Jelena Savic

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On the Porajmos and policymaking: past, present, future February 9, 2020

On the Porajmos and policymaking: past, present, future

The name

The Romani Holocaust is named among Roma as the Porajmos, which translates to the devouring, or Samudaripen designating mass killings. This is important to know as Roma named what happened to them, and they should be able to speak in their own name.

The context

The Porajmos is a product of the directives of the Final Solution and it was an organized and systemic attempt to annihilate Roma. There is very scarce literature on the topic of the Porajmos comparing to the extensive coverage of the Shoah (Milton 2009, 133). Its sole existence is debated and some authors speak about Roma as the “side victims” of the Holocaust, or simply as the victims of genocide, putting them closer to the Armenias than to the Jewish people (Hancock 2018, 76; Milton 2009, 134).

According to Hancock, who is in strong opposition to above-mentioned negation, the Porajmos was not the first attempt of the annihilation of Roma in Europe (for example, as the author mentions, the German Emperor Karl VI had previously issued such an order in 1721) (Hancock 2004). I consider this to be a very important point as there was continuity between the pre-Porajmost period with what will come, so these forgotten lines can be connected today with the existing issues Roma are faced with all over Europe. Hancock also points out that the annihilation policies were made in already existing framework of anti-Roma sentiment in Germany, but as it is often forgotten, all across Europe (ibid). On that line, Pissari names Bernadac who gives an extensive list of the policies existing before the Porajmos and says

“Christian Bernadac, for example, speaks concisely but clearly about crimes perpetrated against the Roma in various parts of Europe during the previous nine centuries, claiming that it was this very “primary intoxication” that paved the way for genocide against the Roma in World War II. Being French, he primarily speaks about examples from France – the king’s proclamation against “Bohemians” from the year 1682, for instance,1 but also from other countries: mass deportation to Louisiana in America (France 1802), taking away children from the Roma (Germany 1830), enforced exile by force of arms (Great Britain 1912), the ban on Roma language and clothing (several regions in France, Spain, Portugal), prohibition of marriages among the Roma, prohibition of nomadism, automatic enslavement (Romania), annulling marriages between Roma and non-Roma (Hungary), confiscating property, ban on ownership of horses and carriages, banning the performing of certain jobs, buying houses (Portugal), mandatory showing of anthropological identity card (France), plan for branding (Hungary) or sterilization (Norway 1930), and, of course, The Law against the “Gypsy Menace” in Germany from December 1939.2 According to the same author, gas chambers were the sole innovation” (Pisarri 2014).

What is important from a research perspective, the academic discourse from the beginning of the 20th century provided the theoretical grounding of racism, even though this is also overwritten by the idea that Nazis did not use racism to ground their persecution, but that they treated Roma “simply as antisocial elements”. The discourse positioned Roma together with Jews as an inferior race, it served the purpose of dehumanization of Roma, declaring them genetically mentally inferior, inherently asocial, and criminal (Hancock 2004; Pisarri 2014). However, the racist theories were not enough to lead to the Porajmos. As evidence-based policy is at least a normative directive, the quasi-scientific racist academic framework served to the politicians and to policymakers, setting the path to the systemic destruction of Roma in Europe. The institutional racist scientific and policy framework was gradually set in place.

In 1936 Nazis set up the Eugenic and Population Biological Research Station (Department L3 of the Ministry of Interior) with Dr. Robert Ritter as its director. As Barsony states “[t]his institute delivered data and scientific rationalizations for “classification as inferior,” i.e., the planned extermination of the Roma and Sinti people in Europe. Ritter, registering and examining tens of thousands of Roma with pseudo-scientific methods, had repeatedly demanded the sterilization of people of mixed Roma stock. The classification of “Gypsy” or “Gypsy mix” was tantamount to deportation to Auschwitz. The researchers of the institute carried out their work in ghettos and concentration camps as well, performing mass sterilizations on both males and females” (Barsony 2007, 26). Also, in 1936 the so-called “Rassehygienische Forschungsstelle” (Research Centre for Racial hygiene) was created, and in 1937 the “Reichszentrale für die Bekämp-fung des Zigeunerunwesens im Reichs-kriminalpolizeiamt” (Reich Centre for Fighting the Gypsy Plague (Menace) within the Reich Office of the Criminal Police) (Pisarri 2014, 18).

