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The Bigger Picture > The Holocaust


The following is a transcript of a speech delivered by Tom McCreay on the 1st June at the launch of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month 2010

Today I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story about the Gypsies in Europe

The name of the story is PORRAJMOS.

Porrajmos is the Romany name for the Holocaust. It means the Great Devouring.

Draconian measures against Gypsies had started in Germany long before the twentieth century. There were some 148 laws passed to deal with Gypsies between 1416 and 1774.

Gypsy hunts were common sport, and huntsmen would return displaying their trophies of severed heads. In 1835 a Rheinish aristocrat listed amongst his trophies "A Gypsy woman and her suckling babe".

Events preceding the Holocaust

Long before the war there were measures in place to identify Gypsies and to curtail their freedom.

In the 1890s, in Swabia: a conference called "The Gypsy Filth" was held, and in 1899, the  "Central Office for Fighting the Gypsy Nuisance" was created.

In 1905: Alfred Dillman identified more than 3,500 Gypsies from all over Europe in his book “The Gypsy Book” to help police.

In 1906, in Prussia: there was a directive to combat "the Gypsy Nuisance" including bi-lateral agreements with Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Russia and Switzerland.

In 1909: the Swiss Department of Justice began a Register of Gypsies, and Hungary: suggested that Gypsies should be branded for identification.

1912 in France: all Gypsies over 6 years old were made to carry identity cards. 8,000 Gypsies were processed.

Between 1919-1921 in Germany: Gypsy camps and nomadism were outlawed. Gypsies were banned from holiday resorts and spas, and were ordered to return trading licences.

In 1922 in Germany: All Gypsies over 14 had to carry identity cards with photographs and fingerprints. All foreign Gypsies were banned. They were refused trade licences and social gatherings were forbidden.

In 1927 Prussia began armed raids on Gypsy communities to enforce registration.

1933: the Nazi party were voted into power, and inherited anti-Gypsy laws that had been in force since the middle Ages.

In June 1935, intermarriage between Aryan and non-Aryan people was forbidden. The main Nazi institution to deal with Gypsies, The Racial Hygiene and Criminal Biology Research Unit, was established. Robert Ritter was in charge of this unit, the express purpose of which was to determine whether Gypsies and Blacks were human or sub-human.

Flying working groups started tracking down Gypsies in institutions, in prisons, and on caravans and campsites. Once found, they were tested in Ritter’s centre. The law meant that if two of a person's eight grandparents were even part-Gypsy, that person had too much Gypsy ancestry.

It was planned to keep a number of families in a compound, for future anthropologists to be able to study.

In a progress report in 1940 Ritter stated:

"... we have been able to establish that more than 90% of so-called native Gypsies are of mixed blood ... Further results of our investigations have allowed us to characterise the Gypsies as being a people of entirely primitive ethnological origins, whose mental backwardness makes them incapable of real social adaptation ... The Gypsy question can only be solved when the main body of the social and good-for-nothing Gypsy individuals, (those of mixed blood) is collected together in large camps, and kept working there, and when the further breeding of this population of mixed blood is stopped once and for all".

Deportation to the concentration camps.

From 1933, many Gypsies were sent to concentration camps where they were forced to do penal labour and where some underwent sterilisation.

Here, a Gypsy man speaks of deportation.

"We were sitting having our coffee when they came. "Get ready" they shouted, "you’re coming with us." We were allowed a small bundle of our belongings, the rest we had to leave behind.

We were taken to huge halls on the Rhine. There we had to put out our clothes in baskets. The worst that can happen to a Gypsy man is to be seen naked in front of women and children. We cowered together in a heap, so did the women. They cried, and so did the men.

Real fear started in the trains and we were herded like animals. We travelled for three to four days, suddenly the train stopped and all we saw were SS soldiers. We had to build our own camp and when finished almost everyone was murdered. Others came, and so it continued for the next five years.

The Concentration Camps

A Gypsy woman speaks of her experiences in the concentration camps.

"In Birkenau, a big ditch was dug out, and sprinkled with petrol. It was burning night and day.

"They used to line up Gypsies on the edge. They pushed them…the screams and the yells were terrible! They burned everyone in there, children, the old ... everyone.

"I ran outside with another Gypsy woman. It was after lock up, but I didn’t care any more. I thought a least if they shot me, I would die at once. We stood near the burning ditch and saw how they pushed those people in. It was horrible... No, I just can’t describe what it was like to you. It was the end of the world."

It was a holocaust.

In 1940, 250 Gypsy children in the concentration camp at Buchenwald were used as guinea pigs for testing the Zyclon B cyanide gas crystals, a lethal insecticide which, from 1941 onwards was used for mass murders at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

"At Buchenwald then, for the first time, this gas was used for mass murder, and it was for the murder of innocent Gypsy children."

"Towards the end of the war. They knew the Russians were near. Then Mengele started killing the children. They ordered a lock-up night and no one was allowed to go outside ... He took each child by the legs and hit them against a pillar."

When the Russian army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau, some Gypsies had been transferred earlier to other camps but no Gypsies were found alive, there were no survivors.

After the War

Gypsy victims were never compensated for the atrocities committed against them. Gypsies in Germany and what had been the occupied lands were afraid to return to their homes.

The attempted genocide of the entire Gypsy people was forgotten. No-one from the Gypsy community was called to give evidence at the Nuremburg trials. The perpetrators (Himmler, Justin, Mengele) were never brought to trial.

It was not until 1994 that the first international conference on the Gypsy Holocaust took place in Vienna.

Let me quote you with some facts and figures.

"In 1938 Germany had a Gypsy population of 16,275. Of these, 85 per cent, were thrown into concentration camps, no more then 12 per cent survived." (The Wiener Library Bulletin 1950)

"The Nazis killed between a quarter and a third of all Gypsies living in Europe, and as many as 70 per cent in those areas where Nazi control had been established longest." (Strom and Parsons 1978)

"...The Gypsies had been murdered (in a proportion) similar to the Jews; about 80% of them in the countries which were occupied by the Nazis." (Simon Wiesenthal 1984)

The biggest numerical losses were in Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, the USSR and Hungary. Estimates of the number of Gypsy victims who died in Europe during the war vary, but it was at least half a million, and probably a lot more.

I didn’t come here today to bring you a horror story; I came to bring you a story of hope, a story of optimism, and a story of triumph.

It’s a story of hope, because even during the darkest chapters of man's existence, be they those past, or those yet to be written. When everything is ripped away from you, remember this. They can’t take your hope; they can’t take it until you let it go.

It’s a story of optimism. No matter how much evil is done, those responsible are always in the minority. It may be a strong, aggressive minority, but it is a minority never the less.

I have suffered hatred and discrimination all my life, but those responsible have always been from the ignorant minority. I truly believe that the vast majority of people are good and gentle and kind and caring. I believe that slowly, ever so slowly, the gentle majority are winning.

It’s a story of triumph. It’s a story of triumph because the Gypsy people, persecuted for generations, are still here.

Tom McCready

Derby Gypsy Liaison Group

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