Edwin Black: IBM's Role in the Nazi Roundup of Gypsies





Edwin Black, in the Forward (July 9, 2004):

In April 1941, a Romanian census taker came to the home of a suspected Roma Gypsy working as a blacksmith in the picturesque town of Schaas. The senior Nazi statistical official observing the process wrote,"He did not dare to deny his ethnical descent as Gypsy." The census taker instructed:"Now, please write: Gypsy."

Shortly thereafter, that Gypsy blacksmith's census questionnaire, filled out by simple pencil, joined thousands of similar questionnaires at the Romanian Central Institute for Statistics facility. This facility was equipped with the latest IBM Hollerith high-speed punch-card machines, specifically programmed for the Romanian census. IBM's Hollerith punch-card system stored any information, such as ethnic type, profession and residential location, in the rows and columns strategically punched. The cards could then be counted and cross-tabulated at the rate of 24,000 cards per hour, yielding almost any permutation of data.

To help systematize the persecution and extermination of minorities, the Romanians used custom-designed punch cards, printed exclusively by IBM, which included special columns and rows for all ethnic groups, including Roma Gypsies. The printed census forms were approved for compatibility by IBM engineers, ensuring each of the numbered boxes on the printed census forms corresponded to the designated punch-card column. Because this was a state-of-the-art census, the women operating IBM equipment were all at least high school educated.

Within a year of being identified, an estimated 25,000 Gypsies were rounded up pursuant to the Romanian Interior Minister's order #70S/1942. Typically, roadblocks were set up on the outskirts of town as gendarmes, with lists of names, fanned out to arrest the Gypsies. Gypsies were then deported in trains, which were scheduled and tracked by IBM's leased and regularly serviced Hollerith machines. Their destination was a death of starvation, beatings or execution every bit as horrible as that experienced by the Jews of Romania.

The Nazi census expert observing the Romanian census was Friedrich Burgdörfer, president of the Bavarian Office for Statistics in Munich. Ludwig Hümmer, an IBM punch-card expert working in IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, accompanied Burgdörfer to Romania. Hümmer went to Romania only reluctantly since he was not receiving a commission on the punch-card business in Romania.

Romania was a sales territory operated directly from New York. But Hümmer was specifically instructed to assist in the Romanian census by Werner Lier, IBM's general manager in Geneva, Switzerland. Lier acted with the full knowledge of IBM president Thomas J. Watson.

Recently, IBM's role as a willing accomplice in the mass murders of Gypsies — and indeed, the larger question of its Swiss operation — has come back to haunt the technology company. Big Blue has refused to answer the charges since the first simultaneous disclosures in 40 countries on February 11, 2001, that IBM knowingly systemized Hitler's persecution and extermination of Europe's Jews, directly from New York and through its subsidiaries in Europe coordinated through the Swiss office. But on June 22, a Swiss appellate Court ruled that a compensation suit filed by the Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action could proceed.

"The precision, speed and reliability of IBM's machines," the Swiss judge ruled,"especially related to the censuses of the German population and racial biology by the Nazis, were praised in the publications of Dehomag itself, the branch of respondent IBM. It does not thus seem unreasonable to deduce that IBM's technical assistance facilitated the tasks of the Nazis in the commission of their crimes against humanity, acts also involving accountancy and classification by IBM machines and utilized in the concentration camps themselves."

The judge's ruling pointedly added:"In view of the preceding, IBM's complicity with material and intellectual assistance in the criminal acts of the Nazis during the Second World War by means of its Geneva establishment does not appear to be ruled out, as there is a great deal of evidence indicating that the Geneva establishment was aware that it was aiding and supporting these acts."


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