The Road to Porrajmos,
the Gypsy Holocaust

by Shirley A. Miller

 What care I for my house and land?
What care I for my money, O?
What care I for my new-wedded lord?
I'm off with the wraggle-taggle Gypsies, O!

from "The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies"

The new bride in this old ballad runs off with some Gypsies and refuses to return to her husband when he finds her in the Gypsy camp.  She left to be free from her stuffy new husband and the trials of running a household and staff.  In doing so, she also left her  comfortable life--silk dresses, a fine home, money, servants--left it all to live the carefree Gypsy life.  No doubt she could picture the Gypsies dancing around the campfire, their golden earrings flashing in the firelight, the Gypsy violins urging the dancers on--a romantic life.  A life more exciting than hers, she must have thought.

However, would she have chosen the Gypsy life had she known that such a life held hardship and persecution that reached a new high under Hitler?  The Gypsies unknowingly traveled a road that led to Porrajmos, the Gypsy Holocaust.  The human tragedy of Porrajmos (a Romani word meaning "the Devouring") is slowly reaching the public eye.

Internationally known Rom (Gypsy) activist, Professor Ian Hancock of the University of Texas, explains the difficulty of obtaining information about Gypsies and the Holocaust: "Holocaust scholarship over the past forty to fifty years has been conducted primarily by Jewish researchers, so it is almost entirely about Jews, as is natural.  The Gypsies lacked educated people to write.  Also, people who have gone through it don't want to remember.  It's too painful."  Fortunately, through Dr. Hancock's efforts and that of others, the story of the Porrajmos is finally being revealed.

When and where did the journey down this tragic road begin?  No exact date can be set, but approximately 1,000 years ago, the ancestors of today's Roma (Gypsies is a pejorative term) began their long trek.  Coming out of India, they traveled westward, arriving in Southeastern Europe around 1300.  Initially, the Roma were accepted because of their skills as craftsmen, horsemen, and entertainers.  Still, their language (Romanes), appearance, and customs set them apart socially from the non-Roma, or gadje.  They could claim no land in Europe, they traveled the countryside, they were much darker than the locals, and they did not know where their homeland was.  It suited some Roma to say they came from Egypt--hence, perhaps, the name Gypsy.  Claiming to be Egyptian would come back to haunt them as the Turks of the Ottoman Empire expanded westward into Europe.  Perhaps the Gypsies are really Turkish spies, thought some gadje.  Fearing the prospect of being conquered by the Moslem Ottoman Turks, gadje suspicion cast its shadow on the Roma.

Under that shadow, they took several giant steps along the road leading to Porrajmos and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  Fear and suspicion sent them down that slippery slope until their standing was such that the European gadje chose to deal with the Roma in the following ways: expulsion, repression, assimilation, sterilization, and later, extermination.  Repressive laws and expulsion orders reinforced their nomadic lifestyle.  England, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, for example, expelled the Roma.  Those who managed to stay behind faced being beaten or hanged.  In parts of Europe, killing a Rom was legal.  In early eighteenth century Germany, the Germans held "Gypsy hunts" during which they tracked down and killed the Roma.  Sometimes, forest fires were set to drive them out of hiding, forcing them to face either death by fire or death at the hands of their hunters.

Also, some areas tolerated the whipping and branding of Romani women.  The gadje took Romani children and placed them permanently in non-Gypsy  homes, destroying Romani families.  Authorities condoned drowning, mass murder, and forced labor.  Places such as Hungary, Spain, and Romania instituted slavery.  In Romania, both the nobility and the Romanian Orthodox Church held slaves.  There, slavery lasted about 550 years, ending in 1864.


Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, pioneered the study of eugenics in the 1880's.  He, along with others, believed that control of human reproduction alone could, in theory, promote progress in the evolution of mankind by increasing the proportion of the population that is intelligent, emotionally stable, and healthy.

Eugenics has two approaches: positive and negative.  Positive eugenics involves encouraging the reproduction of those having the genetic potential for desirable mental and physical traits.  Examples of this approach are genetic counseling and public education campaigns.  Negative eugenics attempts to reduce the incidence of hereditary mental or physical defects.  Sterilization, birth control, and restrictive marriage laws exemplify negative eugenics.  Hitler's Nazi regime took negative eugenics to the extreme, even adding extermination to its attempt to create a "pure race."

During the years leading up to Hitler's taking office as Chancellor of the Third Reich on January 30, 1933, the Roma suffered under other actions.  For example, in 1926, they faced two new laws, one "to combat Gypsy nomads and idlers" and the other to control the "Gypsy Plague."  In 1927, the Germans passed a law demanding that Gypsies be fingerprinted and photographed.  That same year, another one forbade them to travel in family groups.  By 1928, Gypsies in Germany were under police surveillance.  They lost their civil rights in 1933, and during that same time, legalized clubbing of Gypsies became the rule.

After Hitler became Chancellor, the Nazis introduced a law legalizing eugenic (see box above) sterilization.  As a means of creating a pure "Aryan" race, in July of 1933, Hitler's cabinet passed a law against the propagation of "lives not worthy of life" called the "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring."  Because the Nazis considered the Roma to be unworthy of life, they were to be sterilized along with anyone with "genetically determined" illnesses such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, and deafness.

