The Forgotten Holocaust: the genocide of the Romani community during the Second World War

“…far too little attention has been paid for far too long…”  (German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2012 at the opening of the memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust.)

The long silence about the fate of the Romani community at the hands of the Nazis during World War II has been called the forgotten Holocaust. For decades after the end of the war, the genocide of the Zigeuner, the German term for Gypsies, was almost totally ignored. And yet the Nazis and their allies killed up to half a million Romani men, women and children from all over Europe in the period between 1933 and 1945, in mass shootings and deportations to concentration camps and death camps in the east.

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The memorial pool. Part of the memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims with the Reichstag behind

The memorial pool
Part of the memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims with the Reichstag behind

This historic lack of interest in the fate of Europe’s Romani people has changed to an extent over the last twenty years, with a number of small publishers printing scholarly works on the subject, perhaps in response to the growing Roma and Sinti civil rights movement.  That said, however, the fact that the Roma and Sinti peoples of eastern and western Europe were the victims of forced sterilization, medical experiments and mass-murder in concentration camps and gas chambers is still almost invariably relegated to a footnote on a page of an ordinary history of the Second World War.  Lip service is paid to their suffering for the sake of political correctness, along with the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, the disabled and people of colour. Yet the tragic story of the suffering of the Romani people stubbornly remains an afterthought. And whilst tens of thousands of books documenting the terrible atrocities committed against the Jews have been written, only tens of books have fully considered the Roma and Sinti as victims of Nazi crimes against humanity.

There are a variety of reasons why this is the case.  Firstly, the Romani tradition, whilst rich in culture, music, songs, poetry and oral history, is not a written linguistic tradition. Few Roma kept diaries or journals or wrote memoirs of their experiences after the war was over. Less articulate in writing, it is hardly surprising that the larger more conventionally eloquent Jewish community received more attention than the Roma and Sinti. Secondly, the simple fact of the enormous number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust understandably captured immediate attention. The Roma and Sinti victims were fewer in number. However, since only 5,000 of their community survived the war years in Germany out of a pre-war population of approximately 30,000, the proportion of losses in comparison to the original size of their community was similar to that suffered by the German Jewish population that stood at around 500,000 prior to the war.

There are many further parallels to the tragic fate of the two communities throughout history. The Jews and the Romanies, both scattered peoples, have been similarly misunderstood and persecuted for centuries on racial grounds. Both communities down the ages have been ostracized out of superstition and fear. And both communities, who share this long history of discrimination, were also victimized by the Nazis for reasons of race. As the U.S. political scientist and historian, Raul Hilberg put it: “they (the Romanies) were gassed in the same gas chambers as the Jews.” Whilst the treatment of the Roma at the hands of the Nazis was not exactly the same as that of the Jews, and the tragic stories of the two communities differ in certain details, the parallels are, in my view, far more striking than the differences.

Nonetheless, there are some historians who still maintain that the Nazi persecution of the Romani community had little in common with the wartime persecution of the Jews. They argue, on the basis of discriminatory stereotypes, that the Roma and Sinti were disdained by the Nazis because of their ‘asocial’ nature. The Nazis categorised them as thieves, criminals and child-stealers. And yet many Sinti in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s felt very much assimilated into German society, in just the same way as did the Jews. The Sinti often worked as musicians and entertainers. They were employed in the civil service and in the post office. They lived in apartments and houses, paid taxes, participated in society and their children attended school. Many Sinti men had fought for Germany in the First World War and had decorations to show for it. Many Roma, whilst still living in vardos, their horse drawn caravans, and living a more nomadic lifestyle than the Sinti, nonetheless made a lawful living as entertainers and showmen, musicians, coppersmiths, blacksmiths and the like.

The unfair and unwarranted categorization of the Romani community as an ‘asocial’ element in society, ‘the lowest of the low,’ was conveniently used as a defence by the Nazis for their appalling treatment of this community both before and during WWII.  Asoziale was exactly how the Roma and Sinti were categorized in the concentration camps and death camps to which they were consigned – Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. Here they were forced to wear black triangles on their clothing to mark them out as asoziale, before being worked to death or, in the case of the elderly and sick, gassed on arrival. Indeed, the German courts used this very same argument after the war to deny reparations to Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. Against a wealth of evidence to the contrary, the German courts concluded that they had not been persecuted on racial grounds but because of their criminal nature and their determination to live outside society.  And on this basis they were disqualified from receiving any compensation for their sufferings. And perhaps this attitude, following the same logic, explains how so many of the so-called ’racial scientists’ who conducted experiments on members of the Romani community during the 1930s and 1940s evaded all censure during post war judicial proceedings and managed to secure high profile scientific jobs in well-respected institutions after 1945.

