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The Roma genocide: do not forget

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Roma geocide, Nazis, world war two, concentration camps, Right to Remember, 2 August 1944, Roma Genocide Remembrance Day The crimes of the past have not been laid to rest for the Roma. They have barely even been recognised.

On 2 August 1944, in the ‘Gypsy Camp’ part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, around 3000 Roma were exterminated during one single evening.

This date is now commemorated as the Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.

Much has been written about the importance of Holocaust education, however, among all the resources, only a very small proportion is directed specifically towards the way the Roma population was targeted for systematic murder.

Where Roma victims are mentioned, it is generally no more than an aside. The Roma are seen as one of the “additional groups” that suffered at the time.

But the Roma were not an “additional group”.

They were one of the key groups targeted for complete elimination by the Nazis

Other groups were gay people, priests, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, black people and resistance fighters – in total probably 11 million people. Half of the victims who weren’t Jewish were Polish.

Shortly after the start of the war, the Nazis decided to remove the Sinti and Roma from the Reich. They were sent to Jewish ghettos and camps for Jews.

Over 5000 German Sinti and Roma were sent to the Lodz ghetto, for example, and majority of them were murdered soon afterwards at Kulmhof extermination centre.

Then on December 16, 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the deportation of all remaining Sinti and Roma to a concentration camp. It is estimated that about 23,000 men, women, and children were imprisoned in the Gypsy Camp; some 20,000 died or were murdered in the gas chambers there.

And from the end of May 1943 to August 1944, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr Josef Mengele was a physician in the ‘Gypsy Camp’. He carried out ‘anthropological studies’ of various racial groups, mostly Sinti and Roma, and of twins, especially identical twins.

Some of the people imprisoned in the ‘Gypsy Camp’ were transferred over time to camps in the depths of the Reich to be slave-labour in factories supporting the war effort.

Some of the people transferred were used in pseudo-medical experiments.

And a few Gypsies were released on the condition that they undergo – ‘experimental’ – sterilisation.

It is hard to know exactly how many were killed during the war.

At the beginning of the war, the Roma population in Europe was estimated to be about 1 million people.

By the end of the war, the Roma population was believed to be just 20-30 per cent of what it had been at the start.

That means that 80 per cent may have been killed; amounting to at least half a million people.

Roman Herzog, when Federal President of Germany, acknowledged on 16 March 1997 that ‘The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial mania, with the same premeditation, with the same wish for the systematic and total extermination as the genocide of the Jews.

‘Complete families from the very young to the very old were systematically murdered within the entire sphere of influence of the National Socialists.’

Across the European continent, throughout the period of the Second World War, whole families were rounded up, torn from their homes, herded into camps or segregated areas, threatened, beaten, mutilated, starved; and then, in very significant numbers, deliberately killed off.

The victims were parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, infants, toddlers and teenagers: no-one was too young or too old.

The Roma plight has all but been forgotten.

In truth, it has never been fully acknowledged.

One indication of that is the state of almost total ignorance among young people in Europe; perhaps the majority are unaware of the terrible crimes and suffering that the Roma people had to endure.

There are important reasons why this lack of attention and lack of balance need to be addressed.

Some of the reasons are to do with the historical record and the extreme nature of the crimes against the Roma people; some are to do with the need for any past victim to feel that crimes against them have been acknowledged – and remedied; and some are to do with how the majority non-Roma population continues to view and treat representatives of this community today.

The crimes of the past have not been laid to rest for the Roma.

They have barely even been recognised and there has never been a common reckoning of their significance and impact for the Roma population, let alone a re-evaluation of the way society behaves towards this minority.

In fact, in many ways, the behaviour of the non-Roma population today recalls and repeats some of the patterns which allowed those crimes to happen.

This handbook ‘Right to Remember – A Handbook for Education with Young People on the Roma Genocide’ is an attempt to redress this balance.

To follow the commemoration ceremony on 2 August live from Auschwitz via Facebook Live click here.

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