The Nazi Genocide of Roma during the Second World War
Action against Sinti and Roma in Nazi Germany (1933 – 1940)
In 1933, a totalitarian Nazi government, led by Adolf Hitler, comes to power in Germany. Hitler soon began to execute his perverted racial policy, which focused primarily on the Jewish but also on the Roma population.
The 1933 Act on Protection of the nation and the state (28 February) identified “gypsies” as the so-called asocials, or rogue population. Under the Act on Protection from genetically inferior descendants (July 14, 1933), the first “gypsy” sterilizations occurred.
Nazi science was obsessed with the application of biological aspects and it qualified hereditary conditions as being decisive for human behavior. “Gypsies” were considered to be an irreversibly asocial group of people by inheritance. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws aiming at “protecting and purifying the German race” were the basis of racial policy. From 1935 the Sinti and the Roma were forced to concentrate in local internment camps in cities in Germany.
In 1936, the Research Institute for Racial Hygiene was established at the Berlin Institute of Health. Under the leadership of Dr. Robert Ritter a research to determine who is “gypsy” and “gypsy half-breed” and what their anthropological features are was launched.
In December 1937, the Law on Preventing Crime aimed at the so called asocials was published in Germany. It introduced preventive police custody for those who threatened the society with “asocial behavior” or could commit a crime in the future.
The term “asocial” had a relatively wide meaning in Nazi terminology – it allowed to prosecute even the working people if they left their homes for a short period of time, to visit relatives, for example. From 1936, some Sinti and Roma were transported from Germany to the concentration camps as part of the so called transfers of asocials.
Regulation about “the combat of gypsy evil” from December 8,1938, brought an openly racial approach to “gypsies” in Germany . On October 17, 1939, free movement of “gypsies” was banned with an immediate effect and their concentration in local detention camps continued . During 1940, more than 2,500 Sinti and Roma were deported to the southeast of occupied Poland.
PERSECUTION OF ROMA IN THE CZECH LANDS (1939 – 1942)
Second Republic Czecho – Slovakia (1.10. 1938 – 14.3. 1939)
After the Munich Agreement (29 September 1938), there was a noticeable influx of Roma fleeing to us from the detached border. The increase in the number of Roma made the already existing “anti-gypsy” mood even worse. The “gypsies” were still treated according to the 1927 law, but due to the worsening political situation, the conditions for more restrictions were becoming apparent in our country.
The state administration and municipal authorities were coming up with suggestions on how to make actions against the “gypsies” stricter. Concentration camps, tattoos, sterilization of women and other suggestions were among the proposals. On March 2, 1939, the Czech-Slovak Government Decree No. 72 on disciplinary labour camps for men over the age of 18, who could not prove that they were making a proper living, was adopted.
All the “anti-gypsy” regulations of the German model were gradually introduced in the Protectorate proclaimed on March 16, 1939. On November 30, 1939, with effect from the end of January 1940, a ban on traveling was announced. Anyone who would not obey the ban was to be placed in a disciplinary labour camp. Settlling up process was relatively successful. Most Roma actually settled down, took up work, their children began going to school or to special newly established gypsy classes.
Disciplinary labour camps
The camps in Lety near Písek (for Bohemia) and in Hodonín near Kunštát (for Moravia) were opened on 10th August 1940. They were intended for healthy men over the age of 18 who were “in need of work” and could not prove a proper living. The “inmates” were kept there for a limited period of time during which they were to serve their sentence by labour. In camp Lety near Písek, they worked on the construction of motorway sections from Plzeň to Moravská Ostrava.
The capacity of the disciplinary labour camps was up to 200 people and was never exceeded. On average, the number ranged from 100 to 140 people. In the camp lists, the Roma were marked with a red “C” and accounted for about 10-25% of the “inmates”.
PERSECUTION OF ROMA IN CZECH LANDS (1942 – 1945)
A regulation on the prevention of crime entered into force in the Protectorate on March 9, 1942. It affected the so-called asocials – “gypsies and people with gypsy way of life” were explicitly mentioned for the first time. On the territory of the Protectorate, preventive police custody was carried out in the collection camps. These were originally the disciplinary labour camps in Lety near Písek and Hodonín near Kunštát as well as what used to be the law enforcement offices in Prague-Ruzyně, Pardubice and Brno with a branch in Olšovec.
Outside the Protectorate, pre-emptive police detention was carried out in the Auschwitz I concentration camp. Roma (although on a smaller scale) were deported as part of the total of 14 transports of “asocials” (April 1942 – February 1944).
Openly racist policy
In June 1942, the Protectorate administration was reformed. This meant a complete subordination to the occupation authorities. As the first step, an order to “combat gypsy evil”, the exact copy of the German model was issued on July 10, 1942 . An openly racist “anti-gypsy” policy was launched.
Based on the order, an “inventory of gypsies and gypsy half-breeds” was made on August 2, 1942. This was the first exact record of all people with “gypsy blood”, including half-breeds and regardless of their way of life or possible “asociality”.
The racial motive of the new regulation was not hidden. From October 10, 1942, “racially biological” identity cards were to be issued. The only proof of the identity of the “gypsies” was to be solely a gypsy identity card. Thus the Roma in the Protectorate were openly separated from the rest of society.
