By Jonathan Lee
CW genocide, ethnic violence
Between 1936 and 1945 the Nazis wiped out over 50% of Europe’s Romani people.
Whether they were choked to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, “exterminated through labour” climbing the stairs of death at Mauthausen, or shot in a mass grave dug by their own hands in Romania – the extermination of the Gypsies of Europe was carried out with deadly efficiency.
The result in countries like Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and what is now the Czech Republic, was a kill rate of over 90% of the pre-war Romani population. Many massacres of Roma in the East by the Nazis’ roving death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, went unreported or under-documented, meaning the total loss of Romani life will probably never be fully exposed or accounted for.
Europe’s collective memory of the Romani genocide is short compared to the Holocaust of the Jews. Germany paid war reparations to Jewish survivors but never to Romani, and the racial character of the Romani genocide was denied for decades in favour of the argument that Roma were targeted for being asocials and criminals. West Germany only recognised the genocide of Roma officially in 1982.
A combination of widespread illiteracy, lack of documentation, and the severe poverty and persecution which still continues long after the liberation of the camps, means that the culture of antigypsyism has survived relatively unscathed from the holocaust to the present day. Even amongst Romani peoples themselves, community memory of Nazi exterminations does not often form a part of national or ethnic consciousness. Roma have a predominantly oral culture, and Romani communities are less likely to retain the details of horrific memories from history in their songs and stories. Or as Romani academic Ian Hancock puts it: “Nostalgia is a luxury for others.”
Compared with European Jews, who after the War ended retained many of their core middle-class and elites, the burgeoning Romani middle-class which existed mostly in Germanic and Central Europe was all but completely wiped out.
The near total absence of a Romani middle-class in the post-war years aided the societal amnesia of their genocide. By ‘Romani middle-class,’ I mean those Roma who were well integrated into non-Roma society – who had documentation, higher levels of income, high levels of education, and positions of social standing in the wider community. Compared with European Jews, who after the war ended retained many of their core middle-class and elites, the burgeoning Romani middle-class which existed mostly in Germanic and Central Europe was all but completely wiped out.
The notion of a Romani middle-class is probably not something most people often consider. Romani people in most societies are, by definition, ‘lower-class.’
This is particularly true in the United Kingdom, where the class structure is very rigidly defined and the racist concept of ‘The Gypsy’ is, for many, synonymous with itinerancy, low-skilled work, and crime. There does exist some notion nowadays of Romani elites: those who attain status over communities locally, earn a relatively high income, or work in political or civil society organisations. But these are middle-class only in terms of Romani society, and not necessarily the wider mainstream society. It is only relatively recently that once again there is a growing number of Romani people in ‘traditional’ middle class roles throughout Europe: Romani teachers, Romani police officers, Romani soldiers, and Romani civil servants.
In the early 20th century, the Romani people of Germanic Central Europe, the Sinti, were very much an integrated part of society. To this day, the Sinti maintain a certain degree of separateness from other Romani groups brought about by linguistic, historical, and cultural integration with Germanic society.
“Nostalgia is a luxury for others.”
Having been denied entry to trade associations and guilds in Western Europe for centuries, Sinti and Roma became dealers and merchants, and by the 20th century many had become successful, wealthy businessmen. Many Sinti traditionally owned and operated cinemas; others ran rides and amusements at fairgrounds. By the late 1920’s the number of nomadic Sinti and Roma was declining, and Sinti in German lands worked as shopkeepers, postal workers, civil servants and military officers. Their children received a full education, and some who had performed special services for their country were even granted titles of nobility.
As far back as the late 1700’s, the names of soldiers in records of the Pirmasens Grenadier Regiments of Landgrave Ludwig IX include some of the oldest Sinti family names. During the First World War, many Sinti also served in the German army and were decorated for their bravery and patriotism.
Despite the military service of Sinti and Roma throughout history and in the First World War, on November 26th 1937 the Reich War Minister issued a decree which prohibited Sinti and Roma from performing active military service. Around the same time, the “Racial Hygiene Research Unit” was ordered by Heinrich Himmler to make a complete register of all Romani people in the German territories.
