After coming to power in early 1933, the Nazi regime attempted to reshape German society to fit Nazi ideas about race and national unity. The Nazis and their supporters targeted many groups they considered to be racial, social, or political outsiders and excluded them from the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"). Roma and Sinti (“Gypsies”)1 faced escalating forms of discrimination and persecution under Nazi rule.2 Nazi ideas about race and biology and Nazi theories of eugenics added radical and deadly new dimensions to discriminatory anti-Romani policies that had existed in Germany before the Nazi Party rose to power.3 Roma and Sinti living under Nazi rule responded to this persecution in a wide range of ways.
The featured photograph shows German Sinti couple Theresia Winterstein and Gabriel Reinhardt walking with their newborn daughters in Würzburg, Germany. Both trained musicians, Theresia and Gabriel had traveled and performed as entertainers in Germany in the years before World War II.4 By the late 1930s, increasing restrictions on Roma and Sinti under Nazism made it more difficult for them to work. The two became a couple in 1941 when they were both performing at the Würzburg city theater. That same year, Theresia and her family members were targeted as Sinti under a Nazi law legalizing forced sterilizations—medical procedures designed to make it biologically impossible to reproduce.5 Theresia and Gabriel wanted children, so they decided to defy the law by becoming pregnant before Theresia was forcibly sterilized.
When she was called in for her sterilization appointment in 1942, Theresia was already three months pregnant with twins. Authorities decided that Theresia should be allowed to give birth on the condition that the babies would immediately be turned over to the clinic at the University of Würzburg—where German medical professionals were conducting research on twins. This research was led by a professor of neurology and psychiatry named Werner Heyde. Heyde was also a leading member of the Nazi program to systematically murder people with disabilities and so-called “inherited illnesses.”6
Theresia gave birth to twin girls they named Rita and Rolanda at the Würzburg clinic on March 3, 1943. Their parents were allowed to take them home for brief visits, but they mostly were forced to stay at the clinic. This photograph was taken in March 1943 when the twins were briefly released to their parents. The couple appears to smile widely as a small group of people—including a uniformed Nazi official—stands nearby and looks on. While the exact circumstances behind the photograph are unclear, Theresia later asserted that the scene was staged by authorities to use in Nazi propaganda.
The following month, Theresia went to the clinic but was told she could not see her children. She found only one of her daughters with her head wrapped in bandages. She was told by a nurse that her other daughter had died that day during medical experiments. Theresia grabbed her surviving child, Rita, and ran from the clinic. Authorities took the baby back to the clinic within days, and Theresia was forcibly sterilized soon afterward. Although most of her family members were deported to Auschwitz, authorities made exceptions for Theresia and Gabriel. A year later, Theresia unexpectedly received a letter from the German Red Cross in Würzburg telling her to pick up Rita from the clinic.7 The family stayed together for several years, but Gabriel decided to return to his first wife in the late 1940s when he discovered that she was not dead as he had presumed.
In the decades following World War II, Romani survivors often struggled for recognition or compensation for their persecution under Nazi rule. Roma and Sinti people continued to face discrimination throughout Europe even after Nazi laws and policies were abolished. In their postwar lives, Theresia and Rita became Sinti human rights activists who helped raise awareness of the Nazi persecution of Romani people. In March 2023, Rita attended a ceremony as the city of Würzburg named a street in Theresia’s honor.8