Berlin-Marzahn (camp for Roma)

The camp for Roma in Berlin-Marzahn, officially known as “Rastplatz Marzahn,” was located approximately 6.25 miles (10 kilometers) east-northeast of the city center of Berlin. It was established on the eve of the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin.

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  • 1920-1945: Marzahn, Stadtbezirk Lichtenberg, Gross-Berlin, Land Preussen, Deutsches Reich
  • After 2001: Marzahn-Hellersdorf, Land Berlin, Bundesrepublik Deutschland

The camp for Roma in Berlin-Marzahn, officially known as “Rastplatz Marzahn,” was located approximately 6.25 miles (10 kilometers) east-northeast of the city center of Berlin. It was established on the eve of the summer Olympics in Berlin, after Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick issued a decree for “Combating the Gypsy Plague” in early June 1936. This document called for tightening controls and police oversight of the "Gypsy" population in Germany. As a result, the head of the Berlin police ordered construction of an internment camp in Marzahn. The head of the Berlin police implemented the decree and called for a roundup of Roma and Sinti in Greater Berlin. On July 16, 1936, more than 500 policemen arrested approximately 600 Roma and Sinti, including men, women, and children, and forced them to move into the Berlin-Marzahn camp. The camp was supervised primarily by the criminal police (Kripo) in Berlin.1

In the following years, Sinti and Roma who arrived in Berlin were arrested and sent to the camp. By September 27, 1938, 852 people were living at the Marzahn site. Overall, approximately 1,200 Roma and Sinti men, women, and children were forced to reside there between 1936 and 1945. It was the largest camp for Roma and Sinti in the Old Reich.2

The Roma and Sinti at Berlin-Marzahn were subjected to forced labor. From 1942 onwards, the Berlin Labor Office assigned men and women from the camp to work as forced laborers at various companies in Berlin, including the engineering works of Danneburg und Quandt and the stationery manufacturer F. & M. Schöffler.3 The Roma children were not allowed to go to school in the locality. For the first year after the camp opened a teacher gave them lessons in the barracks, but he was soon drafted, leaving no one to carry on.4

Living conditions at the camp proved very harsh. In 1936 approximately 600 people resided in the Berlin-Marzahn camp. They lived in only 130 caravans and a single barracks building. While the men built new barracks, people slept in and under the wagons and used blankets and rags to shield themselves from the wind. The men were also forced to build accommodations for the police guards. In 1938, the Berlin city government built three more barracks in the camp, and in the fall of 1938, approximately one quarter of the 852 inmates resided in these barracks.5

Food remained very scarce in the camp. The inmates had to go into Marzahn to buy groceries. All of the passes and ration cards carried by the Roma and Sinti were stamped with a “Z” (for Zigeuner) and the fingerprint of the person’s right middle finger. There was only one butcher and one baker who would sell goods to them, and they were only allowed to buy the food that remained after the residents of the town had finished shopping. Occasionally an independent farmer would barter with people from the camp and provide them with a small meal or grocery item. Conditions became worse when the war began and “Gypsies” were no longer allowed to receive extra rations. In the fall of 1942 the Berlin mayor decreed that whole milk could not be sold to them. The children were only allotted one-eighth of a liter (half a cup) of milk per day. The camp was located directly on the Werneuchen Railway, and a fourteen-year-old girl recalls that sometimes people on the trains, knowing that they were suffering, gave them a little bread or coal.6

Only three pumps for water stood in the camp, and in the winter they were completely frozen shut. The inmates also had access to only two toilets.7 This created gravely unhygienic conditions and caused disease to spread rapidly through the camp. In March 1939 approximately 40 percent of the population had contracted scabies. Scarlet fever, diphtheria, and tuberculosis also spread very quickly, and between July 1936 and March 1938 at least 170 people became so ill that they were taken to a hospital. No medical care existed in the camp itself.8

