Capitol Words a project of the Sunlight Foundation

  • and

Romani Holocaust Remembered

Rep. Christopher H. Smith

legislator photo

Mr. Speaker, I stand today to commemorate the tragic events of fifty-four years ago when, on the night of August 2nd and 3rd, the Romani camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated. In that single evening, 2,897 Romani men, woman and children were killed in gas chambers.

Although the Roma were among those targeted for complete annihilation by the Nazis, relatively little is known of their horrible suffering before and during World War II. In fact, institutionalized discrimination against Roma in Germany began well before the Nazi regime. During the 1920's and 1930's, these practices took on an increasingly virulent form and policies similar to those instituted against Germany's Jews were also implemented against Roma: race-based denial of the right to vote, selection for forced sterilization, loss of citizenship, incarceration in work or concentration camps, and, ultimately, deportation to and mass murder at death camps.

During the war itself, at least 23,000 Roma were brought to Auschwitz and almost all of them perished in the gas chambers or from starvation, exhaustion, or disease. Some also died at the hands of sadistic SS doctors, like Joseph Mengele. Elsewhere in German-occupied territory, Roma were killed by special SS squads or even regular army units or police, often simply shot at the village's edge and dumped into mass graves. Although it has been very difficult to estimate both the size of the pre-war European Romani population and war-time losses, some scholars put the size of the Romani population in Germany and German-occupied territories at 942,000 and the number of Roma killed during the Holocaust at half a million.

Unfortunately, after World War II, the post-Nazi German Government strongly resisted redressing past wrongs committed against Roma, seeking to limit its accountability. In addition, Roma have been discriminated against in court proceedings and their testimony has often been viewed as, a priori, unreliable. The first German trial decision to recognize that Roma were the victims of genocide during the Third Reich was not held until 1991, and Roma faced discrimination in seeking to re-establish German citizenship after the war. Moreover, since the war Roma have continued to face discrimination throughout the European continent and, in the post-Communist period, their plight was worsened.

In light of this deteriorating situation, I chaired a hearing, convened by the Helsinki Commission, on Romani human rights on July 21. I asked one of our witnesses, Dr. David Crowe, why so little is known about the Romani experience during the Holocaust. In answering, he noted several things. First, he said the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has devoted some attention to this issue. He said that the lack of attention to this issue reflects the ingrained prejudice throughout the Western world toward the Roma, and he said Roma scholarship on this subject is just beginning.

But how much attention can Roma themselves give to writing about yesterday's tragedies, when every day continues to be a struggle for survival? One writer has described the efforts of Emilian Nicholae, a Rom who painstakingly compiled the oral history of Roma Holocaust survivors in his Romanian village--only to have those handwritten testimonies destroyed during an anti-Roma pogrom in Romania in 1991. Not surprisingly, Dr. Ian Hancock, a Romani representative who also presented expert testimony before the Commission, asserted, ``What do Roma want? The top of the list is security.'' Fifty years after the end of World War II, it is long overdue.