Another important aspect from policy-making position, the public discourse on Roma was saturated with hate speech, which is recognized today as a “precursor to atrocity crimes, including genocide” (United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect 2020). Roma lives were labeled as the “lives undeserving of life”, and hate was also grown on fear. Roma are proclaimed to be genetically mentally deficient, and with this uncontrollable, they were presented as a threat to the nation. All this can be seen as resonating with the long-lasting issues in education, for example, where Roma are tested and put into the classes or schools for children with special needs, with higher number of expulsions and detention for Roma boys in schools, and in general, with the lower expectation and quality of education teachers provide (Baucal 2006). And of course, it is in line with the present rising hate speech climate in Europe (United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect 2020).

The policies

Already in 1933 Roma were subjected to sterilization, and in 1935 intermarriages of “Gypsies” and “Aryans” were forbidden (Baumgartner, n.d.). This is one aspect which cannot be neglected when speaking about the health or gender-related issues Roma face today. Roma are also forbidden to enter into public spaces like parks and baths (Hancock 2004, 387). These are the cases that appear from time to time in front of the courts in present very similar to this (European Roma Right Center 2018). Relevant to the understanding of data collection and lack of trust of Roma in the state structures today is the fact that on the same ground of inherent “Gypsy criminality” the data was collected about Roma by the “Gypsy Information Agency” in Germany (ibid, 386). German and Austrian police forces started to register the Roma in so-called “Zigeunerlisten” ( the “Gypsy” lists), to take photos and fingerprints even to children, the lists will later serve well to the executors of the “Final Solution”(Baumgartner, n.d.). Unemployment was criminalized among Roma and they are sent to working camps for public security and safety reasons, the historical note which might be taken in consideration when current social policies targeting Roma as the ones who “need to be thought work ethics” are in question. Some brief overview of the camp imprisonment follows below, with many more camps all over Europe and atrocities not mentioned:

  • In 1935 the first concentration camp for the Gypsies in Ehrenfeld, near Cologne, which was guarded by the police.

  • Sinti and Roma were among the first inmates of Buchenwald opened in 1937.

  • Between13 and 18 June 1938 throughout Germany the ‘Gypsy Clean-Up Week’ (Zigeuner-aufräumungswoche, or Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich and Bettlerwoche) happened.  It was theRomaKristallnacht, which also happened to the Jewish people that same year (Hancock 2004, 388).

  • In 1938 the Nazis started deporting Roma and Sinti to labor camps like the Lackenbach “Gypsy camp” in Burgenland .

  • From 1939 there were other camps like Dachau and Ravensbrück which was the camp for women and children.

  • In January 1940 the first mass genocidal action of the Holocaust took place when 250 Romani children from Brno were murdered in Buchenwald, where they were used as guinea-pigs to test the efficacy of the Zyklon-B cyanide gas crystals that were later used in the gas chambers (Hancock 2004, 389).

  • Roma were also deported to Chelmno in Poland which opened up in 1941 and many other camps across Europe (Barsony 2007, 26).

  • On 16 December 1942 Himmler issued the order for Roma in Europe to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau for systematic extermination (Pisarri 2014, 5). By the summer of 1944, most of Roma victims from camps in Germany, Poland and other European countries were sent to this camp and murdered. Roma served also to Mengele and Clausberg for their horrendous medical experiments on Roma women and children (Barsony 2007, 27).


Today, Roma are suffering from historical, recognition, procedural and reparation injustice. The exact number of killed Roma is debated as Roma were often not present in the national statistical offices in the countries where they were the most numerous and where they were killed in the greatest numbers, also they were often not registered as Roma in the Nazi records either (Hancock 2004, 391).

How ERRC reports “[a]ccording to estimates by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about 23,000 Roma, Sinti and Lalleri were deported to Auschwitz altogether. About 3,500 Roma were sent to other Nazi concentration camps, and an estimated 30,000 Roma were killed in the Baltic States and other areas of the occupied Soviet Union (European Roma Right Center, n.d.).

According to the Council of Europe “[u]p to date, concrete historical documentation has been unearthed for about 50,000 victims within the German Reich and German-occupied territories, and another roughly 50,000 victims in countries governed by fascist satellite governments of the Reich” (Baumgartner, n.d.).

Millton, who was at some point the senior historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Research Institute in Washington, claimed that between a half and one and a half million of Roma were killed by 1945 (Hancock 2004, 392).

According to Hancock, there are additional obstacles to determine the number of Roma who are killed as Roma culture is mostly oral, the majority of older members of Roma families who were tradition-bearers were killed, there was also the trauma of the survivors who could not speak about the things they witnessed (ibid, 393). However, Hancock considers that there is a body of research, evidence including the number of survivors and testimonies which indicates that the Porajmos lead to more than half of the population of Roma in Europe to disappear and that the number of Roma deaths is largely underestimated (ibid).

