Misunderstood and still persecuted, the Roma people (also known as Romani or Gypsies) remain what some experts consider a relatively underreported ethnicity ahead of this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
Drawing support from many non-Nazi Germans who harbored social prejudice towards Roma, the Nazis judged Roma to be “racially inferior.” The fate of Roma in some ways paralleled that of the Jews. Under the Nazi regime, German authorities subjected Roma to arbitrary internment, forced labor, and mass murder. German authorities murdered tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia, and killed thousands more in the concentration camps at Aushwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
“The Roma are a small minority, and due to long-term persecution in the various societies Roma have lived, they have, as a group, tended to be reluctant to advertise their ethnic background,” Peter Black, a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), told JNS.org. “The Roma have, for the past two or three centuries, been the victims of negative and violence-inciting stereotypes about them and their behavior.”
Black explained that the Roma “were reputed as travelers to be indifferent to indigenous social mores and legal structures, and to be inclined to engage in small-scale criminal behavior.” Those tendencies, Black said, are what Americans will typically bring up today when asked about what negative stereotype they have heard about Roma or Gypsies.
The Roma were thought to have come from Egypt—hence the name Gypsies—but in fact, they trace their roots back to northwestern India, Pakistan, and Iran.
“They migrated via the Middle East into southern Europe or via Russia into Eastern Europe,” Black said. “They came primarily as skilled craftsmen and musicians. Initially, Europeans welcomed them, but eventually they tended to be suspicious of Roma mores and also envious in terms of competition of the skilled crafts. By the late 16th and 17th centuries, Roma were already being excluded from the guilds which determined who could produce and sell hand-made goods.”
Black estimates that between 196,000 and 220,000 Roma were killed by the Nazis—about 20 percent of the entire European Roma population at the time.
“[The Nazi persecution of Roma has been] relatively underreported and there has not been the same level of study, country by country, that there has been about the destruction of the Jews in Europe,” Black said. “Part of this is due to widely differing policies toward Roma. There were vast differences between the treatment of Roma in German-occupied and German-controlled Europe than the Jews. The Jews [in those areas of Europe] were killed at levels of between 75-80 percent [compared to 20 percent for the European Roma].”
Born in Czechoslovakia, Petra Gelbart is a granddaughter of Roma Holocaust survivors. An ethnomusicologist, musician, and singer, she uses both her research and her voice to educate and advocate for Holocaust remembrance of Roma victims.
“I try to take what people think they know about so-called ‘gypsies,’ and replace it with something that’s much more based in reality,” Gelbart said on a USHMM podcast called “Voices on Anti-Semitism.”
Gelbart said the main stereotype about Roma is that “we are nomadic, even though for most of history, for most of the past several hundred years, the majority of Roma have been settled.” There are also “stereotypes about us not wanting to work, and being criminals,” she said.
“When you have a group, the majority of which lives in poverty, you’re going to have issues with unemployment, low education, and you’re going to have issues with petty crime,” said Gelbart. “But in Europe it’s very hard for [Roma] to get a regular job because the employment discrimination is just massive. The thing that people should really be worried about is not are we a criminal or ‘work-shy’ people, but rather what is the access to jobs that we have or don’t have.”
Are Roma still persecuted today? In 2011, the USHMM released a statement calling attention to the issue, saying it was “alarmed by the precarious situation of the Roma in today’s Europe” and urging European governments “to uphold the rights and freedoms of Roma in accordance with international and regional obligations.”
“Recent anti-Roma acts and sentiment span [across Europe],” USHMM said. “Violent attacks against Roma have occurred in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Russian Federation and government authorities have organized deportations in France and Italy. In many places, Roma are singled out for isolation and denied their civil rights, and a number of national and local government officials have recently made anti-Roma statements.”
Andy Hollinger, USHMM’s director of communications, told JNS.org that “Roma certainly continue to face threats in Europe, so yes, we stand by the general principle” of the 2011 statement.
“That said, if you are looking at a specific circumstance or statistic [on the persecution of Roma], that may have changed [since 2011],” he said.
In his 2001 book “The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies,” Guenter Lewy draws upon thousands of documents from German and Austrian archives to trace the escalating vilification of Roma during the Nazis’ widespread crackdown on the “work-shy” and “itinerants.”
Lewy shows that Nazi policy towards Roma was inconsistent. At first, local officials persecuted gypsies, and those who behaved in gypsy-like fashion, for allegedly anti-social tendencies. Later, with the rise of race obsession, the Roma were seen as a threat to German racial purity—though Nazi military commander Heinrich Himmler himself wavered, trying to save those he considered “pure Gypsies” descended from Aryan roots in India. Indeed, Lewy contradicts much existing scholarship in showing that, however much the Roma were persecuted, there was no general program of extermination analogous to the “final solution” for the Jews.
USHMM’s Black believes that while Lewy’s book contains valuable factual information, it might focus too much on how the persecution of the Roma differs from the persecution of the Jews.
“I thought that was a distraction,” Black said. “The persecution was somewhat different between the two groups. But both Jews and Roma in Nazi ideology were a people who were not going to be permitted to live with Germans. The Nazis went back and forth and had trouble deciding how extreme a policy they wanted to carry out against the Roma. This permitted a relatively small minority of Roma to survive in Germany, which was somewhat different than the Jews.”
According to Black, while the Jews were perceived in Nazi ideology as being a priority enemy, the Roma were seen as tools of the Jews.
“In the occupied Soviet Union and occupied Serbia, Roma and Jews were shot side by side,” he said. “The policy against them was more or less absolutely the same in terms of practical day-to-day actions. The Jews were a more important priority enemy, although the fact remains that nearly 80 percent of Roma who lived in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic prior to 1939 were dead in 1945.”
Black said it is important to “place the treatment of the Roma into a broader context,” but perhaps more important to remember the “individual stories” of the Roma who survived the Holocaust, which have not been as widely reported as Jewish Holocaust stories.
“Unlike Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who were writing about their experiences almost as soon as World War II was over, Roma have been reluctant because of ongoing discrimination and persecution up until the present day,” he said.