In the following months and years, Sinti and Roma, alongside Jews, had their civil rights rescinded. They were forbidden from using public transport, public hospitals, schools, and even playgrounds. In many places they were prohibited from entering bars, cinemas, and shops. The completion of any new tenancy agreements with Sinti and Roma was banned and existing agreements were terminated. Through a concerted press campaign similar to that used against Jews, Sinti and Roma were forced from professional organisations and denied access to employment. By March 1939, their national identity papers were declared invalid and “race identity cards” were issued for Sinti and Roma in all German occupied territories. Like Jews, Sinti and Roma were forced to wear identifying yellow armbands, theirs bearing the word “Zigeuner” – Gypsy.
Eventually, in February 1941, the Wehrmacht High Command ordered that Sinti and Roma be discharged from the military, and any further recruitment of “gypsies or gypsy hybrids” was to be forbidden.
Oswald Winter (pictured below) was a Sinti soldier who joined the Reich Labour Service in 1939, and then the Wehrmacht in 1940. He served in the 190th Infantry Regiment in the 6th Army, and by 1942 had been decorated for bravery with the Assault Badge in Silver, the Iron Cross, the Medal of Honour, and the Wound Badge.
He was wounded in his lung and received leave from the front to recover in Wroclaw in 1942. On his return, he learned that his entire family had been arrested by the Gestapo. After he had informed his superiors, the garrison’s commanding officers sent a petition to Reich Marshal Göring. His company commander also wrote a letter to Heinrich Himmler in which he expressed his disbelief that Oswald was a Gypsy.
This prompted an appointment with the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin, in which Oswald told them he had one brother who had already been killed in action at the Russian front, and another two brothers still fighting for the fatherland in the Wehrmacht:
“In my youthful foolishness, I believed in honour, and that my bravery in the war would be recognized in Berlin. I start to cry when I think about it now, because in reality, I still reproach myself today, I had betrayed my two brothers in the Wehrmacht and was unable to do anything for my mother and siblings.
My eldest sister was murdered in Auschwitz. My mother, who was sent to Auschwitz via Ravensbrück with my second-oldest sister, also didn’t survive the concentration camp. My little brother and the daughter of my second-oldest sister were forcibly sterilised at the age of 13 and 12 by doctors in Passau in 1943. One brother was sent to Auschwitz directly from the anti-aircraft artillery battery at Munich main station at the beginning of 1943 and was deployed in a suicide squad against Russian troops at Birkenau near Berlin in August 1944 after liquidation of the ‘gypsy camp’, which he didn’t survive. The other brother was dismissed from the Wehrmacht as a tank driver directly following my meeting with Kaltenbrunner.”
They told Oswald that there had been a mistake and everything would be sorted out for his whole family. But, when he returned to the military hospital in Wroclaw, a senior physician informed him that he had just turned away two Gestapo officers who had come to arrest him. Oswald fled and went into hiding in Poland and Czechoslovakia where he survived until liberation by the Red Army in 1945. His remaining brother also survived in hiding to outlive the Nazi regime.
Most other Sinti serving in the Wehrmacht did not have an opportunity to escape. They were deported directly from the front to Auschwitz and murdered. Some arrived in the camp still wearing their uniforms.
The Romani people who were the easiest to record and exterminate were those who were the most integrated in society. Like the Jews, these people existed on census records, military rosters, and school files. The decimation of this Romani middle-class meant that there were few strong voices who were in a position to speak up about the Romani genocide after 1945.
There were no Sinti or Roma called to testify at the Nuremberg trials. There were no Romani scholars, no Romani lawyers, no civil servants. No one left to document the atrocities committed against Romani people alongside the Jews – the only two peoples specifically targeted by the Nazis’ Final Solution to ensure German racial purity.
