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An Old Gypsy Story

In my twenties my landlord was an old German, Peter.  He had been a teenager during world War II, and liked to tell stories of his experiences.

One of his stories was about Gypsies.

Peter said, and I believed, that his family had been opposed to the Nazis. His father was a VP in Siemens and when Peter was caught, at a youth camp, listening to Allied broadcasts, he was able to save his son and have him assigned as an aide to a prison camp (no, not that type of prison camp) commandant. While there Peter got himself in more trouble and wound up in the camp jail for a couple of days. The cells in that camp faced each other, with a row of bars in between. The prisoner across from him was gypsy man and they spent two days playing cards and talking. At the end of it, the prisoner said, “today I will be hung as a partisan. You seem like a good man so I want to ask you if after the war you will go tell my people.”

After the war Peter did indeed go tell them, at what was apparently an annual meeting and fair in the South of France.  From that day on, he said that wherever he went in Europe, if he met Gypsies they always knew who he was, and would always help him if he needed it.

People seem to forget that Gypsies were one of the main targets of the Holocaust, along with Jews and socialists.  It’s still ok, today, to blood libel them as “child thieves” in a way that you can’t blood libel Jews in polite or even impolite company any more.

As for Peter, he fought for Hitler, and he was the kindest man I ever met.


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  1. RJ

    Your story about Peter reminds me of something I heard from my in-laws–not a personal story per se, but close. A reminder of how different and complex WWII actually was from the popular recollections of it.

    My mother in-law’s family lived through WWII in a village just outside the Italian city of Bari. They have told me how when the Germans occupied the city, life was difficult but not intolerable. The German soldiers did hassle people, but they by and large let everyone get on with their business and their lives without too much hardship. When the Americans came and pushed the Germans out, the situation changed for the worse–food and possessions were stolen or destroyed at a whim, families had to hide their daughters to prevent them from being raped, and conditions became miserable. My wife’s grandparents hated Mussolini, hated Hitler and the Germans, but they told me that when the Americans came, they soon wished the Germans would come back.

    Unfortunately, I never got to hear more details from them.

  2. Wow, RJ.

    My Evil Stepfather(TM) used to tell the tale of a different theatre – the Pacific one. He was amongst the occupiers of Japan, and he boasted of the “savoring” of geishas and one particularly nasty scheme of surreptitiously selling arms to, say, a bar and then coming around and busting them for it, confiscating arms, cash and of course anything else that was lying around.

    I was not amused.

  3. David Kowalski

    My uncle, a dentist in the Army during WWII, told the tale from yet another perspective. He was naive and from a very small town (population of about 1,000). As an officer, he got used to a certain level of pampering so while in Italy he put out his shoes to be shined and his pants to be pressed. He woke up with the shoes and pants gone. Rightly or wrongly he blamed the locals.

    The US Holocaust Museum estimates that 220,000 “gypsies” were killed in the Holocaust although estimates the number at 250,000 to 500,000. The Roma name for the Holocaust has a unique sadness to it, translating as “The Devouring.”

  4. Russ

    Good story, and thanks for the link back to the earlier post about Peter.

    Lots of groups targeted for death by the Nazis are sometimes not so well known, e.g. gay people, and handicapped people, and Esperanto speakers, and… well, it’s a sadly long list of people whom the Nazis deemed not worthy to live.

  5. RJ, my father’s experience in occupied Italy was rather different. He grew up near Monte Cassino, where the Allies & Axis powers bombed the hell out of each for almost a year. It was a particularly brutal part of the war.

    He was just a kid, and like most kids (esp boys), he played with things he shouldn’t have. Such as guns. If you got caught, you got shot. He remembered seeing another kid, about 12, get caught by the Germans carrying a gun. Bang.

    As for rape, soldiers from all countries since time immemorial have raped civilian women during their military “adventures.” My father remembered seeing women from his town blackening their teeth with charred cork, in an attempt to make themselves unattractive. Of course it didn’t work. When his family fled to the mountains, they could hear the screams of the women down below, being raped by the Moroccan mercenaries known as “Goumiers.” This was after the Germans had been routed. The French and Americans knew this was going on but did nothing.

  6. Dan Lynch

    Comments were closed on Peter’s story so I just wanted to say that I especially enjoyed it. I didn’t realize you had been through some lean times. We have that in common.

  7. Everythings Jake

    Peter is the Tower of Babel story. And I’m struggling to believe. We’ve got 2000 years of literature and history to teach us that humanity’s M.O. is savagery, evil and its own self-destruction. The environmental reports are dire. Change (by which I mean a remote possibility that humanity will not go extinct) will start when someone drags Blankfein and Dimon out to Zucotti and introduces them to the guillotine.

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