Remembering the Romani Holocaust

27 January 2015

By Bernard Rorke

On the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the extermination camps in 1955, Primo Levi wrote that “Nowadays it is bad taste to speak of the concentration camps. We risk being accused of victimism: at best of a gratuitous fascination with the macabre, at worst, of pure and simple mendacity, of an outrage to decency.” In response to his detractors, Levi wrote that it is not permissible to forget, nor is it permissible to keep silent. 

© Tony Dowson -

For many years those who refused to keep silent about the Romani Holocaust, such as Professor Ian Hancock, faced opprobrium, were accused of exaggeration or, just like Levi in an earlier time, of ‘pure and simple mendacity’.

For far too long the fate of the Roma, who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators had been neglected, and to this day far too many European citizens remain ignorant of this particular aspect of Nazi bestiality. In too many accounts, the Baro Porrajmos (Great Devouring) of Europe's Romani people, which claimed the lives of more than 500,000 victims, remained relegated to the footnotes, if indeed mentioned at all. 

Emblematic of the wider amnesia concerning the Romani victims of the Holocaust was the fate of Maria Settele Steinbach. The haunting image of nine-year-old Settele, as she peered out of the cattle car of a train bound for Aushwitz-Birkenau, moments before the doors were locked and bolted, was captured on film in May 1944. This became one of the most reproduced, tragic iconic images of the Holocaust. 

For decades, Settele was described in the literature as the unnamed Jewish girl in a headscarf.  Settele’s identity was only established some 50 years later. Settele was one of a group of 245 Dutch Sinti crammed aboard that train. She was killed, along with her mother, aunt and four siblings sometime between July 31 and August 2, 1944, when the Germans murdered almost 3,000 Roma men, women, and children in the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager ("Gypsy camp") at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In an obscene affront to survivors of the genocide, compensation claims were denied to Roma and Sinti in Germany in the 1950s on the grounds that "Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialistic Regime not for any racial reason, but because of an asocial and criminal record." This verdict came to typify post-war thinking concerning the mass-murder of Romani people and facilitated academic neglect and public amnesia. It was as if Romani lives and deaths simply mattered less.

For decades Hancock and others tirelessly strove to overturn the notion that the Roma were merely a population defined by behavior and social criteria, murdered by the Nazis because they constituted a ‘minor irritant’. Repeatedly these scholars brought to public attention the numerous Nazi policy statements that clearly called for the annihilation of the Romani population as part of the final solution. The Nazi intent was, as Johannes Behrendt of the Office of Racial Hygiene succinctly stated in 1938, that “all Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick; the only solution is elimination. The aim should therefore be the elimination without hesitation of this defective element in the population.” 

In recent years, there has been a remarkable growing public recognition of the Porrajmos, and a deeper understanding of the racist character of the genocide.  A year after German President Roman Herzog declared January 27 as Germany's official day of remembrance for the victims of Hitler's regime in 1996, he stated that: 

"The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was motivated by the same obsession with race, carried out with the same resolve and the same intent to achieve their methodical and final extermination as the genocide against the Jews. Throughout the National Socialists' sphere of influence, the Sinti and Roma were murdered systematically, family by family, from the very young to the very old."

Though recognition of the Romani Holocaust has begun to take hold, Holocaust denial has not gone away and some elected politicians in the European Union still indulge in either the hard-core form or the more slippery kinds of ‘soft-core denial’. Last year Czech MP Tomio Okamura, chair of the Dawn of Direct Democracy Movement (Úsvit) in response to a tabloid survey as to whether a pig farm should be removed from the site of the former concentration camp at Lety stated: 

"According to the information available, this myth that it was a Romani concentration camp is a lie. There was a labor camp there for people who avoided proper work, including Czechs and Germans in the Protectorate. They were not interned on the basis of ethnicity, but on the basis of the gypsy way of life, which means that no working Roma were there … No one was killed at the camp - people died there as a result of old age and the diseases they brought with them as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle.”   

In Hungary Minister for Human Resources, Zoltán Balog marked the anniversary of the liquidation of the ‘Gypsy Camp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau last year by stating on Kossuth Radio that “There was no deportation of Roma from Hungary; they were deported from Austria”, and cautioning his ‘Gypsy friends’ from concentrating too much on this element of their identity, lest they create the ‘internal confusion and schizophrenia’ he has witnessed among Hungarian Jewry.  

In both cases what was encouraging was the damning and widely publicized responses from political opponents and civil society in both countries. Balog’s comments led to calls for his resignation. The socialist politician, Ágnes Kunhalmi declared that relativization or denial of the Porrajmos went against all norms of civilized society; and that Balog’s words which “went against the grain of all academic historical research, were clearly false and intolerable.”

In the Czech Republic, Okamura’s comments were described as "the kind of moral turpitude that rises to the level of a felony", and drew direct condemnation from the Prime Minister, other prominent politicians, as well as Romani intellectuals and activists. Petra Gelbart, in a moving rebuttal of Okamura’s lies said that he was also propagating the mistaken notion that all Romani victims of the Holocaust were so-called ‘asocials’: 

“In reality, both in the Protectorate and in other countries, highly integrated Romani and Sinti people were also included in the transports to the concentration camps. I happen to know what I am talking about in this regard not just thanks to historical sources, but because the Holocaust affected my relatives, of whom only a tiny fraction survived. As for the fairytale that ‘the Germans were responsible for everything’, my great-great-grandmother was killed directly by a Czech camp guard. Unlike Mr Okamura, however, I reject the notion of collective blame.”

Okamura is just the latest in a line of deniers, indeed former Czech President Václav Klaus once said Lety had not been ‘a concentration camp in the real sense of the word.’  For all those who would relativize or trivialize the suffering of the victims of fascist crimes, this testimony of a girl imprisoned in Lety at the age of ten stands as a damning indictment: 

“What was it like when they sent them away to Auschwitz? Well that was horrible, people howled and wept, I always said "Mom do you hear that? Mom, please, make them stop crying" - it was horrible. "What are they doing to them, what are they doing to them?" That's what I was thinking. They rounded them up and they couldn't go out anymore, not anywhere, and at night the police vans came, and then the crying, the screaming of those people as they begged for mercy, that was horrible. Then we never saw any of those people ever again....”

On this day 60 years ago, Primo Levi warned that “If we fail to bear witness, in a not too distant future we could well see the deeds of Nazi bestiality relegated by their very enormity to the status of legend. It is vital therefore to speak out.” 

Millions of victims faced what Levi described as “a defenceless and naked death, ignominious and vile”. The fascist perpetrators demonstrated for all centuries to come what “unsuspected reserves of viciousness and madness lie latent in man even after millennia of civilized life”. Following Levi, commemorating the liberation of the camps is a time to repeat a message not new to history but all too often forgotten: “that man is, must be, sacred to man, everywhere and for ever.” It’s a time to remember all who were murdered by the Nazis, and selected for annihilation on the ground of their ‘racial origins’. This solemn and open spirit of commemoration was memorably captured by the Israeli sculptor Danni Karavan, who designed the Berlin memorial to Roma victims of the Holocaust: 

“They killed all of them together. Therefore I feel that they are my brothers and sisters. At the inauguration I said in Hebrew that I feel like my family was killed and burned with the Sinti and Roma in the same gas chambers and their ashes went with the wind to the fields. So we are together. It is our destiny.”


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