The Invisible Roma

Germany’s Other Holocaust Victims

Sometimes, apparently trivial expressions of bigotry can take on surprising importance.

Hungry with child. Karl-Marx-Platz, Neukölln.

When the name of a well-established dish or product is no longer considered acceptable for social or ethical reasons, there are usually differences of opinion about whether this is necessary or an overreaction, a foolish concession to the oversensitive.

One of the more ill-named specialities in the German-speaking world is the chocolate-covered marshmallow treat, now known as Schaumkuss [foam kiss] or Schokokuss [chocolate kiss], but originally termed Negerkuss [Negro’s kiss] and Mohrenkopf [Moor’s head].

The last of these remained in common use in Germany until the end of the last century, perhaps because its archaism made it seem less racist, and is still in use in Switzerland.

Yet even with the racial reference removed, the fact that the Kuss refers to the juxtaposition of dark skin and white teeth represented by chocolate and marshmallow cream means that from the historical perspective, the kiss remains contaminated.

Another dish whose name has been criticised for some time is the Zigeunerschnitzel, a pork cutlet with a so-called ‘Gypsy’ sauce loosely based on Hungarian cuisine. It has gradually become less common on menus under that name, even though it is not considered as glaringly offensive in majority-white society as anti-black slurs.

Nonetheless, it occasionally rears its head in regressive discussions about so-called political correctness, such as one broadcast on German television in January.

While the spectacle of white TV personalities choosing gravy as a hill to die on for the right to offend minorities was painfully banal, there is a far darker side to Germany’s treatment of the Romani and Sinti people.

The neo-Nazi party Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), which became mostly irrelevant after the rapid growth of the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) in the 2010s and the latter’s rise to become the largest opposition party in the German parliament in 2017, has a history of election posters with offensive but also highly cringeworthy slogans.

One of these, which seems to have first appeared in 2013, showed the fearful gaze of an elderly woman above the childish rhyme Geld für die Oma statt für Sinti und Roma – “Money for Grandma, not for Sinti and Roma”.

The spirit was the same as in the usual Islamophobic agitation against refugees and jihadists, who are supposedly stealing both jobs and welfare money from honest Germans. But the poster stuck out oddly because unlike Muslims, who are visible throughout Germany in urban and provincial areas alike, Roma are mostly overlooked.

Seeing the name in rural settings where many people would barely have heard of them, it seemed likely that the slogan had only been devised because of the opportunity for a tacky rhyme.

One of the central tenets of ethical culture in Germany is the importance of remembering and studying the Nazi Holocaust, whose most numerous and prominent victims were Jews.

Alongside non-racial groups such as homosexuals, communists and the mentally disabled, the other ethnic category singled out for extermination was that of Roma and Sinti, the “Gypsies.”

The Endlösung der Judenfrage (“Final Solution of the Jewish Question”) was made official in 1942, and references to the Endlösung der Zigeunerfrage (“Final Solution of the Gypsy Question”) appeared in documents as early as 1936.

When the significance of religious identity gave way to ethnic categories in the 19th century, reducing the force of traditional theologically-motivated Antisemitism, the distinction between “German” and “Jewish” became less obvious and had to be given a pseudo-biological foundation in order to remain potent.

The more secular German Jews became, and the less they could be distinguished by religious dress or artefacts, the less clearly they deviated from what was considered German, in the sense one would now call “white”.

As people of colour, the Roma were generally a clearer ethnic Other than Jews.

While Jews were often in an ambiguous position until the advent of Nazi rule, with fluctuations between acceptance and distrust according to their degree of assimilation and the whims of society, it was harder for Roma to be viewed as equals.

And when Antisemitism finally reached mass-murderous levels, the accompanying tropes were more about insidious influence and control by clever, money-grubbing infiltrators than racial inferiority.

The idea that European Jews were passing as white Germans while actually being of a different race fed into this view, whereas Roma and Sinti were subject to more typical racial discrimination based on notions like laziness, dirtiness and dishonesty, especially those with itinerant lifestyles.

Nonetheless, there was a Romani and Sinti middle class in Germany. The near-total extermination of this part of the population – which was easier for the Nazis to target than itinerant or socially marginal families, because its members appeared in numerous records – is a major factor in the low standing of the Romani cause and the lack of awareness about the genocide, even among some Romani people.

As with the Jews, there were Romani and Sinti men who had fought in the First World War and became officers. Some had even continued as soldiers in the Second World War, their origins temporarily overlooked, and had suddenly found themselves victims – in some cases being taken to Auschwitz while still wearing their uniforms.

