Philomena Franz

Narrator of the Romani Holocaust

Memoirs of philomena Franz

and their translations into French (left) and Spanish (right).

The author of this book was born in Germany in 1922. Coming into the world in the bosom of a Romani (Sinti) family made her an involuntary protagonist in the most tragic story of the 20th century: the Nazi Holocaust.[1] Anyone who reads her story will know that, at a very young age, Philomena Franz suffered the persecution and genocide of the Romani people executed by Nazism first-hand. Today, she is a survivor of Auschwitz – and other camps with lesser known names but no less dedicated to extermination – living in the German town of Bergisch Gladbach near Cologne. She is also the first Romani narrator to write and publish memoirs on the Romani Holocaust, which is seen as a personal testimony of denunciation and as a vindication of the rights of the victims. They are, logically, memoirs anchored in the past, that traumatic past that the author tries to articulate verbally so that it can be understood and shared, but they are also memoirs stemming from her real present and which encapsulate demands for the future.

The autobiographical account of Philomena Franz, with the accompaniment of her other writings also included in this volume, constitutes a fundamental testimony of the Nazi racial policy and, more precisely, the programme to destroy the Romani people in Europe. She is an exceptional narrator of the Romani genocide for several reasons: a pioneering writer from her dual role as victim and witness, her effort to break the wall of silence that exists around the survivors, the imperative to respond to the racism experienced by her son still decades after the official end of Nazism, the publication of her memoirs in German at a key moment for Sinti activism… There are several reasons why it can be said, without any doubt, that this short text released as a book in 1985 is a founding milestone in Romani literature on the Holocaust.

Moreover, her narration breaks the chains of testimony about a traumatic past to also construct an account about the daily life of many German Sinti families before Hitler came to power, something that allows us to look in great detail at a fragment of European history that has been erased from official annals and archives. Finally, this book by Philomena Franz contains the affirmation of a persecuted cultural identity that is vindicated as well as explained to mainstream society, based on the conviction that an effort to promote intercultural coexistence is both possible and necessary. In this last sense, this is a Romani discourse elaborated by someone who identifies as rooted in the Germany where she spent a happy childhood.

[1] I refer to footnote 1 of this edition of Philomena Franz’s memoirs for an explanation of the use of the terms “Gypsy”, Romani and Sinti in this study. This work is part of the research projects HAR2015-64744P and PCI2019-103527.

A Sinti Girl

The family of Philomena Franz (née Köhler) is a good example of the ways of life and culture of those Sinti who, when Hitler came to power in 1933, had been living in Germany for more than five centuries. Their labour niche was made up of their dedication to music and the cavalry trade, characteristically Romani itinerant works but which had also been part of the daily economic life of the whole of German society since ancient times. Certainly, the relationship between the Sinti and the non-racialised Germans was an unequal one, marked by great differences in power and weighed down by traditional anti-“Gypsy” prejudices. Nevertheless, as Eve Rosenhaft has pointed out, the Sinti demonstrated a capacity for action in these interrelated spaces that forces to understand them as historical subjects in their own right, overcoming their use as a passive object to deposit prejudices and majority stereotypes.[2]

In the family, there is an intersection between all the anchors that the author of this book remembers having during the essential time that is childhood, a time of safety and happiness that she knows was denied to others: the children of the Holocaust for whom she laments in her memoirs are a striking difference to the childhood enjoyed by Philomena Franz herself. She dedicates the entire first part of her story to telling us how it was growing up in an environment where she felt safe and free at the same time, in painful contrast to what came next. Some specialists in this type of testimony about the Holocaust point to the idealisation that may be involved in looking at the past from the experience of the subsequent persecution by the Nazis. However, there is no doubt that memoirs like those of Philomena Franz faithfully portray a way of life, later lost, which allowed Sinti families like hers to combine economic benefit with a love for travel, nature, partying, and other traits of their culture, despite the fact that this was not without problems, including those derived from anti-Roma prejudices.

Throughout the narration of her childhood, the author interweaves pride in the values ​​and customs of her family with a love for the territory they inhabited. The Haag theatrical and musical group, led by her maternal grandfather, was the setting in which she grew up while touring part of Germany and occasionally visiting other countries.

The Haag,

a family of musicians with roots in the German territory of Württemberg.

The group was recognised artistically, and contracts to perform in different theatres and parties took them from one city to another. As can be read in these memoirs, Philomena Franz acted and sang as a child, probably already showing something of the stage presence and voice she still has today.[3] The “Witch” to whom her grandfather predicted a future in the world of music because of her singing (“You still scream a little, but you will become something”) would regret many years later that Auschwitz meant – in addition to all the horror of the extermination camps – the end of her chances of being that “something” she had dreamed of as a teenager.[4]

It is true that, when in 1945 she had to desperately find a way to put food on the table in a Germany occupied by the allied troops, singing for the American soldiers served to satisfy a hunger as inhuman as that which can only come from the concentration camp, since the Lager made this kind of suffering one of its rules of power. “Then,” she says, referring to the food provided by the occupants, “I was able to think again. I was a human being again.”[5] But it is also true that this was not exactly an artistic career: “The Americans were always playing music and we sang American songs. And I thought: “Oh my gosh, what terrible songs!”, Philomena Franz now remembers, laughing and humming, as she tells how much the Sinti survivors needed the food and coffee with which the soldiers paid for their performances. But, at the time, she felt that “it was like a machine (…). I sang and danced without being there.”[6] A far cry from the golden memory of a girl on a Paris stage that she writes in the book, when coins wrapped in handkerchiefs rained on her as a reward from the public for her performance, enjoyed from the inner delight of those who give themselves in body and soul to dance.

Philomena Franz’s family combined the semi-itinerant life of musicians and theatre artists with the ownership of stable residences, where they spent the winter months waiting to get back on the road in their luxury wagon. The caravan described by the author – those horses with silver harnesses that were her pride, that interior with mahogany cabinets and marquetry, the floor of yellow roses on a blue background to match the upholstery or crockery – becomes the best metaphor of a life ideal based on travelling the country and enjoying the spectacle of nature, sheltered by her extended family, and finishing days of performance or market with nights of meeting, music, and stories around the fire.

Nazism put an end to it, not only on a symbolic or legal level: it is worth remembering the voracious seizure of assets imposed by the Nazi racial policy, a rampage that is much better known in the case of the Jewish people, but which also took away Romani heritage that has never been returned. The properties of Philomena Franz’s family, such as the wagon, horses, work tools, the house, furnishings, documents, photographs and her mother’s coral jewels, disappeared in the sinkhole of the Third Reich forever. Nevertheless, her story reconstructs them for readers, informs us of a modest comfort felt as more than enough and helps us better understand the descent into hell that the racial trap of Nazism meant for the Sinti people. The episode in which the author recalls how, as children, they fried bacon and roasted potatoes around the fire must be read alongside the backdrop of the severe hunger experienced in the camps, in the same way that the memory of the warm bed in the embers – with sheets and blankets – rises above the dirt and misery imposed on prisoners by the Nazi concentration system.

One of the things that stands out the most in Philomena Franz’s narrative is the place that nature occupies: nature remembered as landscapes travelled while her family travelled from one place to another, and nature conceived as an ordered cosmos in which the things of life take on meaning. Nature is also mentioned as a source of everyday aesthetic pleasure and as a reservoir of beauty that comforts in dark times. In all these senses, there is a thread of continuity that communicates childhood memories – dedicated to the magnificent spectacle of the natural world and her grandfather’s teachings about the respect due to all creatures – with the experience of “her” Holocaust and the later need to narrate it.