The five policemen who oversaw the camp meted out brutal treatment. They punched the prisoners and beat them with weapons. Lina Steinbach and her daughter Alma also recall that Hauptwachtmeister Bredel would set his watchdog on the prisoners, causing severe injuries.9 Furthermore, the young researcher Gerhart Stein opened a research facility for racial biology in the camp and carried out “medical” experiments on the prisoners. He labeled them either as pure-blooded (Reinrassige), or of mixed race (Mischlinge). The facility was also affiliated with the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene (Institut für Erbbiologie und Rassenhygiene) in Frankfurt am Main. In his memoir, survivor Otto Rosenberg recalls one instance of torture that involved both the camp guards and Stein. During one of his experiments, Stein asked an old woman a question and when she did not tell him what he wanted to know, she ran away and hid. The police sought her out and shaved her hair. They then doused her in freezing water and forced her to stand still on the spot. It had already turned cold and within three days she was dead.10

Perhaps the most degrading part of the Marzahn camp was its location. The camp bordered a cemetery, a taboo and forbidden place according to Roma customs. Furthermore, Marzahn was the site of a large sewage facility. The land surrounding the camp was strewn with feces due to the nearby sewage farms.11

Most of those residing in the Marzahn camp were deported to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau in six separate transports during March 1943. The largest of these transports took place on March 7, 19, 24, and 30. On arrival, the prisoners were sent to Lagerabschnitt B IIe, a family camp for “Gypsies.” The names of 186 of these people are known. Only 7 of them survived the war. In 1943, 118 of them died from the conditions in the camp.12 They were also subjected to “medical” experimentation, including mass sterilization. At the beginning of August 1943, this camp was liquidated and most of the prisoners were killed in the gas chambers in the east.13

 Fifty-two Roma and Sinti remained behind in Marzahn. Little is known about them. Some lived out the rest of the war in the camp, while some were subsequently also deported to Auschwitz. In September 1944, 14 men, women, and children were deported from Lublin to the Berlin-Marzahn camp. In 1943, an air raid destroyed most of the accommodations in the camp. The remaining Roma and Sinti lived in only a single barrack that had been previously used as a school. The Soviet Army liberated them at the end of April 1945. Many had died from starvation, however, and only two dozen Roma and Sinti survived the war in the Marzahn camp.14

Sources

The following publications describe the Berlin-Marzahn camp for Roma further: Patricia Pientka, “Leben und Verfolgung im Zwangslager Berlin-Marzahn 1936-1945,” in Die Verfolgung der Sinti und Roma in Nationalsozialismus. Beiträge zur Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung in Norddeutschland, vol. 14, ed. KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2012), pp. 55-68; Wolfgang Benz, “Das Lager Marzahn: Zur nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung der Sinti und Roma und ihrer anhaltenden Diskriminierung,” in Die Normalität des Verbrechens. Bilanz und Perspektiven der Forschung zu den nationalsozialistischen Gewaltverbrechen, Festschrift für Wolfgang Scheffler zum 65 Geburtstag, ed. Helge Grabitz, Klaus Bästlein, and Johannes Tuchel (Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1994), pp. 260-279; Ute Brucker-Boroujerdi and Wolfgang Wippermann, “Das ‘Zigeunerlager’ in Berlin-Marzahn,” in Pogrom – Zeitschrift für bedrohte Völker, no. 130 (1987): 77-80; Reimar Gilsenbach, “Marzahn – Hitlers erstes Lager für Fremdrassige. Ein vergessenes Kapitel der Naziverbrechen,” in Pogrom – Zeitschrift für bedrohte Völker, no. 122 (1986): 15-17.

Relevant archival documentation includes: BA-BL (e.g., R 8077/236); LAB (e.g., A Pr. Br. Rep. 030-02-03, Nr. 82, 127, 177); StA-Hamb (SB I, AF 83.70); and USC Shoah Foundation, Visual History Archive, #40368 (Ewald Hanstein) and #49841 (Otto Rosenberg).

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Explore how anti-Roma hatred predated the Nazi era.
  • How might the local population have been aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within?
  • The Nazis believed the Roma were a dangerous racial group. Despite overwhelming scientific data to the contrary, many people still believe in the superiority of certain races. Why might individuals hold onto a belief that has been discredited?
  • How can racism keep a party or political group in power?
  • Investigate the persecution that Roma still face in parts of Europe today.

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