Whereas census data for Jews can be compared before and after the Holocaust, this is rarely the case for Sinti and Roma, meaning the total loss of Romani life is extremely difficult to piece together. Estimates vary somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people. In 1939, around 30,000 people referred to as ‘Gypsies’ lived in what is now Germany and Austria. The total population living in Greater Germany and its occupied territories is unknown, though scholars Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon have provided a rough estimate of 942,000. Of the Sinti and Roma living in Germanic Central Europe, only 5,000 are thought to have survived.
Germany paid war reparations to Jewish survivors but never to Romani, and the racial character of the Romani genocide was denied for decades in favour of the argument that Roma were targeted for being asocials and criminals. West Germany only recognised the genocide of Roma officially in 1982.
It is only in recent years – with an increasing number of educated Romani academics, a more concerted effort to study the evidence of the Romani genocide, and a steadily growing number of Romani people in positions of influence – that the full story is finally beginning to be told.
All photographs and attribution are thanks to the work of the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, in Heidelberg, Germany.
Featured image: Sinto Max Bamberger (right) with his family (1935)
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33 thoughts on “HOW THE NAZIS WIPED OUT THE ROMANI MIDDLE CLASS”
Despite the huge number of Roma and Sinti killed in the most horrific ways during WWII, little is known or talked about the genocide against them. This is the story of the Hrastina Massacre that occurred on April 24, 1945 in Yugolsavia (present day Croatia).
A group of 12 Sinti and Roma middle class families of artists joined a traveling circus called Braca Winter, led by Stefan Winter, to escape the persecution of the Nazis.
In May 1943, Max Bamberger (a violinist), his wife (Bertha), and children (Ramona, Helga, Angelika and Roswitha) escaped Nazi Berlin Germany when they received orders of deportation. Their second eldest child, Douglas, had already been sent to a children’s camp. The Bambergers joined the Romani traveling circus (total of about 58 Romani men, women, and children). The artists traveled through Yugoslavia, Italy, and Romania. Sometimes the only way out of a tight spot was to play on the sympathy for the Romani people by offering to sing, dance, and play the violin.
On April 22, 1945, as the end of the war was near, the Jasenovac concentration camp (The Auschwitz of the Balkans) had closed, and a number of strong enemy forces were concentrated in a small area.
On April 23, just a few days before the end of WWII, the circus group stopped in Kraj Donji on their way to Slovenia. It’s unknown if the group was aware that they had settled close to a group of 200 Ustasha soldiers who came from the closed Jasenovac concentration camp.
The soldiers had set up a base at a nearby school in Marija Gorica. The Ustasha were the most barbaric allied troops at the time. So much so, that the Nazis told them they were doing much.
The group traveled in colorful wagons with documents from the German Reich that allowed them to be mobile. They traveled with a big tent for performances, bench seating for their audience, 13 horses, beautiful costumes, a cinema, singers, dancers, and acrobats who performed along to several instruments.
The artists held their first performance immediately upon arrival. Later that day, the artists performed their second show for an audience that included the Ustashas. After the performance, the artists prepared for bed by splitting up to sleep among five barns owned by various local families in Kraji Donji.
On April 24, at 5pm, the artists performed in Marija Gorica for local school children and some of the Ustasha. Following the performance, the artists returned Kraji Donji and got settled for bed.
At about 9:30pm, allegedly the SS sent an order to the Ustashas to round up the artists as they had received a tip that the artists were working with the partisans. The Ustashas came to Kraji Donji and woke up all the circus members they could find and demanded they strip naked. Neighbors peaked from their windows and saw the soldiers rape the Romani women in the wagons.
The soldiers then demanded the artists to come out of the various homes with their belongings and head to the school. Some of the artists ignored the orders and remained hidden in the various homes/barns.
At 11pm, neighbors who lived near the school heard the soldiers singing as the children begged not to be beaten. About 30 mins later, the soldiers led the artists to a nearby vacant and secluded barn in Hrastina. A wall of soldiers surrounded the barn, so none of the prisoners could escape.
