Walter Winter : The life of a German Sinto


(Source: Dokumentationszentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma)

Early life

Walter Winter was born on June 19th 1919 in a happy family of nine children. As one of the youngest in his family, he was taken care of by his older brothers and sisters, mainly Erich. From 1927 to 1930 he had to live without his parents because of the German law stating that he could not move while studying. Since his parents traveled a lot because of their work, Erich, who was very strict,  played an important role in Walter’s life. All of the nine children worked at their parents‘ fair when they opened it in 1934.

When the Nazi got the power

In January 1933, when Adolf Hitler was elected as Germany’s Chancellor, Walter’s parents had a strong feeling that life as they knew it was going to change. They were right. The policemen as well as the SS were making life very difficult for them. Whenever the family established their fair somewhere, the policemen asked for written authorization from the landlord and when they gave that authorization, the higher forces always found a way to say it was not valid, which made Walter’s parents‘ job very difficult. The Winter family understood that they had to fly under the radar if they wanted their family safe so they barely argued when that happened. In order not to provoke the SS, they stopped speaking their language and started speaking German.

Racial discrimination

In September of 1935 the Nuremberg laws were adopted and the racial discrimination really began. In 1937, his father was excluded from the showman´s association. All Sinti were identified by the SS who took pictures of them as well as different measurements. According to the Nazis, Gypsies were considered as asocial. In 1938, Walter started his labor service, which was mandatory for all Germans. It usually took around three months to get promoted, but since Walter was a Gypsy, it took him two years. Following that, he served the German navy for two years. Even though he was really great at his job, in 1942 he was dismissed from his duties because he was a Sinto.

Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen

In February 1943, Walter was arrested in Damme and taken to Bremen for interrogation. The SS told him that he and his family were given a land in Poland and that they had to be transported there. For three days, in horrible conditions, the whole family traveled in a car driven by SS officers. When they finally arrived and saw the gates of Auschwitz as well as dead bodies carried on the poles, full of blood, they understood that they weren’t really given a land. Upon arrival, he was separated from his family and they were all tattooed with numbers. In The camp, he lived in „Zigeunerlager“ which is a special camp for Sinti. In the camp, Walter was in charge of listing the death of prisoners of his block. Out of 22 000 Sinti that arrived in Auschwitz, 4000 came back.

 In July 1944, he was transferred to Ravensbrück and was separated from his wife. By the time they arrived to  Ravensbrück, about a million of Jews  went through the ovens of Auschwitz crematorium. For the first four weeks, he was locked up in his barrack days and nights and he could not stand the smell of smoke anymore. He entered the camp with his heavily pregnant wife who died while giving birth to their child. The child did not survive. On March 3rd 1945, many inmates were called out by their numbers. Those of them who were former soldiers could leave for Sachsenhausen with their family. Walter brought  his cousin and his wife, who had given birth just a few days earlier, with him. People in Ravensbrück, who knew they would die if they did not leave the camp, begged Walter to say they were part of his family so they could leave for Sachesenhausen too. They did not know if conditions in Sachsanhausen were better but they could not be worst. Unfortunately, Walter couldn’t bring everyone with him.

When Walter arrived in Sachsenhausen, it was really hard for him because everyone in his barrack already knew each other and they were very reticent to newcomers. Walter managed to become friend with a 17 year old Sinto from Hungary. The amount of food they were given was so scarce that they tried to use every opportunity to get more. In order to survive they exchanged cigarettes for dog food. People from one barrack did not want to talk to people from other barracks because they feared beating by SS officers. Walter said : „You mingled in a crowd so as not to be a conspicuous individual.“

Walter had to work as a woodcutter in the forest. At that time, the Red Army was getting close and the town in which the camp was, Oranienburg, was getting bombed. One day, when Walter was working in the forest, he tried to protect himself because a bomb was coming down. While getting on the ground, he saw two potatoes, he thought he was dreaming. Even though it was strictly forbidden to bring back anything in the camp and they were hard to hide since his clothes were so thin, he hid them under his armpits because he was too hungry. He managed to enter the camp with them. He realized how lucky he had been a few minutes later when he saw a man hung in the public place of the camp with a sign around his neck saying : „I have been pilfering.“

On April 13th 1945, the SS officers emptied Sachsenhausen and gave some prisoners who had a military experience a gun and a belt, but no helmet. They were forced to go to the front in the infamous unit of Dirlewanger to fight against the Red Army. They marched for days and many people died. After two weeks, Walter Winter was wounded and went to the hospital with his brother. Shortly after, they went back home.

He later asked to the government for a compensation because he had lost everything while he was in the concentration camp. They accepted to give him an amount that did not even begin to cover what he had lost. Walter Winter wrote his memoir in a book entitled : Winter Time, the memories of a German Sinto, in which we can understand he is scarred for life and that no amount of money is never going to compensate for what happened.

To the timeline of Walter Winter´s life.

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