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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