From the children’s home of the Church to the gas chambers of Auschwitz: The fate of Sinti orphans during the Nazi regime

Amalie Reinhardt was the eldest daughter in a Sinti family of seven. She survived the horrors of the concentration camps where she and her siblings were brought during the Nazi regime. Her life story reveals a lot about the fate of many Sinti and Roma children, who, similarly to her, were destined to perish as offspring of an inferior race in what is called the Pharraimos: the genocide of the Roma and Sinti during the Second World War.

In Nazi Germany the persecution of Sinti and Roma began as early as 1933. In June 1938, the father of Amalie Reinhardt was arrested and deported to Dachau concentration camp. Soon after, the same fate befell her mother. Nine-year old Amalie and her four younger brothers and sisters were treated as orphans an put into various children’s homes by the Nazis. A little over a year later, Amalie found herself in the Sankt Jozephspflege Catholic children’s home in Mulfingen in southern Germany. There, all 41 Sinti children were to serve as study material for National Socialist racial research.

By 1936, the National Socialists had set up a ‘Research Institute for Racial Hygiene’ where they intended to ‘scientifically prove’ the ‘inferiority of the gypsy race’.  Eva Justin, the closest assistant of the director of the Institute, had selected Amalie’s children’s home to carry out her doctoral research. Justin had the 41 Sinti children to undergo all kinds of pseudo-scientific tests designed to prove that they were mentally deficient because they belonged to an ‘inferior’ race. As part of this research, she extensively filmed and photographed them. By the time Justin had finished her research and written her thesis, the children were doomed.

On 9 May 1944, Amalie and 32 other Sinti children were taken from the children’s home by bus to the station, on the pretext of a school trip. From there, they went by train to Auschwitz. Amalie has vivid memories about this trip: “I can still remember Dresden”- she says. “There was an air raid going on. All around us, bombs were falling, and we children were scared to death, because the SS had locked the wagon and left us here”.

Four days later, they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Amalie had the number Z-10636 (Z for “Zigeuner”) tattooed on her forearm and was forced to perform slave labour building roads. In the summer of 1944, the Nazis started dismantling the Auschwitz-Birkenau Zigeunerlager due to the approach of the Soviet Army. For this reason, in early August all “Gypsy” prisoners underwent a selection process to assess their fitness for work. Amalie, who was then 15 years old, passed the selection process and was transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her brother and sisters did not make it through the selection.

A total of 2,900 Sinti and Roma were classified as “unfit for work”, in particular many elderly and infirm people and children, but also most of the children who had been in the children’s home with her and Amalie’s brothers and sisters. They were all gassed in the night of 2-3 August 1944. Amalie was forced to perform slave labour in Ravensbrück and afterwards ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she experienced the liberation.
Until long after the war, the genocide of the Sinti and Roma was denied or ignored in Germany. Perpetrators like Eva Justin were free to start new careers, while the victims received neither recognition nor compensation. Attempts to get Justin in the dock and stand trial failed. Many Sinti and Roma who had survived the war quietly withdrew and tried to hide their identities as Sinti and Roma. Amalie, too, long kept her silence before speaking of her sufferings for the first time in a TV documentary broadcast in 1994.

This documentary was also the first time the role of the Catholic Church was publicly challenged. It contributed to making evident that the leadership of the Church had been fully aware of the deportation of the children in its care. Despite of this, it did not raise its voice and did nothing to prevent Sinti children, first made orphans by the Nazi state, from being taken from the Catholic children’s homes to the extermination camps.

Amalie survived, but she lost her entire family in the gas chambers. And she remembers: “The last time I saw my younger brother and sisters, my youngest sister said when we parted: ‘You’re going away and we’re going to be burned’. Those were her last words. I will never forget it!”