11 September 2017 09:30 | Westfaelische-Wilhelms-Universitaet - Hoersaal JO 1
Speech of Rita Prigmore
My name is Rita Prigmore, I am a German Gypsy. I'm from Würzburg. First, I would like to thank the Community of Sant'Egidio for the invitation to speak to you today. I thank the community that I can raise my voice for peace.
When I first was in Auschwitz with the Community of Sant'Egidio in 2012, I told my story to more than 400 young people from all over Europe. That was not easy for me. Many, many of my family have been murdered in Auschwitz.
To read all their names there on a blackboard and to see their pictures shook me very much. But it also changed something else in me:
It gave me the motivation to speak. There in Auschwitz I decided to speak to people everywhere and to tell the story of our people and my family.
I come from family of musicians. My father, Gabriel Reinhardt, played the violin and was very successful throughout the country with his Hungarian "gypsy" band called "Eckstein". My mother was a singer and dancer.
The Würzburg CC-Varieté was one of the leading cabaret and operetta stages of the German Reich. In 1940 my 18-year-old mother entertained the visitors with dances and chansons almost every evening. Among the visitors, there were many soldiers on vacation from the war front or those who were injured. It was the time when operetta and chanson were very popular, the slogan was "distraction." The war was already calling for the first victims and numerous restrictions made daily life difficult.
By a decree of Heinrich Himmler, entitled "Fighting the Gypsy Plague", a department for gypsy affairs was to be set up as early as in 1938 in every police office. This should capture all gypsies and determine their racial affiliation by means of physical characteristics.
In the so-called "final solution to the Gypsy question", the "racial gypsies" and "Mischlinge" - which means „half-breed“- were to be treated separately. Pseudo-scientific research had shown that most of the crimes committed by Sinti and Roma were allegedly committed by “Mischlinge”. In Würzburg, Christian Blüm was responsible for the „Gypsy question“ since 1939.
From 1940 on, the authorities planned forced sterilization on a large scale. The author of an article in the “German Medicine Journal” demanded that "under all circumstances people of this kind should be prevented from passing on their inferior inheritance to subsequent generations." He also demanded "the ruthless eradication of this characteristically defective population group."
Compulsive sterilization affected mainly “Mischlinge”. My mother had been categorized in 1940 and classified as a „half-breed“. Thus, in 1942, she was picked up by two policemen and taken to the office of Christian Blüm. There she was faced with the decision: forced sterilization or concentration camp.
But before the fixed date of sterilization, my mother became pregnant. She had to report this to the Gestapo, that means to the secret police. Christian Blüm decided to stop the pregnancy. My mother was sent to the University Women's Clinic for examination. There, however, it was found that she was pregnant with twins. The doctors suspected it would be identical twins. My mother was then given permission to give them birth - allegedly because the pregnancy had already gone too far.
Pregnancy was a difficult time for my mother. In order to get the permission to marry my father, she had to sign a document. The document stated that my mother should be sterilized immediately after birth. They also wanted to punish her because she had become pregnant before the date of forced sterilization. So, she didn’t get the additional ration stamps for pregnant women. This was hard because the food situation was extremely bad.
Already during her pregnancy, my mother was examined by Werner Heyde. He was Director of the Mental hospital at the University of Würzburg. From summer 1940 until December 1941 he was responsible for the planning and execution of the so-called „Aktion T4“. Hitler had decided to kill the disabled and mentally ill. Heyde sent about 100,000 people who were in disability homes or psychiatric hospitals, with his signature to death. Heyde had made a career at the SS and as an SS doctor. He also practiced genetic research in concentration camps from 1936 onwards.
Heyde was well known with Josef Mengele. As you know, Dr. Mengele was the ruthless twin researcher and later camp doctor of the “Gypsy family camp” in Auschwitz. His specialty were Gypsy twins. Mengele was a geneticist, who had made it his objective to breed a race of blond and blue-eyed Aryans. Until that time, only animal experiments had been allowed. But then, experiments on humans were carried out in many hospitals and especially in the camps such as Auschwitz.
These experiments were also carried out on me and my sister.
On March 3, 1943, my sister Rolanda and I were born. We were very thin and weak, but against the doctor's advice my mother took us home five days after our birth. She had heard of many Sinti families who had already been deported. She could not imagine exactly what to expect. At that time, when almost the entire Jewish population of the Reich had already been deported and murdered, the final fate of the German Sinti was not clear yet. But my mother knew: If it was possible, she would stay with her family and try to overcome the unknown threat together. And so my mother fled with both of us to her family.
