Roma-the people of Indian origin were historically discriminated against and persecuted community of Europe and are targeted with more brutality than any other community till today. Since their arrival in Europe in the 15th century, Romas have been subjected to servitude in galleys or mines, torture, dehumanization, flogging, whipping, expulsion, seclusion, murder and death sentences because of being Roma.
From the first anti-Roma law for the banishment of Roma from the Roman Empire by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1498 to the present day when a Romani person named Stanislav Tomas was killed by a Czech police officer who knelt on his neck till his death in June 2021, and 20-year-old Romani youth Nikos Sabanis was shot dead in Athens by police who fired more than 30 rounds at him in October 2021. Almost everywhere, their human rights are violated and threatened. Xenophobia and racist violence targeting Roma is the order of the day. Discrimination against Roma in employment, education, healthcare system, administrative and other public services is reigning supreme in most European societies, and hate speech intensifies the anti-Romani stereotypes. This manifests the contemporary persecution, ethnic racism and prejudice against the Roma community.
The anti-Roma racial hatred lies in the long history of Romas in Europe and later in the 20th century fused with the concept of race. This culminated in the murder of more or less 25 and 50 per cent of the Roma/Sinti’s entire population in Europe by Nazis and their collaborators. However, Europe seemed to have developed a willful forgetfulness about the annihilation of over half a million Roma by the Nazi and Nazi-Ustasha regimes during the Second World War even after the elapse of five decades.
It was 2015 when the European Parliament through a resolution promulgated 2 August as the annual “European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day” to commemorate and remember the genocide of 500,000 European Romani people including the old, women and children. For almost four decades the German authorities and institutions denied the genocide of Roma, perpetrated by the Nazis on the ground of racial inferiority. In 1982, the West German government recognized the racially motivated massacre of Roma. In 2011, the Polish parliament officially adopted August 2 as a day of commemoration for the Romani genocide, the next year the Croatian government followed the suit.
Bavaria- the state of Germany enforced a wide array of anti-Roma laws straddling the fingerprinting of all Roma by police in Bavaria in 1911. Subsequently, in 1926, the Bavarian state initiated another draconian legislation against Roma that necessitated the registration of all Romani people with the authorities in order to regulate their movement. The same law was enacted throughout the country by the German government in 1929. These legislations gave way to a number of draconian legislations based on the ideology of pure blood and German Aryan racial superiority.
When Hitler came into power in Germany in 1933, he did not need to devise any new law but in line with a myriad of previous legislations and documentation, he introduced July 1933, ‘German Aryan racial superiority’ law and in November of the same year, Law against ‘Dangerous Habitual Criminals’ which deemed Roma as racially inferior. As a result, Hitler ordered the sterilization of Roma under the law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Finally, in September 1935 Law for ‘the Protection of German Blood and Honor’ (Nuremberg Race Laws) was enforced which empowered the authorities to arrest and incarcerate the Roma in prisons and concentration camps.
The initial mass genocide came about in January 1940 when 250 Romani children from Brno were killed in Buchenwald and their dead bodies were used as guinea pigs to test the efficacy of the Zyklon-B cyanide gas crystals which were later put to use in the gas chambers to asphyxiate victims (Proester, 1940). On 16th December 1942, Heinrich Himmler signed the order for sending Germany’s Sinti/Roma to Auschwitz. During the twelve years of Nazi rule, the Roma community suffered the culmination of cruelty, bestiality and inhumanity recorded in the history of humanity. It did not stop in Germany but the persecution of Romani people flared up in Central and Eastern Europe where they constituted 8 % -10% of the total population of the countries. And as a result, around half a million Roma were liquidated, nonetheless, these figures of Romani tolls between 1940 and 1945 are too less to be tenable.
With the connivance of Nazi authorities, the Pavelic regime in Croatia and Antonescu in Romania had undertaken anti-Roma measures amounting to genocide. The Nazi provided the framework for destruction and annihilation to the Pavelic regime under the rubric of genocidal policies, as result 75 per cent of local Roma was decimated in Croatia whereas in Romania third of Roma died of typhus epidemics on account of the excruciatingly agonizing plight in Transnistria camp and besides Romanian policemen along with SS men occasionally killed Roma. In Vichy France, the persecution of Roma persisted according to the earlier discriminatory legislation dealing harshly with nomads. In March 1942, the Vichy government established a special camp for itinerant Roma at Saliers in Southeast France. As Vichy regime deemed internment as the best way of assimilation but it resulted in persecution and privation of the Romani people.
Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide, was the first scholar who raised the issue of genocide pertaining to the Roma community. Lemkin stated Roma along with Jews and Slavs were the victims of the holocaust perpetrated by Nazis. He said in one of his speeches on Radio in October 1955 that almost all the gypsies/ Roma were destroyed by Third Reich. Another prominent Holocaust scholar Martin Holler narrated how the members of the Security Unit Police forced a group of Romani people to dance half naked in freezing temperature prior to killing them. He further noted that macabre torture and brutality of persecution were committed by the German Filed Police unit against a group of three hundred Roma including women and children.
The horrendous massacre of Roma and Sinti ramped up on 2 August 1944, when Nazi Germans went on a killing spree across the Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy/ Roma camp”) at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps where 2,897 Romani people were annihilated as a part of Hitler’s genocidal plan. However, the Roma genocide was masqueraded and less systematically pursued. The lack of recognition of pogroms reflects the long-standing discrimination against Roma.
Fixing the number of Romani people who were killed and murdered during the Holocaust has not been feasible or easy. As Bernard Streck (in Rakelmann, 1979) stated that any effort to determine the casualties and tolls in terms of numbers cannot be ascertained through the lists or camp files. As most of Roma in Eastern and Southern Europe were shot dead by Execution Forces and Fascist gang members in remote areas and forests where Roma was hunted and arrested, so numerous murders went without recording or reporting. There are no correct figures for the pre-war Romani population in Europe, though the official census of 1939, conducted by Nazi Government, reported being around two million which was certainly underrepresentation in terms of numbers.
However, some institutions hypothesized the tolls of Roma; The Society for Threatened Peoples International (STPI) appraised the deaths of 277,100 Romani people during the Second World War. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimated the number of Sinti and Roma killed was between 220,000 and 500,000. Martin Gilbert reported that between 220,000 and 700,000 Romani people in Europe were killed, including 15,000 (mainly from the Soviet Union) in Mauthausen in January–May 1945. Dr. Sybil Milton, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute, said the number of lives lost was between a half-million and a million-and-a-half.
In recent years awareness of the Roma Holocaust started gaining ground and began to be trusted owing to reporting of first-hand testimonies, the annual commemoration of the Romocide or genocide, recollection of tragedy, publications and scholarship. Roma community across the world began to observe 2nd August as a commemoration of Auschwitz holocaust for paying tribute to the victims as well as a testifying the strength of the survivors, besides making advocacy of Roma rights, social inclusion and the improvement of the current socio-economic situations.
This commemorative event is a pledge to snuff out the historical amnesia and address the xenophobic sentiments by mobilizing concerted efforts to raise awareness about Europe’s darkest period in order to avoid the repetition of such genocide, besides making an earnest appeal to international communities for the reparation to Roma and Sinti people.