With thanks to my publishers, here is an extract from No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld Publications, 2013) about the Roma and Sinti who were murdered during the Holocaust, along with Jewish people, trade unionists, disabled people and gay and lesbian people.
by Katharine Quarmby
No reproduction without permission from publishers
The hatred of the Roma people, intense enough in the UK, was magnified in mainland Europe. It was impossible to watch the treatment of the Roma on the continent without fear for what fate they might face should they ever be forced to leave the coun- try. Those who arrived in Britain from Europe as refugees – for example, in 1904 the ‘German Gypsies’ and then in 1911 and 1913 the ‘Gypsy Coppersmiths’ were treated with hostility and suspicion. The identity of English, Welsh and Scottish Gypsies, especially, was shaped by the Holocaust, or, as it is known by the Roma people themselves, the Porrajmos, or the Devouring (a phrase coined by the Romani scholar Ian Hancock).
Manfri Frederick Wood, an English Gypsy who fought in the Fifth Airborne Division (and who later became the first treasurer of the Gypsy Council), claimed to have been one of the first Allied soldiers to enter Belsen concentration camp after liberation. ‘When I saw the surviving Romanies, with young children among them, I was shaken. Then I went over to the ovens, and found on one of the steel stretchers the half-charred body of a girl, and I understood in one awful minute what had been going on there,’ he recalled. Charles Smith, an English Romani Gypsy and one-time chair of the Gypsy Council, later visited Auschwitz with a small delega- tion of Gypsies. ‘We stood there, a group of English Gypsies from England, there in the gas chambers. I felt sort of honoured to be there – all of us survivors of a Gypsy Holocaust that had been going on for a thousand years continuously … Auschwitz being just a peak period in Gypsy genocide.’
That sense of a collective, centuries-long experience of perse- cution remains strong today. The emotional scars also run deep, perhaps partly because this part of the Holocaust has never received the same amount of attention as the extermination of Jewish people. Yet Roma and Sinti (the second largest nomadic group) people were also judged to be racially inferior by the German authorities. They too were interned, subjected to forced labour. Many were murdered.
Historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around twenty-five per cent of all European Roma.61 Of the slightly less than one million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, at least 220,000, and possibly as many as 500,000, are estimated to have been killed.62 According to the US Holocaust Museum, German military and SS-police units allegedly shot at least thirty thousand Roma in the Baltic states and elsewhere in the occupied Soviet Union; Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing units were targeting Roma at the same time that they were killing Jews and Communists. In occupied Serbia, German authorities are known to have killed male Roma in shooting operations during 1941 and early 1942. Women were murdered, along with children, in mobile gas vans in 1942.
In France, between three thousand and six thousand Roma are thought to have been interned and some were shipped to German concentration camps. Romanian military and police officials deported another 26,000 Roma to Transnistria, a section of south-western Ukraine placed under Romanian administration for just two years, 1941 and 1942. Thousands of those imprisoned starved or died from disease. The Ustashe, a separatist organisation that had taken charge in the power vacuum in Croatia, exhibited particularly chilling efficiency in its campaign to eradicate the Roma. Almost all of the Roma population of Croatia, around 25,000, were murdered, most at the concentration camp of Jasenovac.
Many Roma were also incarcerated by the SS at Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück. In December 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of Roma from the so-called Greater German Reich. Most went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the camp authorities housed them in a special compound that was called the ‘Gypsy family camp’. Altogether, 23,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz. Conditions in the Roma compound (poor sanitation, starvation levels of rations, for example), encour- aged the swift spread of deadly diseases – typhus, smallpox and dysentery among them. Epidemics severely reduced the camp population. At least 19,000 of the 23,000 nomadic people sent to Auschwitz died there.
Perhaps the cruellest part of the Roma experience, however, was the appalling series of medical experiments carried out by the infamous SS Captain Dr Josef Mengele and others, on many young Roma children. He had received authorisation to choose human subjects for experiments from among the prisoners. Mengele chose twins and children of restricted growth, many of them drawn from the Roma population imprisoned at the camp, as his sub- jects.64 Around 3,500 adult and adolescent Roma were prisoners in other German camps, and medical researchers included some Roma for studies that exposed them to typhus and mustard gas, or gave them salt water as their only source of liquid. The Roma were also used in sterilisation experiments.
After the Second World War, discrimination against Roma continued throughout Central and Eastern Europe, beginning with the great reckoning of the horrors of the concentration camps. ‘Nobody was called to testify on behalf of the Romani victims at the Nuremberg Trials,’ Hancock noted, ‘and no war crimes reparations have ever been paid to Romanies as a people.’ There were a few mentions of the atrocities carried out against Romanies at Nuremberg, but as Grattan Puxon and Donald Kenrick point out, only six references, making up some seven sentences, in the eleven volumes of the trial transcript. For decades, the Federal Republic of Germany determined that all measures taken against Roma before 1943 were legitimate official measures against per- sons committing criminal acts, not the result of policies driven by racial prejudice. Only in 1979 did the government change tack, by which time many of those eligible for compensation had died. Even today, neo-Nazi activity in many parts of central and Eastern Europe is targeted on Romanies, according to Hancock.
In the aftermath of the Porrajmos, the shattered community turned further inwards. ‘While in the camps, the Gypsies had been unable to keep up their customs – the Romainia – concerning the preparation of food and the washing of clothes. They solved the psychological problems by not speaking about the time in the camps … Few were interested anyway. In the many books writ- ten describing the Nazi period and the persecution of the Jews, Gypsies usually appear as a footnote or small section,’ said histo- rians Donald Kenrick and Gillian Taylor.68 In the early post-war years, news trickled out that the Nazi regime had secretly collected lists of Gypsies to target and intern if they invaded Britain. The UK government had built camps for Gypsies fighting or working at home for the war effort; these were swiftly dismantled once the war was over.69 Many British Gypsies and Irish Travellers who had served during the Second World War were left with a firm sense of determination: never again.
As Charles Smith wrote to conclude his visit to Auschwitz: ‘The thing that haunts me most was a photograph of a little girl age about ten or eleven years, hair cropped, wearing her striped cloth, looking straight into the camera, her eyes filled with tears … a picture of her will always be in my mind. I will remember. I will be vigilant. As a Gypsy I owe that to my ancestors.’