Anniversaries & holidays

The Roma Holocaust Memorial Day

Grupa Romów stłoczona w getcie.
fot. Bundesarchiv R 165 Bild-244-48 / CC-BY-SA

In the evening of 2 August 1944, Germans began liquidating the so-called ‘Gypsy camp’ (Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. About 4,200-4,300 Romani people perished in the gas chambers at that time. Since 1997, 2 August has been named the Roma Holocaust Memorial Day. In the Third Reich, Roma were considered an anti-social and racially impure group. Similarly to Jews, a discriminatory law was enforced against them—new regulations introduced, for example, an obligation to register and a restriction on movement.

Mass extermination of the Romani people began in 1941, after the German invasion on the USSR. Like Jews, they were killed in mass executions carried out by Einsatzgruppen across the occupied territories. In the autumn of 1941, about 5,000 Roma deported from Austria were incarcerated in an isolated section of the Łódź ghetto. They were confined in a strictly shut off camp within the ghetto which consisted of fifteen buildings devoid of any equipment or sanitary facilities. Overcrowding and poor housing conditions were one of the reasons of the typhus epidemic breaking out in the camp. The epidemic, in turn, prompted the decision to liquidate the camp and its inhabitants. In January 1942, they were all murdered in Kulmhof (Chełmno on the Ner River)—the first Nazi extermination camp.

In the spring and summer of 1942, a group of Romani people from Poland and Europe were transported to the Warsaw ghetto. Their presence was recorded by the Jewish chroniclers who did not manage, however, to acquaint themselves with their situation. We do not know how many Roma had been sent to the Warsaw ghetto, either. All they left behind are fragmentary accounts, which make it impossible to reconstruct their history. The Romani people also ended up in other ghettos including Siedlce, Radom and Kielce. Their isolation not only led to their disappearance from urban spaces, but also made it easier for the Germans to loot their property, above all their horses.

The appearance of the Roma in the ghetto caused concern among the Jews, alarmed by the influx of more people into the already overcrowded ghettos. The fate of the Roma in Łódź and Warsaw was identical to that of the Jews—condemned to extermination, they were murdered in Chełm and in Treblinka. The last Romani were deported from the Warsaw ghetto most likely in January 1943.

In order to solve the so-called ‘Gypsy question’ (Zigeunerfrage), the Third Reich administration decided to incarcerate the Roma in a concentration camp. On Heinrich Himmler’s orders, a camp was set up in one section of Auschwitz-Birkenau in February 1943. Entire Romani families were deported there. The Roma from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland were sent there, as well as those from France, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Belgium, the USSR, Lithuania and Hungary.

Conditions in the so-called ‘Gypsy Camp’ were abysmal, and a large proportion of the Romani inmates died of all sorts of diseases. The notorious Dr Josef Mengele conducted criminal experiments on the prisoners, including children.

All in all, approximately 23,000 Romani people were incarcerated at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp; circa 1,700 were sent to the gas chambers straight from the railway ramp. It is estimated that half of the Roma residing in the areas occupied by the Third Reich during the Second World War perished. In the Romani language, the annihilation of the Roma is referred to as Porajmos (engulfment).