The Legacy Of The ‘Forgotten’ Holocaust: ‘Anti-Roma Racism Is Still Acceptable’ Does how we remember the Holocaust tell us if anti-Roma hate is still "acceptable"? EachOther examines.
Discrimination, Race / 27 Jan 2020

The Legacy Of The ‘Forgotten’ Holocaust: ‘Anti-Roma Racism Is Still Acceptable’

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor
Roma from the Austrian Burgenland in Dachau concentration camp (July, 20, 1938). Credit: German Federal Archives.

Hans Braun was only 21 years old when, in 1944, he was sent from Auschwitz to Flossenbürg as a slave labourer.

He was born in Hannover to a Sinti family who would travel the countryside with a small carnival during the summers. When the war started, the Nazi regime forced Braun to work in a munitions factory. 

He fled after his machine broke, an offence for which the Gestapo would have arrested him, spending months on the run in Germany and Luxembourg. 

Braun was eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz, where he was temporarily reunited with his family. 

Most of them died from illness or starvation, or were gassed.

Margarete Kraus’ parents also perished in Auschwitz. 

She was only a teenager when she and her family were deported to the camp from their home in Czechoslovakia in 1943. 

There, she was subjected to forced medical experiments, privation and maltreatment, and also contracted typhus. 

Her Auschwitz camp number can been seen on her left forearm.

Braun and Kraus are two survivors of the Roma genocide whose stories feature at an exhibition in London’s Wiener Holocaust Library.

The collection, Forgotten Victims: the Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti, aims to highlight this aspect of history which is often overlooked.

As many as 500,000 Roma and Sinti people were murdered or persecuted by the Nazi regime and their collaborators during the Second World War – around a quarter of their population in Europe at the time. 

It is described by Professor Eve Rosenhaft, a modern German historian, as the forgotten Holocaust.

“We felt that a lot of people don’t know about the Roma community in general or the genocide,” said Dr Barbara Warnock, the exhibition’s curator. 

“If they don’t know the history – perhaps they don’t ask themselves hard questions about their attitudes to Gypsy groups and Traveller groups today.” 

 

Warnock believes the lack of knowledge around the Roma genocide is partly due to the “persistence of prejudice and discrimination, which continued after the war”. 

At the Nuremburg trials, crimes specifically against the Roma were not prosecuted. 

In Germany, official recognition of the Roma genocide did not come until 1982. It was not until 2011 that the European Union followed suit.

When it came to claiming compensation, the minority of Roma people who survived the genocide faced the same barriers that their Jewish counterparts did.

Braun’s application for restitution was refused, for instance.

Documents in the library’s collection show how German police spuriously sought to try and prove that Hans Braun was held in Auschwitz and Flossenbürg because he was a criminal, rather than for “racial” or “political” reasons. 

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

A 1944 letter from Heinrich Himmler included in the librarys collection lays bare how Roma people were, like Jews, targeted by the Nazis’ racial ideology. 

In it, he wrote that the “evacuation and isolation” of Jews and Gypsies had been accomplished – meaning that the vast majority had been deported to ghettos and camps and murdered.    

It is evident also in the testimony of Hermine Horvath, a Roma woman from Austria, who describes her experiences of sexual violence as a forced labourer on an SS man’s farm.

She said: “I noticed very quickly that this [local SS leader] did not worry at all about the Racial Problem when it came to a young Gypsy girl.

“He started to come after me… One day he was suddenly standing in front of me with a drawn pistol.”

"For the longest time, the Roma genocide was not only forgotten, but actively silenced throughout Europe."

Jonathan Lee, advocacy and communication manager at the European Roma Rights Centre.

"For the longest time, the Roma genocide was not only forgotten, but actively silenced throughout Europe."

Human rights group the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), based in Budapest, is collecting genocide survivors stories in a bid to prevent them being forgotten.

“My grandfather told me about what happened to his family when the Nazis came to round up the Roma,” said Đorđe Jovanović, the centre’s president.

“He was out working in the fields with his father and brothers when the Nazi trucks entered our village. His older brother was the first to see them arriving. He stopped what he was doing and started running back to his home to where his wife and baby were alone in the house.” 

He and his dad were caught by Nazi soldiers and put into two separate trucks going in different directions, Jovanović added. “[My great-grandfather] survived the war and eventually returned home to find that his oldest son had been taken to Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where he was executed.”

Jonathan Lee, the ERRCs advocacy and communications manager, told EachOther: For the longest time, the Roma genocide was not only forgotten, but actively silenced throughout Europe.”

Roma people did not have a “huge” educated middle class who could record and bear witness to the atrocities in the same way as their Jewish counterparts. And “what middle class there was was wiped out,” he added.

“Because of this, Europe has not really learned the lessons of the Holocaust, in that way. You can say things about Gypsies you cannot say about Jews. You did not have this ‘taboo moment’.”

In 2012, the European Council’s human rights commissioner highlighted how “Anti-Gypsy stereotypes [also] continue to be spread and perpetuated in the media across Europe … reporting on Roma and Travellers only in the context of social problems and crime.”

To counter this, one recommendation is that “past atrocities against the Roma should be included in history lessons in schools”.

A 2018 European Union report described Roma communities’ human rights situation as “profoundly troubling”. 

