MINELRES: RFE/RL: 60 Years after Central Europe's Romany Holocaust

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Thu Aug 5 19:32:22 2004

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By Michael Shafir

        Sixty years ago, on the night of 2-3 August 1944, the "Gypsy
camp" at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liquidated after the
last group of 2,897 Romany inmates there were gassed. 
        The "Gypsy camp" had been established in February 1943 as a
separate section of the death factory in which 1.1 million Jews
perished, according to the latest estimates. The "Gypsy camp" was
originally intended to function as a "family camp" in which men,
women, and children were interned together. Of the 23,000 Romany
inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau, just 3,000 survived. Most died of
hunger and disease, according to Franciszek Piper, a historian who
heads the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. After Jews and Poles (some
70,000-75,000 victims), the Roma were the third most numerous
national group exterminated by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
        The "Porrajmos," or Holocaust in Romany, remains
under-researched to this day. As in the case of the Jewish victims,
one is unlikely ever to be able to produce an exact figure of Roma
killed in the Porrajmos. But while estimates of Jewish victims vary
between 5.1 and 6.2 million, those of Romany victims fluctuate at far
greater discrepancies, from 200,000 to as many as 1.5 million. As
U.S.-based political scientist Zoltan Barany wrote in a book
published in 2002, there are several reasons for these large
discrepancies. First, many Romany victims were illiterate or
semi-illiterate and thus few among them could "bear witness" after
the ordeal. "Gypsy survivors," Barany wrote, "did not leave behind
diaries, did not write memoirs, and did not subsequently research
into the subject." This combined with the fact that, according to
Barany, history has until recently been largely an alien concept in
Romany culture. Second, reliable demographic data on the Roma and
Sinti population of the pre-World War II period in Europe are hard to
come by, he wrote, the more so as many belonged to migrant
populations. Futhermore, the "extermination of the Gypsies was far
less meticulously documented by the Nazis and their collaborators
than was the murder of the Jews," Barany wrote.
        There is, however, a fourth reason for the lack of sufficient
research into the Porrajmos that Barany cautiously avoided
mentioning. Some Jewish historians believe the Nazis did not intend
to wipe out the Romany population as a whole, and that herein lies
sufficient justification for not regarding the Romany and Sinti
populations of Europe as part of the Nazi genocidal plan. However,
while it is true that the Nazis "classified" the Roma into several
categories, the classification was never really applied in practice.
Many Sinti and Lalleri -- who were supposed to be spared the fate of
the rest in being considered "Arian Gypsies" who had genetically not
mixed with the descendants of "European criminals" in the course of
history -- ended up in many cases being forcibly sterilized and/or
deported to the death camps, just as the other Roma did. As British
historian John Grenville has shown, SS-Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler
-- who devised the distinctions in a decree published in December
1942 -- was particularly eager to rid Germany of its Romany
population and the distinctions "were arbitrary and by no means
always observed; few Gypsies would be left in 1945; their mass
murder, like that of the Jews, extended to all of Europe under German
        According to Barany, there were "significant disparities" in
the policies of the German-dominated satellites toward the Roma
during World War II. The Croatian Ustasha "were hardly more merciful
in their treatment of the Roma than their German sponsors," and as
many as 26,000 Roma were killed or died in deportation in Croatia or
Sardinia. In German-occupied Serbia, tens of thousands of Roma were
sent to extermination camps and thousands died there. Hungary handled
its Romany population much as it handled its Jews. Discriminatory
legislation was enacted in the early 1940s, but it was only after the
German occupation of that country in March 1944 and the ascension to
power of the Ferenc Szalasi regime in October of that year that Roma
were deported to concentration camps, where several thousand died. In
Poland, the occupying German authorities killed between 20,000 and
35,000, by shooting or in concentration camps. As in their handling
of the Jews, Bulgarian authorities defended "home Gypsies" from
deportation; but in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace, Roma
were rounded up and sent to their deaths. Radu Ioanid of the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum, has estimated the number of dead among the
25,000 deported to Transnistria by the Antonescu regime at 19,000,
while according to historian Viorel Achim, about half of those
deported returned to Romania. In the Slovak "Parish Republic" of
Monsignor Josef Tiso, there was plenty of discrimination but no
extermination policy against the Roma. Still, Roma in Slovakia were
placed in forced labor camps and, after the country's occupation by
German forces in the wake of the 1944 Slovak National Uprising, some
1,000 Roma perished in pogroms and mass killings. Of the 6,000 Roma
who lived in Czechoslovakia, 1/10th survived the Porrajmos. The
authorities of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia interned 1,300
Roma in the Lety camp, 538 of whom were dispatched to
Auschwitz-Birkenau. A total of 326, including 241 children, died in
Lety. Scandalously, the site is today a commercial pig farm that
Czech authorities have for years promised to expel.
        The Porrajmos has increasingly come to the attention of
historians in recent years, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
has directed much attention to this long-neglected chapter of the
Holocaust. Whether this new focus might help eradicate the widespread
anti-Roma prejudice from postcommunist East-Central Europe remains to
be seen.

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