Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Roma Gypsies: The Forgotten Holocaust

Roma Wagon
    The idea to introduce gypsies into my novel came to me one morning several years ago as I was reading my grandfather, Walter von Sanden's, book Schicksal OstPreussen  'East Prussia's Destiny ' (LandBuch Verlag, 1968).  I was fascinated to learn about the Roma gypsies who lived just west of the Guja forest and with whom my grandparents were friendly. 

    My grandmother, Edith, was especially close with a gypsy woman named Frau Florian. Frau Florian would often visit her and they would sit in the drawing room in Guja drinking coffee, which I understand Frau Florian loved to drink very sweet.

The drawing room in Guja

    Sometimes the two women would wander outside to the garden benches near the big black poplar tree where they’d sit for hours talking about their different lifestyles and customs. Grossmutti, as I used to call my grandma, truly cared about Frau Florian. Frau Florian taught her about the Roma culture, about music and dance, and spices for cooking. When winters were cold and money was scarce, my grandmother gave her food and money for her family. Horses from the Roma camp wandered about my grandfather's meadows, grazing freely.  

The garden in Guja

    Forester Hellwig, whom you see below, guarded the Guja forest like a hawk, yet for the camp of Roma who made their home on the edge of that woods, the land was theirs to gather berries and hunt for fowl. And, while Hellwig insisted they must never light fires too close to the trees, they always had bundles of wood for their stoves. The Roma and my grandparents were neighbors, living off the same land in very different ways.

Forester Hellwig
 But liking gypsies in those times was heavily frowned upon, and as the Nazis gained more power their hostility toward that minority group grew more violent. Soon gypsies were seen as ‘asocial’ and as ‘subhuman beings.’ The collaboration to exterminate another so-called inferior race began. It is estimated that 1.5 million Roma were murdered from 1935 to the end of WWII. 

    Unprejudiced as she was, my grandmother did not care about anti-gypsy laws. When Frau Florian was sick she went to see her with freshly baked Semmelbrötchen (rolls). If she found the gypsy woman in bed under a thick eiderdown, Grossmutti would make a hollow in the feathery blanket and empty out the bag of rolls. Of course, Frau Florian's children would all be standing by the door waiting with wide eyes  for the delicious buns to manifest.

     But then one night, the inevitable happened. All the gypsies disappeared. They were either shot or carted off to a concentration camp. My grandfather went to the police to inquire about them, but he was told that associating with gypsies was a terrible crime and that he’d be shot if he asked any more questions. 

    Grossmutti never saw Frau Florian again. My grandfather writes that she cried for days. All that remained of Frau Florian was a sculpture my grandmother had made of the gypsy woman's daughter, and that too was lost in the war.

Gypsy History 

    Reading my grandfather's words, I felt a deep and painful stirring inside. It dawned on me that the Roma gypsies were part of a 'forgotten' holocaust and I wanted somehow to bring their silenced voices to life. That is how I chose the gypsy (Joshi Karas) as the hero in my novel. Although in the story he breaks with Roma tradition to become a medical doctor (and you have to read the book to discover how this happens because gypsies were definitely NOT allowed to study in Germany), he is a man whose voice and strength of character, serve to illuminate the collective soul of an unusual and gifted people whose lives were brutally cut short.

Karl Stojka
While I was researching the internet I came across this picture of a gypsy victim.  His sensitive face and intelligent, direct gaze coupled with the readiness to smile touched my heart and stayed with me throughout the entire time that I was writing the novel. In some ways, he inspired and helped breath life into Joshi's character.

    Frau Florian too plays an important role in The Last Daughter of Prussia - only there her name is Vavara and her voice is like a lark's echoing tales of spirits and Baltic amber back to us through time. If you have a moment, listen to what I believe was her favorite song. Although there are no words in this you tube version of Dark Eyes, the music and the child's hauntingly beautiful face tell us all we need to know....

(c) All content and photos are the private property of the Gottlieb family, unless otherwise stated or linked,  and may not be used without permission.
(c) Privatbesitz Gottlieb Familie


  1. Your blog is awesome! I didn't know about the gypsy holocaust. Can't wait to read the book.

  2. These photos are incredible. And the story of your grandmother's love for Frau Florian was so moving. I'm so glad your grandmother lives on through you!

  3. Marina you are such a wonderful and sensitive person. The terror and crimes of the Nazis must never be forgotten or excused. There is nothing in the history of the world that compares to the horrific thing that they did except perhaps that devil Joseph Stalin who slaughtered Millions of his own people.There is so much evil in this world even today but at least it can be exposed by the internet. The devil has no place to hide anymore !