The images that were recorded in her mind from growing up in direct, continuous and respectful contact with nature had a fundamental value in Auschwitz. As she herself states: “I was able to survive thanks to what my eyes had seen.” So valuable and familiar was the beautifying power of Mother Nature that she felt renewed hope for the future when she was transferred to another camp as a forced labourer and, through the narrow train window, she could glimpse greenery, trees, and people at work. “Just some nature!”, she sighs in memory, because in the concentration camps “I missed the outdoors and green a lot.”[7] The stories and “Autumn Impressions” that accompany her memoirs in this edition are a clear testimony to the need for nature that continued to mark the life of Philomena Franz after the war, in that post-Nazi but not really de-Nazified Germany, where the imperative to bear witness to what she had experienced in the camps and become a writer was embodied.

It is not surprising that the author very closely relates music – music as a family dedication, music as a feature of Romani culture and music as personal enjoyment – with nature in her narration. Her metaphors, such as birds and nightingales, are frequent in this sense, and this is particularly evident in “Sonnegei”, a tale in which music and nature merge. Nor is it strange that her sense of religion is combined, along with elements of a popular religiosity experienced in childhood, with a pantheistic vision of nature. Her childhood memories of the beauty of the May masses in small chapels located in rural areas are thus completely consistent with her statement in a recent interview: “I am not a pious blessed person, but I believe in God. I know that he is there.”[8]

These masses, dedicated to “the virgins of the villages”, and attendance at processions and other popular rites bear witness to how the family of Philomena Franz, in addition to being Sinti, participated in the majority German culture. Another is the dirndl, or typical regional dress, that she remembers happily wearing on her first morning of school, when her mother fastened her braids with a red bow. It is also a sign of that participation mentioning that her grandfather is buried in the same Tübingen cemetery where the remains of the poet Hölderlin lie, as well as the fact that she introduces German literary references in her story. In particular, the information on the process of socialisation at school reveals the dual cultural framework in which Philomena grew up: her taste for school and desire to learn, together with the recognition by teachers and peers of how advanced the Romani children were in geography, biology and other subjects as a result of their contact with nature; the value of what they learned at school (how to read and write, mathematical operations and that English that would later help her understand American soldiers); but also the even greater value of what was taught by her grandfather, the kindest and most impressive tutor; or even being seen as foreigners when they arrived in a new town and joined a school, but also easily making new companions and forming friendships, that the arrival of Nazism would put to the test.

In 1938, the Nazi regime expelled the Romani from the German educational system and Philomena had to drop out of high school to become a forced labourer in an ammunition factory. This happened in Stuttgart, where her family had bought a house in Bad Kannstadt and spent their final years before being deported. I recommend reading her comments about the great regret that leaving school life and separating from the friendships of her youth born in that environment caused her (“Restrictions”) alongside her record as a prisoner at Ravensbrück, which indicates the alleged “asocial” condition genetically assigned to the Romani as the reason for her arrest. The great lie of the Zigeuner category created by Nazism is made evident in the glaring gap between the author’s feelings and the racial character collectively attributed to her.

Identification card of Philomena Köhler

(Philomena Franz’s maiden name) as prisoner number 4,030 of the Ravensbrück camp, 1944.

A long time later in an interview published in 2001, a journalist would ask her why she had stayed in Germany after the war, and Philomena Franz’s answer would be: “Here is my homeland [Heimat]. It is the only one I have.”[9] Her sense of home (land, country, homeland, all those meanings that the word Heimat can entail) is rooted in that Germany where she lived a happy childhood when she had a large and protective family. Nevertheless, she also voluntarily projects herself towards a possible future of intercultural coexistence from a clear awareness of her Romani identity. “I am Sinti”, she reaffirmed resolutely in a recent interview, in which she also commented on the identity evolution of leaving behind the previously used name Zigeuner. [10]

On this path, Franz would share the claim to be part of German history with other Sinti, defending the values of her people’s way of life in this context and claiming, through these personal memories, the collective right to a place in national memory. She especially insists, both in writing and in oral testimonies, on showing that there were episodes of solidarity or even collaboration in the most difficult moments and strives not to fall into the simplified dichotomy of good and bad, and to overcome the disjunction of Romani victims and (all) Nazi Germans. Her insistence on this does not diminish with the passage of time and today she reiterates in oral interviews the value of the gestures of people who resisted being an obedient part of the Nazi cogs in one way or another: among the various examples, there is the head of the Stuttgart factory where she had to work piecework during the first years of the war, haunted by the fear of imminent deportation, which did indeed come. Philomena insists that he was a good person – “he was not a Nazi” – who tried to help her and was even affectionate towards her when the moment of her arrest came.[11]

Nazism dominating the streets of Stuttgart in 1938,

the town where Philomena and her family lived before her deportation.

[2] Eve Rosenhaft: “The Florians, the Habedanks and the Horse Fair at Wehlau”, in Eve Rosenhaft and María Sierra: European Roma. Lives beyond Stereotypes, Liverpool University Press, 2021 (in production).

[3] This can be seen in Die Musik verteilt den Schmerz – Ein Besuch bei Philomena Franz (Music is a Balm for Pain: A Visit to Philomena Franz), by Detlev Buck (2021).

[4] “I was nineteen years old and I wanted to do lots of things! If it hadn’t been for the camp… But there was nothing left after it”, Philomena Franz in “Presentation”, María Sierra: Holocausto gitano. El genocidio romaní bajo el nazismo, Madrid, Arzalia, 2020, p.12.

[5] Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] That window seemed to her like being at the cinema, she remembers in Die Musik verteilt… Expressions of longing for nature, in Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021.

[8] Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021.

[9] Quoted in Marianne C. Zwicker: Journeys into Memory. Romani Identity and the Holocaust in Autobiographical Writing by German and Austrian Romanies, PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2009, p. 31.

[10] Interview with Philomena Franz, 24-2-2021.

[11] Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021.

“Her” Holocaust, the Holocaust of Half a Million Romani

But Nazism had decreed that the Sinti could not be considered members of the German nation. Under the assumption of their danger to Aryan racial purity, it subjected them to persecution and an extermination programme very similar to those suffered by the Jewish people. The memoirs of Philomena Franz describe, especially in the second part, this process of destruction of the Romani people that affected not only the German and Austrian Sinti, but also reached all the territories controlled by the Third Reich and consequently affected thousands of European Roma. Franz narrates it biographically with a poignant brevity that is extremely effective in telling us the most important aspects of a persecution and torture that symbolically end in the Auschwitz extermination camp.