The list of registered “gypsies and gypsy half-breeds” of about 6,500 people was divided into two groups. The majority, who had constant and productive work, were left at liberty, but were not allowed, under the threat of police custody, to move away from their place of residence. The smaller group consisted of those who were in police custody, had the prerequisites for it or were unemployed. These, together with their whole families, were to be sent to the newly opened gypsy camps in Lety near Písek and Hodonín near Kunštát.
PROTECTORATE “GYPSY CAMPS“
The “gypsy camps” were opened at the site of the original disciplinary labour and later collection camps at Lety near Písek in Bohemia and Hodonín near Kunštát in Moravia on August 2, 1942. Women, children, elderly and ill people were imprisoned for an unlimited period in gypsy camps too. The camps became a transfer station for the Protectorate Roma to Auschwitz. The conditions and regime in both camps were comparable. During their existence (August 1942 – August 1943) about 1,300 people passed through the Lety camp and about 1,400 people passed through the Hodonín camp.
LETY NEAR PÍSEK
In the so-called gypsy camp in Lety near Písek, Roma had to hand over their personal documents and property as part of “personal cleansing”. They had to strip off in front of everyone then had their hair cut and were clean shaved all over their bodies. Women and children could then dress back in their own clothes, men received camp clothes. Although there was a tailor’s and shoemaker’s workshop in the camp, there was always a shortage of clothing and footwear. The clothes and shoes were inadequate, especially in the winter months.
The number of prisoners soon exceeded the capacity of both camps, despite the fact that more barracks were being built and worn out caravans in which some of the Roma came, were used. The conditions of life in uninsulated crowded wooden houses became unbearable, especially after the onset of winter.
All prisoners, including children, had to work. They did mainly quarry and road construction work or were hired by local farmers. Lighter works like kitchen work, dressmaking, shoemaking or laundry were done in the camp.
The staff of the camps were Czech Protectorate employees, but similarly to other concentration camps, there was also a “prison self-government”.
The food rations were not adhered to in the concentration camps. In addition, there was a proven food traffic by the camp managementi in Lety. Prisoners were constantly suffering from malnutrition and physical weakness. Imrisoned children suffered the most; especially those who, after the death of their parents, were left alone. Their chances of survival were slim.
The catastrophic living conditions caused the emergence of an epidemic of typhoid and spotted fever in both camps at the beginning of winter 1942. At first the dead prisoners were buried in cemeteries in nearby Mirovice. After the outbreak of typhoid epidemics, the bodies of the dead had to be put into mass graves near both camps. In total, 326 people died in Lety. Transports from Lety (over 500 people) were delayed (in May and August 1943), when the majority of the Roma still living freely were displaced.
FINAL STAGE OF THE “GYPSY QUESTION“ SOLUTION
The final stage of the so-called final solution of the “gypsy question“ was initiated by the Auschwitz-Erlass from December 16, 1942. By this the Reich SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the collection of “gypsies and gypsy half-breeds” from Germany and all occupied or annexed territories to Auschwitz II-Birkenau extermination camp.
“Gypsy camp” in Auschwitz-Birkenau
The destination of the transports of the Protectorate and other European Roma was the so-called Gypsy Camp set up in the section of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp. The Roma from the Protectorate formed the second largest group after the Roma prisoners from the Reich. Altogether, over 22,000 Roma men, women and children passed through the camp, with nearly 20,000 not surviving.
Wooden prison houses were designed for 300-400 people, but during the existence of the camp, 700-1200 people were crowded in there. Unlike in other parts of the Auschwitz complex, Roma families were accommodated together here. The Roma prisoners had to wear a black triangle, which marked the so-called asocials. This was sewn on their own clothing, which, unlike other prisoners, they were allowed to keep. In addition, they were tattooed on their left forearm with a capital letter Z (from the German word zigeuner – gypsy).
Unlike in other concentration camps, the prisoners of the gypsy camp were not assigned to labour squads outside the camp. They were mostly employed by purposeless work inside the camp. Inhumane living and alimentation conditions that would reliably murder the prisoners, replaced the devastating work. In fact, the children’s block turned into an orphan block, where children without parents’ care were dying in appalling hygienic conditions. In addition, dr. Josef Mengele, who served as a camp doctor, performed his pseudoscientific experiments in the camp.
The Nazis picked the so called prison officers from the most suitable prisoners. A prison officer, or a captain, became an unlimited master of prisoners´ life on blocks or work sections. German criminals – officers had the highest authority.
From spring 1944 transports to other concentration camps became a possible, but also very uncertain, hope for salvation. On August 2, 1944, the last transport of men to Buchenwald and transport of women to Ravensbrück left. After their departure, on the night of 2nd August 1944, the remaining 3,000 prisoners of the so-called gypsy camp (mainly the elderly and the ill, women and children) were driven into the gas chambers and killed.
After the liberation, only about 600 Roma men, women and children from the original Czech Roma returned from concentration, detention or labour camps . Consequently, the murder of Czech and Moravian Roma was probably one of the most consistently executed World War II genocides. The total number of Roma victims of Nazism in Europe is currently estimated at 300-500,000.