Slave Labor, Mass Shootings and Gas Chambers: The Roma, World War II's Forgotten Genocide

In comparison to the Holocaust, the mass murder of half a million of Europe's Roma and Sinti communities is unknown and unrecognized. That absence, and their continued persecution, pose questions we still struggle to answer

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August Ansin, a Sinti boy (center), and relatives, Germany c. 1933-1937. August died in Auschwitz, as almost certainly did the other children
August Ansin, a Sinti boy (center), and relatives, Germany c. 1933-1937. August died in Auschwitz, as almost certainly did the other childrenCredit: © University of Liverpool, GLS

It is the Second World War's "forgotten genocide": Around 500,000 of Europe’s Roma were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during WWII, following the institution of policies aimed at their persecution. Why has the genocide of the Roma been largely forgotten? Why has the even partial recognition of their deaths taken so much time?

What barriers prevent us even now from fully acknowledging the genocide's significance today?

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and powerCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 57

London's Wiener Holocaust Library’s current exhibition, Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide of the Sinti and Roma, is dedicated to examining the Nazis' destruction of Roma life, exploring the  policies that predated the mass murder and exposing aspects of this history that have lain hidden and largely unacknowledged for decades.

Roma and Sinti faced prejudice and discrimination in Germany before 1933, but the Nazi accession to power saw an intensification of their persecution.

By the mid-1930s, Roma had been banned from working in certain occupations and many were forced to live in internment camps. By the late 1930s, Nazi racial ideology had been extended to encompass the notion that Roma were of "alien blood" and a threat to the racial strength of the ‘Aryan master race.’ As part of the development of these ideas, Roma were subject to a massive program of pseudo-scientific investigation. They were also targeted for forced sterilization.

During the Second World War, Roma in German-occupied territories experienced deportations to camps and ghettos, slave labor, and murder through starvation, maltreatment, mass shootings and gassing in camps such as Chełmno and Auschwitz. Collaborationist regimes, such as the Ustaše in Croatia, carried out mass murder against their Jewish and Roma populations.

In one account given to The Wiener Library, Dr Max Benjamin, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, describes witnessing the "liquidation" of the "Gypsy camp" on 2-3 August 1944: on this night in "one fell swoop every single one of the gypsies who represented the population of this camp was chased into the gas chambers."

Despite the appalling suffering and injustice faced by Europe’s Roma population during the Nazi period, the Roma genocide has often been over-looked or minimized. A major reason for this is the multiple layers of prejudice, discrimination and marginalization that Roma and Sinti survivors continued to face after liberation. Hostility and negative stereotypes about Roma remained. In many countries, the continued exclusion of Roma from political representation and economic power has hindered their ability to campaign for recognition.

Inauguration of the memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis in WWII, designed by Dani Karavan: a well with retractable panels with information about their persecution. Berlin, Oct 24, 2012
Inauguration of the memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis in WWII, designed by Dani Karavan: a well and retractable panels with information about their persecution. Berlin, Oct 24, 2012Credit: AP

This marginalization is revealed in the absence of prosecutions of perpetrators of crimes against Roma in the initial war crimes trials. In post-war West Germany, there was a climate of denial about the extent of the horrors carried out against Roma victims, who were often not awarded the compensation granted to other victims of Nazi racial persecution. Many memorials constructed in the decades after the war did not acknowledge Roma victims.

It was not until 1982 that Germany officially acknowledged Nazi crimes against the Roma as genocide: the first apology from France for their collaboration in Nazi crimes against Roma and Sinti came in 2016.

In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the experiences of Roma during the genocide also went largely unacknowledged. Those Roma who wished to remain nomadic were forced into settled homes. In the post-communist period, discrimination against Roma has increased, while living conditions and access to services have severely declined.

Our exhibition tries to address the collective amnesia around the genocide against the Roma. The Wiener Holocaust Library has important collections relating to this topic, including early eyewitness testimonies from Roma survivors gathered in a project led by the Library’s Dr Eva Reichmann from the 1950s onwards. The Library has plans to publish some of these testimonies later in 2020.  

Unpublished accounts collected in the 1950s as part of The Wiener Library's project to gather eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust
Unpublished accounts, including the 'liquidation' of Auschwitz's 'gypsy camp' in 1944, collected in the 1950s as part of The Wiener Library's project to gather eyewitness accounts of the HolocaustCredit: Wiener Holocaust Library Collec

We also hold material collected during the first research project that systematically attempted to document the genocide, carried out by Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon in the late 1960s. A number of items from this collection, including summaries of testimonies of survivors, are featured in the exhibition.

One striking item also on display in the exhibition is a post-war photograph of Margarete Kraus. The camp number tattoo on her left forearm is only just visible: Kraus was a Czech Roma survivor of Auschwitz, where she was a victim of forced medical experiments. Kraus’s portrait was taken by East German journalist Reimar Gilsenbach in the 1960s. Gilsenbach conducted research into the persecution of Roma during the Nazi period.

Margarete Kraus, a Czech Roma, photographed after the war by Reimar Gilsenbach. Her Auschwitz tattoo is visible on her left arm
Margarete Kraus, a Czech Roma, photographed after the war by Reimar Gilsenbach. Her Auschwitz tattoo is visible on her left armCredit: Reimar Gilsenbach / Wiener Holoc

A very different exhibit is a document entitled "Posted Prohibitions Concerning Poles, Jews and Gypsies," later submitted to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials as evidence of Nazi crimes. Dated 10 March 1944, it is a circular sent by Heinrich Himmler to a group of high-ranking state officials informing them that "the accomplished evacuation and isolation" of Jews and Gypsies meant that further directives were no longer necessary.

Heinrich Himmler, "Posted Prohibitions Concerning Poles, Jews, and Gypsies." 10 March 1944, translation from the Nuremburg War Crimes trials
Heinrich Himmler, "Posted Prohibitions Concerning Poles, Jews, and Gypsies." 10 March 1944, translation from the Nuremburg War Crimes trialsCredit: Wiener Holocaust Library Collec

"Evacuation" and "isolation" in this context meant that the vast majority of Jews, Sinti and Roma from greater Germany had already been deported to ghettoes and camps and murdered. The terminology used here exemplifies the "leaden matter-of-factness" of SS bureaucratic language, memorably described by historian Mark Roseman as a "devilish parody of administrative precision."

Another story told in the exhibition is that of Hans Braun, a German Sinti man born in Hannover in 1923. Braun survived both the Auschwitz and Flossenbürg camps. Most of his family were murdered in Auschwitz.

When, in 1950, he made a claim for compensation from the German state, the local police decided instead to open inquiries against him – searching for spurious evidence that Braun had been incarcerated as a "criminal" - as grounds for rejecting his claim.

Hans Braun's certificate of incarceration in Auschwitz and Flossenbürg, 1950
Hans Braun's certificate of incarceration in Auschwitz and Flossenbürg, 1950Credit: International Tracing Service Di

The fact that the true nature and scale of the Roma genocide has been denied, minimized or ignored by so many for so long, has been painful and enraging for victims and their relatives.

Although it is too late to rectify the injustices they experienced, it is not too late to address the marginalization and discrimination faced by Roma communities today in places such as Hungary, where discrimination and hostility towards Roma is common, and Ukraine, where fascist groups have carried out an number of violent attacks on Roma in the last couple of years. Perhaps this exhibition makes a start, by recognizing where discrimination and prejudice can lead.

Dr Toby Simpson is Director of The Wiener Holocaust Library

Dr Barbara Warnock is Senior Curator and Head of Education at The Wiener Holocaust Library and the curator of the Library's Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti exhibition

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