European Roma ("Gypsies") in the Holocaust

The Story of Some of the Forgotten Victims of the Nazis

Discarded clothing of people taken by the Nazis
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The Roma ("Gypsies") of Europe were registered, sterilized, ghettoized, and then deported to concentration and death camps by the Nazis before and during World War II. Approximately 250,000 to 500,000 Roma people were murdered during the Holocaust—an event they call the Porajmos (the "Devouring.")

A Brief History of the European Roma

Approximately 1,000 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 stemmed from the (false) belief that they had come from Egypt. This name carries negative connotations and is today considered an ethnic slur.

Nomadic, dark-skinned, non-Christian, speaking a foreign language (Romani), and not tied to the land, the Roma were very different from the settled peoples of Europe.

Misunderstandings of Roma culture created suspicions and fears, which in turn led to rampant speculation, stereotypes, and biased stories. Many of these stereotypes and stories are still readily believed.

Throughout the following centuries, non-Roma (Gaje) continually tried to either assimilate the Roma people or kill them. Attempts to assimilate Roma 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; and forcing them to attend school and church.

Decrees, laws, and mandates often allowed the killing of Roma people. In 1725, King Frederick William I of Prussia ordered all Romas over 18 years old to be hanged.

A practice of "Gypsy hunting" was common—a game hunt similar to fox hunting. Even as late as 1835, a "Gypsy hunt" in Jutland (Denmark) "brought in a bag of over 260 men, women, and children," writes Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon.

Though the Roma had undergone centuries of such persecution, it remained relatively random and sporadic until the 20th century when the negative stereotypes became intrinsically molded into a racial identity, and the Roma were systematically slaughtered.

Genocide of the Roma People in the Holocaust

The persecution of the Roma started at the very beginning of the Third Reich. Roma were arrested and interned in concentration camps as well as sterilized under the July 1933 law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.

In the beginning, Roma were not specifically named as a group that threatened the Aryan, German people. This was because, under Nazi racial ideology, Roma were Aryans.

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

Nazi racial researchers eventually came upon a so-called "scientific" reason to persecute most of the Roma. 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.

With this belief, the Nazis needed to determine who was "pure" Roma 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 Roma "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."

Kenrick and Puxon blame Dr. Ritter for the additional 18,000 German Roma who were killed because of this more inclusive designation, rather than if the same rules had been followed as were applied to Jews, who needed three or four Jewish grandparents to be considered Jews.

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

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

Having established a "scientific" reason to persecute 90% of the Roma, the Nazis needed to decide what to do with the other 10%—the ones who were nomadic and appeared to have the least number of "Aryan" qualities.

At times, Interior Minister Heinrich Himmler discussed letting the "pure" Roma roam relatively freely and also suggested a special reservation for them. Assumably as part of one of these possibilities, nine Roma representatives were selected in October 1942 and told to create lists of Sinti and Lalleri to be saved.

However, there must have been confusion within the Nazi leadership. Many wanted all Roma killed, with no exceptions. 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."

Though the Nazis did not discover a "scientific" reason to kill the 10% of Roma categorized as "pure," no distinctions made when Roma were ordered to Auschwitz or deported to the other death camps.

By the end of the war, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Roma were murdered in the Porajmos—killing approximately three-fourths of the German Roma and half of the Austrian Roma.

Sources

  • Friedman, Philip. "The Extermination of the Gypsies: Nazi Genocide of an Aryan People." Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust, Ed. Ada June Friedman. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980, New York.
  • Kenrick, Donald and Puxon, Grattan. "The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies." Basic Books, 1972, New York.