Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
The Gypsies also experienced a Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime. Initially, Nazi racial ideology expressed some ambivalence towards the Gypsies, by way of contrast to the Jews, whom they perceived as “vermin”. On the one hand, the Nazis regarded the Gypsies as “work-shy”, nomadic beggars and thieves, racially inferior to the Aryan race. On the other hand, some Nazi racial theories traced “racially pure” Gypsies to “Aryan” Indian tribes. In the end, this dual perspective on the Gypsies didn’t alter their mistreatment. Although the Nazis didn’t have a comparable “Final Solution”, or systematic plan to exterminate the Gypsies the way the did the Jews, the Gypsies suffered a similar fate. Like the Jews, they were rounded up for slave labor, interred in ghettoized areas (Gypsy Camps), and subsequently sent to killing centers.
Guenter Lewy’s closely researched book, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), traces the oppression of the Gypsies in Germany and Nazi controlled territories, starting with the racial laws of the early 1930’s, to their deportation to concentration camps beginning in 1940, to their eventual extermination in Auschwitz in May 1944.
When the Nazis consolidated power in 1936, Heinrich Himmler, who became the SS Chief and the Chief of German police, instituted the Reich Central Office for the Suppression of the Gypsies Nuisance. This organization took progressive steps to contain and persecute the Gypsies. As early as 1938, Lewy recounts, the Gypsies were rounded up and confined to Gypsy camps (Zigeunerlager). Many men were also forced into slave labor, under the program “Operation Work-Shy”. Himmler took charge of this step-by-step process of isolation and discrimination, in a characteristically systematic—and insidious–fashion. In a decree entitled “Combatting the Gypsy Plague,” he set out to determine the “inner characteristics of that race” (36). Dr. Robert Ritter, a Nazi child psychologist, became the head of The Research Institute for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology. He classified the Gypsies according to their racial profile, as pure-bred or mixed. (43) Ironically, Gypsies of “pure blood” received some special consideration and were deemed to be more integrated into German society. By way of contrast, “mixed blood” Gypsies were declared “racially inferior” and subjected to far worse treatment: in a kind of inversion of the racial laws applied to the Jews.
Only a small number of Gypsies benefitted from the racial exemptions applicable to “pure Gypsies”: somewhere between 5,000 to 15,000 individuals. The rest—about 90 percent of the Gypsies—were considered by Ritter’s pseudoscientific classification as being of “mixed” or “degenerate” blood. The vast majority of them were rounded up and deported from all the Reich and Nazi-occupied territories. In 1938, Gypsy men from Marzahn were sent to Sachsanhausen. However, large-scale, mass deportations of the Gypsies to the East began in 1940. By 1942, Himmler ordered that all the Gypsies (Roma people) in the Reich be deported to concentration and extermination camps. (75)
At Auschwitz, Gypsies were some of the few inmates, along with a group of Czech inmates from the Theresienstadt concentration camp (known as “the Family Camp”), who were allowed to keep their clothes, not shave their hair off, and stay together in clans that comprised men, women and children. Despite this somewhat better treatment, their conditions were miserable. They lacked sufficient food, lived in squalor and were plagued by lice and disease. The children often suffered from noma, a disease stemming from malnutrition that caused a form of gangrene on their faces, which often looked like holes in their cheeks. The notorious Josef Mengele also enjoyed experimenting on Gypsy children, particularly on twins, his specialty.
Lewy doesn’t call the Nazi persecution of the Gypsies a “Holocaust” because it was, in some respects, less systematic than the genocide of the Jews. Gypsies were not explicitly selected for total extermination, as were the Jewish people. This distinction makes sense. However, in the end, the result was the same, since approximately 250,000 Gypsies were killed by the Nazi regime.