Poetry book written by Johann Stojka in Buchenwald, on loan from Kazerne Dossin
Credit: Kazerne Dossin, Booklet Lagergedichte Johann Stojka, Buchenwald
Poetry book written by Johann Stojka in Buchenwald, on loan from Kazerne Dossin.

Across Nazi-occupied Europe, Roma people were systematically marginalised, persecuted and murdered during the Second World War.

German troops marched into Austria in March 1938 and annexed the country. After this Anschluss (union), Austrian Roma, or ‘Gypsies' were subject to increasing restrictions by the Nazis. They were registered by police and stripped of their civic rights.

The Stojka family were a Roma family who were persecuted under this new regime. One of the children, Johann, would later record some of his wartime experiences in a poetry book that is now on display in the Holocaust Galleries at IWM London. 

This is the story of his family and what happened to them and other Roma people during the Second World War.

Separation

Like many Roma people, the Stojka family were prevented from travelling and forced to settle in Vienna.

In 1941 Karl Wackar Howarth, the father, was arrested and sent first to Dachau concentration camp and then to Mauthausen concentration camp.

He was taken from Mauthausen to a nearby ‘euthanasia’ centre in Hartheim. These places were used to kill people the Nazis considered 'undesirable'. They had been in use since early 1940 when they were developed to murder people with disabilities.

Karl was murdered in a gas chamber at the centre. His family were sent his belongings, his ashes, and a letter telling them he had died of a ‘heart attack’.

Daughter Kathi was also arrested and sent to the Lackenbach internment camp – the largest internment camp for Roma in Austria.

Karl’s wife Maria or ‘Sidi’ and sons Johann or ‘Hansi’ ; Karl or ‘Karli’, Josef or ‘Ossi’, and his daughter, Ceija, were sent to the so-called ‘Gypsy Camp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau in March 1943. Once there, they were reunited with Kathi who had been sent there from Lackenbach. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau

The ‘Gypsy Camp’ was located in a fenced off section of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Its construction was completed by prisoners following the ‘Auschwitz Decree’ in December 1942. 

This decree issued by Heinrich Himmler, ordered that all Roma who remained in Germany, Austria and Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia should be deported. In March 1943 the Roma that Himmler had targeted for deportation arrived in Auschwitz. Although most were from the countries listed, there were also individuals from Poland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary and Russia. 

Approximately 23,000 Roma were imprisoned in the ‘Gypsy Camp’ between February 1943 and August 1944. As a result of the inhumane conditions, many died from starvation and disease – in particular typhus. One of those was seven-year-old Josef Stojka, who died from typhus in 1944. Others died due to medical experiments.

On 16 May 1944, the SS tried to send those in the ‘Gypsy camp’ to the gas chambers. But the remaining Roma barricaded themselves inside their barracks and armed themselves with knives, spades or stones. The SS were forced to retreat under the severe resistance they encountered. 

In August 1944, to prevent this happening again, the SS sent those who might resist– largely younger adults and older children– to concentration camps in Germany.  This included the Stojka family. Johann and Karl were separated from their mother for the first time in their lives and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp on 3 August 1944. Their mother and two sisters were sent to Ravensbrück – a concentration camp for women.

On 2 August, the SS sent the remaining men, women and children from the so-called ‘Gypsy Camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau to be murdered in the gas chambers.

Thousands of Roma were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Buchenwald

After his arrival at Buchenwald, fifteen-year-old Johann Stojka wrote four illustrated poems in a secret notebook, which he describes the conditions and routine of the camp. 

The details included the arrival of new prisoners, the food, the labour they were forced to do, the prisoner hierarchy and violence.

The final line reads: ‘one day we will be released’ – a hopeful note of survival. 

Thankfully, the two brothers did survive, fleeing from a ‘death march’ from Flossenbürg concentration camp towards Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. 

Their mother and two sisters also survived and the family were reunited in Vienna in 1947.

Roma held at a camp at an unspecified location around the city of Radom in central Poland
© IWM HU 105684
Roma held at the camp at an unspecified location around the city of Radom in central Poland.

Unlike the Stojkas, most Roma – particularly those who did not live in Germany or Austria – did not enter the concentration camp system at all.

In Nazi-occupied Poland, many Roma were murdered in death camps, which were purpose-built killing centres. In these death camps, there were no selections and entire transports of thousands of people were murdered within a few hours of arrival. 

Approximately 5000 Austrian Roma were taken to the Kulmhof death camp  in January 1942. Unknown numbers of Polish Roma were murdered in the death camps at Belzec and Treblinka. There were no Roma survivors from these death camps. 

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, thousands of Roma were shot as part of ‘security’ operations conducted by Nazi Einsatzgruppen and local collaborators. Sometimes Roma were executed alongside Jews, but often they were killed in separate ‘actions’. 

In Bulgaria, Roma were forced to work and put into labour camps. In Romania, approximately 25,000 were deported to the region of Transnistria (an area in Ukraine under Romanian administration) during 1942 where they received almost no food, no clothes and, in some cases, little or, at best, primitive shelter. As a result, over half died of starvation, disease or from the cold. 

In Croatia – Germany’s ally – almost the entire Roma population were killed. At least 15,000 were killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp which was run by Croatian militia and police. From 1944, after Germany occupied Hungary, Hungarian Roma were forced into ‘labour battalions’ in the Hungarian army. When the Hungarian government was replaced by the fascist Arrow Cross party in October 1944, Hungarian Roma were deported to Germany and Poland – some to concentration camps – and others were shot on the spot by members of the Arrow Cross Party. Thousands more were murdered in circumstances that remain unknown. 

Most historians agree that at least 200,000 Roma were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, but the exact number of victims remains unknown. 

Roma Holocaust Memorial Day

The persecution of the Roma was not officially recognised as a genocide until many decades after the Second World War. Many countries did not recognise that Roma had been persecuted on racial grounds; instead they continued to discriminate against Roma as ‘asocials’ or ‘criminals’. In some countries, such as West Germany and France pre-war and wartime legislation against Roma was not repealed until decades after the end of the war.      

Though the experiences of the Roma during the Second World War have received a growing amount of attention in recent years, they generally remain little known about.

Roma Holocaust Memorial Day is now marked on 2 August -- the anniversary of the day in 1944 when the SS sent the remaining men, women and children from the so-called ‘Gypsy Camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau to their deaths. Between 2,897 and 4,300 Romani people were murdered in the gas chambers on this night. 

Roma Holocaust Memorial Day helps to generate awareness about the specific experiences of Roma, and their persecution by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Roma Holocaust Memorial Day 2023

Artists Sindy and Ben Czureja leaned against brick wall, Ben holding his acoustic guitar.
© IWM
Commissioned by IWM and in collaboration with Music Action International, Sindy and Ben Czureja have written an original song inspired by the object on display.

To mark Roma Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, IWM commissioned a piece of music in collaboration with Music Action International.

Sindy and Ben Czureja wrote an original song inspired by an object on display in The Holocaust Galleries; a poetry book written in Buchenwald concentration camp by teenager Johann Stojka. 

They performed this original song, as well as a more traditional song titled ‘Where are the Mountains?', at IWM London. 

Find out more about the event.

This project has been made possible with the kind assistance of Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Research Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights, Mechelen. 

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