At 2am, neighbors reported hearing children screaming and calling out for their mothers. Although neighbors recognized some of the soldiers as local men, they didn’t dare come outside to confront the soldiers.
At 3am, neighbors heard more screams of children and women as the soldiers sang Ustasha songs at the same time. About 20 artists were brutally tortured with limbs chopped off and beheadings. They were then left in a shallow grave by the barn. About 23 men, women, and children were tied up and locked in the barn which was then set on fire. Neighbors reported hearing children crying for their mothers.
At 4am, neighbors saw the soldiers covered in blood as they smashed all the circus wagons. The soldiers stood guard for 3 days as the barn remained on fire to cover up their crimes.
The next day, the soldiers told the locals that the artists had been taken to a camp. The locals were suspicious of this explanation as they had heard the screams of women and children all night.
Three days later, the soldiers left town, and then locals moved the remains to a nearby cemetery. The number of those killed is not reliable and varies between 39 and 46.
At least eight members of the circus managed to survive the massacre as they remained hidden in houses in Marija Gorica.
Three days later, the Ustasha left town and Gestapo officers came to the village and went to the scene of the crime. They documented the crime carefully and the records had not been researched until recently.
The descendants returned for decades demanding justice; however, only one local soldier was convicted. Petar Pinju was sentenced to three years of forced labor on the farm where the massacre occurred. He claimed that he did not personally kill, but, was on guard so that none of the Roma/Sinti could escape.
In 1977, a statue was unveiled in the Marija Gorica cemetery, but it wasn’t until 2022 that the local officials held a memorial.
In 2021, Mario Šimunković and Đorđe Mihovilović published a book called “Massacre of Roma and Sinti in Hrastina in 1945 – Crimes of Luburic Residents in the Zaprešić Area”. Thanks to these authors and their in depth research, the victims are finally being honored.
The Hrastina Massacre is likely the last mass massacre of Roma/ Sinti people in Europe during WWII and is one of the largest single Ustasha massacres of Roma/Sinti in Croatia. It is also probably the only crime that the Ustashas committed in which the victims were exclusively Roma/Sinti.
My great great grandfather was known as the king of the Gypsies in Bamberg Germany . Most of my family was killed in the camps but some did survive . My grandma has some great stories to tell me about her family in bamberg . proud of where I am came from and my ancestors and who I am today . Forever gypsy
My Opa was taken in 42 by Bolsheviks and my Oma tried to get her 2 children to Switzerland. Ages 2 and 9 months . By way of the Danube and the underground she would make it as far as Baden-Wurttemberg ( Wertheim) . In 45 my Opas body was sent there for proper burial. My Oma died in 1950 at age 28. My mom 8 and her brother 10. The were gypsy in Budapest however I’m not sure which since all paperwork has been burned . All I know is Stefan & Elizabeth Pomazy. I don’t know Hungarian as I was born in Wertheim and raised in USA . The atrocities committed by the Nazis was horrendous and during that time the Bolsheviks were just as bad. How people could treat others like animals is beyond me and I believe even God cries. I hope someday the story will be told. W W 2 should have been the last war ever. 58 million people dead. There are no reparations for any of that .
We are still in extreme danger, don’t be fooled into thinking this cannot happen again, it will….. but in a different way! We are the MOST hated in Europe! Not all whites want to kill us of course, there are those who don’t mind you as long as you behave like a good human, it is the other 75% of whites who hate us and the 5% of whites who would love to kill us, those whites who don’t want to kill us are outnumbered and are powerless to stop the other whites, we have been systematically mentally destroyed, the racist whites have detroyed our intelligence so far back, that we Roma began to hate each other, we must open our minds and start uniting to build a way to our own country, Europe was stolen from us and history erased, if you think this Europe belongs to only whites, then i feel sorry for you, we have build Europe too!!! If Blacks, Whites, Jews, Asians can have their land, their country, then we must too!!! It is our God given right.
