Historical Amnesia: The Romani Holocaust
C R Sridhar
Our consciousness of holocaust is seared by the stark images of freight cars transporting Jewish women, children and men to the death camps of Belsen, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Wizened faces peering out of barbed fences and piles of bodies heaped near the infamous furnaces of the death camps offer humankind a rare glimpse into the nature of evil symbolised by the Nazi era. In popular cinema, such as Schindler's List and The Pianist, the holocaust is represented as the tragedy befalling the Jewish people.
The dominant narrative of the holocaust by historians and scholars of the Nazi era is imbued with the sense of the exceptional and unique suffering of the Jewish race. As Daniel Goldhagen observes:
The Germans' treatment of Jews - who were seen as the secular incarnation of the devil - was so horrific that it can hardly be compared to that of other peoples. No matter what the purpose, organisation, general practices of the given camp were, Jews, structurally in the same situation as other prisoners, were always made to suffer the most - a fact regularly noted by survivors of the camp world, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Were Jews the Only Victims?
While the neo-Nazi factions and historians such as David Irving have alleged that the genocide of the Jews never took place, earning the well deserved criticism of being anti-Semitic holocaust deniers, there is growing dissent among liberal scholars such as Norman Finkelstein that other holocausts have been suppressed in favour of the dominant discourse of Jewish suffering as being "the only Holocaust". "Were Jews the only victims of The Holocaust", asks Finkelstein polemically, "or did others who perished because of Nazi persecution also count as victims?"
An unbiased version of the holocaust should tell humankind the systematic liquidation of communists, the Romanies and handicapped people. As Henry Friedlander, a respected historian and a former Auschwitz inmate, notes: "Alongside Jews, the Nazis murdered the European Gypsies. Defined as a 'dark skinned' racial group, Gypsy men, women, and children could not escape their fate as victims of Nazi genocide". As Finkelstein points out, "The Nazis systematically murdered as many as a half-million Gypsies, with proportional losses roughly equal to the Jewish genocide". Another eminent holocaust historian, Raul Hilberg has also argued that like the Jews, the 'gypsies' also fell as victims to the cold blooded 'genocidal' assault of the Nazis.
Unlike the careful documentation of the Jewish holocaust and the widespread publicity given to it, the Romani genocide was marginalised and consigned to the footnotes of history. In fact, as Guenther Lewy argues,
Because there was no intent to kill all Romanies, and because policies against them were not motivated by Nazi race theory, their treatment cannot be compared with that of the Jews and therefore they do not qualify for inclusion in the Holocaust - in sum because their treatment did not constitute a genocide and it was not motivated by a policy based on Nazi race theory.Steven Katz in his research paper concludes: "The only defensible conclusion, the only adequate encompassing judgment...is that in comparison to the ruthless, monolithic, metapolitical, 'genocidal' design of Nazism vis-ą-vis Jews, nothing similar...existed in the case of the Gypsies...In the end, it was only Jews and the Jews alone who were the victims of a total 'genocidal' onslaught in both intent and practice at the hands of the Nazi murderers".
But a careful review of the genocide of the Romanies bears an eerie similarity to the genocide of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
Persecution of the Romanies
As early as 19th century Germany, a conference was held on 'The Gypsy Filth' (Der Zigeunerunrat) and plans were made to round up the Romanies throughout the German-controlled territories. Long before the Nazi takeover they were social outcasts and they were perceived as foreign, strange and culturally inferior. They were widely seen as criminals. In the 1920s the Romanies were singled out as Lebensunwertes Leben or "lives unworthy of life". A pseudo-scientific study by psychiatrist Karl Binding and magistrate Alfred Hoche titled Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens paved the way for Hitler to liquidate the Romanies as being genetically worthless.
During the 1920s the police in Bavaria and later on, in Prussia, established special offices to keep them in surveillance. They were photographed and fingerprinted as common criminals. With the Nazi takeover of Germany the Romanies were persecuted as being racially inferior. The anti-"Gypsy" laws, already in force from the Middle Ages, were used by the Nazis to oppress the Romanies. Notes Ian Hancock: "During the 1920s, the legal oppression of the Romanies in Germany intensified despite the official statutes of the Weimar Republic that said all its citizens were equal. In 1920 they were forbidden to enter public parks and public baths; in 1925 a conference on 'The Gypsy Question' was held which resulted in the creation of laws requiring unemployed Romanies to be sent to work camps 'for reasons of public security', and for all Romanies to be registered with the police".
On September 15, 1935, "Gypsies" became subject to the Nuremberg laws for the protection of blood and honour, which forbade intermarriage or sexual intercourse between Aryan and non-Aryan peoples. Criteria for classification as a Romani were twice as strict as those later applied to Jews: if two of a person's eight greatgrandparents were even part-Romani, that person had too much Romani ancestry to be allowed, later, to live.
In 1936 racial studies of the Romanies started under Robert Ritter and his assistant Eva Justin. The Racial Hygiene and Population Biology Research Unit was established to study the link between Romani heredity and crime. Eva Justin conducted research on Romani children. After the conclusion of the study the children were sent to Auschwitz, where most of them were put to death. After the exhaustive interviews were conducted, Ritter concluded in his report,
The Gypsy question can only be solved when the main body of asocial and goodfornothing Gypsy individuals of mixed blood is collected together in large labour camps and kept working there, and when the further breeding of this population is stopped once and for all.
Systematic Genocide of the Romanies
On December 8, 1938 Himmler passed a decree of "Basic Regulations to Resolve the Gypsy Question as Required by the Nature of Race" which formed the basis for the complete annihilation of the Roma. In February 1939, Johannes Behrendt of the Nazi Office of Racial Hygiene circulated a brief in which it was stated that "all Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick; the only solution is elimination. The aim should be the elimination without hesitation of this defective population".
