University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Jewish Responses to the Porrajmos

The night of November 9th, 1938 is remembered in the annals of the Jewish Holocaust as Kristallnacht, or "The Night of Broken Glass," for it was on this night that, in response to the murder of a German embassy official in Paris by a Jewish teenager, over a thousand synagogues were desecrated and nearly a hundred Jews were killed, while thousands more were arrested. This blatant, public display of hatred marked the  beginning of the open, official sanctioning of the persecution of an "inferior race." In effect, it sent a message to the general public that such violence was approved by the State. From this date onwards, anti-Jewish hostility escalated steadily towards the Holocaust. For the Romani victims, there were also mass round-ups and displays of military and police brutality, designed to show them, and the German public, exactly where they stood in the German hierarchy, and how they could be treated by ordinary citizens with the approval and encouragement of the government. As early as 1927, between November 23rd and November 26th, armed raids were carried out in Gypsy communities throughout Prussia, to enforce a decree issued on November 3rd that year which requires that all Gyspsies be registered through documentation "in the same manner as individuals being sought by means of wanted posters, witnesses, photographs and fingerprints." (Hase-Mihalik & Kreuzkamp, 1990:168). Infants were fingerprinted, and those over six years of age required to carry identity cards bearing fingerprints and photographs. Eight thousand Gypsies were processed as a result of that raid, about one third of the entire Romani population in Germany. The second such action took place between September 18th and September 25th in 1933, when the Reichsminister for the Interior and for Propaganda ordered the apprehension and arrest of Gypsies throughout Germany, in accordance with "The Law Against Habitual Criminals." Many were sent to concentration camps as a result, where they were forced to do penal labor, and where some underwent sterilization. The most significant military action, however, occurred during the summer of 1938, between June 12th and June 18th, when Zigeuneraufräumungswoche or "Gypsy Clean-Up Week" was ordered. Hundreds of Gypsies throughout Germany and Austria were rounded up, beaten and Imprisoned. In Männworth, Austria, three hundred were arrested in this way in a single night.

Following the collapse of the Third Reich, nothing was done to assist the Romani survivors, no effort made by the liberators to reorient them; instead, the terms of a 1926 pre-Nazi anti-Gypsy law which was still to effect ensured that those lacking a trade remained out of sight, hiding in the abandoned camps, for fear of arrest and incarceration. Since that time, all of the programs used by the Nazis to deal with Gypsies have been either suggested or implemented by various European nations -- sterilizations in Slovakia, recommendations for incineration in a furnace from an Irish government official, forced incarceration and deportation in Germany (Kinzer, 1992). Today, the Romani population fees its severest crisis since the Holocaust; neo-Nazi race crimes against Gypsies have seen rapes, beatings and murders in Germany, Hungary and Slovakia; anti-Gypsy pogroms in Romania and Bulgaria, including lynchings and home burnings, are increasing. For my people, the Holocaust is not yet over.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has not yet done enough to educate the world about the Romani experience; there, the "Gypsy" artifacts on display consist of a violin, a waggon and a woman's dress -- more Hollywood than Holocaust -- and very, very few of the Romani victims and inmates depicted in the photo exhibits (especially those involving Mengele's experiments with twins) are identified as such. Most galling of all was the absence of the key words "Gypsiy," "Rom," "Sinti," "Romani," "Zigeuner," etc. in the Computerized question-and-answer bank provided for the public to consult which led, In June, 1993, to the picketing of the museum by a group represented by Ms. Mary Thomas of Adoptive Parents and Friends of Romani Children demanding that more details of the fate of Roma and Sinti be included in the Museum. They argued that, when their newly acquired chilldren grow older and begin to ask about their background and the history of their people, and about the Holocaust in particular, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Musuem would not be the place to go for their answers, that the Gypsy story had been downplayed to the extent of re-presenting historical fact, of revision by omission. That protest led to the circulation of a petition asking, among other things, that more Romani scholars (rather than non-Gypsy "experts") be involved, that more documentation on the Romani Holocaust be displayed and made available to visitors to the Museum and has resulted in the inclusion of some Gypsy entries in the computerized data bank.