After four weeks the Gestapo came and brought the newborn twins to examinations into the university clinic - allegedly because of malnutrition.
My mother got no permission to see us. After a few days she could not stand it anymore and went to the clinic. She screamed and begged until the nurse led her to a bed. But there was just me. Rolanda layed in a bathtub. She was dead.
The exact circumstances that led to Rolanda's death are no longer to be clarified. But the fact that we were both wearing head bandages, and also a scar behind my left eye, indicate that the ruthless Nazi doctor Werner Heyde has also carried out medical tests on us. To this day, I suffer from the consequences: fainting attacks, dizziness and headache.
I also would like to mention the fate of the cousin of my mother, who died in Auschwitz: Anneliese Winterstein.
Anneliese was to be deported to Auschwitz with her children. But her five-month-old son Waldemar lay with lung infection in the Würzburg university clinic. In similar cases, this circumstance kept the families from deportation. But the head of the gypsy department, Christian Blüm, instructed a nurse to bring the boy out of the university clinic and even provided her with a police car for this purpose. Anneliese, little Waldemar and her four-year-old son Karl-Heinz were deported to Auschwitz on March 16 th 1944. Waldemar did not survive the transport, Karl-Heinz died after a short time in Auschwitz. But Anneliese, a beautiful young woman of just 20 years, had to cope with another catastrophe: The SS determined her as prostitute for the camp brothel. Out of shame and despair, Anneliese threw herself into the barbed wire fence on June 12, 1944, which surrounded the camp and was loaded with high voltage.
Anneliese is one of approximately 500,000 Sinti and Roma who were humiliated, tortured and became victims of the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945. We remember every one of them, who lost their lifes, peace and a personal happiness on earth by racism and the terror of the Nazis.
After 1945 the fight for compensation began. It was hard for us to talk about the suffering. We wanted to forget what had happened and live only for the future. The state authorities at that time showed little willingness to make adequate reparations. The prejudices against "gypsies" had not disappeared. Reparation was often rejected on the grounds that Sinti and Roma were not persecuted for racist reasons but because of their alleged criminal and antisocial behavior.
But my mother and I didn’t want to be content with the role of passive victims. I was now married in America. But my health problems were so strong that I decided to go to Germany, to the side of my mother. Together we fought for compensation. Although that meant for me to be seperated from my two children for a long time.
It was a tough fight, and we were always afraid that the horrors of the past could be repeated.
The crimes of the "Third Reich" were not atoned. The society was not reorganized. On the contrary, the post-war careers of former Nazis, such as the career of the leader of the Gypsie department, Christian Blüm, gave us the impression that the perpetrators still triumph over their victims. Until his retirement Blüm worked in a high position in the police department in Würzburg.
In spite of all these experiences, I feel no bitterness. Instead, I feel a strong responsibility and a wish: I want to make sure that something like that never happens again. Thanks to the Community oft Sant'Egidio, which is working for peace on many different fields, I am now part of this international peace mission.
Since my first speech in Auschwitz in 2012, I have spoken to thousands of young people and adults all throughout Europe. And it was after a lecture at a High School in Munich, when a young man came up to me and said with tears in his eyes:
"I thank you very much. I understood a lot today. My parents fled in the 90s because of the horrors of the war in Bosnia. They still talk a lot about their hatred for the Serbs. I took on this hate. Thanks to you, Mrs. Prigmore, I realized today that I must forgive! This hatred also crushes my life and my future. If I want to be happy, I must forgive!"
I did not think I would meet a student in a High School in a rich district of Munich, so directly affected by war experiences. But encounters like this strengthen my mission and lead me in mind: The war is scourging the life of generations - even if peace has been the rule on paper! Every war is a massacre without meaning.
We live in a time when politicians build walls to win votes. In a time when politicians accuse the people, who come to us because of poverty and great suffering, of social misuse. We live in a time when war and terror demand many lives every day. So I ask you all:
Let us build a society together in Europe and in the world in which gypsies and all other minorities are no longer discriminated against.
Let us not be silent when we become witnesses of injustice! Let us raise our voice against the indifference! Peace begins in each one of us. Let us not hate those who are foreign to us. If we get in contanct instead, we talk to each other and overcome our prejudices!
As a representative of a people that has lived out of perpetuation and persecution for centuries, I know that every prejudice can end in a disaster like Auschwitz.
I am sure that living together with different people is possible.
Thank you for your attention!