Interview with Anna-Maria Ernst
Q: How was life for the Gypsies before the Nazis?
Ernst: It was a beautiful life, wonderful, happy, full of celebrations, dancing. The women were full of vitality, marriages were arranged. We had real Gypsy weddings which lasted for six or seven days. They loved living life, as free as a bird in the sky. They had their caravans and their horses. They meet with [other families].... They lived absolutely free. They could go wherever they wanted. They could settle wherever they wanted with their caravans. Most of them stayed where there was a forest or a lake. It was very, very beautiful. Until the Nazis. When Hitler came to power, everything stopped. They had to register. Nobody was allowed to leave the city. You had to sign a document [stating] that you would not leave the city without permission. So everybody had to sell caravans and belongings and move into flats. They were all made to settle down permanently and register. The wonderful life was over.
Some emigrated from Germany. Some thought, "it won't be so bad," and stayed. And this brought us to Auschwitz.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit how it was when you were brought to Leipzig?
Ernst: They collected us.... Our grandmother was together with 3 grandchildren who had no more parents. They came with us to the collecting point. From there we were taken into the surrounding areas, into the other bigger towns, like Leipzig, Halle, and Weissenfels, because Gypsies were living there and in the smaller towns also.... And then they took us to the station, which was cordoned off by SS guards with rifles and machine guns and so forth, so that none of us could escape.
And in the main station of Leipzig they put us on the transports. But they put us on normal trains, so nobody would get suspicious. With normal trains, and Red Cross nurses were also on the trains.... And this is how we got to Auschwitz. [We were] the first transport -- nobody was in the camp yet. And we were brought into the camp. The roads weren't ready yet, there wasn't any fence, it was all muddy. When you got out of the trains you merely sank into the mud.
You can see this also with my number, which is quite low. It was number 133 -- I was the 133rd according to the number.... The more people came the higher the number. That's how it was.
Q: Was that bad having to be together?
Ernst: Yes, that was worse.... First of all because of the hygiene. There were not enough facilities to wash. Everything was worse, also with the diseases. Especially later on there were terrible diseases, especially among the small children. There was...a kind of cancer of the chin. This [points to the chin] part of the child would rot away, and if they ate something, it would trickle down at the side of their mouth. But this disease existed only in the Gypsy-camp.... They also called it water Cancer, that's what the children got. They were selected immediately and naturally they had to go to the gas [chamber].
At first we didn't know where they were going. But then we wondered, they wouldn't come back. Maybe, we thought, they took them somewhere where they kill them, but we didn't know this for sure. But they went into the gas; we learned this later on.
But there were many more diseases: spotted fever, Malaria. I myself had Malaria, typhoid fever of the stomach. We also had horse scabies, because they distributed the blankets, which had been used for the horses, and they had lice, and these transmitted diseases onto the humans. Although we had a sauna and delousing in the camp, all this didn't help. The new arrivals had their hair shaved off. The women with the long hair, men, women, children alike -- all got a bald head. And they took our belongings away from us, and they gave us new things. That's how it was.
Q: And did you get accustomed that things had got worse in the camp?
Ernst: With the time you got accustomed..., you got harder. At first we cried too much. Later you couldn't cry at all anymore. You didn't have any tears left. The children died, the parents died, you only saw death. And nothing else.
And we were so hungry. If you wanted to drink the water you would get typhoid from it. We were so thirsty, especially when you had fever. The water was completely brown when we got it out of the taps. The tea we got gave us diarrhea. Early in the morning, around 4, we got tea.... Then we got some lunch. This usually was a kind of turnip or barley soup, without meat, without anything.... This was distributed around 11 O'clock. And in the evenings we would get a quarter of a bread, and a little bit of margarine or a spoon full of jam. And this had to last until the next evening.
Q: Did you know anything about the crematorium? The Gypsy-camps were quite close to them.
Ernst: Yes, close to us was the camp for the infected and then the crematorium. But you couldn't see anything. [They] had put up barriers so you weren't able to look through.... Only sometimes we would hear the trains driving to the crematorium. You would hear the breaks screeching, but nothing else. And then when the smoke came out of the chimneys, you would smell that dreadful sweet smell, that stink.
Q: What was it like with your family? Were you all together?
Ernst: Yes, we were all together, even our Grandmother. But my Grandmother died early, in the fourth week. She was too old, she couldn't take it. And the orphans who were with her also died early on, because there was no one there anymore to look after them. They died early on.
Q: You said earlier that you even got accustomed to corpses and when somebody died during the night.
