Long after he started a new life in Montreal, Paul Herczeg was still bearing witness to the final moments of thousands of Roma sent to their deaths at Auschwitz in a single night in 1944.
For decades, well into his 80s, he volunteered with the Montreal Holocaust Museum, meeting with school groups, giving media interviews, contributing to virtual exhibitions and oral history projects.
The Holocaust survivor made a point of explaining that he had also seen the suffering of the Roma at Auschwitz – vital testimony for a community still fighting to gain better recognition of the genocide they suffered during the Second World War.
About half a million Roma and Sinti, the people who used to be referred to by the derogatory term ‘Gypsies’, were killed by the Nazis in the genocide, known in the Romani language as the Porajmos – the Devouring.
“We are Jewish – we tell Jewish stories. But this is the story of the Gypsies and this has to be told also,” Mr. Herczeg said in a 2007 video interview that will be played Sunday as part of the Montreal Holocaust Museum’s annual commemoration of the Romani genocide.
Mr. Herczeg, who died in May, will be honoured during the ceremony, which will be livestreamed.
“Paul made every possible effort to tell that story when he could, to ensure that it is not forgotten, and we will forever be grateful to him for that,” Dafina Savic, founder of the Montreal-based human-rights group Romanipe, told The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Herczeg’s contribution was invaluable, museum spokeswoman Sarah Fogg noted. “He was so amazing … he was always involved in the commemoration of the Romani genocide,” she said in an interview.
Ottawa agreed only last year to officially acknowledge it as an act of genocide.
Mr. Herczeg was a teen when he and his parents were deported in July, 1944, with 420,000 other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp complex in German-occupied Poland.
Upon their arrival, his mother stayed with a group of older women to help translate, only to be taken away with them to the gas chambers.
Mr. Herczeg and his father were held in Auschwitz’s satellite camp, Birkenau. There he noticed near his barracks the Romani prisoners, in their own section of the camp.
“Some of the old-timers, we asked them. ‘Oh, [that’s] the Gypsy camp, there are Gypsies here. They suffer the same fate as we are but they are together with their families,’” Mr. Herczeg says in his video testimony.
Even by Auschwitz standards, conditions for the Roma were ghastly, the late Austrian author Hermann Langbein, a former prisoner, recalled after the war, describing starving children, haggard mothers and rats scurrying amid piles of bodies.
“There were newborn babies who had their camp number tattooed on their thighs because their arms were too thin,” he testified at the 1964 trial of former Auschwitz SS personnel.
Most of the 23,000 Romani prisoners died from hunger, disease or pseudo-medical experiments. Thousands were sent to other camps as slave labour.
By the summer of 1944, about 4,200 Roma, mostly women, children and the elderly, still survived in the camp, according to new findings by researchers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.
The end of the family camp, on the evening of Aug. 2, 1944, was particularly gruesome because by then the prisoners were aware they were being taken to the gas chambers.
“They knew what was happening to them. They were not fooled like we were. … They knew they were being taken out,” Mr. Herczeg says in his video testimony.
Other prisoners heard shouts and gunshots – perhaps a desperate attempt to resist. Mr. Herczeg recalled that he was woken up by the sound of children and adults screaming in the night.
He looked through the wooden slats of his barracks and saw trucks arriving with SS guards. “The motors are going loud. Hollering, cries, ta-ta-ta-ta. They took the last of the Gypsies and that night they gassed them and burned them, families together.”
The next day, other prisoners were sent to clean the empty Roma barracks.
In September, Mr. Herczeg and his father were sent to a camp in Germany, Muehldorf, where they had to haul bags of cement in cold, rainy weather to build an airplane factory.
His father fell ill and died. Mr. Herczeg was on his own, but he lived to see liberation.
“I was suffering like others, but I had an incredible will to survive. ‘Someone has to tell the world,’ I said to myself,” he recalled in his unpublished memoir.
He came to Canada in 1948 as part of a program to admit Jewish orphans.
He started a family, worked as a store manager, then opened his own electronics business.
In the 1980s, he started helping at the Holocaust museum, Ms. Fogg said.
“He was so active and so involved. He was such a special person.”
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