The first episodes of this part of her story, which tell how the trap of anti-“Gypsy” provisions encircled them at every step, conform to the general pattern of a racial persecution programme that was carried out with the means of a totalitarian state in a planned and arbitrary way at the same time.[12] Thus, one of the first aggressions recorded in these memoirs is the subjection of the Romani population to forced study by Nazi racial scientists. The responsibility was assumed by Dr. Robert Ritter, a Bern-trained specialist in psychiatry and neurology, who was the director of the Centre for Research on Racial Hygiene. Ritter worked with a large team of collaborators who took craniometric measurements and photographs, extracted blood samples, established family genealogies, and created records for identification purposes. Based on operations as lax as those reported by Philomena Franz, these works classified the Reich Romani population as “pure” or “mixed race” (to varying degrees). Carried out in close collaboration with the Nazi criminal police, they served to identify and arrest those considered as “inferior.” They also served to affirm the theory of the genetic incapacity of the Romani for integration into civilised social life or, in other words, their collective condition as “asocial”. These scientific opinions – today we would say pseudo-scientific, although in this way we reduce the consideration they had at that time – sentenced thousands of people to death, giving supposedly objective arguments for the measures of sterilisation, experimentation, deportation, etc., to which the population of Romani descent was subjected.

Not only was there inconsistency in the operations of the racial scientists: while these studies were determining the fate of the subjects subjected to analysis, the regime did not stop benefiting from the efforts of those who had been labelled as “asocial.” As with other young Sinti in Germany, Philomena’s brother, Johann, was first put into a compulsory work programme, then enlisted into military service, before finally being sent to the front after the war broke out. Like him, many other Sinti participated in the German military effort during the Second World War (they had also participated in the First), but this did not prevent them from being stripped of their uniform, rank or medals and sent directly to Auschwitz and other camps when the time came.[13]

Fear overwhelms the chapters that the author dedicates to the time immediately prior to her arrest and deportation. Little by little, it takes over everything. It is more powerful than sadness or extreme fatigue, and it only allows one question to be asked: “When will it be our turn?” All the members of the family fell between 1942 and 1943, including uncles and nephews, her father and one of her brothers, her other siblings, herself and, finally, also her mother, the last inhabitant of a house progressively emptied of its ten inhabitants. Franz transmits the despair of those who were deported and the helplessness of those left waiting to the reader with effective resources such as short sentences and minimalist dialogue. These arrests were due to the increasingly aggressive new provisions given by Heinrich Himmler on the Romani population of the Reich, especially after the so-called “Auschwitz Decree” (December 1942), comparable to the final solution decided for the Jewish people. Franz’s story puts faces and names to the measure’s ultimate intention: “Our past was erased once and for all. All the photos, the pictures, the papers, the letters, the notes, my diary… everything was destroyed.”

Her turn came in March 1943, when the general wave of deportations to the Zigeunerlager of Auschwitz, the camp for “Gypsies” created expressly on Himmler’s orders in a confined space of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, intensified. After a few weeks in Dresden prison, she shared the overcrowded wagons of a train that unloaded her directly onto the selection ramp at Auschwitz with many other prisoners. Upon arriving there, the brutality she had suffered on the way was outweighed by the astonishment she experienced at the ghostly reality of the best-known extermination camp in history. Her impression coincides in many ways with what other survivors remember: the astonishment and bewilderment at orders that were no longer shouted but howled, the gratuitous blows and the dog attacks, the horrific scenes of abused corpses, the smell of burned bodies, the collaboration of the prisoners who acted as kapos and so many other things that seemed unreal because they reversed any moral or logic.

The selection ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

in a photograph of May-June 1944, showing in this case the arrival of a group of Hungarian Jews.

She was tattooed on her arm with the letter Z for Zigeuner (“Gypsy”) and the number 10,500 (“When they put me in the camp,” she says, “they had already put tens of thousands in”).[14] This form of dehumanisation was applied strangely strictly at Auschwitz, involving eliminating names to turn prisoners into just a number, a mark engraved on their arms (or legs, in the case of younger children). In other camps, the stigma could remain on the clothing, but in Auschwitz the flesh itself recalled a submission without possible redemption, as Primo Levi points out in his memoirs.[15]

Much of the data recorded by Philomena Franz coincides with what Levi himself and other survivors have highlighted as omnipresent elements in the daily ‘life’ of the Lager: violence, hunger and strenuous work were the three essential pillars of its destruction programme. The assassination could take time or be voraciously accelerated with the dispatch of entire contingents of prisoners to the gas chambers. The author of this book survived all of these experiences, including waiting in line to be gassed. To survive obviously means to suffer, both at the time and later, from the tortured condition of the survivor. These memoirs are the result of the courageous task of facing a suffering that continues to accompany her decades later in the form of nightmares, although she tries to scare them away with a glass of water. Engraving images that cannot be forgotten…: “The Nazis did very that well,” she comments.[16]

When Philomena Franz arrived at Auschwitz, she was 21 years old. According to the files that register her as a prisoner at Ravensbrück and Buchenwald, camps to which she was transferred somewhat later, she was 5’3” tall, slim, had an oval face, brown eyes, all her teeth and short hair.[17] Her long hair, which must have been striking, had been shaved when she arrived at Auschwitz, as she tells in some detail in an episode expressing the added violence that young women had to endure in the camps.

Philomena Franz, in 1945,

after the liberation of the camps and her marriage to Oskar Franz.

Buchenwald’s registration file records as a mark, in addition to the prisoner’s tattoo on her arm that she brought from Auschwitz, a scar on her left cheek. 

In the survivors’ memoirs, the violence of the guardians (and sometimes especially the female guardians, as Ceija Stojka describes for Ravensbrück)[18] is remembered as both unpredictable – it is only by chance that someone can occasionally be spared their wrath – and systematic – a danger always lurking. It was both an essential and successful part of the Lager’s methods of subjugation and dehumanisation. Philomena Franz’s story also reports this, highlighting particularly cruel experiences, such as the torture her sister was subjected to for her own escape attempt and that she herself suffered in a punishment cell. She recalls it with a impressive economy of words, leading the reader to search between the lines of her testimony for more information.

Hunger, an essential feature of the concentration camp system, also appears in these memoirs, which coincide with other survivors’ accounts in pointing out the great value of a few rounds of potato skins, in celebrating the coffee that could be ‘organised’ or remembering how they were tortured with all this, seeking to dehumanise the prisoners in this effective way as well. In the case of Philomena Franz’s memoirs, this atrocious hunger is almost better described by contrast when, for example, she recounts how decisive it was for her to eat properly once she was released in order to see her human condition reconstituted: Until the accumulated hunger was satiated, she could not feel properly human again.

But torture had many faces at the Lager. I want to draw attention to the disciplinary use of music in the camps, something that occasionally appears in these memoirs and that must be contextualised doubly because, by constituting the livelihood of her family before the Nazi persecution, it is one of the dearest and most natural cultural resources for Philomena Franz

Familia y música unidos en el recuerdo de Philomena Franz:

of his uncle, a great violinist and guitarist, he says: “When he played, you were left with your mouth open” (Interview 21-1-2021).

Prisoners in the camps were forced to sing German songs and move to the rhythm of marches. Franz recalls singing Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss, for example, while being forced to work to death.[19] Therefore, without denying that music could sometimes be a refuge that gave comfort and encouraged resistance, it should not be forgotten that it was also and above all another resource available to the guardians of the camps for the physical and mental discipline of the prisoners. The memoirs of Simon Laks, the forced conductor of an orchestra at Auschwitz, give a good idea of ​​this. Furthermore, Primo Levi recalls that these songs and marches were the voice of the Lager, as they were recorded in the survivor’s minds.[20] In the case of the Romani prisoners, there was also the paradox that they were frequently requested by the guardians of the camps in their times of rest and moments of celebration so they could enjoy a type of music that was generally recognised and appreciated but which, as perpetrators, they completely dissociated from respect for its authors and bearers, the victims.

