Reflections on Researching Digitized Personal Files of Sinti and Roma Created by Berlin’s Criminal Police in Nazi Germany

By Lara Raabe

Editorial note: Lara Raabe is a graduate history student at the Humboldt University Berlin. She is currently writing her master’s thesis on the role of Sinti and Roma in the Einsatzgruppen Trial in Nuremberg, 1947-1948. She works in the field of Holocaust and Memory Studies as well as the History of Sinti and Roma in Europe. She completed her internship at the GHI in Washington, DC, in the spring and summer of 2022.

The Sinti and Roma minority in Europe suffered a long history of persecution and discrimination. In Nazi Germany, the violence against Sinti and Roma escalated, and hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma men, women, and children became victims of racist discrimination, persecution, and genocide.

In July of 1936, the Berlin police forces launched a persecution and arrest campaign against the Sinti and Roma minority living in Berlin. Many families were deported to the Marzahn internment camp, which had recently been established.[1] Based on a decree issued by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office) on December 16, 1942, Sinti and Roma were deported in the spring of 1943 to the so-called “Zigeunerlager” (a pejorative term translated as “Gypsy Camp”) at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp.[2]

Beginning in 1939, employees of the so-called “Dienststelle für Zigeunerfragen” (Office for Gypsy Affairs) created personal files for individuals and families who were registered by the Berlin criminal police as so-called “Zigeuner.”[3] The office was located at the Criminal Police Headquarters and played an important role in the persecution of the minority on a local level.[4] The files are key sources for researching National Socialist persecution of Sinti and Roma in Berlin and the Brandenburg region. The preservation of the files is due to a single archives employee who was able to save a small part of the collection from being destroyed.[5] They are now kept at the Landesarchiv Berlin (Central State Archives Berlin). The files have been digitized and can be accessed via the Arolsen Archives, the former International Tracing Service (ITS), which is one of the most important archives for victims of Nazi persecution today. One can search for individual files by name.[6]

The digital sources are always of great significance for historians researching the history of Sinti and Roma persecution, but they are especially so in light of the ongoing pandemic. Therefore, it is particularly important and worthwhile to review the personal files from the perspective of source criticism.

The source material consists of 179 uniform personal files, most of which include so-called “Rassegutachten”—reports assessing the “race” based on racist categories (see below)[7]—birth certificates, employment certificates, and often fingerprints, images, and correspondences. In addition, they contain notes that provide information on life circumstances or deportation dates. The individual files differ in size. At least eight of them were initially created as criminal files by the so-called “Kriminalinspektion Vorbeugung” (Criminal Investigation Prevention).[8] These documents contain personal cards from prisons, investigations, penal orders, indictments, and judgments, as well as from interrogations of individuals, which can provide detailed insights into labor conditions, living circumstances, and acts of self-assertion or resistance.

Nevertheless, we must consider that the information in these files reflects the racist Nazi ideology and terminology and can’t be taken at face value. First and foremost, the term “Zigeuner” is an attribution with which Sinti and Roma people did not identify. Instead, it is a racist category that the perpetrators imposed on them. Furthermore, the content of these sources has been transmitted in a filtered form. This is evident in the written summary of an interrogation of the nineteen-year-old Korseda M., who jumped off the train during her deportation to the concentration camp Ravensbrück, fled, and was arrested again a few weeks later. In her criminal file, her interrogation was summarized. Based on the language and the deletions as well as the handwritten additions to the original excerpt of the transcript, it is apparent that her statement was altered.[9] Evidently, an official already preselected the information that seemed relevant to him – as well as the information that did not. This decision too was based on racist logic. However, despite the changes of the original statement, the transcript of the interrogation reveals her resistance.

Konrad W.’s escape is yet another example of Sinti and Roma resistance documented in the personal files. The twenty-year-old Konrad was imprisoned for allegedly breaching his employment contract. He broke out of a court prison, and the district court councilor, who wrote the letter, even urged caution in case of arrest, warning that Konrad and fellow fugitives could resist with violence.[10] Whether Konrad was indeed violent or if the assertion was only a projection of the district court councilor remains unclear. Nevertheless, the case shows that Konrad resisted the discriminatory labor conditions imposed on him. Furthermore, the file concluded with a report that Konrad W. was still on the run. Konrad’s further fate cannot be determined.

Clearly, there are some limitations to the validity of the personal files. The collection is fragmentary, and the files reflect the perspectives of bureaucratic perpetrators. Therefore, a source-critical approach to the files is essential. It is crucial for researchers to consciously retain a critical distance from the language of the perpetrators while making the origins and context of the information gathered by the perpetrators transparent. As long as one maintains such a source-critical perspective, the files can certainly provide valuable clues to resistant behavior and human agency.

Furthermore, personal testimonies from victims are a necessary corrective when working with perpetrator sources like the personal files.[11] The personal testimonies can illuminate gray areas and ultimately transcend the perpetrators’ perspective.

Finally, the source value of the files depends on the research question. They are doubtless of great value for researching the lives of persecuted Sinti and Roma. If one approaches them with sensitivity, the persecuted persons also become visible as subjects who represented their own interests and resisted in a variety of ways.  

In this light, the history of the persecution of Sinti and Roma, reflected in these files, also comes across as a history of self-assertion.

References

[1] Cf. Pientka, Patricia: Das Zwangslager für Sinti und Roma in Berlin-Marzahn. Alltag, Verfolgung und Deportation. Berlin 2013. 39f.

[2]  Cf. Gilsenbach, Reimar: Marzahn – Hitlers erstes Lager für Fremdrassige. Ein vergessenes Kapitel der Naziverbrechen, in: Pogrom – Zeitschrift für bedrohte Völker 17 (1986) 122, 15-17. 17.

[3] Cf. Pientka: Zwangslager. 19f.

[4] Cf. Fings, Karola: Gutachten zum Schnellbrief des Reichssicherheitshauptamtes – Tgb. Nr. RKPA. 149/1939 -g- vom 17.10.1939 betr. „Zigeunererfassung“ („Festsetzungserlass“). Köln 2018. 3f.

[5] Cf. Pientka: Zwangslager. 19f.

[6] https://arolsen-archives.org/en/

[7] This involved the racist assignment of individuals into the categories of “Zigeuner” (Gypsy), “non-Gypsy,” “Gypsy-mixed,” and many degrees in between.

[8] The “vorbeugende Verbrechensbekämpfung” (preventive crime control) allowed the Nazis to surveil and arrest alleged potential criminals and unwanted persons. The measures it included affected, for example, Sinti and Roma, homeless people, homosexuals, and sex workers.

[9] Cf. Interrogation Korseda M., 1939, 1.2.2 / 12102693 / ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives. See Korseda’s file: https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/de/search/person/12102693?s=korseda%20merz&t=6480&p=1

[10] Cf. Letter district court councilor Atlandsberg to “Zigeunerdienststelle“, 1942, 1.2.2 / 12102907/ ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives. See Konrad’s file: https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/de/search/person/12102907?s=Konrad%20winter&t=6480&p=1

[11] A collection of digitized self-testimonies can be found in the curated archive section “Voices of the Victims” of RomArchive, the digital archive of the Roma. https://www.romarchive.eu/en/voices-of-the-victims/



Cite this blog post
katharina hering (2022, July 12). Reflections on Researching Digitized Personal Files of Sinti and Roma Created by Berlin’s Criminal Police in Nazi Germany. h r e f. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from https://href.hypotheses.org/2190