The Porajmos (also Porrajmos) literally Devouring, or Samudaripen (Mass killing) is a term coined by the Roma (Gypsy) people to describe attempts by the Nazi regime to exterminate most of the Roma peoples of Europe during The Holocaust. The phenomenon has been little studied and largely overshadowed by the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews).
Because the Roma communities of Eastern Europe were less organized than the Jewish communities, it is more difficult to assess the actual number of victims, though it is believed to range from 200,000 to 2,000,000. Only in recent years has the Roma community begun to demand acceptance among the victims of the Nazi regime. The response so far has been mixed.
Aryan Racial Purity
In the thousand years that nomadic Roma tribes wandered through Europe, they were subject to persecution and humiliation; they were stigmatized as habitual criminals, social misfits, and vagabonds. Given the Nazi predilection for "racial purity," it would seem inevitable that the Roma would be among their first victims. Nevertheless, in the earliest days of the Third Reich, the Roma posed a problem for Hitler's racial ideologues. The Gypsy language (Romani) is one of the Indo-Aryan languages, originating in northern India. Nazi anthropologists realized that Roma migrated into Europe from India, and were descendants of the Aryan occupants of the subcontinent, thought at the time to have invaded India from Europe. In other words, the Gypsies were no less Aryan than the Germans themselves.
Nazi racialist Hans Günther added a socioeconomic component to the theory of racial purity. While he conceded that the Roma were, in fact, descended from Aryans, they were of poorer classes that mingled with the various "inferior" races they encountered during their wanderings. This, he explained, accounted for their extreme poverty and nomadic lifestyle. While he conceded that there were some groups that were "purely Aryan," most Gypsies posed a threat to Aryan hegemony because of their racial mingling.
In order to study the problem further, the Nazis established the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit (Rassenhygienische und Bevölkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle, Department L3 of the Reich Department of Health) in 1936. Headed by Dr. Robert Ritter and his assistant Eva Justin, the body was mandated to conduct an in-depth study of the "Gypsy question" (Zigeunerfrage) and to provide data required for formulating a new Reich Gypsy law. After extensive fieldwork in the spring of 1936, consisting of interviews and medical examinations to investigate genealogical and genetic data, it was determined that most Roma posed a danger to German racial purity and should be eliminated. No decision was made regarding the remainder (about 10 percent of the total Roma population of Europe), primarily Sinti and Lalleri tribes living in Germany, though several suggestions were made. At one point Heinrich Himmler even suggested the establishment of a remote reservation, where the "pure Gypsies" could continue their nomadic lifestyle unhindered. According to him:
- "...The aim of measures taken by the State to defend the homogeneity of the German nation must be the physical separation of Gypsydom from the German nation, the prevention of miscegenation, and finally, the regulation of the way of life of pure and part-Gypsies."
Loss of Citizenship
On January 3, 1936, the Nuremberg laws, prohibiting marriages between Jews and Aryans, was extended to Gypsies as well. Gypsies, like Jews, lost their right to vote on March 7, 1936.
The vast majority of Roma were to suffer the same indignities as the Jews, and in some instances, they suffered even more brutally. According to Porajmos historian Ian Hancock, proportionately, the Roma death toll equaled "and almost certainly exceed[ed], that of Jewish victims." They were herded into ghettos, including the Warsaw Ghetto (April–June, 1942), where they formed a distinct subclass. According to Ghetto diarist Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Gypsies were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto because the Germans wanted
- "..To toss into the Ghetto everything that is characteristically dirty, shabby, bizarre, of which one ought to be frightened, and which anyway has to be destroyed."
Further east, teams of Einsatzgruppen tracked down Roma encampments and murdered the inhabitants on the spot, leaving no records of the victims.
Gypsies were also victims of the puppet regimes that cooperated with the Third Reich during the war, especially the notorious Ustashe regime in Croatia. In Jasenovac concentration camp, along with Serbs and Jews, tens of thousands of Gypsies were killed.
On December 16, 1942, Himmler ordered that the Roma candidates for extermination should be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. To the Roma people of Europe, this order was equivalent to the January 20 decision of that same year, made at the Wannsee Conference, at which Nazi bureaucrats decided on the "Final Solution" of the "Jewish problem". Himmler then on November 15, 1943 ordered that Gypsies and "part-Gypsies" were to be put "on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps."
According to testimonies of Jewish and Nazi witnesses, Gypsies sent to the death camps often suffered even worse than Jews. In some instances, the Nazis were so appalled by the sight of Roma arriving in the transports that they would not even let them in the gates of the camps for selection and simply murdered them by the railway platforms. In one remarkable instance, the victims were so terrified that they would be killed on the spot that they actually stormed the gates of the death camp, demanding to be allowed in—they were promptly led to the gas chambers, all the while believing that they would find sanctuary there.
The governments of Nazi German allies, such as Hungary and Romania, also contributed to the Nazi plan of Roma extermination, but this was implemented on a smaller scale and most Hungarian and Romanian Roma people survived. The Hungarian government sent to Auschwitz between 30,000 and 70,000 Roma people while the Croatian government sent 26,000; of the Roma killed, about half were at the Jasenovac concentration camp. Similarly, the Romanian government of Ion Antonescu had its own concentration camps in Transnistria where 25,000 Roma people were deported, from which 11,000 died.
In the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Roma internees were sent to the Lety and Hodonín camps before being transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau for gassing. What makes the Lety camp unique is that it was staffed by Czech guards, who could be even more brutal than the Germans, as testified in Paul Polansky's book Black Silence.
- "Jewish Responses to the Porrajmos (The Romani Holocaust)," Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota (accessed June 24, 2005)
- Jasenovac, at the Jewish Virtual Library.
- The report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (PDF), from Yad Vashem
- ""Gypsies" as Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany" by Sybil H. Milton in Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany, edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Stoltzfus (2001, hardcover, ISBN 0-691-00748-9; paperback, ISBN 0-691-08684-2).
- Paul Polansky, Black Silence: The Lety Survivors Speak ISBN 0-89304-241-2
- Romani Rose, The Nazi Genocide of the Sinti and Roma (Heidelberg: Documentary and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, 1995)
- State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Memorial Book: The Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau (New York: K.G. Saur, 1993)
- Klamper, Elisabeth. Persecution and Annihilation of Roma and Sinti in Austria, 1938-1945, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 5, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1993)
- Milton, Sybil. The Holocaust: The Gypsies, in William S. Parsons, Israel Chamy, and Samuel Totten, eds., Genocide in the Twentieth Century: An Anthology of Critical Essays and Oral History (New York, 1995), pp. 209-64.
- Tyrnauer, Gabrielle. Gypsies and the Holocaust: A Bibliography and Introductory Essay (Montreal, 1989)