Violence, starvation and forced labour decimated the prison population of Auschwitz. Of the approximately 22,600 prisoners who passed through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Zigeunerlager, about 19,300 died there. Of these, some 5,600 were killed in the gas chambers; exhaustion and disease caused by the miserable conditions of the camp killed the rest.[21] In general, the entire concentration system was based on this double annihilation mechanism. The lives of those who were not led to the gas chambers could fade more slowly and, in their progressive collapse, they became unrecognisable beings, even to their closest relatives. Franz narrates with particular pain two episodes in which she herself was not able to recognise very dear people: her sister and her godmother. After a few months of not seeing each other, both had suffered in such a way that they had to “introduce themselves” upon meeting at different times during the transfer between camps.

Philomena Franz’s youthful strength made her a useful worker for the Nazi war economy, which relied heavily on this type of slave labour. To this end, she was transferred from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück and then to other camps. The conditions in which she had to work in ammunition or aircraft parts assembly factories were strenuous and dangerous. It was not for nothing that Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had said that the best method of combatting “asocials” was “the idea of ​​exterminating them through work.”[22] But Philomena tells us that she welcomed her exit from Auschwitz as a promise of freedom, feeling that she had escaped from the clutches of the certain death that daily claimed prey around her. In fact, she made several escapes from these other camps, resisting ending her days as a prisoner of the Lager, deeming it better to die in freedom and in the middle of nature than in the dusty streets of the concentration camp without a blade of grass in sight. Her will not to collapse or get used to the treatment was punished, as she herself tells: rebellion was a luxury that the concentration system could not allow.

Sent back to Auschwitz, and although she stayed in some other camps before the end of the war, it is there that her descent into the deepest abysses of human horror signified by the Holocaust is symbolically ended. At Auschwitz she was led in a group to the gas chamber, from which she was saved last minute. There she collected the ashes of the corpses that came out of the crematorium and protected a young girl from whom she later had to separate and there, consequently, she feels the inarticulate pain of those who had to endure all this as children

Birkenau, on the way to the gas chambers:

a photograph dated May 27, 1944, shows a group of Jews being led to the gas chambers and crematoria.

In this Auschwitz to which Philomena Franz returned, the “Gypsy” camp that she had known had already been terminated. The so-called Zigeunerlager had been created at the end of 1942. In the spring of 1944, faced with increasing German military setbacks and the advance of the Soviet troops, the managers of the camp, which at that time held some 6,000 prisoners, made the decision to dismantle it. Those most fit for work and those who had served in the German army were taken to other destinations, as Walter Winter recounts in his memoirs mentioned above.[23] With these measures, the camp authorities responded to an episode of resistance carried out by the prisoners in May 1944, when the news spread that they were going to be massively gassed with the termination of the Zigeunerlager – resistance that is a key reference in international Romani activism today. Finally, on the night of 2 August 1944, the 2,900 prisoners still in the camp were taken to the gas chambers on Himmler’s orders. The majority, given the previous selection, were the elderly, children and the sick. The latter were loaded onto trucks from the Infirmary barrack. The camp’s medical officer, Dr. Mengele, infamous for the experiments he subjected the prisoners to, was in charge of collaborating in this operation.[24]

Philomena Franz was thus returning to an Auschwitz in which the Zigeunerlager no longer existed. Still later she was transferred to other camps before she finally managed to escape on German territory from Wittenberg, a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen – one more of that myriad of names that, as Ruth Klüger points out, readers insist on forgetting because they do not have the mythical resonance of Auschwitz.[25] Franz narrates her escape in these memoirs, to which she has returned in subsequent interviews to provide more details, since it was a turning point for her. It was because she took risks that set her apart from her companions – each had to be responsible for their decisions, she points out; because she met a person who helped her and gave her refuge in his house; because she began to satisfy an unrelenting hunger and regain her stolen dignity (“When I heard him address me with respect, I thought: “Wow, a gentleman!”); and also because she was able to return the favour when, upon the arrival of the Soviet soldiers, she presented herself to them as Hitler’s prisoner and spoke up for those Germans who had taken her into their home.[26]

In this defeated Germany occupied by the armies of the allied countries, Philomena Franz sought refuge with the American troops, whose ability to have and provide food is still remembered and admired today. She communicated with them in school English, told them her story and received what they gave her. She knew she was free, that was important, but she also felt very lonely when she started looking for her family. At first, she thought that her mother or some of her siblings might have survived, but she found no one. She was like a bird in an empty nest, and she acknowledges that she felt abandoned when she could not satisfy her nostalgia (Heimweh) for home.[27]

[12] A recent state of the art can be found in María Sierra: Gypsy Holocaust…

[13] See, for example, the similar case of Walter Winter, who tells in his memoirs how he was mistreated by the country in whose army he served: Winter Time. Memoirs of a German Sinto who Survived Auschwitz, Hatfield, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004 (original edition in German from 1999).

[14] Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021.

[15] Primo Levi: I sommersi e i salvati, Einaudi, 1986.

[16] Interview with Philomena Franz, 24-2-2021.

[17] Prisoner personal identification number 4,030, Ravensbrück camp; Prisoner personal identification number 28,319, Weimar-Buchenwald camp. International Tracing Service, Arolsen Archives, Germany.

[18] Ceija Stojka: Wir Leben im Verborgenen: Erinnerungen einer Rom-Zigeunerin, Viena, Picus, 1988.

[19] Brown and black is the hazelnut is a German folk song documented from the late 18th century. In her diary, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich collects the testimony of a Jewish friend who was locked up in the Sachsenhausen camp and forced to sing while working or remaining in training. He particularly remembers Brown and black is the hazelnut “when they hanged two of our comrades on the gallows next to a Christmas tree with lit candles.” I am grateful to Virginia Maza, translator of the text by Andreas-Friedrich, for this reference. (Valencia, Trapisonda, in production).

[20] Szymon Laks & René Coudy, Musiques d’un autre monde, París, Mercure de France, 1948; Primo Levi: Se questo è un uomo, Turin, Einaudi, 1947).

[21] Michael Zimmermann: Rassenutopie und Genozid. Die nationalsozialistische ‘Lösung der Zigeunerfrage’, Hamburgo, Christians, 1996. Slawomir Kapralski, Maria Martyniak y Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska, Roma in Auschwitz, Voices of Memory Series, International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, 2011.

[22] This included not only, but preferably, the Romani and Jews; collected in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Office of United States, Chief of Council for Persecution of Axis Criminality, 1946, Vol. III, p. 496.

[23]  Walter Winter: Winter Time…, pp. 86-87.

[24] A summary of what we know so far about these episodes of resistance and termination, in María Sierra: Holocausto gitano…, pp.135-137.

[25] Ruth Klüger: Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, New York, The feminist Press at the City of New York, 2001. (Original edition: Weiter leben. Eine Jugend, 1992).

[26] Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021 and 24-2-2021.

[27] Interview with Philomena Franz, 24-2-2021.