Their life expectancy is on average five to 20 years shorter than the majority population in various European countries.

Cases of violent hate crime are numerous.

In Hungary, dozens of people were murdered or wounded in a series of fire bomb attacks on Roma settlements in 2008 and 2009. In Italy in 2017, a man used a Molotov cocktail to burn alive three Roma sisters – aged four, eight and 20. The following year, in Greece, a 13-year-old Romani girl was shot dead.  

Lee – who is Welsh Romani – does not believe that the UK is any less racist than other areas of Europe, where some of the worst rights violations against Roma people take place. 

“The only thing that protects Roma people is that we have stronger institutions and a much older democracy,” he said. 

“Antigypsyism” in the UK is found instead in the inequalities that Roma communities suffer in areas including health outcomes and the provision of services, he added. 

A 2019 report published by the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee found that “Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group across a huge range of areas, including education, health, employment, criminal justice and hate crime”.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s civil society monitoring group in 2018 described GRT people as being among “the most excluded and discriminated against groups in United Kingdom society today”.

In 2007, the Childrens Society found that 63 percent of GRT children in the UK had experienced bullying – with some having been physically attacked.

A National Roma Integration Strategy

Lee believes that, whether or not it remains in the European Union, a first step the UK government must take to address this issue is to develop a National Roma Integration Strategy – an initiative other EU countries adopted in 2011.

The purpose of the strategy is to ensure Roma issues are “systematically mainstreamed” into all relevant national policies and that “policies which maintain or promote the segregation of Roma communities” are scrapped.

Since 2011, the UK government has refused requests to develop a strategy, arguing that it already has a “strong and well-established legal framework to combat discrimination and promote equality”.

But the European Commission does not believe equality laws and policies can “in themselves promote integration”.

“A major gap between policy and action and evidence shows that that discrimination and racism towards Gypsies, Irish Travellers (and more recently against the Roma community) continues across the UK,” it wrote. 

In the past year alone, the UK government appears to have sent mixed messages in its policies toward GRT people.

In June last year, it announced it would provide £200,000 in funding towards six projects aimed at tackling inequality among GRT communities. 

Months later, the Home Office launched a consultation on whether to grant police new powers to arrest and seize property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised caravan sites.

Campaigners argue these powers “would have a devastating impact on Gypsy and Traveller communities who have been part of British life since before the 16th century, yet face some of the greatest inequalities of any group in England and Wales”.

“The discrimination continues. Not in the same way as the 1930s and 40s. Much of the vagrancy laws responsible for their legal persecution are no longer there. Other than that, anti-Roma racism is pretty much acceptable.”

Prof Rainer Schulze, a historian specialising in the Holocaust. Credit: YouTube/ Maung Zarni

“The discrimination continues. Not in the same way as the 1930s and 40s. Much of the vagrancy laws responsible for their legal persecution are no longer there. Other than that, anti-Roma racism is pretty much acceptable.”

Professor Rainer Schulze from the University of Essex is a leading historian specialising in the Holocaust. In 2015, he wrote a series of blogs focusing on the commemoration of Roma and Sinti genocide for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. 

In one, he wrote: “Commemoration is never an end in itself. In order to be meaningful commemoration needs to remember the past in order to shape our common future. 

“If the Holocaust teaches us anything, it surely tells us loudly that when the human rights of one group are violated, no group can feel safe.”

How has the commemoration of the Roma genocide changed since he wrote those words five years ago?

“I must say – I don’t think it has changed at all,” he told EachOther. “In the academic circles, the … Roma are slightly more recognised as victims of the genocide. 

“I am not sure how far this has travelled down to a general acknowledgement that the Holocaust affected the Sinti and the Roma.”

Photograph of a Roma man thought to be Jozef Kwiek. Credit: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Asked what needs to be done to address this, Schulze has many suggestions. 

He said that there needs to be greater unity among Roma organisations. Different groups commemorate the Holocaust on different days, which may contribute to the “pitiful” levels of attendance at many ceremonies, he explained. 

Roma must also have a voice at the table to decide how the Holocaust is commemorated, he added. He pointed towards the planned Holocaust memorial in Londons Victoria Tower Gardens and how, at present, there are no Roma people on its decision-making board.

Thirdly, coalitions must also be formed between minority groups – including Jews and Muslims – to fight for greater representation within all political parties, he added.

Furthermore, more role models are needed in order to challenge negative stereotypes, he said. “Many GRT are still relatively hesitant to identify themselves as such. They could suffer disadvantages, personally or professionally. We need more role models to show that Roma can be everything they want to be,” he said. 

Lamenting the slow recognition of the Roma genocide, Schulze told EachOther he feels “pessimistic”.  

“To be perfectly blunt, mainstream society even today do not really know about the Roma. 

“The discrimination continues. Not in the same way as the 1930s and 40s. Much of the vagrancy laws responsible for their legal persecution are no longer there.

“Other than that, anti-Roma racism is pretty much acceptable.

  • The Forgotten Victims exhibition at the Wiener Holocaust Library, in London, is open until 11 March 2020.
  • The Home Office consultation on granting police new powers to criminalise trespassing and end “unauthorised encampments” ends on 4 March. Human rights group Liberty has developed a tool to help you respond to it. Find it here