Holocaust: The ‘Devouring’ of the Czech Roma

A staggering 95 percent of the Czech-born Romani and Sinti population perished in the war, most through extrajudicial killings

Brian Kenety | 27.01.2011
Some 22,000 Roma and Sinti were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The unidentified young woman above arrived at the death camp on Oct. 10, 1943, and was assigned the number Z-63598 (with the ‘Z’ signifying she was Roma, or ‘Zigeuner’ in German)

The Porrajmos, literally “the Devouring,” is the term the Romani people use to describe the genocidal wave of terror known to most of the world as the Holocaust. While estimates of the total number of so-called “Gypsies” (the dark-skinned Roma, Sinti and other peoples who migrated to Europe from the Indian subcontinent centuries ago) killed during the Second World War vary from 500,000 to 1.5 million, records show nearly 22,000 died at Auschwitz before the notorious Nazi death camp was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945.

Nearly every Romani man, woman and child who survived internment in Czech-run camps near Hodonín (Moravia) and Lety (Bohemia) — now the site of a controversial pig farm — later perished in the so-called “Gypsy family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau before its liberation by the Soviet Army, 66 years ago this Thursday. Countless more were killed in extrajudicial killings.

Lety: Nearly every Romani man, woman and child who survived internment in Czech-run camps later perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau

“The percentage of Roma killed in the so-called Czech lands — the mass murder of the ethnic Czech Roma — was almost ‘perfect,’ almost total,” Markus Pape, a German-born human rights activist who for more than a decade has worked closely with the local Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust (VPORH), told Czech Position in an interview on the anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, noting that a staggering “95 percent of the Czech-born Romani population” perished in the war.

Historians believe that the vast majority of Romani victims were in fact slaughtered outside the death camps — killed with a bullet to the head and tossed in a roadside ditch or buried in shallow graves in the fields and forests where they had sought refuge. Einsatzgruppen (mobile “task forces”) killed tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied eastern territories; these victims were left out of the Nazi’s otherwise meticulous records.

“The generally accepted [conservative] figure is that half a million Roma were killed in the Second World War. In Auschwitz — the main site of their systemic killing — there were 22,000 Roma victims,” Pape said. “This shows that most were killed in the forests, during local massacres [pogroms] or by the Wehrmacht — who often justified it as necessary to purge territory behind the front of possible spies. Therefore, there is no exact number; there is no list of names, as it was done without any administration.”

The Porrajmos as a ‘historical footnote’

The horrors of the death camps have been exhaustively documented. However, the wartime fate of the Roma — who, like Europe’s Jewish population, were persecuted for centuries before being singled out for extinction by the Nazis along racial lines — is less widely known or understood; their tremendous suffering and loss often reduced to little more than a historical footnote. An estimated 70 percent of Europe’s Romani population died in the “Devouring,” yet no Roma were called to testify at the post-war Nuremberg Trials — and no one spoke there on their behalf.

While the fate of the Roma may now seem inevitable, in the earliest days of the Third Reich, their origins posed a problem for Hitler’s racial ideologues. Nazi anthropologists knew that the Roma had arrived in Europe from India and believed them to be descendents of the original mythical “Aryan” invaders of the subcontinent, who returned to Europe. While the fate of the Roma may now seem inevitable, in the earliest days of the Third Reich, their origins posed a problem for Hitler’s racial ideologues.

So Nazi racialist Hans Gunther found a justification for measures already long in place to control “the Gypsy plague.” If the Roma were no less “Aryan” than the Germans, he theorized, their supposed “inherent criminal character” must have stemmed from having mingled with “inferior” races over centuries of nomadic life.

In 1933, after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the Nazis introduced a law to legalize eugenic sterilization, to control population growth among “Gypsies and most of the Germans of black color.” In 1939, the Nazi’s Office of Racial Hygiene issued a statement saying, “All Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick [...] the aim should therefore be the elimination — without hesitation —of this defective element in the population.”

Most Romani and Sinti victims were slaughtered in extrajudicial killings, beyond camp walls

The following year, at a concentration camp in Buchenwald, 250 Romani children were used as human guinea pigs to test cyanide gas crystals. In later years, adult Roma were used as subjects in cruel experiments conducted at Buchenwald on the effects of drinking sea water on human health.

But even in January 1942, when the Nazi bureaucrats decided on the “final solution” regarding the “Jewish problem” — i.e., through mass extermination in concentration camps — the so-called “pure Gypsies” (like the more integrated and well-off Sinti peoples) initially weren’t targeted for extinction along racial lines; they even continued to serve in the Germany army. (The Sinti were typically traders and merchants; their language is akin to Yiddish, in that it is nearly a German dialect; its grammatical structure follows that of German although most words have a common root with the Romani language.)

Even before Dr. Josef Mengele’s inhuman experiments began, Romani children were used as human guinea pigs to test cyanide gas crystals

But before the close of 1942, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the principal executor of the “Final Solution,” gave orders that all Romani candidates for extermination be transported to Auschwitz; and in November 1943, expanded the order: all “Gypsies and part Gypsies” were be treated “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps.”

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