Whilst it is true that the Nazi policies towards the Romani community were often erratic and inconsistent before 1942, leading to such inconsistent anomalies as the Zigeunerlager – the Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. where the prisoners lived in families and were allowed to keep their own clothes – a clear declaration by German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, in 1982 recognised that the Romani community had been a target for Hitler’s plan for racial purity, thus indicating a long-awaited and refreshing change in attitude: “The Nazi dictatorship inflicted a grave injustice on the Sinti and Roma,” he acknowledged. “They were persecuted for reasons of race. These crimes constituted an act of genocide.”  The only surprise is that it took so long for this obvious fact to be recognized.

In October 2012, the long awaited memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazi Holocaust was opened in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Speaking just before the opening ceremony, she delivered a very moving tribute to the victims. “Every single fate in this genocide,” she said, “is a suffering beyond understanding. Every single fate fills me with sorrow and shame. It is not only the responsibility of educational institutions…but it is the responsibility of each and every one of us, because in indifference, in a culture of ‘it’s not my business’ is where the seed of contempt for human values starts growing.”

However, despite Helmut Schmidt’s belated recognition of the racial nature of the persecution of the Roma and Sinti, and the welcome opening of the beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten, today the Romani community remains one of the most disliked and least tolerated minorities in Europe. And alarmingly, anti-Romani hostility is on the increase, aggravated by growing far-right extremism which has further deepened with the current economic crisis. The Roma are still scapegoats, frequently victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks, facing marginalization and discrimination in nearly every country where they live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Roma avoid assimilation into the society of the host nation, a legacy, perhaps, of centuries of persecution. And yet because of their isolation, many Roma children do not attend school. Families often lack access to stable jobs, affordable housing, social services and health care. As a result, poverty, disease, substance abuse and crime afflict many Roma communities.

Whilst researching my book, A Berlin Love Song, I read widely about Romani culture, history and customs. I read collections of Romani folk tales and listened with delight and a certain obsession to their wonderful music. The Romani people are often celebrated for their musical heritage, which has influenced jazz, bolero and flamenco music as well as classical composers including Franz Liszt. And although it is important not to join the 19th century bandwagon of romanticizing the community as a merry troupe of colourful free-spirited wanderers, itself as much of a stereotype as the discriminatory one that categorizes them as criminals and thieves, I have found their culture and customs to be endlessly rich and fascinating. Historically, theirs has been predominantly an oral tradition, but nonetheless vibrant and multi-faceted for all that.

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Members of the Romani Community in Auschwitz

Members of the Romani Community in Auschwitz

People sometimes say to me when asking me about my writing, “Why dwell on the past? Isn’t it depressing to write about things like the Holocaust?  These things happened a long time ago. Isn’t it time to move on?” My answer is simple. We live in a dangerous world, where persecution and hatred of people of different creeds and cultures is still fuelled by ignorance, fear, selfishness and lack of respect for human values. Now more than ever we must keep these memories alive. This is not to ‘dwell on the past’, but to remember for the future, especially since so few survivors who experienced these tragic events are now still living. I would like to think that, through my fiction, based firmly on the historical research that I have done, I have played some small part in trying to ensure that the fate that befell the persecuted minorities of Europe under the Nazi regime will never happen to human beings again.

Note on the use of the word gypsy.

Whilst the word gypsy is not always meant offensively, the Romani community naturally regard it as such since it has so often been used derogatively as a term of abuse. The word gypsy has been thought by some scholars to derive from the word Egyptian, and therefore represents a misunderstanding of the origins of the Romani people, who migrated from northwest India many hundreds of years ago, and whose language, Romani or Romanes is closely related to Hindi.

In my writing I have used the term Romani people/Romani community to describe this ethnic group with their own distinctive language and rich culture. Some people use the word Roma instead of Romani, preferring to use the word Romani to describe the language, whilst others use the terms Roma and Sinti, to differentiate between two separate branches of the same ethnic group.  I have used the above terms interchangeably but avoided, wherever possible, using the potentially offensive term gypsy.