A Forgotten People, a Terrible Ordeal

Portrait of a Roma prisoner at Auschwitz,
drawn by Czech-Jewish painter Dinah
Gottliebova. Before being killed, Gottliebova
was ordered by Dr Josef Mengele to paint
portraits of Roma in order to define
their “specific genetic characteristics”

By Tom Gross
The Wall Street Journal (Daily Book Review)
January 19, 2000

Books Reviewed:
(1) The Nazi persecution of the Gypsies
By Guenter Lewy (Oxford University Press, 306 pages, $30)

(2) The Holocaust in Romania
By Radu Ioanid (Ivan R. Dee, 352 pages, $30)

O say that the Gypsy people have been ignored by historians, politicians and the media would be something of an understatement. The Gypsies – or Roma, as they are more properly known – are to be found in almost every European country, and in a good many other places too, including the U.S. Numbering at least eight million in Europe alone, they now constitute the continent’s largest minority without a state of its own. And today they are arguably the most consistently persecuted minority as well, enduring everything from segregated schools and ghetto compounds in the Czech Republic to pogroms in Kosovo. Yet the international community has, for the most part, turned a blind eye to their plight.

Why should this be so? Well, when outright racism is not a cause, unthinking hostility and astonishing ignorance often are. Many people still think of “Gypsies” in crude stereotypes – as thieving vagrants, fortune-tellers or, at best, picturesque figures out of Bizet’s “Carmen.” They are, in fact, a distinct people who have preserved their own language and culture since migrating to Europe from India in the 10th century. Even so – to take but one example – the Times Atlas of World History in the early 1990s contained no entry for Roma (or Gypsies) in the section charting the movement of peoples.

This neglect is at its most shocking in regard to the fate of the Roma in Hitler’s holocaust, in which they were the second most populous victims. Thus Guenter Lewy’s “The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies” is especially welcome. Mr. Lewy’s account is the most comprehensive and accurate treatment of the subject in English to date. (It surpasses Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon’s admirable 1972 book, “The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies,” which Mr. Lewy wrongly denigrates.)

Inevitably, Mr. Lewy takes us back before the Nazi era, since official modern prejudice against the Roma originates in the 19th century. In 1885, Bavaria issued measures aimed at controlling Gypsies and gathering information about them. In 1899, a Central Office for Gypsy Affairs was established by the Munich police; from 1911 it began fingerprinting any Gypsies it could lay its hands on. Other states supplied names and photos, and by 1925 this data bank included more than 14,000 names from all over Germany.

In the 1920s, states and municipalities throughout Germany approved measures for combating “Gypsies, Travelers and the Work-Shy.” In 1929, the city council of Frankfurt was the first to set up what was officially called a “concentration camp for Gypsies.” Yet this did not resemble the deadly concentration camps of later years. Though fenced in, camp inhabitants could enter and leave at will, and there was no permanent guard.

When Hitler assumed power in 1933, Germany’s Roma constituted a small minority of about 26,000. They were of no particular interest to the Nazi leadership, whose racial policies were directed almost exclusively against the Jews. “Mein Kampf,” for example, does not mention the Gypsies, and in his 12 years as Fuhrer, Hitler mentioned them only twice, in brief remarks on their military service.

Yet, as Mr. Lewy explains, this indifference changed, largely as a result of pressure from below. Local communities that regarded Gypsies as asocial and criminal felt there was little place for them in a new social structure that placed excessive emphasis on law and order. By 1938, measures of control and harassment against Roma began to assume an explicitly racial nature. Decrees “for combating the Gypsy plague” made mention of their alleged racial inferiority.

From 1943, persecution turned into partial genocide, and a special “Gypsy camp” was established at Auschwitz, in which 20,000 Roma would die. Yet, as Mr. Lewy shows, Nazi policies toward the Gypsies remained inconsistent. Some types were targeted for extinction; others (though often treated very badly) were spared death. For this reason Mr. Lewy, like most historians before him, makes a distinction between the murder of Roma and the Nazi campaign to kill every single Jew.

Estimates by reliable historians of European Gypsies killed in World War II range from 90,000 to 196,000, out of a prewar population of several million. Although Mr. Lewy never gives a figure himself, he is dismissive of a new generation of Roma activists who, desperate to draw attention to the dire situation of their people today, vastly exaggerate the number of Roma victims of the Nazis.

Even so, the actual numbers were bad enough. It is worth noting that the Roma were the only other group subjected to anything approaching full-scale genocide, and some Roma – notably the children on whom Mengele “experimented” – were subjected to horrific treatment.

Given the discrepancy in the scale of genocide, Radu Ioanid’s “The Holocaust in Romania” naturally concentrates on the fate of the Jews. Relying on hitherto inaccessible archives, Mr. Ioanid recounts in chilling detail the savage persecution of the Jews under the Nazi-allied regime of the heinous dictator Ion Antonescu. At least 250,000 died.

The book’s account of the Roma outlines how almost 25,000 Romanian Gypsies – approximately 2.5% of the country’s Gypsy population – were deported to Transnistria (now in Ukraine). All but 1,500 of these died there with the Jews.

Mr. Ioanid’s book is especially timely since, amazingly, Antonescu is undergoing a rehabilitation in Romania today: streets are being named for him, statues erected and minutes of silence observed in his memory. What this perverse homage does to the memory of his victims is almost beyond reckoning.

(Mr. Gross, the Middle East correspondent of the London Sunday Telegraph, served as a special adviser to the United Nations on Czech Roma from 1992 to 1995.)

Article © Copyright Tom Gross