Also, procedural justice is according to Hancock not satisfied as “[n]obody was called to testify in behalf of the Romani victims at the Nuremberg Trials, and no war crimes reparations have ever been paid to Romanies as a people”(Hancock 2004, 392). According to the ERRC, “[t]he United States Holocaust Memorial Museum writes that the West German Federal Parliament only recognized the Nazi persecution of Roma as racially motivated in 1979. As a result, most Roma became eligible to apply for compensation for their suffering and loss. However, by this time, many of these eligible people had already died (European Roma Right Center, n.d.)”. There are Roma survivors and testimonies, also the stories of resistance, however, limited research is done to collect them (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust 2015b).

The vast majority of Roma victims and Nazi fighters stay nameless. There are very few to be known by their name as the famous Johann Wilhelm “Rukeli” Trollmann, the boxer of German Sinti origin who defeated the Nazi party favorite Adolf Witt in 1933 and for that became particularly targeted and the victim of persecution, despite him serving the German army, until the end of his life in 1944 where he was killed in the camp Wittenberg (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust 2020).

There is also an iconic image of Anna Maria ‘Settela’ Steinbach, German Sinty girl, taken on May 1944 in the Dutch transit camp Westerbork in north-east Netherlands for whom it was long thought to be Jewish and whose picture was for some time a symbol of Jewish innocence and victimhood (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust 2015a).

Today, across Europe, Roma are in curriculums mentioned as the victims of the Holocaust, but the particular historical and political circumstances leading to the devouring of their lives, as well as their victims very often stay invisible. In history textbooks, they are mentioned in a list of numerous victims of WWII, or they are a short side mentions in the chapters devoted to anti-Semitism (Spielhaus et al. 2020). There is by the rule no connecting line between the historical events in the past and the current situation of Roma, and again by the rule, Roma are presented as passive victims, with no agency (ibid). Lack of historical awareness presents a great danger in the populist times for Roma. Generations of today’s policymakers in European countries grew up knowing nothing or almost nothing about Roma history, in cultures which rarely were able to include Roma in their dealings with the national-socialist, fascist, and especially collaborationist past. Being aware of the historical aspect of evidence-based policymaking is essential. The data must be put into context. Otherwise, we do not know what it really means, either for the present or for the future.


Barsony, Janos. 2007. “20th Century Roma History and the Pharrajimos.” In Pharrajimos: The Fate of the Roma During the Holocaust, edited by Agnes Daroczi and Janos Barsony, 23–49. New York: International Debate Education Association.

Baucal, Aleksandar. 2006. “Development of Mathematical and Language Literacy among Roma Students.” Psihologija 39 (2): 207–27.

Baumgartner, Gerhard. n.d. “Concentration Camps.” Council of Europe.

European Roma Right Center. 2018. “Macedonian Court Rules Against Swimming Pool for Discriminating Against Roma.” Text. European Roma Rights Centre. November 19, 2018.

———. n.d. “Porajmos: The Roma Holocaust.” European Roma Right Center.

Hancock, Ian. 2004. “Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-Evaluation and Overview.” In The Holocaust and Historical Methodology, edited by Dan Stone, 383–96. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

———. 2018. “Responses to the Porrajmos: The Romani Holocaust.” In Is the Holocaust Unique?: Perspectives on Comparative Genocide., edited by Alan S Rosenbaum, 3rd edition, 75–103. Boulder, CO: Westview Press: Perseus Books Group.

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. 2015a. “Settela’s Story.” June 25, 2015.

———. 2015b. “Auschwitz-Birkenau’s Roma Survivors.” November 6, 2015.

———. 2020. “The Life of Sinto Boxer Johann ‘Rukeli’ Trollmann.” April 6, 2020.

Milton, Sybil. 2009. “Holocaust: The Gypsies.” In Centuries of Genocide, edited by Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons, 3rd edition, 133–69. New York: Routledge.

Pisarri, Milovan. 2014. The Suffering of the Roma in Serbia during the Holocaust. Belgrade: forum for Applied History.

Spielhaus, Riem, Simona Szakács-Behling, Aurora Ailincai, Victoria Hopson, and Marko Pecak. 2020. “The Representation of Roma in European Curricula and Textbooks. Analytical Report.” Strasbourg: Council of Europe Roma and Travellers Team.

United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. 2020. “United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.” United Nations. February 8, 2020.