too, were killed in the gas chambers.
A group of 39 children (20 boys and 19 girls) from the St. Josefspflege orphanage in Mulfingen, near Stuttgart, was also sent to the Gypsy camp. Dr. Robert Ritter and Eva Justin of the Institute for the Study of Racial Hygiene carried out various tests on them before deportation. The main purpose of this research was to confirm that the supposed Gypsy traits were inborn; despite having been raised in a non-Gypsy environment, these children had allegedly been unable to overcome a disposition to theft, vagrancy, and resistance to assimilation.
During the time that the Zigeunerlager was in operation, some of the people imprisoned there were transferred over time to camps in the depths of the Reich where they labored in factories. Some of the people transferred were used in pseudomedical experiments. A few Gypsies were released on the condition that they undergo sterilization. There were other cases of the sporadic release from Auschwitz or transfer to camps in the Reich of Sinti and Roma who had served in the German army or received military decorations, and who came from mixed marriages. The most frequent reason for release was intervention by non-Gypsy relatives.
The Sinti and Roma tried as best they could to cope with the misery of the camp; the fact that they remained with their loved ones surely helped. Many of them had musical instruments, and they set up an informal orchestra, which often played during visits by high-ranking officers.
Zigeunerlager in Birkenau existed until August 2, 1944. That evening, the approximately 3 thousand men, women, and children left in the camp were loaded onto trucks and driven to the gas chambers. The prisoners attempted to resist, but the SS crushed their opposition brutally.
Eyewitness accounts speak of the desperate attempts by Helene Hannemann, a German woman whose husband was a Gypsy, to save her life. She supposedly obtained a personal promise from Dr. Mengele that she and her five children would be spared. When SS men searching the abandoned camp found them in the Kindergarten barrack, they offered her a chance to go free on the condition that she leave her children behind. The disconsolate mother refused, and died with them in the gas chamber.
SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele
From the end of May 1943 to August 1944, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele held the post of head physician in the “Gypsy camp.” At the same time, as camp physician, he was on duty at hospitals and outpatient clinics in other parts of the camp. At the behest of the Institute for Anthropological and Biological-Race Research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem, he undertook anthropological studies of various racial groups, mostly Sinti and Roma and also of twins, especially identical twins. Part of the bathhouse (sauna) barracks in block 32 was set aside as a laboratory for him, where he carried out anthropometric studies of the twins at his disposal. A disease known as water cancer (noma faciei—gangrenous stomatitis), appeared in the Zigeunerlager in the summer of 1943. Previously unknown among prisoners, it attacked children and young people especially. Mengele began research on its causes and treatment.
Mengele ordered that a “Kindergarten,” a sort of nursery and preschool for children up to the age of 6—and also for those of special interest to him—be opened in the Zigeunerlager. At first, the children there received better food. However, this was purely a propaganda move. High-ranking SS officers and civilians on inspection trips to Auschwitz were taken to see the Kindergarten and photographed playing with the children.
Another area of research interest for Dr. Mengele was the biological anomaly known as heterochromia iridis, the appearance of differently colored eyes in the same person. Many Sinti and Roma prisoners who suffered from heterochromia were killed in the camp by order of Dr. Mengele. A number of examples of this phenomenon were collected in the camp sauna barracks, and later shipped to the Reich as prepared samples.
Mengele held the post of head physician of the Zigeunerlager until its liquidation. Later, he became camp physician (Lagerarzt) for the entire Birkenau camp.
The first Roma at Auschwitz
A small number of Roma were prisoners at Auschwitz before the special Gypsy family camp was set up at Birkenau. At the Auschwitz main camp they were registered with numbers from the general series, being usually categorized as ‘asocial’ (Asozialer – Aso), wearing a black triangular badge, or alternatively as political prisoners (Politischer – Pol) with a red triangular badge, on even as professional criminals (Berufsverbrecher – BV), which was the case of Vinzent Daniel, with a green triangular badge. The Roma were photographed during registration and next made to join various work squads.
A total of about 23,000 Roma were deported by the Germans to Auschwitz, including 2,000 Roma murdered without being entered into the camp’s records. 21,000 were registered in the camp, of which 19,000 died of starvation, diseases, brutal treatment, or were murdered in the gas chambers upon liquidation of the Gypsy camp.
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Special thanks to Auschwitz Memorial and Museum for collaborating with me on this project and providing all the information above. Sponsored by the Michael Frank Family Charitable Fund.