[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]

Roma (Gypsies) and
the Holocaust

By Mary Pottanat and Nadia Khan

(I*EARN's Holocaust/Genocide Project wishes to thank the Education Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for their assistance.)

[ Gypsy Couple ]
Gypsy Couple at Belzec Camp
(Jerry Ficowski, Courtesy of USHMM)

The Romani, more commonly known as Gypsies, have been viewed as outsiders since shortly after their arrival in Europe. They have no homeland, but maintain strong traditions and strong barriers between themselves and the gadje (pronounced: gad jay), non-Romanis. The name "Gypsy" comes from Egyptian, but Gypsies are thought to have origins in northwestern India as evidenced by their language which is similar to the Sanskrit of India.

For many thousands of years, the Gypsies were a vagabond people, living in horse-drawn caravans, telling fortunes with tarot cards, tinkering with violins and panning for gold in the rivers. They were usually thought of as shrewd and tricky group who often indulged in petty thievery.

This thievery contributed to a large extent to the many prejudices against the Romani. As a result, Gypsies have been targets for a variety of persecutions. This has ranged from enslavement in Rumania until 1864, to attempted annihilation by the Nazis.

In Germany, by 1926, Gypsies had begun to be placed under severe limitations of their actions and liberties.

A Bavarian law called for the registration of all Gypsies in order to prohibit them from roaming about or camping in bands. The law also noted that they could be sent to labor camps for up to two years if they could not "prove regular employment." As Hitler rose to power, the Gypsies, like the Jews, were officially identified as non-Aryan by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Following this law, in 1936, an office was set up in Munich to specifically "combat the Gypsy nuisance." Prior to the summer Olympics of that year, police, under orders from this office, were authorized to gather Gypsies so that they would not discredit Berlin's image. At this point, the Romani were considered to be asocial and second-class citizens, regardless of whether they had been charged with any unlawful acts. Gypsy children were no longer allowed to attend school.

Two hundred Gypsy men were then selected by quota and imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp. In 1939, the Romani were no longer permitted to travel freely and were forced into encampments which were later transformed into fenced ghettos. Those not placed in concentration camps were expelled from Germany in 1940 to the territories of occupied Poland.

From the ghettos, many Gypsies were transported by rail to face the horrors of Auschwitz or were transported by caravan to Zigeunerlager (Ziguener is the German word for Gypsy from the Greek root meaning "untouchable.") This camp was especially for the Gypsies. There, as in other camps, disease flourished as a result of crowded, unsanitary conditions, and malnourishment.

[ Gypsy Prisoners ]
Gypsy Prisoners at Belzec
(Archives of Mechanical
Documentation, USHMM)

In the camps, Gypsies were forced to wear black triangular patches which classified them as "asocial," or green triangles which identified them as professional criminals. They were subjected to medical experiments before they were exterminated. At Sachsenhausen, they were subjected to special experiments that were supposed to prove scientifically that their blood was different from German blood.

The Romani were often accused of atrocities committed by others; they were blamed for the looting of gold teeth from a hundred dead Jews abandoned on a Rumanian road. Some were murdered in the Soviet Union on the pretext that Gypsies were spies. Nazi physicians made Gypsy women their guinea pigs. Many were sterilized because they were thought to be "unworthy of human reproduction," and were later exterminated. Romani who were married to Germans were not sent to camps at first, but were instead sterilized, as their children were to be after the age of twelve.

Later, many of these individuals also became victims of the Holocaust. The Romani were not only in danger in Germany, but also faced peril in all other parts of Europe. Vichy France deported 30,000 Gypsies to Nazi concentration camps. The Croatian Ustasha movement killed tens of thousands of Gypsies, and Romanians deported thousands of Romani to Transnistria (Ukraine) where many died of hunger and disease. There are no exact statistics on the number of European Gypsies exterminated during the Holocaust. Estimates place the number as high as between 500,000 and 600,000 people, with most of the deaths occurring at Auschwitz. The devastation brought by the Holocaust was not the end of Gypsy problems.

In 1952, a broad program to force the Gypsies to settle went into effect in Poland. It was known as the Great Halt and was not fully achieved to the seventies. Similar policies were adopted in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania in an effort to force assimilation upon the Romani peoples who, in fact, did not want to settle into another culture, but rather wanted to continue their own culture.

Even today, Gypsies are trying to gain a voice in the United Nations, under the title of "Gypsy."

Sadly, anti-Romani attitudes can still be seen today. Today there are approximately five million Gypsies in the world, with an estimated 22,000 living in North America, mostly in the United States. Gypsies also make up a large percentage of the population in many East Central European nations, but they still face many prejudices. The U.S. has even been a culprit of carrying out anti-Romani attitudes; portrayals of Gypsies in movies and in the media are often times negative. Additionally, the media tend to focus on the criminal activities of the Romani.

As late as 1989, atrocities against Gypsies were reported. These reports of increased discrimination against and persecution of the Gypsies were noted following the collapse of Communist rule in Russia. Many of these tragic prejudices can be combated through education. Recently, this effort is being undertaken by a variety of organizations focused on Gypsy rights. Fortunately, they have gained acknowledgment during several major conferences and have been included in United Nations human rights documentation. Hopefully, the Gypsies will escape further persecution through knowledge and understanding of their culture and sad history.

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