I have been both praised and criticized fro bringing attention to these issues. The director of one Holocaust center referred to me as a trouble-maker; another writer on the Holocaust called my discussion of the Romani case in the Jewish context "loathsome." People have got up and walked out when it has been my turn to speak about the Porrajmos, and one former professor at my own university adamantly refuted even to mention Roma and Sinti in his regular course on the Holocaust. Others have intimated that I should not be pursuing this because I am not a historian, and am therefore not qualified to engage in this kind of research. If you think these things don't hurt me, they do, deeply. There are people here today whom I am sure are angered by what I am saying, and who are ready to challenge me. Why should this be? I have tried to remain objective in my writings, and let the facts argue my case. If I can be proven wrong, I am happy to acknowledge that I am well aware that for some people, insistence upon getting all the facts of the Romani experience property acknowledged has been regarded as confrontational and even threatening; Yehuda Bauer (1900:1) felt that "anit-Gypsy sentiment" in Europe was, in his words, "in competition" with "radical anti-Semitism" there, the "sentiment"in question having led to the murders and pogroms against Gypsies I mentioned earlier, during a period for which the 1990 Country Report on Human Rights reported "no incidents of anti-Semitic violence." Anti-Gypsyism is at an all-time high, and it can only be combatted by informing the general public of the details of Romani history and suffering. My purpose in this paper as a follow-up to that given at our last conference in Oxford, is to get these Issues as they relate to the Holocaust out into the open, to air them publicly, and hope that a more accurate, and more compassionate, attitude will prevail.

Resistance to the Gypsy case must be due to part to the lateness of its arrival on the academic scene; scholarship on the Porrajmos is comparatively new, so much so that it has brought charges of "bandwaggoning" from some quarters. Our people  are traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from our history - nostalgia is a luxury for others, and the Porrajmos was not the first, but the second historical attempt to destroy the Roma as a people, following Charles VI's extermination order in 1721. Roma in the United States, for example, have obliterated entirely from their collective memories all recollection of the five and a half centuries of slavery in Romania which their great great grandparents came to America to escape during the last century (Hancock, 1988). Survivors of the Holocaust are today likewise reluctant to speak about their experiences, and so it is that the story is only now beginning to unfold.

It has to be said that there is also an element of racism evident in the Jewish response. I have been told -- off the record -- that some Council members do not want to be judged by the company they fear they might how to keep. In every single public opinion poll, including that conducted In this country (end reported in the January 8th, 1992, Issue of The News York Times), Gypsies are seen as the most discriminated-against minority, the most despised ethnic population, and some of the stereotypes have rubbed off on some Council members. At one presentation I gave at a Hillel Center, I was interrupted by a women who leapt to her feet and demanded angrily why I was even comparing the Gypsy case to the Jewish, when Jews had given so much to the world and Gypsies were merely parasites and thieves. Working to alter attitudes of this kind is a mighty task indeed, and was one reason behind my co-founding the Romani-Jewish Alliance some years ago, which works to dispel anti-Jewish and anti-Romani stereotypes, and to educate both populations about the other's experience.  I should say here, incidentally, in answer to an often-asked question, that there are many Roma and Sinti who am Jewish, and many more Romani-Jewish marriages. During the war such marriages characterized one concentration camp in eastern Serbia in particular, where Gysies and Jews were held before transportation.

It might also be acknowledged that some resistance is grounded simply in disbelief, in the assumption that "if this is true, why haven't we heard about it before?." But I have found, and am encouraged by, the response forthcoming from those who do make an effort, with an open mind, to examine the details of what Roma and Sinti suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I have said many times that only Jews can really come close to understanding the impact the Porrajmos has had on the Romani population, and I venture to thinly that only Gypsies can come close, on an emotional level, to understanding the Jewish tragedy. But neither can really understand the other's experience, then or now, nor should presume to interpret for the other. For this reason I would like to see the individual "uniqueness" If you like, emphasized by a greater use of the ethnic terminology: Shoah or Khurbn for the Jewish Holocaust, Porrajmos for the Romani. The word "Holocaust," I feel, is used too casually to have the meaning intended for it.

I have been intentionally critical in this presentation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the Museum, and make no apology for that, for our relationship over the past decade has been a stormy one, and one which has caused me considerable personal frustration. Many factors, many personalities, have been involved in the misunderstandings and anger generated by the dialogue between us. But there has been a steadily growing acknowledgement of the Romani tragedy, and I am confident that it will continue to grow; from having no representation at all on the Council, we now have one member; from having no Gypsy-related entries in the data-bank, we now have some. The Council has formally protested against anti-Gypsyism the administrative level (Meyerhoff, 1992). My greatest hope is that we will eventually be moved out of the category of "other victims " and fully recognised as the only population, besides Jews, which was slated for their eventual complete eradication from the face of the earth. I want to be able to thumb through any of the many Holocaust histories at my local bookstore and find comprehensive information in them about what happened to my people -- at present, we're usually not dealt with at all; that I will be able to watch epics such as Schindler's List and learn that Gypsies were a part of the Holocaust too; or other films, such as Escape from Sobibor, a camp where hundreds of Roma and Sinti were murdered, and not hear the word  "Gypsy" only once, and then as the name of somebody's dog. And here in Germany, where it all began, we have yet to be included to the Holocaust memorial at all (Anon., 1992). Surely genocide of the magnitude suffered by the Romani people deserves acknowledgement far, far beyond that which it now receives.