University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Jewish Responses

Jewish Responses to the Porrajmos (The Romani Holocaust)

Ian Hancock
The University of Texas at Austin and International Roma Federation

Just four years after the fall of the Third Reich, Dora Yates, the Jewish secretary of the Gypsy Lore Society, noted in the pages of Commentary that

It is more than time that civilized men and woman were aware of the Nazi crime against the Gypsies as well as the Jews. Both bear witness of the fantastic dynamic of the 20th century racial fanaticism, for these two people shared the horror of martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis for no other reason than that they were - they existed. The Gypsies, like the Jews, stand alone. (Yates, 1949:455).

And In the following year, the Wiener Library Bulletin, organ of what is now the Jewish Institute of Contemporary History in London, published the statement that

Germany had in 1938 a gipsy population of 16,273. Of these, 85 percent were thrown into concentration camps, and no more than 12 percent survived" (Anon., 1930:18).

Despite these very early observations, and despite the overwhelming amount of documentation related to the fate of the Gypsies in Nazi Germany which has been examined during the past fourteen years that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council has been in existence, that body, more than any other, rigorously persists in underestimating and underrepresenting that truth, made plain forty-five years ago. In their 1989 book Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical lmplications, editors John Roth and Michael Berenbaum ask "[w]hy should the fate of the Jews be treated differently than the fate of the Gypsies or the Poles...[t]he answer will be found in these essays" (pp. 6-7). But the answer to that question, at least for the Gypsy case, appears nowhere in and of the 23 essays the book contains. More recently still Martin Gilbert, in his foreword to Carrie Supple's From Prejudicee to Genocide: Learning About the Holocaust, published in 1993 for use in British schools, refers to the holocaust as "the attempt by the Nazis to destroy all the Jews of Europe between 1941 and 1945," and then mentions the fate of the Romani victims as being among "other attempt as genocide, such as the slaughter of the Armenians...," placing Gypsies together with a group outside of the Holocaust altogether, echoing the statement on page 824 of his The Holocaust, that "[i]t was the Jews alone who were marked out to be destroyed in there entirety." And while Burleigh & Wippermann (1981) discuss in detail the Final Solution of the "Gypsy Problem" In The Racial State, Antony Potonsky is still moved in his introduction to that book to maintain that "[a]s emerges clearly from the arguments of Burleigh and Wippermann, the mass murder of the Jews was unique in that every Jew, man, woman and child, assimilated or deeply orthodox, was singled out for destruction" (p. xiv). It is abundantly clear that some historians see only what they want to see., and that a very blind eye is being turned in the direction of Gypsy history, and that where the Romani genocide in Nazi Germany is acknowledged, it is kept, with the fewest of exceptions (e.g. Milton, 1990, 1991a, 1991b, 1992), carefully separated from the Jewish experience.

This is a profoundly emotionally-charged issue, and one fraught with subjective interpretation and response. Assumptions are made, and repeated with confidence by individuals with no special expertise in Romani Holocaust history, and unqualified statements made which automatically assume a lesser status for Gypsies in the ranking of human abuse. These take the form of entire articles, such as that by Katz (1988:200-216), which systematically compares the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust with (a) the medieval witch craze, (b) North American Indians, (c) Black Slavery, (d) Gypsies and Nazis, (e) homosexuals during World War II and (f) Polish and Ukrainian losses during World War II, concluding (p.216) that "all...are to be fundamentally distinguished from the Holocaust, even if they reveal horrifyingly large casualty figures." The same is found in the writings of Yehuda Bauer, who states with confidence in his entry on "Gypsies" in The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Gutman, 1990), that "the fate of the Gypsies was in line with Nazi thought as a whole: Gypsies were not Jews, and therefore there was no need to kill all of them." Then, like Katz, he substantiates this claim by selectively citing sources none of which is more recent than 1979, and makes no comparisons with Jewish populations which were also exempted from death, and for whom there was likewise "no need to kill all." The three and a half page entry for Gypsies in the two volume, 2,000 page Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, incidentally, amounts to less than one quarter of one percent of the whole book, despite the enormity of Gypsy losses by 1945, proportionately at least matching, and almost certainly exceeding, that of Jewish victims.

