The Act Of Remembering

The Holocaust’s Forgotten Roma Victims

More than 500,000 Roma and Sinti were exterminated in the Nazis’ death camps—and it’s time to include them in the official history of the Holocaust.

Sit for a moment and picture all the people you know and grew up with; include your Mom and Dad, siblings, grandparents, and extended family, all your friends from your neighborhood and from school. Do you have everyone in your mind’s eye? Good.

Now imagine 75 percent of all those people … dead. Systematically murdered because they were related to you or similar to you.

It’s almost too horrifying to envision. However, this was exactly the situation at the end of World War II for hundreds of thousands of Romani survivors of the Holocaust who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis, because of who they were or to whom they were related—because of their ethnicity. (Romani people, also called “Gypsies,” a term considered derogatory by Romani activists, are part of a diaspora that began in India in the eleventh century.)

Between 500,000 to 1.5 million Roma and Sinti were victims of the Holocaust in various camps and in mass killings carried out across Europe. This year, August 2, International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day marked the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the so-called zigeunerlager or Gypsy Camp, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Notably, Romani activists increased their efforts to organize memorial ceremonies across Europe and were supported by international organizations, including bringing together more than 1,000 Romani people from across Europe for commemorations in Auschwitz and Krakow; respected journals and newspapers recounted the tragedy to their readers as well.

It is important for the world to recognize that Romani people who were killed by the Nazis and their allies were part of the Holocaust—its logic and its aim of a so-called “final solution”—and not a separate instance of genocide. Generations of school children have learned to call the results of the Nazis’ attempts at race-based exterminations by that name, “Holocaust,” and to infer that the Roma were not part of the same horrible policy enactments is not only historically inaccurate, but also implies that there was a different experience for Roma.

Not only were similar policy statements and pseudo-scholarship used to justify the killing of Jews and Roma on the grounds of “racial inferiority,” but all the Holocaust victims faced the same elite troops, were held in the same or similar camps, died in the same crematoria, and experienced gruesome medical experiments, mass starvation, and other violence. When we talk about the Romani victims of the Holocaust, it is without compromise that we refer to them as Holocaust victims, first and foremost.

It is our moral duty and right to preserve the memory of the Romani victims who lost their lives on this day and throughout the war. Thus, in memory of the victims, the signatories call upon governments, international organizations, museums, and commemoration ceremony organizers, as well as scholars, activists, and the media, to accurately refer to the Romani victims of the Holocaust and to reject the description of Romani victims of the Holocaust as being part of an isolated genocide.

On September 18, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USMMM) will hold a symposium to showcase new and emerging scholarship on Roma and the Holocaust. Roma and non-Roma scholars will present findings from their exploration of pre-war persecution and on the effects of the Holocaust on Romani communities in its aftermath. This is most welcome, and yet we are mindful that, while the USMMM is currently mobilizing scholars and allowing for more recognition of the Romani victims of the Holocaust, there is still no Romani representative—or two or three—on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Nothing less than full Romani participation in the direction of the Museum’s affairs by representation on its Board will allow us a true voice into the commemoration of our people’s past losses and sufferings.

Removing Roma and Sinti from Holocaust history by creating a separate genocide and by denying their voice in the Holocaust ceremonies signal a disregard for the memory and the dignity of the Romani people. Yet, the United Nations continues to dither about whether Roma and Sinti should be included in their annual Holocaust Remembrance ceremony.

Furthermore, being designated as a victim of a separate genocide and not a Holocaust victim is precedent-setting. For example, many Romani Holocaust survivors were unable to qualify for any type of compensation for the losses they endured, specifically because the German government failed to recognize them as part of the Holocaust for several decades after the War, long after many survivors had died. This is not an example that current governments and institutions should emulate.

Only 10 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars made available by the United Nations for the survivors, and which the U.S. Government was given the responsibility of disbursing, was set aside for non-Jews, and none of that found its way to the Romani survivors. When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was established in 1980, no Roma were invited to participate, and as mentioned above, it has no Romani member today.

The experience of the Holocaust is an indispensable part of Romani history, a suffering that permeated Romani families’ identities, and solidarity, for generations. The policy of “racial extermination” actualized by the Nazis was a primary event in the history of human civilization, and, as our Romani Elders noted at the memorial to the Roma and Sinti in Berlin, was the result of “state policies that were justified through vicious theories, administrative criteria, and institutional practices based on blood right-based citizenship, the assumed hierarchy of fictive human races.” That such justifications are seen again today in marches, rallies, hostile actions, and speeches by Neo-Nazis and sympathizers in many European countries, and which once again find the Roma and Sinti and Jews in the crosshairs, should galvanize every well-meaning world citizen into a renewed commitment to remember with the highest standards of truth-telling and without regard to prejudices.

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Before policy decisions can be made, it must first be determined who the victims are; removing Romani people from Holocaust history may result in further injustices to be committed against survivors and their families in the future.

This will not be tolerated.

Romani people have the right to accurately represent our own history and it is the responsibility of others, especially those with the power to influence, to acknowledge our place in history and to correctly describe it.

We believe that the accurate recognition of the Romani Holocaust and the representation of Roma and Sinti in Holocaust ceremonies are necessary steps that must be taken in a longer struggle for shifting the narrative on Romani people. Objective and true information about Roma and Sinti can lead to overcoming stigma and embracing Romani people as equal members of society, deserving of dignity and respect.

Signatories (alphabetical order):

Glenda Bailey-Mershon, The Foundation for Romani Education and Equality (FREE)William Bila, Board Member, Roma Education Fund, Budapest, Hungary and Board Member, Roma Education Support Trust, Leicester, UKSarah Carmona, Post-Doc Researcher, Laboratoire IRMMC Université de la Manouba, Tunis, Tunisia, and 2015 Lillian Robinson Scholar, Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Montreal, CanadaQristina Cummings, Descendant of SurvivorsGina Csanyi-Robah, Founder, Canadian Romani AllianceIan Hancock, Director, The Romani Archives and Documentation Center and State Commissioner, Holocaust and Genocide CommissionAngela Kocze, Visiting Assistant Professor, Wake Forest University Research Fellow, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of SociologyRonald Lee, Romani Author and EducatorMargareta Matache, Instructor, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard UniversityNathan Mick, Vice President, StateBook InternationalValeriu NicloaeJud Nirenburg, Board chair, National Roma Center of Macedonia and Chair, American Council for Romani EqualityKristin Raeesi, Research Professional- Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska, AnchorageIliana Sarafian, PhD Researcher, University of London, UKMarius Taba