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Analysis: 60 Years After Central Europe's Romany Holocaust

  • Michael Shafir

Sixty years ago, on the night of 2-3 August 1944, the "Gypsy camp" at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liquidated after the last group of 2,897 Romany inmates there was gassed.

The "Gypsy camp" had been established in February 1943 as a separate section of the death factory in which 1.1 million Jews perished, according to the latest estimates. The "Gypsy camp" was originally intended to function as a "family camp" in which men, women, and children were interned together. Of the 23,000 Romany inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau, just 3,000 survived. Most died of hunger and disease, according to Franciszek Piper, a historian who heads the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. After Jews and Poles (some 70,000-75,000 victims), the Roma were the third most numerous national group exterminated by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The "Porrajmos," or Holocaust in Romany, remains under-researched to this day. As in the case of the Jewish victims, one is unlikely ever to be able to produce an exact figure of Roma killed in the Porrajmos. But while estimates of Jewish victims vary between 5.1 and 6.2 million, those of Romany victims fluctuate at far greater discrepancies, from 200,000 to as many as 1.5 million. As U.S.-based political scientist Zoltan Barany wrote in a book published in 2002, there are several reasons for these large discrepancies. First, many Romany victims were illiterate or semi-illiterate and thus few among them could "bear witness" after the ordeal. "Gypsy survivors," Barany wrote, "did not leave behind diaries, did not write memoirs, and did not subsequently research into the subject." This combined with the fact that written history has until recently been largely an alien concept in Romany culture. Second, reliable demographic data on the Roma and Sinti population of the pre-World War II period in Europe are hard to come by, the more so as many belonged to migrant populations. Futhermore, the "extermination of the Gypsies was far less meticulously documented by the Nazis and their collaborators than was the murder of the Jews," Barany wrote.
While estimates of Jewish victims vary between 5.1 and 6.2 million, those of Romany victims fluctuate at far greater discrepancies, from 200,000 to as many as 1.5 million.


There is, however, a fourth reason for the lack of sufficient research into the Porrajmos that Barany cautiously avoided mentioning. Some Jewish historians believe the Nazis did not intend to wipe out the Romany population as a whole, and that herein lies sufficient justification for not regarding the Romany and Sinti populations of Europe as part of the Nazi genocidal plan. However, while it is true that the Nazis "classified" the Roma into several categories, the classification was never really applied in practice. Many Sinti and Lalleri -- who were supposed to be spared the fate of the rest in being considered "Arian Gypsies" who had genetically not mixed with the descendants of "European criminals" in the course of history -- ended up in many cases being forcibly sterilized and/or deported to the death camps, just as the other Roma did. As British historian John Grenville has shown, SS-Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler -- who devised the distinctions in a decree published in December 1942 -- was particularly eager to rid Germany of its Romany population and the distinctions "were arbitrary and by no means always observed; few Gypsies would be left in 1945; their mass murder, like that of the Jews, extended to all of Europe under German domination."

According to Barany, there were "significant disparities" in the policies of the German-dominated satellites toward the Roma during World War II. The Croatian Ustasha "were hardly more merciful in their treatment of the Roma than their German sponsors," and as many as 26,000 Roma were killed or died in deportation in Croatia or Sardinia. In German-occupied Serbia, tens of thousands of Roma were sent to extermination camps and thousands died there. Hungary handled its Romany population much as it handled its Jews. Discriminatory legislation was enacted in the early 1940s, but it was only after the German occupation of that country in March 1944 and the ascension to power of the Ferenc Szalasi regime in October of that year that Roma were deported to concentration camps, where several thousand died. In Poland, the occupying German authorities killed between 20,000 and 35,000, by shooting or in concentration camps. As in their handling of the Jews, Bulgarian authorities defended "home Gypsies" from deportation; but in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace, Roma were rounded up and sent to their deaths. Radu Ioanid of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has estimated the number of dead among the 25,000 deported to Transnistria by the Antonescu regime at 19,000, while according to historian Viorel Achim, about half of those deported returned to Romania. In the Slovak "Parish Republic" of Monsignor Josef Tiso, there was plenty of discrimination but no extermination policy against the Roma. Still, Roma in Slovakia were placed in forced labor camps and, after the country's occupation by German forces in the wake of the 1944 Slovak National Uprising, some 1,000 Roma perished in pogroms and mass killings. Of the 6,000 Roma who lived in Czechoslovakia, 1/10th survived the Porrajmos. The authorities of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia interned 1,300 Roma in the Lety camp, 538 of whom were dispatched to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A total of 326, including 241 children, died in Lety. Scandalously, the site is today a commercial pig farm that Czech authorities have for years promised in vain to expel.

The Porrajmos has increasingly come to the attention of historians in recent years, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has directed much attention to this long-neglected chapter of the Holocaust. Whether this new focus might help eradicate the widespread anti-Roma prejudice from postcommunist East-Central Europe remains to be seen.
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