After the Second World War, the extermination of up to 1.5 million Roma across Europe by the Nazis and allied regimes such as the Ustaše in Croatia, (for which the British Romani scholar and activist Ian Hancock, director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin, introduced the term Porajmos [the “Devouring”]), had left only some 30% of their original population.

This was a similar proportion to the losses of the Jews. Although the conventional estimate of Romani deaths was long around 500,000, Hancock’s research uncovered previously overlooked information in death camp records. The incompleteness of many such lists, combined with the fact that some Roma were not registered as such for fear of ethnic discrimination or because they were not settled, had long made it difficult to reach an accurate assessment.

In addition, the specific genocidal aim of the persecution and killings had been overlooked or denied for decades. There were no Romani witnesses at the Nuremberg Trials, and no Nazi officers were interrogated about such plans.

In 1950, when faced with claims for compensation by Romani survivors, German judges were told by their political superiors that “Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of an asocial and criminal record.”

It is hard to imagine a greater slap in the face.

It was not until 1982, after an intensification of activism in the Romani community, that the West German government finally acknowledged officially that there had been a planned Roma Holocaust.

Yet even after this acknowledgement, no reparations were made.

The same year saw the founding of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg. Now, with such an official representative body, it seemed that survivors and their heirs would finally gain a more respected place in German society and remembrance culture.

In 1988, journalist Leah Rosh suggested a memorial for the Jews murdered by the Nazis and began gathering support. Chancellor Helmut Kohl planned to erect a memorial for all Holocaust victims, including Roma and Sinti, but Rosh pushed for a memorial solely for the Jews, arguing that their situation had been unique.

With the ever-shocking figure of 6 million victims in the foreground, it was hard for the supposed 500,000 Romani dead to compete.

The Central Council of Jews joined the fray, and Kohl tried to end the increasingly acrimonious discussion in 1992, when he promised that the Roma and Sinti would have a memorial of their own. At the suggestion of the council’s president, Romani Rose, the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan was commissioned to design it.

Even then, it took another twenty years for the plan to be realised. Examining the causes for this, one finds the same disinterest and disrespect towards the Roma that had met all their efforts at acknowledgement.

The Ministry of Culture thought that because the Nazis had used the word Zigeuner, this word should also appear on the memorial. It took considerable efforts from the Central Council to convince them that this was insulting and inappropriate.

Alongside all manner of incompetence in the planning and construction process, one of the more ridiculous, yet revealing hitches was that there was a bus stop where the entrance was meant to be. But instead of moving the bus stop, the entrance was relocated.

Karavan was outraged: “I told them, if it were Jews, you would move the bus stop in one week. I can say that because I am a Jew. But they don’t care about the Sinti and Roma.”

The artist, who had lost family members in the Holocaust, understood what German politicians did not: Roma and Jews were comrades-in-loss.

Karavan believes that they should be honoured together, without any competitions for status or number games.

Is this simple humanist message so difficult to understand? Time and again, the assertion of the uniquely genocidal treatment of Jews has been used to downgrade the Roma as victims of the Holocaust.

A prominent Israeli historian of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer, has asserted that “Roma were not Jews, therefore there was no need to murder all of them,” and that the popular figure of 500,000 is an exaggeration.

In a 1998 interview for Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem, Bauer said: “In the case of the Gypsies (the Roma), after some internal squabbles, settled Gypsies were to be left alone. Wandering Gypsies, who represented a hindrance to the good order of a German culture that would conquer Europe, were to be killed.”

Even Raul Hilberg, the historian whose seminal, mammoth work The Destruction of the European Jews is widely considered the foremost text on the subject, devoted less than 15 of almost 1,300 pages to the Roma.

Like Bauer, he did not class the killings as a targeted attempt to exterminate a people.

This is a trend in much writing on the Holocaust. But there have also been opposing positions, notably in the work of Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, who have also emphasised the parallel status of disabled persons as being targeted for complete extermination. In Friedlander’s case, this led to clashes with Bauer.

And in October 2020, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) published a “working definition” of Antigypsyism.

Although the inauguration of the memorial for the Roma and Sinti in Berlin in 2012 was a great moment in the struggle for recognition, it did not mean that the problems were over.

In 2020, it was decided that a metro line would be extended to pass under the area, probably necessitating the memorial’s temporary removal. There was an outcry, and Dani Karavan threatened to protect the memorial with his own body if necessary.

The reaction from Deutsche Bahn, the national rail company, suggested that the idea that this might be problematic was entirely new to them.