The first picture Bamberger Family is my grandfather sitting on the right side. Family of six only two survived my mom and younger sister.They survived because they could travel with the group. What was passed how they were tortured and burn in a basrn is terrible. My grandmother was pregnant and they hanged her on a hook and cut the baby out and put a dog in her before setting fire to the barn. I believe there is a cemetry stone listing their names at the local cemetry due to the action of the local priest after ythe war.
Thank you Norwichradical for your article on the savagery against the Sinti / Roma communities during WW2.As a disability activist, I was aware of the events but not of the devastation caused.
How can any body do such a thing like this to any one children women little babbies may they all rot in hell for an eternity most of them that done this went back to thier Normal life’s after they call us it’s not us but them who should be ashamed and there families and ansistors
More information of the Hrastina Massacre: http://www.antoniosiber.org/52_2020_2.html
KAI AME ROMA NASHTI-TE BISTARAS
O “ROMANO –SARVNASH– DIVES” (Sanskrit) /
O “Romano -Kalo- Dives” / Romano -Holocaust- Day (eng).
/ Romano – Genocide – Day (eng),
– ANI – “ ROMANI -te- ANGELESKI ” / English.
Text : “San3i – Romani – 3ib”
Romani Gili : taro
Janardhan Singh Pathania,
ROMANI – TEXT :
AME ROMA NASHTI-TE BISTARAS
O “ROMANO -SARVNASH- DIVES”
( ROMANO – KALO – DIVES , / Romano -Holocaust- Day).
1. O Devala vakar man zorales!
Kon jagarde e corore Romenge kherenge?
Kon astarde te mudarde e bi-doshale Romenge?
Kon tasavde ande GAZ-kamorende bibaxtale Romenge?
2. O Devala vakar man caco !
Kon kurde zorasa e me3bur ternia romaniange?
Kon khusle e daiandar lenge tiknore chavorenge?
Kon bikinde sar e bakrende e bi-doshale Romenge?
3. O mo Devala vakar man caco !
Kon tradende e than-thanestar e bokhale Romenge?
Kon choravde o romano rat pe e lungune dromende?
Kon kerde bi-kherende, te bilimoriande e Romenge?
4. O mo Devala Shun man !
Soske e Roma phiren pe than-thaneste bibutiande?
Soske e Romnia phiren sar mangtia andar e bazarende?
Soske e romane chavore phiren kate-kote bi-Pustakande?
5. O mo DEVALA si-man tutar puchipe!
Kai e Roma nai manusha sar jek averende?
Kai e Romenge nai HAK ke 3iven sar jek averende?
Kai e corore Roma nai e tere chavore sar jek averende?
6. O mo Devala! Roma nashti te bistaren pengo Sarvnash Kalo-divese!
Te sako kalo-dives si jek mai-bari la3 e manushalipeske!
E kale – divengi iranipe dukhal dive -pal- rat e Romenge!
Sako bersh Roma pe Ashvit-Birkanaute jadaren penge mulenge!
7. O mo Devala! Te e Roma zorales roven pe penge mulende!
Te asvarde jakhensa den luludia te pativ penge mulenge!
Nasul pal nasulipe nai lachho, phendi “KALI” e Romenge!
Te sa Roma jeksa mangen “Shanti” pe sa e Phuveste!
De Devala lachi Gudi, te Kamipen, te Shanti ame sarenge!
( JANARDHAN SINGH PATHANIA ).
Romani Gili : By
ENGLISH – Translation:
We Roma will never forget the
O “ROMANO -SARVNASH- DIVES”
( THE ROMA’S -HOLOCAUST- DAY ).
1. O God you tell me loudly ! Who burnt the houses of the Roma people? Who caught and killed the innocent Roma people? Who put the unfortunate Roma people in the Gas – chambers?
2. O God tell me the truth ! Who raped the helpless young Roma women? Who snatched away from mothers their children? Who sold innocent Roma like a sheep in the markets?
3. O God tell me the truth ! Who chased -away the hungry Roma people from place to place? Who spilled the Roma blood on the long roads? Who made the poor Roma people homeless and graveless?