The systematic genocide of the Romanies took place between 1939 and 1945. Some 2,500 Romanies were deported to Poland in 1940 and worked to death. About 5,000 Romanies were deported to Lodz and kept in a ghetto. Those who survived the Lodz ghetto were put to death in the Chelmno extermination camp. Romanies in Germany were sent to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau (the "Gypsy" family camp) where they were subjected to torture, gruesome medical experimentation under SS captain Josef Mengele. At Auschwitz, Romani prisoners as a measure to denote their inferiority wore a "Z" for Zigeuner (Gypsy) tattooed on their left arm and a black triangle, for "asocial", was sewn into their clothes. Roma prisoners were also used in inhuman medical experiments at the Ravensbrueck, Natzweiler-Struthof, and Sachsenhausen camps. In Auschwitz 19,000 of the 23,000 Romanies died. In Poland, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia and Albania many Romanies were shot or sent to death camps where they were killed. In the Baltic states and German-occupied USSR, Romanies were killed along with Jews and communist leaders by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units). In France, the deportation of the "Gypsies" started in 1941 from the German-occupied territories and those areas under Vichy control interned some 3,500 Romanies and sent to the death camps operated by the Germans. In 1941 the Wehrmacht shot all the male adult Romani population along with most Jewish adult males as retaliation against the killing of German soldiers by the Serbian Resistance fighters. In Croatia, the Ustasa - the Croatian fascists allied with Germany, slaughtered thousands of Romanies.
Some estimates of the carnage vary from 2,20,000 to 8,00,000. Others place the death toll between 2,50,000 and 10,00,000 Romanies being exterminated during the holocaust. In percentage terms, it puts the Romani as the most affected ethnic group by the Nazi killings. Over 90 per cent of Romani population in Austria and Germany was wiped out by the fascist regimes. According to Simon Wiesenthal in his letter dated December 14, 1984 addressed to Elie Wiesel, "the Gypsies had been murdered [in a proportion] similar to the Jews; about 80 per cent of them in the area of the countries which were occupied by the Nazis".
Indifference to Romani Plight
The Romani genocide during Nazi rule in Germany remains one of the dark episodes of European history and one least written about or discussed in the European media. The indifference to the Romani holocaust could be attributed to the fact that they were averse to talk about their terrible tragedy, unlike the Jewish victims of the holocaust. As Agnes Daroczi, a Romani activist in Hungary points out: "Ours is an oral culture and there is low contact level among the various Gypsy communities". "We can assume", says Julia Hajdu, "that since Roma have not spoken out about their past, the history could not be written. This has a lot to do with the fact that the Roma Holocaust, the Porrajmos, has not been heard of until the last two decades." The other reason could be that the Romanies were viewed as shiftless vagabonds and common criminals eliciting very little sympathy for their fate. The powerful prejudice of anti-"gypsyism" in Germany in particular and other parts of Europe prevented the Romanies from getting justice.
Post the Second World War, the Federal Republic of Germany decided that all measures taken against the Romani people before 1943 were legitimate policies of the state and not subject to restitution. In 1982 German chancellor Helmut Kohl formally agreed that the Romani people were victims of Nazi genocide. But by a sad twist of irony, most of the survivors had died by then. Today the Romanies are marginalised citizens. "The 2005 annual report of the European Commission on equality and non-discrimination", adds Valeriu Nicolae, a Romani activist, "writes on its first page that Roma communities face 'widespread exclusion and discrimination'. Racist political speech and media coverage targeting Roma, which could not be written about any other European citizens, are seen as normal in a Europe ravaged by strong anti-'Gypsyism'".
A stony indifference to the plight of Romanies prevails in the US, as there is great resistance to the idea of Romani representation in the US Holocaust Memorial Council. This council was established in 1979 by president Jimmy Carter to be an enduring memorial to all those who perished in Hitler's Germany. Though as many as 65 individuals are appointed to the council only two Romanies were ever appointed in the last 27 years of its history. One was the Hon. William A. Duna who was the first presidential appointee to the council.
In 1998, President Clinton appointed Ian Hancock, the leading Romani activist and scholar, to the council. Hancock has been instrumental in asking for recognition for the Romanies in the US. A professor at the University of Texas, he teaches Romani studies. He is also director of the International Romani Archives and Documentation Centre. When his appointment to the council lapsed no attempt was made to fill up the vacancy by George Bush when he became the president of the US. Today no Romani is represented on the US Holocaust Memorial Council. Their holocaust does not have the dignity of a memorial.
Hegel once said: "what history teaches us is that men have never learned anything from it". One lesson we must learn from the Porrajmos (the devouring), as the Romanies described their fate at the hands of the Nazis, is that there is one holocaust as the ashes of the Romanies mingled with the others in the ovens of the death camps. We lose our humanity when we arrogate to ourselves the exclusivity of suffering while diminishing the suffering of others.
Historically, this creates the unacceptable categories of worthy sufferers and less worthy sufferers. As Finkelstein comments on the Jewish Holocaust: "the claims of Holocaust uniqueness are intellectually barren and morally discreditable, yet they persist. The question is, why? In the first place, unique suffering confers unique entitlement". "The unique evil of the Holocaust", according to Jacob Neusner, "not only sets Jews apart from others, but also gives Jews a claim upon those others".
By the act of denying or ignoring other holocausts, we rob history of its meaning and commit the folly of not learning from it.
Historical Amnesia: The Romani Holocaust
- » Published on September 05, 2006
- » Type: Opinion
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