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The Roma Holocaust

The persecution of Roma and Sinti reached a horrific level during the Second World War. No Gypsy can afford to forget the darkest part of our history, which all people must learn from writes Damian Le Bas.

Hugo, a German roma survivor

Hugo, a German Roma survivor stands in the gate of the special Roma camp in Auschwitz- Birkenau. As a child Hugo passed through many camps including Auschwitz before he was liberated by the British from Bergen-Belsen. Photo: Anna Kari

Racism against the Roma, and the violence that comes with it, date back as far as history or memory go. A look at the timeline on these pages tells us that in some ways not much has changed. But it was only in recent times that this racism was taken up by an empire that tried to eliminate the Roma for ever.

By the 20th Century Europe’s Gypsies had already experienced centuries of slavery, rejection and ethnic cleansing. There were already anti-Gypsy laws in Germany but under the Nazis things got even harder. The 1935 Nuremberg laws took away their citizenship and categorised them as a racial problem. As Germany took over the countries around it they adopted the same policy. Hungary, Croatia and Romania, Germany’s allies in the war, also stripped their Roma of all their rights.

A people with no rights is an easy target for an evil government. So the Nazis started to develop their final solution to the Gypsy “problem”: they would round the Roma up in camps and starve and gas them to death until there were none left alive in Western Europe. The Romani word for what happened is Porraimos which means “devouring”. Nobody knows for sure how many died. The Romani scholar Ian Hancock estimates that more than 600,000 Roma and Sinti may have been murdered.

Manfri Wood was an English Gypsy who fought in the War who saw what had happened at Belsen concentration camp: “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”.

Europe’s Roma were lucky to survive at all. Like the genocides against Gypsies in Britain what the Nazis did must never be forgotten. All the Travelling peoples are united by the violence they have faced and it continues to this day. We’re also united by our ability to survive the violence that every European country has subjected us to.

(Manfri Wood quoted in Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon, The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies. London and New York: Heinemann, 1972 p.187).

About this story

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This story originally appeared in the first Gypsy Roma Traveller History events Magazine of last year. Demand far exceeded supply of this publication, so we've reproduced some of the stories from that issue on this website.

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