Margerite Kraus, a Czech Roma who survived Auschwitz (her camp number visible on her left forearm) and Ravensbrück. GDR, c1966.
Only a few more days remain to view an exhibition at the excellent Wiener library in London,
The site gives extensive links to press coverage. Note also relevant sections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including this page on music (Roma musicians also play a major role in my post on Musical cultures of east Europe).
In the history of the Holocaust, the Porajmos (“Devouring”, though among the Roma the term is controversial and little used), far less publicised than the Jewish genocide, is often reduced to a footnote.
The exhibition explores Roma and Sinti life in Germany and Austria prior to the Second World War, and genocidal policies starting in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It also examines the post-war lives and legacies for Roma and Sinti, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for their oppression. It reflects on the situation in Britain and Europe today, with prejudice and discrimination against them still common—featuring the testimony of Józef Sadowski, the only known Roma survivor of Nazi persecution living in the UK today.
A most compelling ethnography is
- Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing: the gypsies and their journey (1995); she reflects on the Porajmos in ch.7.
Gypsies have no myths about the beginnings of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations—that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest person among them. The rest, as it were, were not history. […]
The Second World War and its traumas are certainly within living memory; but there is no tradition of commemoration, or even of discussion. Some thought that such talk might actually be dangerous: “Why give them ideas?” a young Hungarian Rom asked, fifty years after the event. Under the Nazis, the Gypsies were the only group apart from the Jews who were slated for extermination on the grounds of race. It is a story that remains unknown—even to many Gypsies who survived it.
As Fonseca observes, whereas the Enlightenment brought European Jews opportunities for education and commerce previously closed to them, the Roma remained the “quintessential outsiders of the European imagination”, rejecting assimilation.
Belzec camp, 1940: left, perhaps Jozef Kwiek, self-proclaimed King of Polish gypsies; right, Kalderash gypsies from Romania.
Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, a law “Combatting Gypsies, vagabonds, and the work shy” was passed in Bavaria in 1926, with a counterpart in Prussia the following year. The plight of the Roma became ever more acute through the 1930s. The Nazis regarded gypsies as congenital criminals, subsuming them in a litany of “undesirables” or “asocials”—along with communists, social democrats, trade unionists, pacifists, homosexuals, dissenting clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, freemasons, Slavs.
Rough estimates of Roma murdered during the war (and their populations of the time) vary widely: from between 220,000 and 500,000 (25% to over 50% of slightly under 1 million Roma), to about 1.5 million out of 2 million.
Although German Gypsies had been out into German concentration camps as early as 1934, in November of 1941 Łódź became the first place in Poland where Gypsies were gathered for extermination in a camp setting. Here they were completely sealed off, and were out of sight; only the few Jewish doctors who treated a typhus epidemic, and then Jewish gravediggers, witnessed their end.
Apart from the Sinti of central Europe—German, Austrian, Polish, Czech, Slovak—those rounded up came from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and the Baltic states; from Norway, Belgium, France, and Holland. Many were herded into ghettos and deported to camps—including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen—and subjected to forced medical experiments and sterilisation. In Auschwitz they were housed as families in Zigeunerlager; but the atrocious conditions there soon led to fatal epidemics.
And as Timothy Snyder points out, in the Bloodlands those summarily executed in mass shootings far outnumbered those who perished in the camps.