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BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany remembered the Holocaust's forgotten victims on Wednesday by opening a memorial in the heart of Berlin to the half a million ethnic Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis.
As the mournful strains of a solo violin sounded through the trees, political leaders and frail survivors approached a dark pool close to the German parliament building.
Its still water is intended to evoke tears for the dead but also, in reflecting the beholder, inspire new generations to protect minorities from hate.
"This memorial commemorates a group of victims who, for far too long, received far too little public recognition - the many hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma who were persecuted by the Nazis as so-called gypsies," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The destiny of every single person murdered in this genocide is one of unspeakable suffering. Every single destiny, fills us, fills me, with sadness and shame."
Discrimination against Sinti and Roma increased at alarming levels once Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. They were sent to forced labor camps and, from 1934, subjected to forced sterilization as a result of the Nazis' "racial purity" laws.
By the start of World War Two, the Nazis' genocidal intent became clear as Sinti and Roma were deported to death camps, where they wore uniforms bearing a "Z" for "Zigeuner" (gypsy).
The first time a German leader recognized Nazi persecution of the Roma on racist grounds was in 1982, more than 30 years after then West Germany acknowledged the murder of 6 million Jews and began to pay compensation to Israel.
German politicians and Roma leaders at the opening ceremony described the memorial as a reminder of the urgent need to protect minorities today.
Many of Europe's 12 million Roma face discrimination and social exclusion, often living in dire poverty.
"Half a million Sinti and Roma, men, women and children, were murdered during the Holocaust. Society has learned nothing, next to nothing from this, otherwise they would treat us differently," said Dutch Sinto survivor Zoni Weisz.
His voice faltered as he described how, as a seven-year-old, he watched his father, mother, sisters and brother being deported in a train to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Merkel also stressed it was a German and European duty to protect Roma rights. After her speech a heckler highlighted that Germany refuses to grant asylum to Roma from countries such as Serbia and Macedonia, where they face discrimination.
Editing by Robert Woodward