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Thursday, 04 December 2014 00:00

Roma victims as “phantoms” in the history of the Holocaust. The duty of memory and the possibility of change

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By many people and researchers the 20th century is called “century of genocide”, a genocide where under the Nazis, German attempts to rid the country of “racial inferiority” caused many people to be killed without any mercy. Because of the victim numbers, the Nazi genocide was a unique point in the human history. One of the least known aspects of that genocide is the Pharrajimos – The Roma Holocaust. According to Janos Barsony and Agnes Daroczi, Pharrajimos[1] means cutting up, fragmentation and devouring[2] in some dialects of the Romani language. The term Pharrajimos/Porrajmos was introduced for the first time by Ian Hancock[3] in the early 1990s. The same term in the international literature can be found as “Samudaripen” or Roma Holocaust. Surprisingly or not, there are still on-going debates about whether what have happened to Roma could be considered as part of the notion of Holocaust or not.

In this paper, I analyze the reasons for lacking an official recognition and representation of Pharrajimos in the history. Therefore, I look at Nazi’s ideology, the experience of Roma before, during and after the Holocaust. I demonstrate that Nazi German’s ideology was the same for Roma people as it was for the Jewish community - the idea of racial superiority, and I challenge the claim that is not because of their antisocial and criminal behaviour. Moreover, I indicate how participation in a globalized holocaust discourse could improve the visibility of the Roma. I conclude by highlighting the importance of deserving an official recognition of the Roma victims specifically by the United Nations, represented at all international conferences and the history.


Roma before the Holocaust

Considered as dark-skinned, nomadic, not tied to any land, belonging to different religions, speaking a foreign language, etc. Roma were treated very differently from the settled people in Europe. In many countries, the people collectively known as Roma were also known as gypsies. The different culture of the Roma people created fears, stereotypes doubts among the non-Roma. The negative stereotypes became primarily shaped into a racial identity, and Roma were systematically routed. Too many of those stereotypes and prejudices are still gladly believed nowadays. There were many attempts either to assimilate the Roma or just kill them. Many times the issues of Roma were considered as the “problem” that needed to be solved. In many declarations of countries, laws often allowed the killing of Roma. For example, in 1725 King Frederick William I of Prussia ordered all Gypsies older than eighteen to be hanged. A practice of "Gypsy hunting" was quite common - a game hunt very similar to fox hunting. Even as late as 1835, there was a Gypsy hunting in Jutland (Denmark) that "carried a bag of over 260 men, women and children” [4].


Roma under the Third Reich

In the early days of Third Reich Roma people became part of Hitler’s racial ideology, called the “racial purity.” According to some literature, the Roma people were among the first victims. One way or another, Nazis planned to eliminate the Roma at the very beginning of 1933, when they stated the goal of preventing lebensunwertes Leben[5] from reproducing[6]. This ideology resembled the doctrine they had towards the Jewish people. The only way to keep the Aryan race from being tainted by Jewish and Roma blood, the Nazis felt this practice to be the best. Following Gordon McFee’s (2001) definition of Jewish blood, according to the Nazi ideology: Each Jews who: a) was descended from 3-4 Jewish grandparents; b) had 2 Jewish grandparents and who belonged to the Jewish religion or married a Jew according to the Nuremberg Laws; c) to the first degree a mixed Jew who had 2 Jewish grandparents but was not religious or married to a Jew; and, d) to the second degree a mixed Jew who had 1 Jewish grandparent[7].  For the Nazis, the definition of a Gypsy included: Gypsy blood in them if two of their eight great-grandparents were even partially-Roma[8]. Besides, anyone who had darker skin or traveled in a way that could be categorized as similar to Roma was considered to have a Romani blood. Based on different literature and research papers, this is considered as the first similarity between the two groups. However, I highlight the notion of not claiming that they had the same experience, nevertheless in this paper I reveal the similar experience between of the two groups.

The order to deport all Roma to Auschwitz-Birkenau for extermination came from Himmler on December 16, 1943[9].Approximately 250,000 to 500,000[10] Roma were murdered during the Holocaust. In many concentration camps, Roma families were kept together. According to Hancock’s explanations “ the 'family camps' were not created out of any humanitarian motive, but because Roma became completely unmanageable when being separated from family members.  “It was simply more expedient and caused the guards less problems, to leave families together for processing.” This referred only to Roma people and not to Jews. Based on the research of Barsony can be seen that on those camps a lot of sterilization and medical experiments were going on[11]. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the best known doctor was Dr. Mengele who took particular interest in the Roma children especially twins that were used for different experiments including injecting with salt water. Regarding sterilization, Nazis aim was to prevent Romani women from reproducing. Many Romani women did not even know that they were sterilized. Hungarian Roma survivor stated:

They cut off our hair… and everything to be hairless.  It was done by women, then a doctor examined us thoroughly… they examined, you know, everything.  He was the one who gave an injection to me and to all the others, to everybody.  It hurt badly.  You know, he gave me an injection down there…Everything went black… I fell off that examining tableThey kicked me away; it was time for the next.  They gave me an injection like that one in eight months and after that I did not have that monthly thing”[12].