By this time, the Roma had long been if not low man in the social and economic hierarchy then tied for last place with the Jews.  They were thought of as "asocial," culturally inferior, and a source of crime.  Were Gypsies and blacks human or sub-human?  The Nazis set up the Racial Hygiene and Criminal Biology Research Unit to answer this question.  Months later, to quote Hancock from his "Responses to the Romani Holocaust," the "Ministry of the Interior, which partially funded the Research Unit, circulated an order forbidding marriages between Germans and 'Gypsies, Negroes, and their bastard offspring.'"  Hence, it comes as no surprise that the Roma, in addition to the Jews, came under the restrictions of the Nuremberg Law for the Protection of Blood and Honor, which forbade the intermarriage or sexual relationships between Aryan and non-Aryan peoples.  A more strict definition of "Gypsy" came about in 1938.  A person could be judged as having too much "Gypsy blood" to be allowed to live if two of the individual's eight great-grandparents were even part Gypsy.

The Nazi government let the German public know, through their actions against the Roma, that it sanctioned the mistreatment and persecution of an "inferior race."  Military and police brutality were condoned.  The registration of Gypsies had been in effect with even infants being fingerprinted when, in 1933, Gypsies throughout Germany were arrested under "The Law Against Habitual Criminals."  Many found themselves doing labor in a concentration camp where some were forced to undergo sterilization.  In 1938, during "Gypsy Clean-Up Week," hundreds of Roma in Germany and Austria were gathered together, beaten, and put into prison.

By September 1939, the German government forced the Roma onto a different road--one made of tracks on which trains stuffed with Gypsies traveled eastward to Poland and the concentration camps.  It was at the concentration camp at Buchenwald that, to quote Hancock, 250 Gypsy children were "used as guinea pigs for testing the gas Zyklon B..."  This gas is a lethal insecticide and was used to exterminate rats.  The Nazis used it for mass murders of people at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1941 onward.

In their search for the means by which to create a "pure Aryan race," the Nazis created three stages of the "Final Solution."  The first consisted of mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, whose job it was to eliminate masses of people by shooting them.  This method of extermination proved inefficient.  Also, it psychologically disturbed the men assigned to such duty.  The second, the use of mobile gas vans, began at Chelmno, Poland in December 1941.  This method was inefficient as the vans could not handle large numbers.  The victims died too slowly, and unloading the vans after the killings consumed too much time.  In addition, the cleanup job was a most smelly, unsanitary job.  These defects did not prevent five thousand Austrian Gypsies from dying in the mobile gas vans at Chelmno.  Stage three began with the use of stationary gas chambers in March 1942.  The Nazis used either carbon monoxide or hydrocyanic acid to gas their victims, the latter gas favored at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The gas chambers were more reliable and, because they held so many more people than the gas vans, hundreds of victims could be killed at a time.

Six of the concentration camps located throughout Germany and German-occupied Europe became killing centers where victims were gassed: Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek.  All six were in Poland.

Many Gypsies from all over Germany and Nazi-occupied territories were gathered up and deported to slave labor and death camps.  The mobile killing units and collaborators killed others wherever they found them.  Who were killed?  What were their names?  How many died?  Where are their bodies?  Such records of "subhumans" were seldom kept, so no one knows the answers to these questions.

The "Final Solution" to the "Gypsy Question" began with Heinrich Himmler's Auschwitz decree of December 16, 1942.  All Gypsies in Germany and the Nazi-controlled European territories were to be deported to Auschwitz for extermination.  Once there, they were housed in a special Gypsy Family Camp, where they were kept in family units.  Why this was done is not certain.  Perhaps, because "medical research" was to be performed on both adults and children, it was easier to house them together, or maybe, as the Rom are very family oriented, they were easier to manage when kept together.

At Auschwitz, Gypsy prisoners wore a "Z" for Zigeuner (Gypsy) tattooed on their left arm and a black triangle, for "asocial," was sewn into their clothes.  The Nazis entered them into the Gypsy register with simply a "Z" after their names as just being a Gypsy was reason enough for them to have been arrested.  At the hands of the SS (Schutzstaffel, or defense squadron) , the Roma faced "scientific" and "medical" experiments in addition to death in the gas chambers.

In the minds of many, one of the most infamous names associated with Auschwitz is that of Dr. Josef Mengele.  He was accused of performing numerous criminal acts: selection (that of choosing which of the new arrivals would go directly to the gas chambers or be saved to work in the camp), lethal injections, shootings, beatings, and other types of killing.  His research interested him greatly, especially his study of twins.  He had more than one office and used his Gypsy Camp office primarily for his research on Gypsy twins.  Curiously, Mengele seemed particularly fond of them.  He could treat them kindly and sometimes, he brought them candy.  They, in turn, thought of him as an uncle.  Yet, he killed individual twins and sets of twins so he could give them post-mortem examinations (especially Gypsy twins at the time of the liquidation of the Gypsy Camp), and the operations he performed on them proved to be fatal.

The surviving Roma at Auschwitz-Berkinau had not yet completed their journey along that horrendous road on which they traveled.  Orders arrived stating that the Gypsy Family Camp should be liquidated, the inhabitants killed, and the bodies cremated. In the early morning hours of August 1, 1944, armed SS troups herded the remaining Gypsies in the camp onto trucks, and drove them to the gas chambers to be gassed.  Their journey ended with their dead bodies being incinerated in a pit next to the crematorium.  In this one action known as Zigeunernacht, approximately 4,000 Roma were killed.

Since the end of World War II and Porrajmos, the Roma have traveled a road which differs little from pre-war roads.  They still face discriminatory laws, deportation, violence, and exclusion, with war crimes reparations yet to be paid to them.  The runaway bride would have found the real Romani life and not the one pictured in folklore.  Centuries-old persecution reached a peak with Porrajmos.  Learning of its history may help bring about the long-overdue understanding between gadje and Roma.  Together, a safer road can be created on which all can travel without fear.

Copyright © Shirley A. Miller, 1998.
Posted 29 January 1999 by the Patrin Web Journal with permission of the author.


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