Monday, 2 June, 2014

Each year June marks Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness of this community's past. Discrimination and prejudice is a common theme throughout the group's experiences over the years and indeed still is today. An understanding of the reasons why this persecution has occurred can help to fight misconceptions that lead to oppression today. This article will focus on Roma Gypsy history as a group who experienced genocide at the hands of the Nazis.

Who are Romani/Roma Gypsies?

Today’s Roma people are intrinsically associated with Europe, yet their origins lie much further east in India. They made their way westwards towards Europe some 1,000 years ago, pulled by the attraction of cities such as Tehran and Constantinople and pushed by conflicts and instability closer to home. Known then as Dom, meaning 'man', it was their movement into Europe and the local population’s pronunciation of the letter 'd' with a curled up tongue that gave them their modern day name 'Rom', the singular of Roma.

They slowly migrated throughout Greece and the Balkans, up to the central European countries of the Czech Republic and Germany, and then later on to the Iberian Peninsula, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. Of the 12 million Romani that live worldwide today, some 10 million of those are in Europe where they represent the biggest minority population on the continent. The majority of the remainder migrated to the Americas – predominantly the US and Brazil.

The origins of Roma persecution

Prejudice, discrimination and persecution towards the Romani has a long history, dating back to when they first arrived in Europe. In these medieval times Christianity reigned supreme, and Romani were perceived to not fall in line with these ideals, instead regarded as soothsayers and psychics who aimed to deceive gullible Europeans into handing over their money. Meanwhile, their unusual language stoked further suspicion and their dark skin meant people regarded them as racially inferior.[1]

England was one country among many that expelled Romani from its land. The Egyptians Act of 1530 – they were originally thought to be from Egypt, which explains the etymology behind the word Gypsy – prevented any Romani from entering the country and gave those already within the realm 16 days to leave.

'An outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft nor feat of merchandise, who have come into this realm, and gone from shire to shire, and place to place, in great company; and used great subtlety and crafty means to deceive the people - bearing them in hand that they, by palmistry, could tell men's and women's fortunes; and so, many times, by craft and subtlety, have deceived the people for their money; and also have committed many heinous felonies and robberies, to the great hurt and deceit of the people that they have come among…,' the statute read.[2]

They were expelled from other states in Europe and in some even faced the prospect of summary execution without trial if they were remanded in custody. More and more the community became stigmatised for being 'asocial' and made up of criminals and vagrants, and much of this prejudice still remains today. It was this persecution that helped to push the Romani into an increasingly nomadic lifestyle, moving to find areas where they could live in relative peace and earning them the ‘traveller’ moniker.

The Porrojmos

Porrojmos is the Romani word for ‘devouring’, used to describe the atrocities they suffered during World War II. Although they had experienced years upon years of discrimination, it was not until the mid-20th century until it reached its peak under Germany’s Nazi regime. Alongside Europe’s Jewish population, the Romani were targeted for complete annihilation.

The seeds of the campaign of Romani destruction were, however, actually planted by the German Empire and the Weimar Republic, long before the Nazi party came to power. In 1899 the Imperial Police Headquarters in Munich established an operation to monitor the Romani community and to keep records on them, which included photos and identification cards. This discrimination was extended under the Weimar powers in the 1920s who issued rules forbidding Romani from certain public places and increasingly associated the community with being criminals. There were great attempts to restrict the movement of Romani and get them to settle in one place, which would usually mean confining them to one area of a town or city. In 1929, four years before Adolf Hitler’s inauguration as Chancellor, the Centre for the Fight Against Gypsies was established in Germany, which gave police forces the permission to arrest and detain Roma on very little basis simply as a means to 'prevent crime'.

Upon the Nazi’s rise to power, the persecution of Roma was quickly ramped up and within a few years the community had lost its citizenship and right to vote, and it was around this time that they first began to face imprisonment and raids, particularly around Berlin in 1936 when officials wanted to project a clean image of the city to the world while eyes were on it for the Olympics.

With the commencement of World War II, mass deportation of Gypsies began and they found themselves alongside Jews in ghettos and later on in concentration camps such as Dachau, Mauthausen and Auschwitz. Some 20,000 were killed in Auschwitz alone and it was here that many suffered the grizzly fate of Dr Mengele’s medical experiments.[3]

Across the Balkans and further east in Europe thousands of people among Romani communities faced extermination by the Einsatzgruppen death squads. Meanwhile, other Axis countries also participated in the Porrojmos where puppet regimes cooperated with the Nazi answer to the Gypsy question, notably Yugoslavia, Croatia and what was then Czech Republic.

Estimates of the total death toll among the Gypsy community vary widely, but it is said to be more than 200,000.

The post-war climate

Similar to the experiences of the gay community, the end of World War II and the demise of the Nazi party did not spell an end to Romani persecution. Post-1945 West German governments failed to recognise the genocide, and this meant Roma were unable to receive the same reparations that Jews were granted. The response from West Germany was borderline denial, claiming that the experience of the Roma community was as a result of their asocial and criminal activity.

Therefore, it may come as no surprise that, again like the gay community, Romani faced continued discrimination across Europe in the years after the war. By the time West Germany did recognise that the Roma had indeed suffered genocide in 1982, it was much too late as many of those who would have been eligible were dead.

Today, some 69 years on, Roma communities throughout Europe, including in the UK, continue to face discrimination. The age-old sensationalist association between Romani people and crime still lingers on, while many remain on the fringes of the society facing prejudice and tension in the communities where they reside. Roma communities generally have poor healthcare records, low levels of literacy and educational attendance, suffer high unemployment and in many parts of Europe are denied their full civic rights. Adding to this is the widespread racism and prejudice they endure, stoked by the media and serving as another obstacle to their inclusion within society. 

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Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


[1] Duna, William A (1985). Gypsies: A Persected Race (1985) (Accessed: http://www.chgs.umn.edu/histories/victims/romaSinti/gypsies.html)

[2] Encyclopædia of the Laws of England: Being a New Abridgment By the Most Eminent Legal Authorities (Vol. 6). London: Forgotten Books. (Original work published 1897)

[3] Berenbaum, Michael (1993). The world must know: The history of the Holocaust as told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 194–5.