By: Andrea Corkal
To understand the persecution of the Romani people during World War II, it's important to learn a bit about the cultureand origins of the Roma people. They first arrived in Europe in the early 15th century, originating from the northern Indian subcontinent, from the Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of modern-day India. They are often known as"gypsies," which in recent years has begun to be recognized as a pejorative, as it is linked to ideas of illegality and irregularity. Romani scholar Ian Hancock, a Romani raised in Great Britain, says the term falsely implies that Roma are not a race -- that they are simply a group choosing a lifestyle.
When they initially migrated, they did so after receiving certificates from Christian rulers, posing as religious pilgrims. This was a means to obtain stable status upon arrival in German-speaking areas. Attitudes towards them shifted near the middle of the 15th century. In 1449, they were expelled from Frankfurt, and in other places were bribed into exile. They were enslaved in Hungary and Romania by nobles who needed laborers on their estates. From 1497 through 1774, the Holy Roman empire issued roughly 146 proclamations against the removal of Roma from German lands. They were denied access to the land and not permitted within the Empire, as they were considered spies of the Turks and enemies of Christianity. The law permitted Imperial subjects to harm or even kill Roma with no legal repercussions.
In 18th century Prussia, the absolutist regime increased prejudice and severity of punishments towards the Roma people because of their nomadic lifestyle. Under the law, the Roma people were subjected to violence and some death sentences without trial or due process. Roma children needed to be "corrected" and were sent to Christian educational institutions to limit the "influence" of their parents.
Before Germany became stronger and well-integrated, the Roma were able to slip from state principality to another to escape unjust treatment. This came to be increasingly difficult entering the second half of the 18th century. During thistime, (the start of the Enlightenment Era), Roma were ordered to enlist in the army and forced to settle in permanent locations. More emphasis was put on educational means to "fix" the Roma, eradicating their ethnic uniqueness and assimilating them.
The main problem with integrating the Roma population was community opposition. This stemmed from prejudice andfear that the Roma would become needy and a burden on communities that were already poor. The government did not invest money into Roma communities and their children did not find regular means of work past their studies and thus followed traditional occupations of their ancestors. Public attitude towards the Roma became progressively racist.
Beginning in the 20th century, Roma were stigmatized and criminalized. By the end of the 1920s, fingerprints were taken from all Roma 16 and up in attempts to improve registration and monitoring of the Roma to solve the "Gypsy Problem".
Adolf Hitler and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, disliked the Roma on German territory based on ancient stereotypes. Nazis expelled them from their homes, placed legal restrictions on the Roma, includingthe law banning marriage between Aryans and ‘lesser races’. Children of mixed marriages were marked completely Roma, and in some ways were seen as more a problem than those considered pure Roma.
In 1938, more than 2,000 Roma were imprisoned throughout Germany and Austria. Many were relocated to concentration camps. By the end of 1938 the Police Department enacted regulations for "The Fight Against the GypsyNuisance,” signed by Himmler. This stated that the Roma would be subject to a special policy of persecution.
In 1939, the Reich Main Security Office decided that all Roma who were caught would be transferred to special concentration camps where they would be ultimately exterminated. In May 1940, 2,330 German Roma were transferred to the General-Government, and by the fall of 1940 another 500. 80% of those transferred were killed.
In the fall of 1941, 5,000 Roma were sent from the Burgenland region. Hundreds died of hunger, typhus and other diseases. Those who did not die of disease were gassed to death at Chelmno (camp in Poland) or other camps. In addition, from 1940 to 1942, thousands of Roma were massacred at gunpoint. In December of 1942, Roma persecution and execution were highly organized as Roma from all over Europe were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Orders to transfer Roma to concentration camps included small children, and many whole families were sent to the camp and held in the families section. The purpose was clear: “cleansing” towns throughout Europe of any Roma.
Beginning in the spring of 1944, a large new wave of Jews was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in order to make space for them in the camp, the 3,000 inmates of the Roma camp in Birkenau were exterminated. In total, more than 19,300 of the 22,600 Roma who were in Auschwitz and Birkenau were murdered. More than 5,600 Roma were gassed to death and over 13,600 died of hunger and disease. Many survivors of the concentration campswere forced, in the last weeks of the war, to join the German war effort by being sent to the front lines and compelled to fight the Red Army. In addition to the Birkenau exterminations, a forced sterilization program was enacted in Germany in 1943-1944 in order to halt the “contamination” of the Roma race. More than 2,000 Roma were forcibly sterilized.
The accepted estimate is that during the course of World War II, some 150,000 Roma were murdered by the Nazi regime. However, because the Roma were dispersed and lacked strong community organization, it is very difficult to estimate accurately. According to some researchers, the numbers are much higher, and some estimates are as high as one million murdered. Estimates of Romani deaths in the Holocaust range from 25% to 70% of the Roma population in Europe.Germany only formally recognized the genocide of the Roma in 1985 and held two official ceremonies to commemorate the genocide. This came only after 40 long years of disagreements, and political and legal red tape on the matter of recognizing the genocide.Even after the recognition of the genocide, public opinion in Germany remains unfavorable towards Roma. Today, there are between 5 and 11 million Roma, scattered throughout the world but with the most significant concentrations in Europe – particularly in the Balkans, Spain, France, and Turkey.
Even today, the Roma suffer from high levels of discrimination and racism. One in three Roma in Europe are unemployed and 90% live below the poverty line, as reported by the EU Agency for Fundamental Human Rights. Many European governments actively discriminate against Roma. The French government, ignoring court rulings, evict Roma people from their settlements with inadequate provisions for other housing. In Slovakia, Romani children are often segregated and offered lower standards of education. This occurs in Greece as well, where non-Roma parents in 2005 blockaded an elementary school to demonstrate against access for Roma children. Even today, the Roma people are vulnerable to systemic injustice and lack opportunities for secure housing, employment and proper education.
“Romani Genocide.” Combat Genocide Association,combatgenocide.org/?page_id=81.
Simpson, David. “The Roma: A Thousand Years of Discrimination Continues, Advocates Say.”CNN, Cable News Network, 25 Oct. 2013,www.cnn.com/2013/10/21/world/europe/roma-discrimination/index.html.