Persecuted Survivors:

Being a Romani after the War

Franz’s memoirs end in 1945. However, it is precisely that silenced time that explains what led her to write and publish a book like this. Her post-war story is the story of the effort to rebuild her life and, at the same time, the story of the denial of her recognition as a victim of Nazism. It is, moreover, a story shared with the other Sinti survivors of the Holocaust, since the German society and institutions assumed and prolonged some of the main anti-Gypsy prejudices of Nazism in peacetime. As a result, legal and political decisions were made over decades that caused significant added suffering to survivors of the Romani genocide.[28] What happened in Germany demonstrated a widespread anti-“Gypsyism” throughout Europe: the limitations of denazification were in line with what happened in countries as diverse as France and Romania, where being a Romani was a stigma and a burden even if Hitler, Pétain, Antonescu, or others responsible for the genocide of the Romani people during the Second World War had disappeared.[29]

Immediately after the end of the war, amidst the sense of numbness that many survivors agree came over them after their liberation from the camps or the “death marches”, the basic need to find a livelihood forced itself upon them. In a Germany devastated by the consequences of Nazism, this task was especially hard for those who had lost their family networks, their property and even their documents when they were detained and deported, as happened to Philomena Franz. In her case, music was the first lifeline. Along with other Sinti, she formed a musical group that sang for the occupying troops from city to city. It was there that she met her husband, Oskar Franz (whose first wife and children had died at Auschwitz and she was also able to reconnect with her brother Johann, a survivor.[30] In those days, American troops were the best supplier of precious goods, such as food and cigarettes, and the group was successful among these soldiers. While her brother brought jazz to life on the piano or violin, Philomena adapted to American songs. In later statements, she graphically summarised the exoticism attributed by the gaze of the US occupiers: “To them, we seemed like a kind of European Wild West.”[31]

The Franzes formed a new family together. Their first daughter, Toska, was born in 1946, and would later be followed by four more children. During the second half of the 1940s and the early 1950s, they managed to live off street trade and support the family with many difficulties: “If my husband had not been such a good businessman, we would have starved to death.” At first, they had only a car, and in winter they tried to ask for help to sleep under a roof. When a couple from Cologne gave them a laundry room in their own house to set up as a first home, they finally felt like “true human beings”.[32] Oskar Franz dedicated himself to the antiques trade, and the family’s situation gradually improved with this work.

Philomena Franz, with her daughter Toska,

looks at the camera in a family photograph from the late 1950s.

Like many other Sinti, the Franzes survived without official aid and, at this point, their particular story is highly representative of the denial of recognition of the Romani victims of the Holocaust that took place for a long time in both Germany and Europe. Although the allied powers had announced reparation measures in favour of Hitler’s victims within the framework of a broader programme of denazification and accountability, these promises were in practice deformed by the interests of the new world order of the so-called Cold War. When the birth of the German Federal Republic was formalised in 1949, the Western powers left the prosecution of Nazi crimes in the hands of the Bonn government and the German courts. And not all victims would be treated the same.

It is true that the specificity of the Jewish Holocaust took time to be recognised: it took famous court cases in the early 1960s, the Auschwitz and Eichmann trials, for society to begin to become aware of the dimensions and character of this genocide. But at least the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism had the support of organisations such as the World Jewish Council from the outset, which succeeded in getting the German authorities to recognise their rights and assume the reparation debt, even through the newly founded State of Israel. What happened in the postwar period with the Sinti and Romani persecuted by Nazism was very different: the German authorities denied that they had been collectively persecuted during Nazism on racial or ideological grounds for a long time, considering on the contrary that the arrests would have been carried out within a legitimate government fight against crime in the majority of cases.

With this legal logic, the arguments of Nazism were prolonged in peacetime, whose racial scientists had attributed a genetic tendency to criminality to the Romani and classified them as a backward people incapable of participating in mainstream social life. A 1956 Federal Court of Justice ruling summed it up well: “Gypsies are prone to crime, especially theft and fraud. In many cases, they lack the moral impulse to respect the property of others because, like primitive men, they have an uncontrolled appropriation instinct.”[33] Twelve years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the same prejudices that had activated the machinery of the imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of Romani across Europe under Nazism were still being openly affirmed in the high court of justice of a Germany that saw itself as democratic.

What happened in the courts of law, on the other hand, revealed broader collective tendencies in the society of the time. The case of Dr. Ritter may be a good example of this. Although he was one of the main leaders of the Nazi racial policy towards the Romani and collaborated closely with the regime’s criminal police, he continued to work in the German civil service after the war, first as Professor of Criminology at the University of Tübingen and later as psychologist at the Frankfurt Health Service. In a trial he underwent in 1950, the court considered that the complaints of the Sinti survivors were not sufficient evidence against him, but it did accept statements from experts in the so-called “Gypsy matter” of the previous Nazi era (who of course, considered Ritter an authority on the subject).

Trials like this showed the desire of German society to encapsulate responsibility for the crimes of Nazism, limiting it to very small circles – a tiny group of hierarchs aided by another also very small group of execution assistants – something in which they did not want to acknowledge the involvement of a large part of the civilian population, and much less the groups of respectable professionals and experts, such as doctors, civil servants and technicians of various kinds. But, together with this general trend, what was happening in the courts of law also revealed the entrenched problem of specifically anti-“Gypsy” racism. Mainstream society looked the other way after the war when it came to thinking about the existence of the Sinti and Romani victims of Nazism, much like how it had applauded the preventive detention measures for “Gypsies” while Hitler was in power, such as happened with the creation of the Marzahn camp in the outskirts of Berlin in 1936.[34] Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why prominent enforcers of Nazi anti-“Gypsy” racial policy were kept in the administration of post-Nazi Germany. Examples of these include Joseph Eichberger, who was responsible for the deportation of thousands of Roma on a level similar to Eichmann’s for the Jews and head of the Bavarian police “Gypsy” department after the war, and Leo Karsten, head of the office “for Gypsy affairs” of the Nazi criminal police and, later, of the Migration Department of the Baden police.[35]

With such experts and technicians present at the trials that the Sinti victims were trying to promote against the perpetrators, it is not surprising that the majority of the survivors soon avoided any dealings with an administration that should have recognised and compensated them but, on the contrary, continued to treat them as suspected criminals. Oskar Franz was of the opinion that it was better not to request anything, but Philomena insisted on claiming her rights. When she finally received financial compensation, along with the recognition of a partial incapacity for work as a result of the mistreatment inflicted in the camps, the money was withheld from her by the State as compensation for the social assistance that she had requested to care of her sick husband for a few months before he died in 1975: “They call that reparation nowadays,” Philomena Franz said in 1985.[36]

In a true reflection of the lack of political and institutional will, the German justice system took its time before becoming open to the possibility of a change in the recognition of the Romani victims of Nazism. The consideration that the Sinti and Roma could have the status of being persecuted for ideological and racial reasons, which would allow them to claim compensation or the return of seized property, only started with the ruling of a Cologne court in 1963 that recognised racial persecution for the first time for the specific case of a family that had fled from Ritter. It was an important milestone, but the subsequent process of generating a jurisprudence to that effect was extremely slow and stingy. The issue of the alleged non-existence of evidential documents considered sufficient delayed it even more: most of the survivors died before being able to benefit from the aid that would have been due them with the change in doctrine. At first, only those affected by the “Auschwitz decree”, which took thousands of people to the Birkenau Zigeunerlager from January 1943, were considered to be victims of Nazism, leaving out, among other cases, people sterilised after 1933, those detained in German camps from 1936 or before, those deported to ghettos and camps in Poland from 1940 and those killed by the Einsatzgruppen in the advance of German troops during the USSR invasion from 1941.

