A German Sinti1 survivor named Hans Braun acquired this charred electrical insulator from Auschwitz after the end of World War II. This insulator may have originally connected electrified wires to concrete fence posts surrounding the camp. Braun and his family were imprisoned at Auschwitz in the early 1940s. The Nazi project to reshape German society to fit Nazi ideas about race and national unity excluded Roma and Sinti from the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"). Classified with the negative, racialized term “Zigeuner”2 (“Gypsy”),3 Roma and Sinti imprisoned at Auschwitz faced deadly conditions—and were ultimately targeted for mass murder.
Hans Braun was born in Hannover, Germany in 1923. When he was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, his family operated a small traveling carnival with swings, a merry-go-round, a shooting gallery, and other small attractions. For part of the year the family traveled from place to place in order to earn a living, and they spent winters living in the town of Bernau outside of Berlin, Germany. Many Roma and Sinti in Germany faced increased discrimination after the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, but the Braun family managed to continue operating their small traveling carnival for the first several years of Nazi rule.4
The Brauns’ lives changed dramatically when German forces invaded Poland in September 1939. Nazi anti-Romani policies became more extreme during World War II. Hans Braun later explained that “when the war started, then the persecution started also.”5 In October 1939, Nazi authorities banned all Roma and Sinti in Germany from traveling or changing their places of residence without special permission. Violators were imprisoned in concentration camps. This meant that the Braun family had to live in Bernau permanently and could no longer operate their traveling carnival.
Authorities also forced Hans and his father to work in a factory making ammunition for the German military. When the machine Hans worked with broke, the Gestapo tried to arrest him on charges of sabotage. Hans managed to avoid imprisonment by running away and living in hiding. After evading authorities several times, Hans was captured and sent to Auschwitz along with many other Sinti prisoners in spring 1943. His family members had already been deported and were imprisoned in a separate Romani subcamp when he arrived.6 “People were sorted out like goods,” Braun later explained.
Conditions at the so-called “Zigeunerfamilienlager” (“Gypsy Family Camp”) at Auschwitz-Birkenau were horrible.7 Thousands of people died from malnutrition, disease, or abuse. Thousands of other Roma and Sinti were murdered by gassing.8 Two of Hans’ young siblings had died before he arrived, and the rest of his family members soon died of starvation or disease. Hans became the victim of Nazi medical experiments—he was injected with typhus but survived the illness. He was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp in May 1944 and was liberated by American forces in April 1945 during a so-called death march. In the 1950s, Braun emigrated to Canada.
He acquired this small porcelain insulator during a visit to Auschwitz later in his life. Braun then presented it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council during a ceremony commemorating the Nazi-led genocide of Roma and Sinti. The insulator is roughly pocket-sized—less than two inches tall—and it has a hole through its center for a conductor to pass through. Half of the bottom and most of the top are broken off, and it has been charred black. What meanings might this item have held or taken on for Braun over the years?