Donald Kenrick is the author of many books on the experiences of Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) under the Nazi regime including Gypsies under the Swastika (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2009). In 1974 he was the co-author of the first book in the English language about the experiences of Gypsies under the Nazi regime. In this podcast he provides an overview of what the fate of Europe’s Roma and Sinti under the Nazi regime of hatred.
‘Well, the Gypsies have never been popular since they arrived in Europe in the 15th century but things peaked, I think with the cometh of the nation state and Bismarck and, in Germany particularly, from Bismarck onwards, there was more and more laws against Gypsies. They couldn’t travel with more than five families, they couldn’t have guns, they tried to stop them having horses, they were fingerprinted. It varied of course from state to state. Until the Nazis came there was no one German state with laws. But the situation in Germany wasn’t very good and in, say, Hungary and Romania there was a lot of anti-Gypsy feeling because they wanted to have a pure Hungarian race and a pure Romanian country.
Well, from the very beginning the Nazis classified the Gypsies alongside the Jews. [They] threw them out of jobs in the civil service they were not allowed to join the army later. No intermarriage was allowed so they were classed [alongside] as Jews and Blacks from 1933 onwards but the actual strong suppression came around 1938/1939 when Gypsies were being arrested at random really and sent to camps, labour camps, which later became concentration camps. I think it’s important to remember that Gypsies in general were not all nomadic, [only] about half of them were nomadic. They were travelling around doing craft work and also acting, [performing in] small scale circuses, things like that but a lot of Gypsies were living in houses, but they were taken out of the houses and put into camps and they didn’t have caravans, so there were huts as well as caravans in these camps. Each town in Germany, each big town built a camp and Gypsies were put there on grounds of their race not because they were nomadic. And that was really the start of the full oppression because then from the camps they were later taken quite easily into the clearer camps and then to the extermination camps and this was followed in Austria and to a lesser extent in Hungary and Poland.
When the Germans occupied Poland, Gypsies were put into the Jewish ghettos alongside Jews who were made to squash up and make room for them. The Gypsies were kept – men women and children together for a period of about two years and, nobody is quite sure why, then they broke up the camp and sent the young people of working age away to other camps and all the rest were just gassed on one night. That was the Auschwitz family camp in Birkenau. That night of August 2/3 has become sort of a focus for ceremonies similar to that of the Warsaw Ghetto or the Shoah day [Yom HaShoah] and that’s when most communities mark the Holocaust. August 2/3 is a night with vigils, and of course a lot of Gypsies will go to Auschwitz or other camps for that matter and spend the night there.
[Heinrich] Himmler (the Head of the SS), we think, paid two visits to Auschwitz and the second one he told the camp commander to liquidate the camp. The Gypsies had been warned of this by one or two of the women who had been taken off to dance with the German officers so they told the whole Gypsy camp that there was going to be an attempt to move them into the gas chambers. They fought back that night with knives, forks and bare hands. After an hour the commander decided to call off the actual exercise. Then over the following two months they moved all the young people, the young men and women, from about 14 years and upwards to other camps, Birkenau to Sachsenhausen in particular which simply left elderly people and people in the sick bays. Then on the night of August 2 they came and again, well not again, but as elsewhere they didn’t say ‘we are going to take you to the gas chambers’ they said, ‘we are taking you to another camp, here’s a sausage and a piece of bread’ and they drove off in the opposite direction to the gas chambers which were next to the Gypsy camp and went round and brought them in and by that time the Gypsies realised because they knew what had been happening to Jews in these so called showers where you were meant to be deloused had ended up being gas chambers so they fought back again. One or two tried to hide in the camps and one or two asked, claimed, said that they had fought in the First World War, had medals or their husbands had medals and all resistance ended and they were herded into the gas chambers and they weren’t in fact then taken to the crematorium, the books simply don’t have this right, because the crematoriums weren’t working that night. They were just loaded into ditches and burnt in ditches so the image of the crematorium for that night is actually wrong. It did apply to an earlier case, in fact, two earlier cases when Gypsies were gassed, several hundred but not [on] August 2/3 when the camp was liquidated. On that night we think about 3000 [were murdered] as far as the whole camp was concerned, over 20,000 either were killed at different stages or died from lack of any medical treatment or lack of food.
That really was the end of Germany because there were no more Gypsies living in Germany and also in Western Europe. All the Gypsies that could be picked up from Holland and Belgium had been sent to Auschwitz and what happened then was the change from having camps where people were held to extermination camps and the main extermination camps, Chelmno and Treblinka were used for Gypsies from Poland but also from Belarus and some of the occupied eastern territories and western parts of the Soviet Union and also Gypsies were killed on the side of the road just when the army and the police came across their camps. There were cases where Gypsies who had been imprisoned were taken out and shot. One or two cases when they were put into the synagogues and the synagogue was set on fire and a programme of sterilisation went alongside this. So in the camps where Gypsies were working they tried to get them in to be sterilised and often promised that if they were sterilised, we would release you.’
For more information:
- Learn more about Zigeunernacht and others who suffered under Nazi Persecution
- Learn about the experiences of The Bock Family a Romany family from the Czech Republic
The views expressed in this podcast are of the individual contributor and not necessarily those of HMDT.