When Hitler seized power in Germany, the lives of the Romani people began to worsen. Although they had almost always been the subject of persecution throughout history, the 1930s represented a time when it grew in intensity.
Just like the Jews, the Romani became subjects of racial laws and their way of life was restricted in many areas. They weren’t allowed to work in many professions, their freedom of travel was limited, families were separated, and adults and children were forced into hard, almost slavelike, labour. Any relationships between Romani and Germans were prohibited.
Due to their nomadic way of life, they were treated as an antisocial element for whom there was no room in the new German society. After the outbreak of war, they were sent to prisons, transported to ghettos located in occupied Poland, and to concentration and extermination camps.
In 1942, as a result of Heinrich Himmler’s decision, all the Romani people remaining in the Third Reich were sentenced to be sent to a specially created "Gypsy Camp" in Auschwitz where they were exterminated.
Mauthausen Concentration Camp
Mauthausen concentration camp was built in Austria which had been annexed by the Third Reich in 1938. Initially, it was intended for those who had been recognized as political enemies and ideological adversaries of the German Reich.
In 1939, the Nazis opened a branch camp beside a quarry in Gusen where prisoners, in dreadful conditions, mined for granite to be used for building new, monumental buildings for the Third Reich as well as other subcamps. The transport to the camp was extreme. The freight cars had no water, were overcrowded, and the prisoner trains had to wait for hours on end while giving way to military transports. People herded in the cars reached Mauthausen in a state of extreme exhaustion.
Living conditions in the camp were brutal. The prisoners were forced into slave labour for the German arms industry, and were subjected to torture. Many of them died soon after arrival due to illnesses, cold or hunger; others were murdered in gas chambers or executed.
From 1938 until the end of war, about 190 000 people of over 40 nationalities were deported to Mauthausen from occupied countries. The US army liberated the camp on 5 May 1945.
Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp
At the end of 1940, IG Farben, a German chemical plant, decided to move its factories from Germany to the territory of occupied Poland near Oświęcim. This location was chosen because of its proximity to railways, the availability of materials for the production of rubber and the Auschwitz camp, which was able to provide a workforce in the factory.
In October 1942, a separate camp called Monowitz was created for them on what remained of the displaced and demolished Polish village of Monowice. Just as in other Auschwitz subcamps, its prisoners were forced into backbreaking slave labour. They built roads, transported heavy goods, unloaded cement and pulled wagons laden with building materials.
Those who were too weak or exhausted to work were selected to be killed. In 1945, those who hadn’t been killed in the Auschwitz gas chambers were evacuated by foot in a so-called death march and then shipped to Buchenwald and Mauthausen. Two famous prisoners of the Monowice camp were, among others, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and writer Primo Levi.
Charlottegrube was yet another subcamp of Auschwitz created next to a coal mine, Charlotte, owned by the Hermann Göring Werke consortium in Rydłutowy. The prisoners worked in two groups under and above ground transporting coal, in the workshops by the mine, and in the construction of Charlotte power station.
Just as in other subcamps, the prisoners worked under harsh, slavelike conditions. In 1944, over 600 inmates were herded in brick barracks surrounded by barbed wire fence, which was not electrified. 54 men from the SS as well as police and Wehrmacht soldiers guarded them.
Those too exhausted or weak to work were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In their place came new shipments of prisoners.
In January 1945, a plan was made to evacuate the prisoners by foot to the Gross-Rosen camp. However, with the Red Army advancing closer, the prisoners were turned back after two days of marching. Those still alive were transported to Mauthausen camp and its branch, Melk concentration camp, on Austrian territory.
The Death March
On 17 January 1945, as a result of the approaching Red Army, the Germans began the evacuation of prisoners from Auschwitz and its subcamps. By 21 January, they had transported about 56 000 prisoners. About 9 000 of them died from the extreme cold, of exhaustion, or were shot.
Those prisoners who had survived the march were transported in freezing conditions by train to Mauthausen and Buchenwald camps. Many of those who survived the death marches died shortly after in camps within the Third Reich and thus never lived to see the liberation.