But it was not only or exactly a problem of legal formality: “The truth is much worse, because it consisted and consists of the tacit agreement that the persecution of the ‘Gypsies’ would be justified”, denounced Wolfgang Benz in the study added to the second edition of Philomena Franz’s memoirs in 1992. A Holocaust historian and anti-Semitism expert, Benz was able to see that maintaining old prejudices against the Romani with stigmatising intent constituted “a crime that extends its effect beyond the collapse of the National Socialist state.”

In total, more than half a million Sinti and Romani were killed (…). They were victims of ancient prejudices that culminated in hatred and lethal enmity towards a minority. It is necessary to identify and name these prejudices because they are still alive. The end of the National Socialist state did not end the persecution or discrimination in any way.[37]

And, if the Romani victims of Nazism had not been justly recognised as such, it was not only due to a lack of political representation like that which supported the Jewish victims, as Benz himself rightly pointed out. It was also a radical lack of empathy or understanding on the part of the majority public opinion in Germany and Europe. After leaving the camps, Philomena Franz and many other Sinti persecuted by Nazism had to continue living in these types of sociocultural and institutional coordinates, living, consequently, while hiding a type of wound that is very complex to deal with, both before oneself and before those who have not witnessed what happened.

Other survivors were able to show them and confront their stories in various ways, trying to overcome the torture of survival. Politically persecuted Nazis raised their voices in public as early as Nico Rost in his memoir Goethe in Dachau (1946), a memoir that, in some ways, began in the concentration camp itself.[38] Victims of anti-Semitism also articulated their own discourse in such immediate and necessary publications as Primo Levi’s book If this is a man (1947). It is true that the editorial success of Levi’s memoirs would be slow in coming, because almost no one wanted to listen to the survivors at first, as several of them have explained: “Those who were waiting for me covered their ears. Those who could, dodged me,” wrote Paul Steinberg.[39] It is important to bear this in mind to understand the greatness that exists in the Holocaust survivors’ act of witnessing and to appreciate the courage of those who have dared to do so in the face of much opposition. Listening and valuing their words is something priceless that European society still owes them.

If it was not easy for these survivors to raise their voices, it was even more difficult for the Romani of Europe persecuted by Nazism, who found that they were frequently confronted in the postwar courts by the same people who had previously endorsed their sterilisation, looting or deportation as experts. They also felt for decades that post-Nazi society maintained a series of traditional prejudices against them in everyday life, such as rentals, jobs, deals and relationships. In their case, these prejudices had not been questioned by the unveiling of the Holocaust. Silence was imposed on many people who, like Philomena Franz, had to carry on without the healing help of words or the comfort of testimony or recognition. Official mistreatment and social misunderstanding thus reinforced communication barriers that prolonged the torture of these camp survivors by not allowing them to face the pain that they carried within. However, there came a time from which Philomena Franz broke that silence.

[28] Sybil Milton rightly titled one of her works on this topic: “Persecuting the Survivors: The Continuity of ‘Anti-Gypsyism’ in post-war Germany and Austria”, in Susan Tebbutt (Ed.): Sinti and Roma. Gypsies in German Speaking Society and Literature, New York-Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1998, pp. 35-47.

[29] Information on these two specific cases can be found in Emmanuel Filhol and Marie-Christine Hubert: Les Tsiganes en France. Un sort à part 1939-1946, Paris, Perrin, 2009; and Viorel Achim: The Roma in Romanian History, Budapest, Central European University Press, 1998, respectively.

[30] The unexpected meeting with her brother in the street in Munich, in Philomena Franz: “Des mots: clés”, in L’amour a vaincu la mort, Paris, Petra, 2019, p. 244: “From that moment on, there were three of us. My brother was a good musician. He played the piano, I sang, and my husband played the bass.”

[31] Most of the information about this stage in Philomena Franz’s life comes from the chapters that Reinhold Lehmann added to the first edition of her memoirs after interviewing her (Zwischen Liebe und Hass. Ein Zigeunerleben, Freiburg, Herder, 1985). The pagination of the 1992 and 2001 editions, which coincide with each other, follows here: the “Wild West” on p. 95.

[32] Ibidem, pp. 97 and 98 respectively.

[33] Quoted by Wolfgang Benz: “Vom Vorurteil zum Massenmord: Die nationalsozialistische Verfolgung der ,Zigeuner’”, in Philomena Franz: Zwischen Liebe und Hass…, p. 123 (1992 edition).

[34] This camp, created to “clean” Berlin of “Gypsies” in preparation for the Olympics of 1936, which were imagined as a great international showcase of the Nazi regime, condemned many families to a life of misery and exploitation before the deportations that would later lead them to concentration and extermination camps constructed in occupied Poland. An account of childhood in Marzahn can be found in Otto Rosenberg: A Gypsy in Auschwitz, London House, 1999(Original edition: Das Brenglas, 1998).

[35] These cases, and the prolongation of specifically anti-Gypsy laws, are in Thomas W. Neumann and Michael Zimmermman: “Postscript: Sinti and Roma in post-war Germany” in Walter Winter: Winter time…, pp. 153-169. An updated walk-through on the subject, in Gilad Margalit: “The Justice System of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies”, in Anton Weiss-Wendt (Ed.): The Nazi Genocide of the Roma. Reassessment and Commemoration, New York – Oxford, Berghahn, 2013, pp. 181-204.

[36] Philomena Franz a Reinhold Lehmann, in Zwischen Liebe und Hass…, p. 102.

[37] Wolfgang Benz: “Vom Vorurteil zum Massenmord…”, p. 123 and p. 119 respectively; my emphasis.

[38] Nico Rost: Goethe in Dachau, Berlin, Volk & Welt, 1999. Indeed, this anti-fascist fighter was one of the first surviving political prisoners to advocate for the cause of the Romani victims of Nazism after his encounter with Romani activist Ionel Rotaru, as can be seen in ‘Het oudste volk’, Algemeen Handelsblad, 18 May 1963. More about this connection in María Sierra: “Creating Romanestán: a place to be Gypsy in Post-Nazi Europe”, European History Quarterly, Vol. 49(2), 2019, pp. 272–292.

[39] Paul Steinberg: Crónicas del mundo oscuro, Barcelona, ​​Montesinos, 1999, p. 180 (Original edition: Chroniques d’ailleurs, Edition Ramsay, 1996).

The Imperative of Testimony and the Writing Task

In fact, it was precisely speaking and writing that saved her, as she herself tells. In doing so, she was finally able to face the traces of the pain inflicted by Nazism and, furthermore, appreciate that her words could impact others. The fact that traditional anti-“Gypsy” prejudices were still alive in Germany in the 1970s without any consideration of the suffering caused to the Romani people under Hitler is shown in the episode that prompted Philomena Franz to speak. When one of her children was insulted at school for being Romani, Franz felt compelled to go to the school to talk to teachers and students and explain what it meant to be Romani in Germany in her experience. The reactions of the children – regret, interest, solidarity – triggered her conversion into a narrator of the Romani Holocaust, as well as a defender of her people’s culture.

