Only a few thousand Roma in Germany survived the Holocaust and the concentration camps. They faced enormous difficulties when trying to build up their lives again, having lost so many of their family members and relatives, and having had their properties destroyed or confiscated. Many of them had their health ruined. When some of them tried to obtain compensation, their claims were rejected for years.
For these survivors no justice came with the post-Hitler era. Significantly, the mass killing of the Roma people was not an issue at the Nürnberg trial. The genocide of the Roma – Samudaripe or Porrajmos – was hardly recognised in the public discourse.
This passive denial of the grim facts could not have been surprising to the Roma themselves, as for generations they had been treated as a people without history. The violations they had suffered were quickly forgotten, if even recognised.
Sadly, this same pattern is repeated even today.
That is why it is particularly valuable that the Council of Europe has produced a series of fact sheets on Roma History. These are intended for teachers, pupils, political and other decision makers and every one else interested in knowing the facts about what this people have gone through.
Readers of these fact sheets may learn about 500 years of shameful repression in Europe of the various Roma groups since their arrival following the long migration from India. The methods have varied between enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings.
The ‘reasons’ for these policies have, however, been similar. The Roma were seen as unreliable, dangerous, criminal, and undesirable. They were the outsiders who could easily be used as scapegoats when things went wrong and the locals did not want to take responsibility.
In Wallachia and Moldavia (today’s Romania) the Roma lived in slavery and bondage for centuries up to 1855 when the last Roma slaves were finally emancipated.
In Spain more than ten thousand Roma were rounded up in a well planned military-police action one day in 1749. The purpose according to a leading clergyman who advised the government was to ‘root out this bad race, which is hateful to God and pernicious to man’. The result was devastating to the Roma community – the deportations, detentions, forced labour and killings destroyed much of the original Roma culture.
In the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 18th century the rulers applied a policy of enforced assimilation. Roma children were taken from their parents and instructions went out that no Roma was allowed to marry another Roma. Furthermore, the Romani language was banned. This policy was brutally enforced. For instance, the use of the ‘Gypsy’ language was to be punishable by flogging.
Fascists in the 20th century turned also against the Roma. In Italy a circular went out in 1926 which ordered the expulsion of all foreign Roma in order to ‘cleanse the country of Gypsy caravans which needless to recall, constitute a risk to safety and public health by virtue of the characteristic Gypsy lifestyle’.
The order made clear that the aim was to ‘strike at the heart of the Gypsy organism’. What followed in fascist Italy for the Roma was discrimination and persecution. Many were detained in special camps; others were sent to Germany or Austria and later exterminated.
The fascist ‘Iron Guard’ regime in Romania started deportations in 1942. Like many Jews, about 30.00 Roma were brought across the river Dniester where they suffered hunger, disease and death. Only about half of them managed to survive the two years of extreme hardship before the policy changed.
In France about 6,000 Roma were interned during the war, the majority of them in the occupied zone. Unlike other victims, the Roma were not systematically released upon the German retreat. The new French authorities saw internment as a means of forcing them to settle.
In the Baltic States a large number of the Roma inhabitants were killed by the German invasion forces and their local supporters within the police. Only 5-10 per cent of the Roma in Estonia survived. In Latvia about half of the Roma were shot while it is estimated that a vast majority of those in Lithuania were also killed.
In fact, all countries in Europe were affected by the racist ideas of the time. In the neutral Sweden the authorities had encouraged a sterilisation program already in the twenties which primarily targeted the Roma (and which continued up to the seventies). Also in Norway pressure was exerted on Roma to sterilise.
The Nazi regime defined the Roma (including the Sinti) as ‘racially inferior’ with an ‘asocial behaviour’ which was deemed hereditary. This, in fact, was a development of old and widespread prejudices in both Germany and Austria. The so-called Nürnberg race laws of 1935 deprived the Roma of their nationality and citizen’s rights. It was demanded that they should be interned into labour camps and sterilised by force.
An earlier plan of Nazi racists to keep some of the ‘racially pure’ Roma in a sort of anthropological museum was forgotten, while some Roma, not least children, were singled out for Josef Mengele’s cruel medical experiments. A policy of forced sterilisation was implemented, often without anaesthesia.
The systematic murder of Roma started in the summer 1941 when German troops attacked the Soviet Union. They were seen as spies (like many Jews) for the ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ and were shot by the German army and the SS in mass executions. Indeed, in all areas occupied by the Nazis there were executions of Roma people.
Figures are uncertain, but it is estimated that far more than hundred thousand were executed in those situations, including in the Balkans where the killings were supported by local fascists. The Ustascha militia in Croatia ran camps but also organised deportations and carried out mass executions.
In December 1942, the Nazi regime decided that all Roma in the ‘German Reich’ should be deported to Auschwitz. There they had to wear a dark triangle and a Z was tattooed to their arm. Of all camp inmates they had the highest death rate: 19,300 lost their lives there. Of them 5,600 were gassed and 13,700 died from hunger, disease or following medical experiments.
It is still not known how many Roma in total fell victim to the Nazi persecution. Not all Roma were registered as Roma and the records are incomplete. The fact that there was no reliable statistics about the number of Roma in these areas before the mass killings makes it even more difficult to estimate the actual number of casualties. The Council of Europe fact sheets state that it is highly probable that the number was at least 250,000. Other credible studies indicate that more than 500,000 Roma lost their lives, perhaps many more.
The fact sheets underline that there is a need of further research on the Roma history. The Roma themselves have had little possibility of recording events and the authorities have had little interest in doing so. Still there are Roma and other scholars whose work should be encouraged (several of them have been drawn upon by the authors of the fact sheets, for instance Ian Hancock and Grattan Puxon).
However, already the published fact sheets do make a difference. My hope is that many people will read them and that governments in Europe will support and facilitate this through translating these texts into national languages and disseminating them to teachers, politicians and others. Roma organisations should be assisted in circulating them widely within their communities.
There are a number of conclusions that will have to be drawn by a serious reader. One is that it is not surprising that there is a lack of trust amongst many Roma towards the majority society and that some of them see the authorities as a threat. When told to register or to be fingerprinted they fear the worst.
Indeed, there has still not been any recognition in several countries that this minority has been repressed in the past and no official apology has been given. One good example to the contrary was the decision by the government Bucharest in 2003 to establish a commission on the Holocaust which later published an important report on the repression and killings in Romania during the fascist period.
The fact sheets illustrate that the Roma have not migrated for devious reasons or because travelling is “in their blood”. When it has been possible they have indeed settled but for long they have had to move between or within countries to avoid repression or simply because they were not allowed to stay. The other main reason was that the kind of employment or jobs which were open to them required their moving.
There are lessons from history on how to handle the present spread of anti-Gypsism in some countries. The rhetoric from some politicians and xenophobic media has revived age-old stereotypes about the Roma and this in turn has ‘legitimised’ actions, sometimes violent, against Roma individuals. Again, they are made scapegoats.
Today’s rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before the mass killings started in the thirties and forties. Once more, it is argued that the Roma is a threat to safety and public health. No distinction is made between a few criminals and the overwhelming majority of the Roma population. This is shameful and dangerous.
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