In the article ‘And it was something we didn’t talk about': Rape of Jewish Women during the Holocaust , Helene Sinnreich argues that Jewish women were not the only one being raped, but also Roma women were victims of the organized rape camps[13]. In the camps Roma women were also vulnerable to beatings and rape. Many of the pregnant women were forced to submit to abortions. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, the Nazi’s ideology was so called “race-experts” which determined that the child would not be “Germanizable”[14], therefore, women were not given any medical help; some of them were killed or sent to give birth in places where conditions would guarantee death. 

Due to the absence of statistic representation of Roma women as victims of sterilization and sexual violence, one can see that there is lack of non-Jewish representation “sexual violence against non-Jewish women and non-Jewish survivors' voices are not heard. Additional, Andrews Sue says that the missing elements, such as discussion about women’s unique experience gendered experience of persecution and death, within the discussion of women’s unique experience provides an incomplete picture of the Holocaust.


Roma today

After the liberation Roma did not have very different life from the one before the Holocaust. Many of them were left outside on the street because of the lack of placement, without any family business or material left, especially since their belongings and properties were confiscated by the Nazis and their allies. Nowadays many Roma and Sinti are still facing with everyday stereotypes, prejudices, hate speech and hate crime. Taking into consideration just the latest events which affected Roma, such as the forced unfair deportation of Roma from France[15], the case of the blonde little Romani girl[16] who was taken away from her Roma parents just because she was blonde, or last year’s protests against Roma in Check Republic, the everyday offline/online hate speech, one can certainly not only see but also feel the high percent of Romaphobia and racism. Hancock in his book “Responses to the Porrajmos: The Romani Holocaust.” Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide”, claims that today, the Romani population faces 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 lynching’s and home burnings, are increasing. He strongly highlights that for the Roma population the Holocaust is not over yet.

The idea of not being recognized as victims of persecution for racial motives but of antisocial and criminal behavior, this indication not only affects the dignity of the Roma people, moreover it brings danger to their lives. This claim can be justified by the alarming rise of Far Right parties in Europe producing hate-speech, stereotypes, and prejudice. Remarking that a language is both active and functional in shaping and reproducing social relations, identities and ideas”[17] and “it marks out a field of knowledge, it confers membership, and it bestows authority” (p.248) hence, the discourse on any subject always carries with it a power intentionality, so many speeches can be performed by creating the problem on how they are talking about it. Mentioning all this, the process of remembrance is a necessity; it is an asset for recognition, the time for remembering is now more urgent, than it has ever been in the past.

[1] Pronounced PaRajimos 

[2] Bársony, János (2008). "Facts and Debates: The Roma Holocaust". In János Bársony and Ágnes Daróczi, eds., Pharrajimos: The Fate of the Roma During the Holocaust (pp. 1). New York, NY: International Debate Education Association. ISBN 978-1-932-71630-6.

[3] Ian Hancock is a linguist, Romani scholar, and political advocate

[4]  Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon, The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1972) 46.

[5] The term included people with serious medical problems and those considered grossly inferior according to the racial policy of the Third Reich.

[6]  Gisela Bock, Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany, p.408 in The Gypsies of Eastern Europe,ME Sharpe Inc, London, p.46

[7] From article by Gordon McFee (2001) in which he relates the German laws set in motion against.

[8] This fact can be found in nearly identical words in both Harold Tanner’s “The Roma Persecution” and Shirley Miller’s “The Road to Porrajmos, the Gypsy Holocaust”, though neither references it directly.

[9] Hancock, Ian. (2002) We are the Romani People: Ame san e rromane džene.

[10] Gilbert, Martin. "The Holocaust, Maps and Photographs," (New York : Mayflower Books, 1978. p.22; Kendrick, p. 184

[11] Barsony, J Bársony, János (2008). "Facts and Debates: The Roma Holocaust". In János Bársony and Ágnes Daróczi, eds., Pharrajimos: The Fate of the Roma during the Holocaust. New York, NY: International Debate Education Association. ISBN 978-1-932-71630-6.

[12] Bernath, Gabor, ed. “Porrajmos: Recollections of Roma Holocaust Survivors” 2000

[13] Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, Vol.14, No.2, Autumn ‘And it was something we didn’t talk about': Rape of Jewish Women during the Holocaust , Helene Sinnreich

[14] For more information, visit (last access

[15] For more information, please visit (last seen 30.11.2013)

[16]For more information, please visit (last seen 30.11.2013)

[17] Fran Tonkiss. “Analyzing Discourse.” In Clive Seal (ed.), Researching Society and Culture. London. Sage, 1998 p. 248

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