The road was not easy, but paved with much suffering because, as she explains in these memoirs, “us survivors are marked forever.” In her case, nightmares replaying the horror of what she had experienced were compounded by episodes of terror during the day, which sometimes caused her to flee from her own home due to the anguished feeling of still being a prisoner. Receiving hospital treatment finally helped her break the silence in which she had endured the suffering caused by Nazism and the subsequent lack of understanding for decades. In a conversation with her first editor, she said that at first “I could only cry. I couldn’t talk to anyone. Then I started talking, little by little at first and then more and more. It was like a waterfall. I had to talk about my suffering.”[40]

In this process of facing the pain through words, Philomena Franz became a writer in addition to addressing other audiences as a speaker. As she explained when her memoirs were being edited, in this “stage of overcoming depression, I also wrote my suffering down. That is why I have said that I wrote this manuscript in tears and on my knees.”[41] Writing enhanced the curative work of the effort of articulating a story to give testimony on the part of those who have been both witnesses and victims of torture such as that caused by the Nazi persecution. When asked in a recent interview about the conditions in which she had to write up this narrative, Franz said that “it was heartbreaking”, but also “a real break, a great step forward.”[42] The articulation of narrations in the form of memoirs, such as those written by Philomena Franz, allows survivors to work on their memories to try to overcome the dramatic and traumatic repetition of what they suffered (which the nightmare symbolises so well). As Dominick LaCapra has pointed out, thanks to the work put into organising these kinds of narrations, a mental and emotional distance can be created between what has been experienced in the past and what is expressed in the present. This is an effort that the memory can elaborate with a certain healing power, although it does not mean an end to suffering in any way.[43]

In addition, by facing the story of her suffering, Philomena Franz became a proper witness and someone who can bear witness to others. This testimonial function is what allows a survivor to act as a political and ethical agent in their environment: to establish themselves as a voice that presents itself with authority to potential interlocutors to demand that they take a position in the face of facts from which they can no longer turn away and to demand a reaction from the listener or reader when people speak to the victims of reparation and the danger of history being repeated. When Philomena Franz decided to go to her son’s school, and then to other institutes, to tell people about her experience as a Romani, she was already putting herself in this place. The subsequent preparation and publication of her memoirs consolidated her position, not only before others, but also before herself: she could remove her nightmare images and turn them into a message with many social implications. The curative and civic functions thus support each other and the Auschwitz tattoo that Philomena Franz does not want to erase from her arm, although it sometimes makes those who notice it uncomfortable, is the best symbol of this painfully assertive process.

Giving testimony is an imperative insofar as its primary purpose is making what happened known and remembering the victims, but it is also a right. These memoirs are, in this sense, a claim for rights on the lips of someone who feels part of a historically mistreated minority. The author affirms this resolutely from the very introduction of her book: “We all have the right, even today, to continue talking about our suffering. To find ourselves again, to honour the victims and to tell young people: ’This happened and it must never be repeated.’” Franz speaks of the right to mourn, which the concentration system denied, the right to be recognised, which the post-Nazi German administration disregarded, but also the right to remember. In this last area, she states her demand as a collective right and does so in a very direct and bluntly simple way: “We have the right for our suffering to find its own place in history.” Pointing to the centre of the debate on historical memory which has cropped up several times in Germany since the Second World War, this is a powerful message which would have been difficult to imagine during the many years in which the denial to recognise the Romani victims dominated.

The message, however, would begin to take shape and gain an audience in the late 1970s, when Romani activism in defence of the rights of the victims of Nazism took a major leap. Faced with the disappointment of the courts and administrative procedures, some Sinti organisations in Germany and Romani spokespeople from other European countries decided to take their claims to the public space, to the streets: if the law did not want to recognise injustices, the Romani activists would explain through protests, statements to the press and, ultimately, political action. The convening of a commemorative ceremony in the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1979 was the first success on this path, bringing together Romani spokespeople from various countries with Romani and Jewish survivors, as well as some political representatives. A few months later, in 1980, a group of Sinti activists staged a hunger strike in the former Dachau camp to demand the recognition of the Romani victims of the Holocaust and also to protest against the continued use of the Nazi criminal files by the police. With that came the first official support from a German political group, the Social Democratic Party.[44]

Philomena Franz’s memoirs were published in this context of incipient change. With them, in 1985, a survivor of the Romani genocide committed by Nazism raised her voice for the first time in this way, taking a risk to give her testimony through the written word and speak to a large (and anonymous) audience, earning quality of author in mainstream society.[45]

Showing in 2021 the edition of his 2001 memoir;

on the cover, a photograph of Philomena with her son.

Some years later, in 1988, Ceija Stojka published the second memoirs that emerged from the Romani survivors. In her native Austria, Stojka had known Nazi persecution and camps as a child. When, years after liberation, she faced the task of expressing what she had suffered from within, she resorted to both writing and painting. The work illustrating the cover of this book is one of her creations. These first steps helped open a path that was later practised by others. The same Viennese publishing house that published Ceija Stojka’s memoirs published those of her brother Karl, who had suffered a similar fate, six years later.[46] Shortly thereafter came the memoirs of Lily van Angeren in 1997, another surviving German Sinti, who took refuge and got married in the Netherlands after liberation from the camps.[47] In 1998 and 1999 respectively, the memoirs of Otto Rosenberg and Walter Winter mentioned above were published in German. This timeline shows that it was the Romani women who first came to terms with confronting a traumatic memory and the need to turn the personal into a collective right. As Philomena Franz tells us, she wrote her book “as a Romani and as a woman”.

Franz was a pioneer in the narrative of the Romani Holocaust with her memoirs, but she has also been one of the most consistent advocates of Sinti culture. In both intentions, the form collaborates with the substance, because in her stories she manages to bring together the Romani storytelling tradition and the mainstream written culture in order to better reach the listener-readers. To say what? Franz is very clear about her message and looks resolutely at the camera recording an interview for a documentary (currently in production) to tell us: “When we hate we lose: only love can save us”.[48] This effort to rescue and make the best feelings that the human being is capable of triumph is clearly highlighted in the title of her memoirs and was interpreted in Christian terms by one of the first glossators of her work.[49] I believe that it can also be understood as a claim that the author presents against Nazism and its heirs, perhaps the most radical of all: the right of the survivors to recover emotions that grant human dignity, precisely those that the concentration system endeavoured to systematically destroy as a form of total control. Otto Rosenberg recalls the insensitivity that the system imposed due to its accustomedness to the horrific: “(…) not even when faced with these types of scenes [loading corpses for the crematorium] did we feel anything any more. We had become insensitive beings, as it were. We had no feelings, nothing.” [50] Claiming emotions – and emotions that grant dignity – is, therefore, as political an act as claiming a place in national memory.

Thus, the path that began at her son’s school led Philomena Franz to find a place in the Romani tradition of storytellers, a space that she continued to expand shortly after with her “Gypsy Tales”, published in 1982.[51] In these and later stories, Franz brought together the familiar experience of oral storytelling around the campfire, in which she was raised as a child, with her status as a writer and storyteller of Romani history, blurring the boundaries between one genre and the other. The stories that are included in this Spanish edition of her memoirs are a good example of this. Anyone who reads them together with her memoirs of the Holocaust will appreciate that these magical tales are an alternative and creative way to narrate the experience of the Romani genocide: the cages that enclose the birds in “Sonnegai”, a story with an impactful and powerful literary beginning; the threat of bad government and the suffering it causes lovers in “Malona”; the need for beauty and the demand for the respect of nature here and there… These are metaphors that retain the essence of the culture that Philomena Franz is vindicating.

