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Central Europe: Auschwitz Ceremony Marks 60th Anniversary Of Romany Holocaust

Roma from around Europe were expected to gather today at the site of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark the 60th anniversary of what is often called the "hidden Holocaust."

Prague, 2 August 2004 -- Porrajmos -- or "the Devouring" -- is the Roma word for holocaust.

And no date invokes it more vividly than today.

"On the night from the 2nd of August to the 3rd of August in 1944, in Auschwitz, the prisoners of the so-called 'Gypsy Camp' [were] taken to the gas chamber -- around 3,000 Roma prisoners," Roma historian Petr Lhotka told RFE/RL. "It was the [last] of the prisoners, because the other prisoners died before this date, or were deported to other concentration camps in Germany."

Lhotka, of the Museum of Romany Culture in the Czech city of Brno, said that between 1939-1944, some 22,000 Roma -- mostly from Germany, Austria, and the Czech territories -- died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland.
One historian said his own study of Nazi documents shows they specifically targeted assimilated Roma.

It was the greatest concentration of Roma deaths during the Holocaust. But Lhotka said the vast majority of Roma were not deported to Nazi death camps. Rather, they were simply shot at the edge of villages in countries invaded by the Nazis, or dumped in mass graves -- often by local themselves.

"Especially in the region of Russia. And some other Roma were the victims of states which cooperated with Nazi Germany. For example, in Croatia, practically all the Roma people who lived there were killed by the Ustashi regime there," Lhotka said.

The total number of Roma who died in the Holocaust is unclear. Lhotka said Romany victims numbered close to 300,000, although some estimates go as high as 500,000.

There has been some debate among scholars about whether the Roma were actually part of Hitler's Final Solution, the plan whose principle aim was to exterminate the Jews.

Historian Guenther Lewy, the author of "The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies," has argued that genocide may not have been Hitler's final aim, as certain Roma classes were exempted, such as those married to Germans or integrated into society.

But Lhotka said his own study of Nazi documents shows they actually targeted specifically those assimilated Roma, who were considered more dangerous because they could more easily "pollute" Aryan bloodlines.

Regardless, the Roma Holocaust continues to win wider recognition in Europe. This comes after years of being largely ignored, and despite ongoing discrimination against Europe's 8.5 million Roma -- many of whom are now full European Union citizens following the bloc's recent enlargement.

In May, then-German President Johannes Rau praised a group of 6,000 Romany prisoners at Auschwitz for staging a heroic, if unsuccessful, revolt after their captors sought to lead them to the gas chambers. Rau said at a ceremony in Berlin that the prisoners had stood up to barbarism during "Germany's darkest hour" and should be better remembered for their heroism.

The organizer of today's ceremony at Auschwitz, Roman Kwiatkowski, said the event aims to shine a light on Roma history and issues. He said organizers were hoping an array of government officials and cultural luminaries would attend, including Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

"There will be scientists, artists, many professors, many Romany and non-Romany performers, there will be many presidents, governors, deputies, and senators," Kwiatkowski said. "There will be people from the universities and from many other places. It is very important that Jewish representatives will be there too. There will be rabbis -- the chief Polish rabbi will be present -- and other Jewish organizations from Poland and other countries will take part as well."

But regardless of all the attention, historian Lhotka cautioned that anti-Roma attitudes will be hard to change in Europe.

He takes an example from his own Czech Republic. Lhotka said a former concentration camp at the Bohemian town of Lety -- where several hundred Roma are believed to have perished at the hands of Czech, not German, guards -- continues to be used as a pig farm despite the pleas of Roma and other activists that it be turned into a permanent memorial.

Lhotka said he understands the farm provides a few needed jobs, and that the Czech government apparently doesn't have the funds to buy it to serve as a memorial. But Lhotka said a better solution should still be found for what remains a disgrace.

"There is still a pig farm and in the other place, which was the same [kind] of camp [as] Lety -- in Hodonin, in Moravia -- there is still some swimming pool and pub," Lhotka said. "I think it is a shame and it is impossible to have this farm there. But I don't see the solution for this situation."