Gypsies and the Holocaust

The Story of Some of the Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust

Three Gypsies pose in front of a horse-drawn caravan.
Three Gypsies pose in front of a horse-drawn caravan. (Photo courtesy USHMM)

The Gypsies of Europe were registered, sterilized, ghettoized, and then deported to concentration and death camps by the Nazis. Approximately 250,000 to 500,000 Gypsies were murdered during the Holocaust - an event they call the Porajmos (the "Devouring").

A Short History

Approximately a thousand years ago, several groups of people migrated from northern India, dispersing throughout Europe over the next several centuries.

Though these people were part of several tribes (the largest of which are the Sinti and Roma), the settled peoples called them by a collective name, "Gypsies" -- which stems from the one time belief that they had come from Egypt.

Nomadic, dark-skinned, non-Christian, speaking a foreign language (Romani), not tied to the land - the Gypsies were very different from the settled peoples of Europe. Misunderstandings of Gypsy culture created suspicions and fears, which in turn led to rampant speculations, stereotypes, and biased stories. Unfortunately, too many of these stereotypes and stories are still readily believed today.

Throughout the following centuries, non-Gypsies (Gaje) continually tried to either assimilate the Gypsies or kill them. Attempts to assimilate the Gypsies involved stealing their children and placing them with other families; giving them cattle and feed, expecting them to become farmers; outlawing their customs, language, and clothing as well as forcing them to attend school and church.

Decrees, laws, and mandates often allowed the killing of Gypsies. For instance, in 1725 King Frederick William I of Prussia ordered all Gypsies over 18 years of age to be hanged. A practice of "Gypsy hunting" was quite common - a game hunt very similar to fox hunting. Even as late as 1835, there was a Gypsy hunt in Jutland (Denmark) that "brought in a bag of over 260 men, women and children."1

Though the Gypsies had undergone centuries of such persecution, it remained relatively random and sporadic until the twentieth century when the negative stereotypes became intrinsically molded into a racial identity, and the Gypsies were systematically slaughtered.

The Gypsies Under the Third Reich

The persecution of Gypsies began in the very beginning of the Third Reich - Gypsies were arrested and interned in concentration camps as well as sterilized under the July 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Yet, in the beginning, Gypsies were not specifically named as a group that threatened the Aryan, German people. This was because under Nazi racial ideology, Gypsies were Aryans.

Thus, the Nazis had a problem: how could they persecute a group enveloped in negative stereotypes but supposedly part of the Aryan, super race?

After much thinking, Nazi racial researchers found a "scientific" reason to persecute at least most of the Gypsies. They found their answer in Professor Hans F. K. Günther's book Rassenkunde Europas ("Anthropology of Europe") where he wrote:

The Gypsies have indeed retained some elements from their Nordic home, but they are descended from the lowest classes of the population in that region. In the course of their migrations, they have absorbed the blood of the surrounding peoples, and have thus become an Oriental, western-Asiatic racial mixture, with an addition of Indian, mid-Asiatic, and European strains. Their nomadic mode of living is a result of this mixture. The Gypsies will generally affect Europe as aliens.2

With this belief, the Nazis needed to determine who was "pure" Gypsy and who was "mixed." Thus, in 1936, the Nazis established the Racial Hygiene and Population Biology Research Unit, with Dr. Robert Ritter at its head, to study the Gypsy problem and to make recommendations for Nazi policy.

As with the Jews, the Nazis needed to determine who was to be considered a "Gypsy." Dr. Ritter decided that someone could be considered a Gypsy if they had "one or two Gypsies among his grandparents" or if "two or more of his grandparents are part-Gypsies."3 Kenrick and Puxon personally blame Dr. Ritter for the additional 18,000 German Gypsies that were killed because of this more inclusive designation, rather than if the same rules had been followed as were applied to Jews.4

To study Gypsies, Dr. Ritter, his assistant Eva Justin, and his research team visited the Gypsy concentration camps (Zigeunerlagers) and examined thousands of Gypsies - documenting, registering, interviewing, photographing, and finally categorizing them.

It was from this research that Dr. Ritter formulated that 90% of Gypsies were of mixed blood, thus dangerous.

Having established a "scientific" reason to persecute 90% of the Gypsies, the Nazis needed to decide what to do with the other 10% - the ones that were nomadic and appeared to have the least number of "Aryan" qualities. At times Himmler discussed letting the "pure" Gypsies roam relatively freely and also suggested a special reservation for them. Assumably as part of one of these possibilities, nine Gypsy representatives were selected in October 1942 and told to create lists of Sinti and Lalleri to be saved.

There must have been confusion within the Nazi leadership, for it seems that many wanted all Gypsies killed, with no exceptions, even if they were categorized as Aryan.

On December 3, 1942, Martin Bormann wrote in a letter to Himmler:

. . . special treatment would mean a fundamental deviation from the simultaneous measures for fighting the Gypsy menace and would not be understood at all by the population and lower leaders of the party. Also the Führer would not agree to giving one section of the Gypsies their old freedom.5

Though the Nazis did not discover a "scientific" reason to kill the ten percent of Gypsies categorized as "pure," there were no distinctions made when Gypsies were ordered to Auschwitz or deported to the other death camps.

By the end of the war, it is estimated that 250,000 to 500,000 Gypsies were murdered in the Porajmos - killing approximately three-fourths of the German Gypsies and half of the Austrian Gypsies.

So much happened to the Gypsies during the Third Reich, I created a timeline to help outline the process from "Aryan" to annihilation.


1. Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon, The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1972) 46.

2. Hans F. K. Günther as quoted in Philip Friedman, "The Extermination of the Gypsies: Nazi Genocide of an Aryan People." Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust, Ed. Ada June Friedman (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980) 382-383.

3. Robert Ritter as quoted in Kenrick, Destiny 67.

4. Kenrick, Destiny 68.

5. Kenrick, Destiny 89.