Between 1940-1944, the Roma were subjected to horrific conditions in concentration camps, with documented deaths due to lack of adequate food, sanitation, shelter and medication, especially in camps at Lodz, Chelmno, Marzhan, Lackenbach and Salzburg.
During the Holocaust, approximately half a million Roma children, women and men were massacred by the Nazis and their allies in sites across Europe. These lesser-known victims of the Holocaust are now remembered on August 2, after years of campaigning by Romani activists asking for recognition of the atrocities suffered by the Roma. On April 8, 2015, the European Parliament declared the date of August 2 as the annual “European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day” to commemorate the Roma who perished during the pogroms.
Even before the pogroms, also called Porajmos or “destruction” in some dialects of Romani language, the Roma, the Sinti and other Romani tribes had faced persecution, discrimination and stigamitisation, all of which became manifold when Hitler assumed power in Nazi Germany. Hitler’s ascent to leadership increased the hateful rhetoric against an already marginalised people and the Nazis began singling out the Roma on purported racial grounds for further segregation and deemed them to be “racially inferior”.
Why did the Nazis persecute the Roma?
According to archives at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, at the root of it, Nazi ideology viewed the Roma as racially and socially inferior people who need to be “eradicated from the German nation.” But Nazi policy drew a distinction between non-nomadic and nomadic Roma, where the worst sufferers of this persecution were nomadic Romani. In his journal ‘Correspondence: Gypsies and the Holocaust’, historian Yehuda Bauer wrote that the “SS defined the Gypsies in Germany as an hereditary asocial element, and as a racial mix between the original Aryan Gypsies and low-grade Germans. They could not very well deny the Gypsies their Aryan ancestry, but they argued that the Gypsy blood had become diluted.”
Nazi authorities forced the Roma into sites for hard labour, mass murder and imprisonment and murdered thousands of Roma during the Holocaust. Archives at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum state that the Roma were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, and were incarcarated at Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück concentration camps. According to Yad Vashem archives, approximately 25,000 Roma were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone during the Second World War. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum believes that 25 per cent of Europe’s Roma population was wiped out by Nazis.
What did the Nazis do to the Roma?
Between 1940-1944, the Roma were subjected to horrific conditions in concentration camps, with documented deaths due to lack of adequate food, sanitation, shelter and medication, especially in camps at Lodz, Chelmno, Marzhan, Lackenbach and Salzburg— the latter three having had subjected the Roma to particularly horrifying conditions.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Roma were segregated with their families in a compound called the “Gypsy family camp” where SS medical “researchers” under the supervision of Josef Mengele, subjected the families to severe torture and conducted “experiments” on the imprisoned Roma, including children, particularly on twins, people with dwarfism and women whom they forcefully sterilized.
After the Second World War ended in Europe, the persecution against the Roma persisted throughout the continent. After its founding in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany acknowledged the Holocaust and awarded compensations to the Jewish victims but denied recognition to persecution that the Roma had faced. Many former Nazi officials quietly integrated into public life and denied that the Roma had been subjected to racial discrimination, segregation and atrocities.
What happened to the Roma after the end of the Second World War?
In 1979, the Roma victims of the Holocaust received some acknowledgement after the West German Federal Parliament accepted that the persecution of Roma under the Nazis was racially motivated and created eligibility for the Roma to apply for compensation for the persecution and loss that they had been subjected to. However, by then, many Roma survivors had died.
After the end of the war, there was little documentation of the testimonies of Roma who survived the concentration camps. Over the years, evidence of the atrocities perpetrated upon the Roma was found in deportation papers, intake and transfer lists, arrest records, court proceedings etc. Today, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Shoah Foundation and Mémorial de la Shoah are among the few institutions that have documented some oral testimonies of survivors. These oral testimonies have provided individual and collective memories of Romani communities in Europe, but barely scratch the surface of the scale at which the Roma were persecuted.
How is the Roma Holocaust Memorial Day being commemorated today?
The European Commission along with the Auschwitz Memorial and Roma rights advocacy groups gathered at the Auschwitz Memorial to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the killings of the last Roma families imprisoned in Auschwitz by SS guards. Google Arts & Culture’s collection on the Roma in Auschwitz has an online archive on photographs and documents that provide an insight into the persecution of the Roma & the Sinti by the Nazis. On Twitter, the hashtag #2August has been trending to share images from commemoration services across Europe and raise awareness of the history of the Roma.
What are the challenges that the Roma presently face in Europe?
Today, the approximately 10-20 million Roma in Europe continue to face racial discrimination, prejudice, harassment and social exclusion, according to figures by the European Union. In 2011, the EU developed a framework for National Roma Integration Strategies till the year 2020 to close gaps that allow for continued economic and social marginalization of the Roma, whom the EU terms “Europe’s largest minority”. But continued persecution and anti-Roma racism make a “grim mockery” of the EU’s framework, said Bernard Rorke, an advocacy officer at the European Roma Rights Centre, a Roma-led international public interest law organisation headquartered in Budapest, in an interview with The Indian Express.
“This violence does not occur in a vacuum. Too often, anti-Roma hate speech from politicians and media has been understood by violent racists as a call for action,” said Rorke. Europe has witnessed anti-Roma speech by local and national politicians that in turn encourage premeditated attacks on Roma homes. These attacks “often occur where local and national politicians speak openly of the need to deal with “gypsies,” and appear to condone violent excesses as “understandable,” explained Rorke.
The challenges faced by the Roma isn’t only limited to being subjected to racism, harassment and violence. Many Romani face social exclusion, lack of access to education, justice and healthcare and live in poverty. “Europe’s shame is that 75 years after the Holocaust, that in addition to poverty and exclusion, so many Romani citizens live lives of dread and fear. The challenge for those elected to govern is to banish that fear, guarantee the safety and security of all Romani citizens and ensure that the rule of law prevails without prejudice across all of Europe,” said Rorke.