(Kraubath an der Mur 1933 – Vienna 2013): A Roma child in Auschwitz
“auschwitz is my overcoat”
Ceja Stojka was born on 25 May 1933 as the Roma child of a Lovara family. At that time, the family were considered “travellers” who traded on the road. Lovara were considered horse traders (ló is the Hungarian word for horse). The family liked to stay in and around Vienna as there were many horse markets. The siblings – three sisters and three brothers – were born on the road, which explains their different places of birth.
The Roma were targeted by the authorities and police even before the Nazis came to power. Although their numbers in Austria were small, they were referred to as “gypsies” and in 1936 a “Central Office for Combating Gypsyism” was set up. After the Nazis had assumed power, racist laws, such as the “Nuremberg Race Laws”, also applied to the Roma. This meant, for example, that Roma were forbidden to have extramarital relations with “German-blooded people”. Ceija Stojka was not yet aware of much of what was going on, as she was only five years old at the time of the “Anschluss”. She had barely started school when she had to leave, because Roma children were excluded from school in the 1939/40 school year under the pretext of “endangering the morals and characters of German children”. One school memory remained with her, namely when a teacher instructed her to say “Heil Hitler”. “But I had no idea who Hitler was, so I answered the teacher cheekily: ‘I don't know this person, who is he?’”
Like the Jewish population, the Roma were subject to legal sanctions, issued with separate identity cards, prohibited from leaving their immediate vicinity, interned and forced to perform slave labour. For the time being, Ceija Stojka’s family found shelter on the land of an acquaintance in Ottakring; the caravan was converted into a hut so as to be less conspicuous. The family lived in extreme poverty, the children begged on the streets, one sister, Kathi, was taken to the Lackenbach “gypsy detention camp”. One morning in January 1941, the Gestapo came, broke down the door and arrested her father, Karl Wakar Horvath. He was taken from Dachau concentration camp to the Hartheim killing centre in November 1942 and murdered there. A letter arrived with the death notice.
In March 1943, the mother and children were rounded up during a raid. They were taken to the Rossauer barracks and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The children, locked in the cattle cars, cried out with hunger and thirst, people perished in the wagons, it stank of urine and excrement. “People were already shouting and screaming, ‘at least give us water’.” But there was no water. At the ramp in Birkenau, unlike most Jewish transports, there was no selection. The deportees were interned in the Birkenau “gypsy camp”. They were placed in one of the barracks, and the Stojka children “just held on to mama tightly” so as not to lose her.
The worst memory for the siblings was the death of the family’s nestling, the youngest brother Ossi, who was loved by everyone. He fell ill with typhoid fever and was sent to the infirmary. Ceija Stojka sneaked in and looked for him there. The others warned her: “If they catch you, then... you won’t survive two minutes.” She found her little brother, but he did not survive. When she saw his body being taken away, she ran after him and covered him with her little shirt and was immediately beaten again for doing so. The ten-year-old was beaten time after time – once for stealing a turnip, another time for taking a potato peel from the pile, and several times for wetting herself. As she told the story, Ceija Stojka raised the question: “Who will ever understand this, who could ever understand this?” Many things cannot be expressed in words, like the black smoke and the “sweet smell” of the cremated, murdered Jews.
Her mother’s strength was such that she caused the children’s fear to dissipate. When they were looking for people who could work she gave Ceija a life-saving piece of advice: “If someone asks you how old you are, say you are sixteen! You are a little one, you can work well though.” Those who did not manage to be deported from the “gypsy camp” to other camps for forced labour had no chance of survival. Miraculously, Ceija Stojka, her mother and her remaining siblings survived. For Ceija, Auschwitz was followed by the concentration camps at Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.
Like other Roma, Ceija Stojka’s discrimination continued after her liberation. Roma continued to be regarded as “asocials” and were accused of trying to gain advantage by pretending to have been in concentration camps. It was a long time before Ceija Stojka was recognised as one of the most important contemporary eyewitnesses. She processed her experiences through painting and wrote poems. One of them is called “auschwitz is my overcoat”:
auschwitz is my overcoat,
bergen-belsen my dress
and ravensbrück my vest.
what have I got to be afraid of?
Literature and sources
Ceija Stojka, auschwitz ist mein mantel. bilder und texte, edited by Christa Stippinger, Vienna 2008.
Ceija Stojka, documentary by Karin Berger, 1999.
Ceija Stojka, Interview 45.023. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation. Transcript Freie Universität Berlin. 2012: http://www.vha.fu-berlin.de (23.3.2015).
Ceija Stojka, Wir leben im Verborgenen. Erinnerungen einer Rom-Zigeunerin, edited by Karin Berger, Vienna 42003.
Johann Stojka, Interview 41.680. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation. Transcript Freie Universität Berlin. 2012: http://www.vha.fu-berlin.de (23.3.2015).