In this personal recreation of the Romani tradition of the story, she discovered an effective way to promote one of her main goals, that of respectful coexistence between Romani and non-Romani. By explaining the values ​​of the culture in which she grew up and continues to believe through her stories, she has sought to challenge the stereotypes that have historically stigmatised the Romani. This is, in fact, one of the keys to tackling the problem of anti-“Gypsy” racism, as the negative images built up around those so labelled are difficult to erode, as Ian Hancock has pointed out. Since the arrival of the Romani people to Europe and America, centuries have passed during which the image of the Gypsies has been constructed as those others who are radically different from us: from Cervantes’s The Little Gypsy Girl to Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, or Carmen by Mérimée and Bizet, to name just three fantasies around the deceptively romantic Gypsy woman.[52] The task of those who consider a counter-narrative is immense because there are many representations that overlap in the collective imaginary and crystallise in a problematic image of “the Gypsy” that has great normative utility: it is fabricated to teach non-Roma precisely what they have to avoid and not be. Philomena Franz, for example, has been forced to explain that they do not steal children in front of school audiences that reminded her: “But my grandmother or my mother told me not to be around Gypsies because they steal children and they would take me away.”[53]

Faced with stereotypes constructed from outside, the author’s stories offer a direct entrance to the Sinti culture felt as her own. These stories did not appear in the German editions of her memoirs in 1985 or 1992, but they did appear in the most recent 2001 edition, which Philomena Franz published personally. They are included in the Spanish version as part of an editorial option designed to allow the author’s voice to prevail through the possible intermediaries. Reinhold Lehmann, a Munich writer with previous experience in the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, substantially participated in the first edition of her memoirs, published by Herder publishing house in 1985 under the title Zwischen Liebe und Hass: Ein Zigeunerleben, which have preserved later editions. Lehmann added a series of short chapters recounting the author’s life after 1945 to Franz’s account. These chapters confuse the reader because they imitate Franz’s style. Although they are narrated in the third person, they are only signed at the end of the last one with the initials R.L. Nevertheless, Lehmann does leave a clearer record of his presence in the postface he adds, entitled “The Testimony of a Victim”. In addition, the same Herder publishing house published a second edition of Zwischen Liebe und Hass in 1992maintaining Lehmann’s texts and adding the aforementioned study signed by Wolfgang Benz. In 2001, when Philomena Franz was already recognised as one of the main voices in the defence of the rights of the Romani people in Germany and Europe (with distinctions such as the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1995 and the “Woman of Europe” prize in 2001), the author took the initiative to reissue her memoirs with the addition of the stories and “Autumn impressions”. In this Spanish edition, it has been decided to keep these stories and, on the contrary, not to include the interventions of Lehmann and Benz.

This Spanish edition also has its own internal story, the origin of which lies in the impact on me of reading Philomena Franz’s memoirs when I was immersed in a work on the Romani genocide. I owe the impulse to get in touch with her to Juan Pro, who has also helped me in other decisive moments of this editorial project. As the process of preparation and publication has taken many months, its internal story is already rich in episodes of all kinds. It can, however, be summarised in two key aspects. The first is the enormous generosity of Philomena Franz, who not only offered herself without any reservation to star in this editorial adventure but has always taken us beyond what was expected: her “ask me more” symbolises the survival inside her of the imperative to bear witness to the Holocaust suffered by her people

During an interview at his home,

in 2021, for the production of David Navarro’s documentary.

Only my admiration for her is greater than my gratitude. The second key aspect contains another acknowledgment, addressed in this case to two colleagues without whose work and empathy it would not have been possible to bring this project to fruition. I would like to thank Sidonia Bauer, translator of her friend Philomena’s memoirs into French, for all the help provided, as well as my friend Virginia Maza, who has put much more into this volume than her careful translation from German into Spanish. Although with one more thank you I break the promise of summarising this publishing story in two lines, I would also like to thank Raúl Usón (Xordica) for committing himself to this book in such a personal way.

As the person responsible for editing, the only thing left for me to do was not to add any mediation on my part, if that were possible. It is not, although I have made editorial choices that seek to do so. The inclusion of this final study is due both to the respect that Philomena Franz deserves and to her request that I continue to tell her story. To close these pages dedicated to her figure, I can at least try to reduce my presence by taking advantage of the words said by Reinhold Lehmann when reflecting on the meaning of these memoirs in the context of the survival of anti-“Gypsyism”:

“(…) this book is a political book, although the reader may not appreciate it at first. This is because it asks us questions that remain unresolved forty-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz and other extermination camps.”[54]

Seventy-five years later, this observation is still disturbingly relevant, although we now know much more about the Romani genocide under Nazism – or perhaps precisely because of that. With the support of this Spanish edition of her book, Philomena Franz, witness to the Holocaust, keeps working  so that readers continue to ask questions.

María Sierra.

[40] Philomena Franz to Reinhold Lehmann in Zwischen Liebe und Hass…, p. 101.

[41] Ibidem.

[42] Interview with Philomena Franz, 21-1-2021.

[43] Dominick LaCapra: Representing the Holocaust. History, theory, and trauma, Cornell UP, 1996.

[44] Information on these processes can be found in Anton Weiss-Wendt (Ed.): The Nazi Genocide of the Roma…

[45] After several editions of her memoirs in 1985, 1992 and 2001, she has more recently published a book of poems (Tragen wir einen Blütenzweig im Herzen, so wird sich immer wieder ein Singvogel darauf niederlassen, 2012) and another in which she revisits her memories more freely (Stichworte, 2017). There is a complete edition of Philomena Franz’s works in a single volume in French (L’amour a vaincu la mort.), with a preface by Sidonia Bauer, but none of them had been published in Spanish until now.

[46] Ceija Stojka: Wir Leben im Verborgenen…, Karl Stojka: Auf der ganzen Welt zuhause: Das Leben und Wandern des Zigeuners, Vienna, Picus, 1994.

[47] Originally published in Dutch (Lily: het unieke levensverhaal van een zigeunerin, Amsterdam, Forum, 1997), they were translated into German some years later under the title “Polizeilich zwabgsentfuhrt”. Das Leben der Sintizza Lily van Angeren-Franz (Hildesheim, Gebrüder Gerstenberg, 2004).

[48] My holocaust, Philomena Franz, by David Navarro (2021).

[49] Michael Albus: Philomena Franz. Die Liebe hat den Tod besiegt. Düsseldorf, Patmos, 1988.

[50] Otto Rosenberg: Un gitano en Auschwitz…, p. 86.

[51] Philomena Franz: Zigeunermärchen, Bonn, Europa-Union Verlag,1982.

[52] Ian Hancock: The Pariah Syndrome: An account of Gypsy slavery and persecution, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Karomani, 1997. A very complete analysis of these stereotypes for the Spanish case, understood as a crossroads of European trends, in Lou Charnon-Deutsch: The Spanish Gypsy. The History of a European Obsession, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.

[53] Zwischen Liebe und Hass…, p. 104. The ability of children’s literature to create this criminal image for educational purposes, in Jean Kommers: Kinderroof of zigeunerroof? Zigeuners in Kinderboeken, Utrecht, Jan Van Arkel, 1993.

[54] “Nachwort von Reinhold Lehmann”, in Zwischen Liebe und Hass…, p. 107.