The Romani people have been equally romanticised as wandering free spirits and demonised as societal carbuncles who lie, cheat and steal. Their nomadic lifestyle can mean they are ethnically isolated and communally disconnected. As a people, they have been subjected to racism, persecution and slavery.
In many ways, the fate of Roma in 1930s Europe mirrored that of the Jewish population. Roma too were subject to a planned genocide, an attempt to exterminate a people who the Nazis referred to as enemies of the race based state. It is believed that over a quarter of the one million Roma living in Europe at that time were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
But persecution of the Romani population began long before the Nazis came to power. Prejudices were based on a number of factors, including scientific racism and Social Darwinism, which took the approach that races were not variations of a single species but were instead evidence of beings from distinctly different biological origins. This theory supported a racial hierarchy where certain minority groups were seen as inferior to other sections of society. Furthermore, rapid modernisation in Germany at the turn of the century also served to marginalise the Romani population and their traditional way of life as craftsmen and artisans.
In 1899, the Imperial Police Headquarters in Munich established the Information Services on Romani. The Security Police kept records, fingerprints, photographs, etc. and continuous surveillance on the Roma community. Roma in the Weimar Republic were prohibited from using public swimming pools, parks, and other recreational areas, and depicted throughout Germany and Europe as criminals and spies.
In 1926, the Law for the Fight Against Gypsies, Vagrants and the Work-shy was passed in Bavaria, stipulating that groups identifying as ‘Gypsies’ were not allowed to travel to the region. Those already living in the Bavaria were banned from roaming or camping in groups. Any who did not find regular employment risked being sent to forced labour camps. This model was adopted by other German states and neighbouring countries, thus the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Romani community was outlawed. Roma were labelled as criminals, alcoholics, prostitutes, beggars and vagabonds.
After Hitler’s rise to power, legislation against the Roma was increasingly based upon a rhetoric of racism. The Nazis established the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit (Rassenhygienische und Bevölkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle, Department L3 of the Reich Department of Health) in 1936, headed by Dr Robert Ritter and his assistant Eva Justin. Their mandate was to provide the required data to support a new Reich law against the Roma. The unit conducted interviews and invasive medical examinations in 1936 and concluded that the majority of Roma, (around 90%) who were not of ‘pure Gypsy blood,’ were a threat to German racial purity and as such should be deported or exterminated. Several suggestions were made regarding the fate of the remaining 10%, largely made up of people from the Sinti and Lalleri tribes living in Germany. Heinrich Himmler suggested moving them to a remote reservation, as the United States had done to Native Americans. According to him:
“The aim of measures taken by the State to defend the homogeneity of the German nation must be the physical separation of Gypsydom from the German nation, the prevention of miscegenation, and finally, the regulation of the way of life of pure and part-Gypsies. The necessary legal foundation can only be created through a Gypsy Law, which prevents further intermingling of blood, and which regulates all the most pressing questions which go together with the existences of Gypsies in the living space of the German nation.”
The Reich however never followed Himmler’s suggestion.
Instead, on November 26, 1935, the |Nuremberg race laws were expanded to also apply to the Roma, stripping them of their citizenship and forbidding marriage or extramarital intercourse with German people. Roma were transferred to municipal internment camps on the outskirts of cities before being sent to concentration camps. 23,000 Roma were sent to Auschwitz alone, where they were forced to wear a brown inverted triangle to distinguish them from other inmates, or the green triangle, which marked them out as professional criminals.
It is known that extensive medical research was carried out on the inmates of Auschwitz, and horrific surgical procedures such as amputations and injecting chemicals into the eyes were carried out. Auschwitz’s most notorious doctor, Josef Mengele seemed particularly interested in Romani children.
Vera Alexander was a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins:
“I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents—I remember the mother’s name was Stella—managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering.”
Initially there was disagreement within the Nazi circles about how to solve the so-called “Gypsy Question,” but in 1944, the decision was made to exterminate the entire Romani population. However, the Roma did attempt resistance, at Auschwitz arming themselves with iron pipes, shovels, and other tools used for labor. The SS chose not to confront the Roma directly and withdrew for several months. After transferring as many as 3,000 Roma who were capable of forced labor to Auschwitz I and other concentration camps, the SS moved against the remaining 2,898 inmates on August 2, killing almost all of the remaining inmates — most of whom were ill, elderly men, women, or children, in the gas chambers. At least 19,000 of the 23,000 Roma sent to Auschwitz died there.
It is not known how many Romani deaths there were altogether. Estimates range from 220,000 to 1,500,000.
The German government never paid war reparations to Romani survivors. West Germany recognised the genocide of the Roma in 1982, and since then the Porajmos has been increasingly recognised as a genocide committed simultaneously with the Jewish holocaust.
Emma Rose Millar is author of the award winning novel FIVE GUNS BLAZING. Her novella, THE WOMEN FRIENDS:SELINA, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s sensuous masterpiece, will be published in December 2016. For further information visit Emma’s author page on Amazon.