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Romanies: Hitler's other victims

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The world is slowly, very slowly, beginning to acknowledge some of Auschwitz' other victims. Four decades after the notorious camp was closed, a plaque here, a promised cultural center there, a possible investigation of discrimination elsewhere, is all that commemorates the martyrdom of the Gypsies.

But that's one more plaque, cultural center, and acknowledgment of prejudice than the second-largest group of Hitler's victims -- after the Jews -- could claim a few weeks ago. and Franz Wirbel and his fellow Gyspies are grateful for that.

As a boy, Franz Wirbel was expelled from school in 1936 for the crime of being born into the wrong race. In 1938 his family was restricted to the west Prussian town where they lived. In 1941 they were deported to Poland and then interned, first in the Stutthof and then in other concentration camps. His mother was separated from him in auschwitz on Aug. 2, 1944, at 4 p.m. and burned to death at 6. He lost sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, 39 relatives in all, in the Holocaust.

Because of his youth and hardy constitution he managed to survive Nazi "experiments" in freezing, and was freed by the Americans in 1945. He married, but the couple has no children, for his wife had been sterilized in the camps.

Mr. Wirbel can still remember every stone in Auschwitz. And he still bears the number Z9805 tattooed on his arm. Yet he does not receive the usual monetary restitution for camp survivors, because, he explains, officials told him back in the '60s that he hadn't filed his documentation in time. He lives today by repairing musical instruments. And he thinks the real reason he hasn't gotten reparations is that he is a Gypsy.

By last spring, Mr. Wirbel had enough of second-class citizenship and the absence even of public recognition that half a million Romanies -- the nonpejorative name for Europe's gypsies -- perished in the extermination camps. He and 11 other Sinti (german Romanies) went on a hunger strike at the Dachau camp memorial near the Bavarian capital, Munich, to demand full "moral rehabilitation."

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