Auschwitz's 75th liberation anniversary is a warning: Not all Nazi victims are remembered equally

Today, as during the Holocaust, the Roma are invariably one of the first ethnic groups to be targeted, while the world invariably refuses to care.
Image: Serbian gendarme escorts a group of Roma (Gypsies) to their execution
A Serbian gendarme serving the Serbian puppet government led by Milan Nedia escorts a group of Roma to their execution in Yugoslavia, ca. 1941-1943.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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By Lev Golinkin

On Monday, we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and rededicate ourselves to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. But even as we honor the approximately 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, let’s not ignore the Nazis' other victims, notably the Roma.

Like the Jews, the Roma were deemed racially inferior, herded to concentration camps and slaughtered. But unlike the Jews, the dead Roma (and other Nazi victims) have been relegated to the sidelines of Holocaust museums and ceremonies. Today, studies warn that the Holocaust’s Jewish victims are being rapidly forgotten; the Roma, however, were barely remembered in the first place.

Addressing this historical amnesia is crucial, not just for the dead but for the living. Once again, an intolerant nationalism is sweeping across Europe.

Addressing this historical amnesia is crucial, not just for the dead but for the living. Once again, an intolerant nationalism is sweeping across Europe. Old slurs are being revived and old “solutions” like pogroms and deportations are heard in the news. Just like 75 years ago, the Roma are in the crosshairs once more.

“Roma” is an umbrella term for several related groups of people who migrated to Europe from India in the Middle Ages. This includes the eponymous Roma, who ended up in Eastern Europe, and the Sinti, who settled in Western European states. To this day, the Roma are the largest minority group in Europe; an estimated 1 million live in the United States as well.

Their status as perpetual outsiders have made the Roma targets for discrimination and persecution for centuries. This culminated in the Porajmos (“the devouring” or “the destruction” in the Romani tongue) — Roma genocide during the Holocaust.

One of the most telling facts about the depth of ignorance over the Holocaust’s Roma victims is that over seven decades later, scholars still can’t agree on the death toll. Yad Vashem, Israel’s premiere Holocaust museum and research center, estimates that about 200,000 Roma and Sinti were killed, while the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum puts the number at “up to 250,000.” Both museums acknowledge that their numbers are approximates at best, with other estimates closer to 500,000. What is certain is that their deaths were every bit as premeditated and every bit as horrific as that of the Jews.

The infamous Nuremberg Laws, which institutionalized the persecution of Germany’s Jews based on race, were also applied to the Roma, who were determined to be “racially inferior” and “parasitic” peoples, just like Jews. In concentration camps, the Roma were subjected to slave labor, starvation and ultimately death. The Nazis also used Roma for horrendous medical experiments in the camps. And those exterminated in the camp system are only a percentage of the total victims. Close to 40 percent of Jews killed in the Holocaust were massacred in the forests and fields of Eastern Europe; untold numbers of Roma met the same fate.

After the war, however, the lives of Roma survivors diverged sharply from other groups. Restitution and even simple acknowledgments of responsibility came decades after the Jews. The French government didn’t officially admit its role in Roma internment until 2016; even Germany took over 30 years to admit its guilt, finally doing so in 1982. The European Parliament, which holds remembrance days for seemingly every occasion, only declared a specific day for Roma Holocaust remembrance in 2015.

The callousness and complacency of the world’s response to the Roma Holocaust informs the way the Roma are being treated in Europe today. “We are living at a time when anti-Roma rhetoric in Europe is more ordinary, more political and more mainstreamed in our societies than probably any other time since the Holocaust,” Jonathan Lee of the European Roma Rights Centre, a Brussels-based group combatting anti-Romani abuses, told me. “As it was in the 1930s, we are being cast as a policy issue in many countries — a demographic problem which needs to be solved and to which the solutions are increasingly severe.”

Indeed, over the past decade, politicians and nations, even in the supposedly liberal Western Europe, have taken anti-Roma actions that would be unthinkable if they had been applied to a different ethnic minority.

Politicians and nations, even in the supposedly liberal Western Europe, have taken anti-Roma actions that would be unthinkable if they had been applied to a different ethnic minority.

In 2005, the German government announced the deportation of Roma refugees who had fled violence in the Balkans to Kosovo; the refugees, which were deported without aid waiting in Kosovo, faced discrimination and poverty. In 2010, France caused an international scandal by forcibly shutting down Roma camps and deporting their inhabitants to Romania; eviction, often done under questionable circumstances, has continued since.

In 2018, Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, announced his intent to carry out a “census” of the Roma, hinting at the deportation of non-Italians. A year before, a Swedish court ordered compensations to the Roma after the government was caught illegally keeping a database of the ethnic group. In the late 2000s, Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party drew condemnation after organizing a militia that claimed to protect ethnic Hungarians from the Roma; anti-Roma sentiments continue in Hungary today. And last year, a deputy prime minister of Bulgaria suggested offering Roma free abortions, in an eerie echo of the Nazis, which often forcibly sterilized Roma women.

But perhaps the most terrifying reminder of the 1930s took place in the spring of 2018 in Ukraine, when the nation suffered a wave of anti-Roma pogroms, with neo-Nazi militias attacking Roma settlements and killing at least one man. One of the gangs involved, the National Druzhina, is a street patrol wing of the Azov organization, which also has a battalion in Ukraine’s armed forces; another group involved, C14, receives government funding.

Today, as during the Holocaust, the Roma are invariably one of the first ethnic groups to be targeted, while the world invariably refuses to care. It’s difficult to imagine the response to news of Jewish pogroms, or Germany deporting Muslims, yet the ominous attacks on the Roma have largely passed without notice. And while it’s hard to predict how far the current wave of ultranationalism and rising hate will go, it’s clear the Roma will again suffer as a result — just like before.