What Jews call the Holocaust, the Roma (also known as gypsies) call Porrajmos, their “devouring.” Between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma were murdered by Nazi Germany and its sympathizers during World War II. Despite the enormity of these numbers, the Roma experience during the Holocaust is not widely known, even among the Roma themselves.
In the early 1900s, when other minorities—including Jews—were gaining religious and social freedoms, punitive laws aimed at Roma were still being implemented throughout Europe. In 1912, French Roma were required to carry identification cards with fingerprints and a photograph. In some cities in Weimar Germany, they were forbidden from entering public swimming pools, parks and other places of recreation. Throughout Europe, Roma were depicted as criminals, spies and practitioners of black magic. These stereotypes were so widespread that when the Nazis took control, there was no need to convince the local populace of the “Roma menace”—they already believed it.
As early as 1936, Nazis started relocating Roma to internment camps, expelling them from trade unions and performing pseudo-scientific genetic evaluations to place Roma in racial typologies. Although the Nazis first believed that the Roma were fellow Aryans because of their Indian roots, they quickly qualified that decision, declaring that 90 percent of Roma were not pure-blood Aryans but rather mixed race and therefore carriers of degenerate blood and criminal tendencies. In the Nuremberg Laws, Roma—like Jews—were declared “enemies of the race-based state.” This logic of racial inferiority was used to justify increasingly inhumane treatment of Roma, including mass sterilization and murder.
The Nazi government was divided over how to solve the “gypsy question.” In September 1939, attempts to deport 30,000 German and Austrian Roma to occupied areas of Poland were blocked when the area’s governor general refused to accept a large Roma influx. Heinrich Himmler lobbied to save a handful of pure-blooded Roma as curiosities for his imagined “ethnic reservation,” but faced opposition from Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, who thought all Roma should be deported.
Internal vacillation continued until December 1942, when Himmler sealed the fates of German and Austrian Roma, signing orders to send them to Auschwitz. Roma who arrived at the camp already sick with typhus and other illnesses were killed almost immediately. Roma—especially twins—were singled out by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele for horrific experiments. Despite their treatment, the Roma remained defiant. When, in May 1944, SS guards attempted to liquidate “gypsy family camps” in Auschwitz, they met with unexpected resistance—the Roma fought back with crude weapons—and retreated. A few months later, however, the SS returned and succeeded in gassing the remaining prisoners. Twenty thousand Roma were killed in Auschwitz.
The fate of the Roma elsewhere in Europe varied greatly from region to region. In France, between 3,000 and 6,000 Roma were rounded up by Vichy authorities and deported to Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and other camps. Roma living in the Soviet Union and in the Baltic States were targeted alongside Jews and communists by the Einsatzgruppen, the traveling killing squads. In Latvia and other areas, the Germans tried to recruit local Roma into the army, only to seek them out later and deport them. The Roma were murdered by local militias in nominally independent Slovakia. In the Netherlands, only those Roma considered “wandering Gypsies” were detained, allowing many others to escape death.
The Roma do not speak often of the Porrajmos. Some, like Professor Ian Hancock, Director of the Program of Romani Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who is Roma, attribute this to the fact that the Roma “are traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others.” A lack of Roma language books coupled with high Roma illiteracy rates and a dearth of Roma institutions have also hampered efforts to record their tragedy.
It is not only Roma tradition, however, that has kept their “devouring” from being better known around the world. European governments long denied their role in the Roma genocide. Through the 1960s, West German authorities insisted Roma were imprisoned because of their “asocial characteristics” and not racial discrimination. In Eastern Europe, the Communist governments were silent on the subject, and even since the fall of the Iron Curtain, officials have been slow to recognize the suffering of the Roma during the war, despite pressure from international organizations.
There has, however, been some progress. Beginning in the 1970s, some Roma began to push for greater attention to be paid to their Holocaust experience. Roma in West Germany were particularly influenced by the 1978 American mini-series, Holocaust, which fueled a new willingness to discuss their experiences. But even today there are few public memorials to the Roma World War II experience. The first memorial commemorating Roma Holocaust victims in Germany—designed by Israeli sculptor and Israel Prize winner Dani Karavan—is scheduled to be inaugurated in Berlin this year.