4. O God you listen to me ! Why Roma are moving from place to place jobless? Why Roma women are moving as beggars in the streets? Why Roma children are moving here and there with out books?
5. O God I ask you some questions? Are the Roma people not men like others? Do the Roma people have no right to live like others? Are not the poor Roma people your children, like others ?
6. O my GOD ! Roma don’t forget their “Holocaust” Black –day ! The each Black-day is a big-Shame for the whole mankind ! The rememberance of Black-days, pains Roma Day & Night ! Every year Roma at Ashvit – Birkanau remember their dead people !
7. O GOD ! The Roma people weep bitterly for their dead people ! With tearfull eyes they honour their dead with flowers! That an evil for evil is no good, this Goddess “KALI” told them ! All the Roma pray together for WORLD – PEACE !
O GOD, Give we all good sense, love and Peace !
( JANARDHAN SINGH PATHANIA ).
3 = j , as in English “Jug, Jump” & in Romani “3ivdo, 3uklo”.
J = y , as in English “Yes. Yell” & in Romani “ja, jalo, jilo”.
C = Ch, as in English “Child, Chicken, Chap, Check”.
Ch = as in English “Church” and in [Romani & Hindustani]“Chin“.
The Kali – Goddess is a common Goddess between Roma & Hindus of India.Goddess kali is also known as “Sati -Sara- Kali” by the Hindus and Roma people.
Shanti [skt] = Peace [eng].
Sarvnash [skt] = Holocaust, total destruction, Blood-shed, Slaughtering.
( JANARDHAN – SINGH – PATHANIA)
TARO – INDIA.
Thanks for this research, Jonathan. Learning of this in the late ’90’s, I set out to find whether there had been a resurgence of the middle class lost in Moravia. There was, and RomaRising came into existence.
We , who are not Sinti or Roma, should feel shame for not only our ignorance, but that many still have attitudes about “gypsies”. Their persecution must stop.
An example of man’s inhumanity to man’ over our existence on Earth. Begs the question; ‘is there a just and compassionate G-d? what is the purpose of man on earth? have we failed? is there still time for redemption and learning the lessons toward a more humanitarian culture? are we facing the 6th mass extinction?
I once in my mind ask God how could it be allowed to happen that night I had a dream in my dream l saw abuitiful cotton a book avoice in my dream said turn the page the city was in ruins some weeks later I took my son to the doctors for some minor ailment while I was in the waiting room I picked up a magazine I opened it to see the buitiful city it was dressdon in Germany I turned the page it was flattened, what started as dislike turned to hatedred and eventually brought abought Thier own distruction.
Mind you that Romani in Croatia weren’t sistematically exterminated by Germans but by Croats that were nazi pupets from day one. My grandfather’s family are Roma from Banat(Serbia) and they were the example of middle class Roma, luckily they managed to survive the war.
Banat is in Romania, not Serbia.
There are Sebian, Romanian, and Hungarian Banat.
“Banatul sarbesc” – Serbian Banat. Currently, all three of Romania, Serbia and Hungary share the region known as Banat.
Andrea, I agree, and regardless its territory nowaday, people of this region – the Roma and Jewish people, the Orthodox Christians – did suffer greatly, predominantly thanks to local collaborators and supporters of the NSDAP regime.
Let us remember the past in order not to repeat the same mistakes again in these volatile times.
Thank you for the article. It made me realise that one of derogatory terms for the Roma from those times is still in use in Vojvodina.
Banat is in both Serbia and Romania now. But it’s actually older than any of those countries.
There is a bit of Banat in Serbia too! It is called the Serbian Banat = Banatul Sarbesc.
Heart wrenching history, there are so many more to share, what these countries endued
fascinating , thank you, i knew little of the details of their tragic story.
I am Sinti on my mother’s side and I’m so thankful for this article. So little understood by so many about the Roma and Sinti’s involvement with the Nazi War. Thank you.
Thank you for this education. It’s a disgrace that Germany refused to recognise the nature of this genocide for so long.
What about swiss gipsy extermination till ’60s?