After extensive discussions, a solution was finally reached in December with the conception of a tunnel beneath the grounds that would leave the memorial itself untouched. There would only be minor construction work above ground in other parts of the area.

Romani Rose, the head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, gratefully acknowledged the decision, emphasising that he understood the importance of the train line for Berlin. Would anyone expect a leader of the Jewish community to be so affable in the face of similar circumstances?

On 20 January this year, on the anniversary of the Wannsee Conference at which Hitler’s Final Solution was determined in 1942, there was an online event organised by the House of the Wannsee Conference, a memorial and educational site located in the very building where that inhuman decision was made.

A number of experts on Antisemitism and its history gave presentations, and there was a short Q&A segment at the end in which questions typed by viewers were read out and answered by the speakers.

I had posed the question of whether the best way to combat Antisemitism in Germany is really to appoint special Antisemitism commissioners at both national and state levels, while leaving other ethnic minorities to be taken care of by the remaining anti-discrimination structures.

I suggested that it might be more productive to bring together different minorities – Jews, Muslims, Roma – with a representative rather than approaching one kind of racism as a special case requiring separate treatment.

My question was answered by Marina Chernivsky, director of the Competence Centre for Prevention and Empowerment, an organisation involved in counselling, education and consulting regarding matters of Antisemitism.

Chernivsky explained that Antisemitism research in Germany is still a young field, no more than twenty years old after decades of ignorance, and that placing a special emphasis on this was vital in order to establish a proper understanding of Antisemitism.

She further argued that, far from hindering work in other areas of racism, this would in turn illuminate many other issues related to ethnic discrimination and inequality. Chernivsky concluded by insisting that there should be no hierarchy of discrimination, that all forms should be examined separately and specifically, and that no one form should be placed above the others.

I was not surprised by the response, but I found it troubling that my suggestion to treat discrimination against different minorities equally was met with the assertion that there should be no hierarchy. In other words, it was argued that by not treating Antisemitism separately, one would be disadvantaging it.

These were short remarks that would have benefited from further discussion. But what they evoked for me was the common human phenomenon where a loss of privilege is perceived as a loss of equality.

I would have been interested to hear the thoughts of someone like Romani Rose on this earnest defence of the special importance of Antisemitism research. Would he have agreed that studying Antisemitism offers a greater understanding of all other ethnic discrimination?

To be sure, one finds remarkably close parallels between modern Islamophobic tropes and historical Antisemitic ones, from times when Jews were still being demonised for their supposed religious beliefs and the Talmud was being treated as an evil book much as the Qur’an is today.

This certainly exposes the commonalities between seemingly different forms of discrimination, as the historian and discrimination expert Wolfgang Benz has shown. But have the Roma benefited from this? Has there been increased recognition of what was inflicted on them?

In the last decade, the German government has deported tens of thousands of Roma to mostly Balkan countries. 2011 alone saw 50,000 sent to Kosovo.

In most cases, families who have fled war or persecution are being uprooted after settling in Germany over many years and being tolerated, but never granted proper resident status. Teenage children are forced to ‘return’ to countries whose languages they do not speak and where they risk severe discrimination.

Since 2020, these risks have been compounded by the high rates of coronavirus infection throughout the region. Is this one of the “lessons of the Holocaust”? Is this an example of how understanding Antisemitism has helped society to understand Antigypsyism?

Since the culmination of German Antisemitism in the Holocaust, many Germans are still uncomfortable using the word Jude [Jew] and prefer the seemingly more innocuous jüdischer Mensch [Jewish person] or the somewhat stilted Mensch jüdischen Glaubens [person of Jewish faith], the latter demonstrating a lack of awareness that for many Jews, Jewishness is more about ethnocultural identity than religion.

Considering that “Jew” had itself become a dirty word in an intensely Antisemitic environment, this caution is understandable. Nonetheless, Jews have never stopped referring to themselves as such.

If one considers that Zigeuner was always a word used by non-Romani society, it should be clear why its connotations in German might be more painful than the corresponding exonyms in other languages, like “gypsy”, tzigane (French) or gitano (Spanish).

So perhaps, when the next debased debate about Hungarian-style schnitzel and free speech is aired, we should think not only about the offence caused by language in everyday life. We should also think about the deep history of German atrocities that has still not been resolved.

And we should also be vigilant of those who rely on the renewed interest in Antisemitism research while dismissing the need for less acknowledged victims of discrimination – not only Roma, but also Muslims in Europe – to be granted equal attention.

Only when remembrance ceases to discriminate can discrimination be fought effectively.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.