“…don’t forget the photos, it’s very important…”

The National Socialist Persecution of Central German Sinti and Roma, a travelling exhibition is coming to the McClay Library on 20th April 2022. The exhibition has been developed by Professor Eve Rosenhaft (Professor of German Historical Studies, University of Liverpool) and Holocaust memory activist Jana Müller (Alternatives Jugendzentrum Dessau) and features photographs by photo-journalist Hanns Weltzel (1902-1952). Many thanks to Eve Rosenhaft for this guest post.

The Photographer as Implicated Subject – Hanns Weltzel

Photographs of German Sinti and Roma (“Gypsies”) are at the centre of the exhibition “…don’t forget the photos, it’s very important”, which is on show in the McClay Library from 20 April to 13 May. The exhibition offers an account of the persecution they suffered under the Nazis, but it does so from the perspective of the everyday: the lives they lived as individuals and families under circumstances of normality. In designing the exhibition, we were conscious that adopting this perspective would help to bring home to visitors the monstrous impacts that the experiences that followed – internment, sterilisation, medical experiments, slave labour and mass murder – had on them. And in doing this we were taking advantage of the insights into their world allowed by a unique visual archive: the photographs taken by Hanns Weltzel.

Photographer Hanns Weltzel

The photographs document not only the lives of their Sinti and Roma subjects, but also the relationship between them and Weltzel, and the exhibition also invites us to reflect on the role that he played in the small-town events that would become part of a pan-European genocide. Using the term introduced by Michael Rothberg in his 2019 book, we may characterise Hanns Weltzel as an “implicated subject”, one of those who “contribute to, inhabit, inherit or benefit from regimes of domination but do not originate or control such regimes … Although indirect or belated, their actions and inactions help produce and reproduce the positions of victims and perpetrators.” What the exhibition tells us about what Weltzel did and what he didn’t do carries an important message about responsibility and mutual respect – and about how genocide happens. And it is a message that is of particular relevance to people engaged in scholarship and science.

Among the photographs that Weltzel took and that feature in the exhibition is one of a teenager known to his friends as Seemann and to the official archives as Kurt Ansin. The exhibition tells the story of his persecution, beginning with his imprisonment in Buchenwald concentration camp at the age of 17. Deported to Auschwitz in March 1943, Seemann and his mother were the only members of their family to survive the genocide.

The Wiener Holocaust Library in London holds notes that the historian Donald Kenrick took when he interviewed Kurt Ansin in 1968. There he reports that when he was first interned in Buchenwald, “Dr Ritter, Eva Justin, Wenzl and Wenzl’s wife all came to Buchenwald” to interview the Romani inmates about their family histories.

“Wenzl” is almost certainly Hanns Weltzel, and Ansin’s testimony opens up a complex story about friendship, complicity and betrayal. Weltzel wrote his own account of the persecution after the war, in which he described in detail the “Gypsy camp” in Magdeburg to which his friends were forcibly relocated in January 1938 and the removal of most of the men (including Kurt Ansin) from there to Buchenwald the following June. In his narrative, written in 1948-49 and never published, he both exposes that he knew about the persecution as it was happening and makes clear his awareness that he himself was implicated in the genocidal process. What Weltzel tells us is that the “race scientist” Robert Ritter, who had been tasked by Heinrich Himmler with identifying every “Gypsy” in Germany, invited him to support the work of his unit by supplying information about the Sinti families he had befriended. This was part of a wider strategy on Ritter’s part, and there were other linguisticians and social scientists who did cooperate, taking advantage of the opportunities that mass incarceration offered for research on human subjects – as of course did medical professionals. There were also scholars who suffered sanctions for refusing to work with Ritter.

Weltzel claimed that he had refused to hand over his material to Ritter (and there is no evidence that he did), but he also admitted that he had not done enough to protect his friends or to challenge Nazi policy. His publications of the 1930s insist on the humanity of his Sinti subjects, but they make many concessions to the language of official anti-Gypsyism. Weltzel kept his head down and survived the war, only to be caught up in anti-Soviet agitation in East Germany which led to his execution in 1952.

Kurt Ansin’s testimony amounts to a charge of active complicity against Weltzel. The story he told in this 1968 interview is an ambiguous one: Ansin records that “Wenzl” was accompanied by his wife (who, as the photos tell us, was herself on friendly terms with the Ansins). And what Ansin reports “Wenzl” as saying might have been a warning rather than a threat. Perhaps the Weltzels were hoping to help their friends by deflecting the violence of the process that the “race scientists” had set in train. However we choose to read Kurt Ansin’s testimony, by the time the Weltzels visited Buchenwald it was already too late for good intentions.

By the 1960s, the story of Hanns Weltzel’s betrayal, told by survivors to each other and to non-Romani scholars and activists, had become a powerful reminder of what happens when “scholarship” is carried on uncritically and without regard to the ethical claims of the people whom it seeks to study. Still remembered today by the generation of Kurt Ansin’s grandchildren, the Weltzel story also signals the critical breakdown of trust between Roma and Sinti and Germany’s majority population which has yet to be fully overcome. Since the 1990s the answer to both these challenges has been “Nothing about us without us.”

“…don’t forget the photos, it’s very important…” The National Socialist Persecution of Central German Sinti and Roma exhibition will run in the McClay Library from Wednesday 20th April to Friday 13th May 2022.

If you would like information on the Belfast Roma community, you can contact the Roma Support Hub on 07708695243/07395318943 or on Facebook @Belfastroma and Twitter @SouthBelfastPB