Auschwitz survivor and Sinti and Roma advocate dies at 98

BERLIN (AP) — Zilli Schmidt, a survivor of the Auschwitz, Lety and Ravensbrueck concentration camps who became a vocal advocate for the recognition of the Nazi genocide of Sinti and Roma, has died. She was 98.

Schmidt died Friday, according to the foundation of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin’s Holocaust memorial. No cause of death was given.

As one of the last survivors of the genocide of Sinti and Roma, the foundation said in a statement, Schmidt’s death “leaves behind a deep void.”

Both Sinti and Roma are Gypsy peoples who live predominantly in eastern Europe. Historians estimate that up to 500,000 Sinti and Roma were killed in the Holocaust.

Born as Zilli Reichmann in the eastern German state of Thuringia in 1924, Schmidt grew up in a German Sinti family of instrument dealers and traveling cinema operators. She was detained and sent to the Lety concentration camp in 1942 and then, along with her family, to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943.

In 1944, Schmidt was deported from Auschwitz to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp in Germany. The same day she was moved, large parts of her family, including her parents, her daughter and her sister, were murdered along with many other Sinti and Roma at Auschwitz.

After the war, Schmidt fought for recognition and aid for victims of the Nazis’ genocide. Later in life, she began speaking out publicly about her experiences and vocally advocating against racism and right-wing extremism.

In 2021, she received the Federal Cross of Merit, which recognizes those who have made notable contributions to German society.

“You told us about the suffering of the Sinti and Roma under the National Socialist dictatorship, in Lety, Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck, where you had been deported,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the time.

After the news of her death, Germany’s culture minister Claudia Roth praised Schmidt as someone with the “courage to address grievances” both past and present.

“I am eternally grateful that Zilli chose to speak out about her life and the horrors that have happened to her,” Roth said in a statement. Schmidt will be missed “as a contemporary witness, as a fighter for recognition of the genocide of the Sinti and Roma,” Roth added.

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