METTENHEIM, Germany – Of the many horrors of Auschwitz, Hermann Höllenreiner’s most vivid memory of Nazi cruelty came in the first hours after arriving there. A small dog had somehow been separated from a prisoner who had managed to smuggle it onto the train.
“The guard just pointed his pistol at this small, innocent little dog and killed it,” Höllenreiner said, growing emotional as he recalled the scene. “That’s when I knew we were dealing with animals.”
Along with tens of thousands of other ethnic Roma from across Nazi-occupied Europe, Höllenreiner and his family had been arrested and deported from their home near Munich. They arrived at the camp on a frosty March morning in 1943.
A few months later, weakened from lack of food and shell-shocked from the unfettered cruelty around him, he was picked to help out in the lab of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor whose medical experiments brought an extra dose of terror to Auschwitz. Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied liberation of the camp, an event being remembered here and around the globe.
Rumors of the doctor’s experiments, Höllenreiner recalled, ran wild in the camp. Those experiments would later involve both Höllenreiner and his incarcerated family. But on that one particularly frightening morning, Höllenreiner, who was 11 at the time, reported for duty to be greeted by a beaming Mengele, who asked him to transport a collection of jars.
“I did not want to look, but I did,” Höllenreiner, now 81, said at his home 47 miles east of Munich. “Inside the jars were what looked like human organs, preserved in some kind of liquid. There were lungs. Hearts. It made me sick.”
Later, he and his family would themselves be used in another experiment. They were, he said, purposely infected with typhoid before being injected with what appeared to be an untried new treatment. Still, it could have been worse. A relative became a subject for study on Mengele’s operating table. “He survived, but was never the same,” Höllenreiner said.
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Höllenreiner is still tormented by his incarceration. But what also pains him, he said, are the unlearned lessons of what he calls the “forgotten genocide” – the systemic liquidation of Europe’s Roma.
An ancient people researchers believe originally came from India more than a millennium ago, the Roma of Europe were targets of discrimination well before the rise of the Nazis. In the Weimar Republic, German-born Roma – known locally as Sinti – were forced to register with authorities, and were banned from public pools and certain recreation areas.
During World War II, the Nazis exterminated hundreds of thousands of Roma. Yet, their mass murder was not officially recognized as a genocide by then-West Germany until 1982. In 2011, Poland – where many Roma died along with Jews and homosexuals – officially recognized the Roma genocide, designating Aug. 2 as a national day of remembrance.
The delays, advocates say, correspond to lingering discrimination against Roma in Europe that, in recent years, has grown progressively worse. In Hungary, four men were found guilty in 2013 of a series of racially motivated killings of Roma that, in 2008 and 2009, left six dead, including a 5-year-old.
In 2010, France launched a systemic expulsion of Roma, deporting hundreds. Last year, Germany passed a measure that made it more difficult for immigrants from Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia to seek political asylum, a move widely seen as seeking to stem the flow of Roma migrants from those countries.
Höllenreiner is also highly critical of Europe’s Roma communities. In the decades since the war’s end, community leaders have not done enough, he said, to stress education and assimilation, leaving many young Roma stuck in cycles of poverty and living in insular and precarious encampments.
He has sought to tell his own story in German schools, sharing the extraordinary tale of how the Gestapo arrived at his family’s door one day in March 1943. They were all forced to a police station for processing before being loaded onto fetid cattle cars to Auschwitz.
During the final days of Nazi Germany, and after his transfer to a concentration camp further east in August 1944, he was separated from his family in the chaos of the death marches. As Nazi Germany was collapsing, freed French prisoners of war picked him up by the side of the road and brought him to France, where several foster families cared for him until December 1946. That’s when he finally learned that his parents and sister had survived the war, and were waiting for him in Munich. His grandmother died in the gas chambers, along with more than a dozen members of his extended family.