Accompanying these statements and assumptions is, increasingly, an acknowledgement that yes, there were other victims of Nazism, but they belong in a separate category of non-Jews, and their fate was different. Berenbaum anticipated the effect of The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum upon the public consciousness fully five years before its opening, in Newsday (quoted in Brenna, 1988:3), when he said "[p]eople had to grow. Jews had to learn to be sensitive to non-Jewish victims, and they, in turn, had to learn to be sensitive to the uniqueness of the Jewish experience." The central issue rests squarely upon this notion of "uniqueness," it is basis of my presentation at our last conference, which was published in an expanded version in Without Prejudice (Hancock 1988a,1988b). I will enumerate the principal challenges to the Romani case that have emerged since that time and which argue for categorization separately from the Jewish case, and which thereby support the perceived ""uniqueness" of the latter, and comment upon them:

1) Jews were targeted to the last man, woman and child for complete extermination, a policy which held true for no other population.

There were in fact many categories of Jews who were likewise exempt. Hilberg discusses these in detail in the first chapters of his The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). As early as 1938, the German government asked various foreign governments to extend invitations to German Jews, as a means of getting them out of the country, and in October, 1940, the Nazis were able to send 6,500 Jews to unoccupied France, in order to get them out of the way. But this policy was not extended to include Gypsies. Mention can also be made of the September 1st, 1941 law which confined Jews and Gypsies to their place of residence, but which exempted Jews married to non-Jews. As the Holocaust intensified, most of these exemptions for both groups, were progressively rescinded. When making statements of this kind, the year should be specified. Ultimately, only Jews and Gypsies were singled out for complete extermination on the basis of race/ethnicity. No other targeted populations were thus identified, and for this reason Gypsies must not be pled in the residual category of "Others."

2) Gypsies "come closest" to the Jewish situation but, as Mais, Bauer, Wiesel Berenbaum and others have said, close is still a miss.

In this connection and most recently. Michael Berenbaum has said, in the introduction to The World Must Know, that

At the center of the tragedy of the Holocaust to the murder of European Jews -- men, women and children -- killed not for the Identity they affirmed or the religion they practiced but because of the blood of their grandparents less clear is the murder of the Gypsies.  Historians am still uncertain if there was a single decision for their complete annihillation through an enunciated policy of trancendent meaning to the perpetrators (p. 2).

There are numerous nazi policy statements available to us calling for the total elimination of the Romani population, several of which I have included to in my Chronology, together with references (Hancock, in Crowe & Kolsti, 1991:11-30). Thus in 1939 Johannes Behrendt of the Office of Racial Hygiene issued a brief stating that "[a]ll Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick; the only solution is elimination. The aim should therefore be the elimination without hesitation of this defective element In the population." Miller-Hill writes:     

…Heydrich. who had been entrusted with the final solution of the Jewish question on 31st July 1941, shortly after the German invasion of the USSR, also included the Gypsies in his final solution... The senior SS officer and Chief of Police for the East. Dr. Landgraf, in Riga, informed Rosenbergs Reich Commissioner for the East, Lohse, of the inclusion of the Gypsies in the final Solution. Thereupon, Lohse gave the order, on 24th December 1941. that the Gypsies "should be given the same treatment as the Jews' (Miller-Hill, 1986:58-59).

Burleigh & Wippermann (1991:121-125) also discuss this. While categorically confirming that it took place, they refer to the lack of complete documentation regarding its precise details:

A conference on racial policy organized by Heydrich took place in Berlin on 21 September 1939, which may have decided upon a 'Final Solution' of the 'Gypsy Question,' According to the scant minutes which have survived, four issues were decided: the concentration of Jews in towns; their relocation to Poland; the removal of 30,000 Gypsies to Poland, and the systematic deportation of Jews to German incorporated territories using trains, An express letter sent by the Reich Main Security Office on 17th October 1939 to its load agents mentioned that the 'Gypsy question will shortly be regulated throughout the territory of the Reich.' . . . At about this time, Adolf Eichmann made the recommendation that the 'Gypsy Question' be solved simultaneously with the 'Jewish question,'... Himmler signed the order dispatching Germany's Sinti and Roma to Auschwitz on 16th December 1942. The 'Final Solution' of the 'Gypsy Question' had begun.