Ernst: That's right. You got accustomed to it. When somebody died you saw it and you even kept lying next to him. You got accustomed. You had no more tears left.
Q: And you also had to work? Did you go to work through the the town?
Ernst: No, not through the town. It was outside the camp. And if they didn't have any work for us, we had to carry stones. We had to carry the stones somewhere, and then again back to where they had come from. And the children had to build a road with tiny little stones.... Others had to dig ditches -- it varied. Some had to work in the factories. Auschwitz had factories, but I don't know their names. But you could be sent to work there. They selected you for all kinds of work.
Q: Maybe you could explain what happened during the nights in the block.
Ernst: In the night? Sometimes some of the SS [guards] would come into the block when one of them was drunk. All the small children and the prisoners would have to get up in the middle of the night and stand at attention. And they would order us to sing and dance, because they knew the Gypsies liked to dance and sing, most of them. So we had to dance and we had to sing, and in the middle of all this they would shout at us. Everybody would get scared. The children especially got scared. They were scared already because [the SS] had come into the block. And when somebody had danced and sung, then they would calm down a little and go away again. Once an SS guard [fired a] shot into the barracks during the night. He shot a young girl. (pause) I knew her. She was 16 years old. (pause) In the morning they put her... (Pause) We knew it was him, but nothing happened. That's how it was. Everybody was scared. They could do with us what they wanted. They could shoot you right away. Or they could strangle you. Nobody would have said anything....
Q: What happened to your family?
Ernst: My family died one by one. They died of starvation, they died of typhus. My younger brother and sister both died during the night of Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Since then I don't celebrate Christmas anymore -- since 40 years, because I always have to remember them and that it was the night of death for my brother and sister. My sister was four years old and my brother was nine years old. And both died Christmas night. They were completely starved. My younger brother couldn't walk anymore. He even couldn't get up anymore.
(Pause) We were also beaten. When somebody did something wrong or the person wasn't pleasing to the SS guards, the guard would kick or beat them until they fell down. (Pause) Or they were given some punishment-duties.
A punishment was to load the corpses on the trucks. That was the punishment duty of the hospital part. Naturally, the best posts in the camp were occupied by the German criminals. They could command us, they could also beat us, and could do with us as it pleased them. They had a say. They also had a good relationship with the SS.
Q: So you were treated almost like animals?
Ernst: Like animals. Worse than animals. A dog would at least have got his food. We didn't. The SS were very nice to their animals. (pause) But not with the people. They were bad. They didn't have any compassion for us, whether it was small children, or old people with old people. They had no pity at all.... They had no heart. You can say that. (pause)
The poor children in the blocks... -- there were so many sick children. And when they selected them -- when they saw all the sick children -- they would say that they will have to go to a different block, they said to the main camp. But in effect they were all brought to the crematorium. They all have been gassed.
Yes, I lost my whole family. I am the only one who has survived. Later I was ordered to the work commando -- I was transferred from one camp to another. I ended up in BergenBelsen. There I was freed by the British.
Q: So you were selected in Auschwitz for the work commando. Where did that take you?
Ernst: To Ravensbruck. (pause) I stayed 4 weeks in Ravensbruck. They waited until my hair had grown a little bit longer, so the Germans wouldn't see it [and get suspicious]. Because [I was working] in the factory -- an ammunition factory -- and civilians were also working there. We had to march out of the camp early in the morning and come back in the evening with guards. We were brought from Ravensbruck to Oldenburg; it was a big ammunition factory. I stayed there 6 weeks. Then we were brought to Taucha. I stayed there 4 weeks. After this we were selected. Those who couldn't work anymore were brought either to Auschwitz -- not to the camp but straight into the gas chambers. They were of no use anymore. Most of those who went back to Auschwitz [went] to the crematorium. I was exchanged for my old aunt.
There was another family [who] wanted to get to their relatives, so I was exchanged and came to BergenBelsen and they went to Auschwitz. But nobody knew that they were to be gassed. That's how it was.
Q: A general question: What do you think the Gypsies lost during this period?
Ernst: Many of us have lost [our] culture. Let's put it this way, this was immediately after the time in the camps, in 1945, many [had] lost their culture. And only later on, it was found again bit by bit. Also, many had lost their children. All Gypsies love their children more than anything else.
Q: Did you wonder why the Germans did this to you?
Ernst: We couldn't work it out, why they did it, why they treated us so badly. And were so vicious. We didn't understand that at all. We only thought, we have to submit to them, otherwise you will never get out of here. That's what I thought. That was the right thing to think. I wanted to get out. With all my might. In the end I was able to achieve this.
Note: Red text is available in RealAudio.
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