This article originally appeared on TheJournal.ie.
Thousands of Roma met their fate in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers, died in medical experiments or starved to death. Others were displaced or sterilised.
IN THE MIDDLE of the night between August 2nd and 3rd in 1944, almost 3,000 Roma were led from their camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau to the gas chambers, where they were ruthlessly murdered as dawn rose. Last Saturday morning, I found myself standing beside the remains of that gas chamber, surrounded by 1,000 Roma young people determined to commemorate their losses in a genocide the world seems determined to forget.
The Roma are vilified and maligned across Europe. In the 70 years since the Holocaust, their pain and suffering has been forgotten and diluted, wiped from the pages of history books while the same myths that were used to put them in camps in the first place persist into the 21st century. Widely accepted “facts” about Roma criminality and anti-social behaviour are today central to any conversation about the Roma community, despite a broad lack of understanding for the realities involved.
The Roma were detested ever before the Nazis tortured, murdered and burned them en masse. In the 1920s and 30s, as the world economy bottomed out, thousands of people in Central Europe lost their jobs and retreated from cities to their home villages, where they took over jobs the Roma had been doing. The Roma became poorer and disadvantaged, forced to move from place to place to find meagre employment. In towns and villages, local craftspeople protested the competition and Roma and Sinti were fined for attempting to work.
Regional authorities across Europe began to issue special identification cards for Roma, listing them in ‘gypsy registers’ and subjected them to constant police checks as they sought shelter and work.
The poverty and disadvantage faced by the Roma was at crisis point. Gypsy conferences were organised, where ‘solutions’ to the Roma problem were suggested, including mass deportations to islands and labour camps. As the Nazis came to power, they categorised Roma as ‘born criminals’ and in the interest of crime prevention, arrested Roma they thought might someday commit a crime.
Displacement and forced sterilisation
The first gypsy camps were made not by the Nazi party, but by local government in Germany. Roma were forced from their flats, houses and parks and moved into camps and segregated. During the 1936 Olympic Games, the Roma and Sinti were forcibly relocated to a camp on the outskirts and were not allowed to leave unless they had a job. Their property was confiscated and sold; they were never compensated. Between 1933 and 1945, more than 400,000 people were forcibly sterilised by the Nazis, including thousands of Roma and Sinti.
In the late 1930s, the first deportations of Roma to concentration camps began. While the yellow star worn by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is best known, the Roma had their own symbols, brown or black triangles, symbolising their ethnicity and their inherent ‘anti-social’ status.
In 1942, Himmler ordered that all ‘Gypsies’ still living in the German Reich must be deported to Auschwitz. More than 20,000 Roma were forced into 32 wooden huts in the Gypsy Camp at Auschwitz. They died slowly, agonisingly, of disease, starvation, hypothermia and exertion. Dr Josef Mengele maintained a lab in Auschwitz where he experimented on Roma children.
In May of 1944, the Roma in the camp learned that they were to be killed. They armed themselves with stones and sticks, barricaded themselves into their huts and fought for their lives when the Nazis came for them. The Nazis retreated, but by July, most men and strong boys had been removed to work in other camps and over 70% of the initial 20,000 had died. Those that remained, 2,879 women, children and elderly people, were massacred in the middle of the night, with nobody to defend them and nobody to hear them. It lasted mere minutes; 3000 lives snuffed out in an unremarkable moment, their bodies burned into dust on the ground.
Their story has been roundly ignored
Hundreds of thousands of Roma died as the Nazis swept across Europe. Those that did survive returned to their towns and villages to find they had nothing left, their property stolen, their families separated and lost.
We all know the story of the Holocaust. The Roma call it the ‘Porajmos’ or ‘Devouring’ and for 70 years, their story has been roundly ignored, their commemorations quiet, their memorials few. The world is willing to casually forget their loss, yet anecdotes about their ‘criminality’ and ‘anti-social behaviours’ continue to dominate conversation, despite the damage caused by those exact anecdotes in the past.
Across Europe, governments threaten and evict the Roma, refusing them access to vital services and denying them aid. In Ireland, many do not qualify for social welfare, even child benefit, despite a recent referendum on ‘children’s rights’. They face extreme unemployment and poverty. They have poor education outcomes, language and literacy barriers. They are segregated and discriminated against at every turn, but people are willing to turn a blind eye to all of that because it’s not happening to them.
I walked seven miles around the camp last Saturday with 1000 Roma people – fulfilling that adage about walking in someone else’s shoes. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a foul, disgusting place, stained with unspeakable evil and terrifying sadness. Without hesitation, the Roma welcomed me to walk with them through the dusty paths. They shared their incredible stories, their major worries, their brutal fears for the future.
They never allowed me to feel like I didn’t belong.