The Memorial Book for the Rome and Sinti who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau interprets this somewhat differently:

The Himmler decree of December 16th, 1942 (Auschwitz-Erlab), according to which the Gypsies should be deported to Auschwitz-Birkernau had the name meaning for the Gypsies that  the conference at Wannsee on January 20th, 1942, had for the Jews. This decree, and the bulletin that followed on January 29th, 1943, can thus be regarded as a logical consequence of the decision taken at Wannsee. After it had been decided that the fate of the Jews was to end in mass extermination, it was natural for the second group of racially-persecuted people, the Gypsies, to become victim of the carne policy, which finally even included soldiers In the Wehrmacht (State Museum, 1993:16).

3) Another argument, discussed in Fackenheim (1978) and most recently given voice by Israeli rabbi Eliezer Schach, is that "God used the Holocaust to punish Jews for their sins."

Certainly speaking for most of the Jewish community, Rabbi Yitzak Kagan of the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan responded that Schach's statement "borders on heresy" (DeSmet, 1990:B-3); we must wonder how the murder of Innocent Jewish babies, thousands even unborn, can be rationalized by this argument.

4) Certain Romani groups sedentary for two or more years were to be exempted from death (Mais, 1988).

This two-year exemption was only a recommendation, and was never actually implemented, being overridden by Himmler's own directive, viz. that all migratory Gypsies be killed, and sedentary Gypsies worked to death in labor camps. In any case, this potential situation would only have applied to the USSR and the Baltic lands, and nowhere else. A similar situation did, however, operate for Jews in these countries, thus Hillberg (1961:142-144) writes of the Gebeitskommissar for northern Lithuania in September, 1941, complaining about the killings, explaining that "the Jews were needed as skilled laborers." Hillberg continues "[i]n October 1941, the Reichskommissar forbade the shooting of Jews.. [and] during the quiet months of the winter and spring of 1942, they began to adjust themselves to their hazardous existence." By the end of 1943, "some tens of thousands of Jews were being kept alive at Lida and Minsk in Byelorussia, and looked forward to evacuation or death." Nazi extermination of the Baltic Roma was particularly effective, almost the entire population having been destroyed by 1945.

5) Some Gypsies were even allowed to fight in the German army (Mais, 1988).

Kenrick & Puxon (1970:82) discuss Gypsies who served in the armed forces, saying that "Gypsies had officially been excluded from the army by law as November, 1937. . . on the grounds of racial policy no more Gypsies should be called up... [t]he release of servicemen took some time and Gypsies could still be found in the army as late as 1943." The sentence following this, however, reads " Certain classes of Jews with mixed stage were retained in the armed forces throughout the war" (emphasis added).

6) Borne families of "pure" Gypsies were to be preserved in special camps for future anthropologists to study (Mais, 1988).

This has also been noted by Yehuda Bauer (loc. cit), where he includes "pure" Gypsies with yet another category apparently of his own devising ("safe" Gypsies) in his statement that "Gypsies who were of pure blood, or who were not considered dangerous on a racial level, could continue to exist, under strict supervision." In the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's published Holocaust history (Berenbaum, 1993:51) we find the same argument made by Mais and Bauer repeated in slightly amended form, viz. that "Pure Gypsies were not targeted for extermination until 1942." The wording here gives the impression that there was an existing policy that was then revoked in 1942, rather than its having been (like point four, above) nothing more than a suggestion, by Himmler, which was mocked by his peers as "one more of Himmler's hare-brained schemes" (Tymauer, 1985:24) and rejected outright by Bormann and never implemented. Furthermore if it had been, it would have involved the lives of only a few dozen individuals, fewer by several hundred percent than the six thousand Karait Jews who were able to argue successfully for their own lives to be spared.