IN THE MIDDLE of the night between August 2nd and 3rd in 1944, almost 3,000 Roma were led from their camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau to the gas chambers, where they were ruthlessly murdered as dawn rose. Last Saturday morning, I found myself standing beside the remains of that gas chamber, surrounded by 1,000 Roma young people determined to commemorate their losses in a genocide the world seems determined to forget.
The Roma are vilified and maligned across Europe. In the 70 years since the Holocaust, their pain and suffering has been forgotten and diluted, wiped from the pages of history books while the same myths that were used to put them in camps in the first place persist into the 21st century. Widely accepted “facts” about Roma criminality and anti-social behaviour are today central to any conversation about the Roma community, despite a broad lack of understanding for the realities involved.
The Roma were detested ever before the Nazis tortured, murdered and burned them en masse. In the 1920s and 30s, as the world economy bottomed out, thousands of people in Central Europe lost their jobs and retreated from cities to their home villages, where they took over jobs the Roma had been doing. The Roma became poorer and disadvantaged, forced to move from place to place to find meagre employment. In towns and villages, local craftspeople protested the competition and Roma and Sinti were fined for attempting to work.
Regional authorities across Europe began to issue special identification cards for Roma, listing them in ‘gypsy registers’ and subjected them to constant police checks as they sought shelter and work.
The poverty and disadvantage faced by the Roma was at crisis point. Gypsy conferences were organised, where ‘solutions’ to the Roma problem were suggested, including mass deportations to islands and labour camps. As the Nazis came to power, they categorised Roma as ‘born criminals’ and in the interest of crime prevention, arrested Roma they thought might someday commit a crime.