As many as a half million Romani people were killed by the Nazis, according to one estimate. A new database tells the story of that genocide and its impact on individual lives.
Before the Second World War, Helena Malíková grew up in Uherské Hradiště, a town in Czechoslovakia, where her family lived with other Roma in a settlement of old freight wagons lined up behind a sugar factory, near the Morava River.
About 150 families lived in the converted train cars. Malíková and her family had the only brick house.
She was a teenager when the German military invaded in 1939 and forced Malíková and her family into a camp in Hodonín, from which most of them were later sent to Auschwitz, the concentration camp.
Hundreds of thousands of Roma people, once derisively referred to with the slur Gypsies, were killed by the Nazis. Malíková was one of the few who survived to tell her story. It was recorded in May 1991 and is now featured in “Testimonies of Roma and Sinti,” a new database devoted to the Romani genocide of World War II.
Made public to coincide with the commemoration of the mass murder of thousands of Roma in Auschwitz, on Aug. 2, 1944, the database is intended to heighten public awareness of the suffering of the Romani people, also known as Roma and Sinti, who represent Europe’s largest ethnic minority. It is being operated by the Prague Forum for Romani Histories at the Institute for Contemporary History, part of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
The Nazis labeled the Roma as “racially inferior.” They were rounded up, often alongside Jews, but their Holocaust has long been described as “a silenced, forgotten, unnoticed, hidden or muted history,” said Angela Kocze, chair of the Romani Studies program at Central European University in Budapest.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that 250,000 to 500,000 Roma and Sinti died at the hands of the Nazi regime, a number that is highly inexact because so little data has been collected about their population either before or after the war, said the museum’s expert on Romani genocide, Krista Hegburg.
Experts said that in Czech lands that the Nazis occupied and renamed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, some 90 percent of Roma and Sinti were killed, reducing their population from about 6,000 to 600.
“The Roma voice is very much missing from the mainstream historical narrative,” Kocze said. “Their testimony has been denied, or deflated, and their credibility is questioned. These people aren’t counted, they don’t matter, no one cares about them, even to merely remember them as humans.”
That was the reason that Kateřina Čapková, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History Prague, initiated the database of testimonies, as a project of the Prague Forum for Romani Histories. Before she began the project eight years ago, she said, there was “no such database or any other place where Romani testimonies were collected.”
Renata Berkyová, a Slovak-born Roma historian who was also instrumental in developing the website, said Romani testimonies were previously difficult to locate in dispersed archives. The database brings them into one central point that provides insight into the Nazi persecution of the Roma.
“You can see the trajectory of the survivor experience,” Berkyová said. “You can compare testimonies, and you can find the core of the experience in one place.”
Romani people were commonly portrayed as being uniformly nomadic, poor and unwilling to work, in part because of the effect of Nazi propaganda that dehumanized them, characterizing them as criminals, or “asocials,” explained Čapková. As a result, many people failed to regard their arrest, incarceration and executions as a process of genocide.
“Roma and Sinti were imprisoned and murdered on the basis of race, on racial grounds,” Čapková said. But the Nazis often said it “was because of alleged criminal activities, or alleged refusal to work.”
German authorities and their collaborators systematically destroyed Roma communities and persecuted Roma in much in the same way they targeted Jews, and both often ended up in the same ghettos and concentration camps.
Some were buried in the same mass graves, as well, and after the war sent to the same displaced persons camps. But theirs was an adjacent, but separate genocide, as the Roma were typically housed in a different section of the camps than Jews.
“They suffered next to each other but not with each other,” said Ari Joskowicz, an associate professor of Jewish Studies and European Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The testimonies that describe their genocide, as a result, are often located in Jewish archives, and the accounts of their suffering are from eyewitnesses, rather than from their own perspectives.
“You end up with a lot of testimony about people who had a complicated relationship to Roma,” said Joskowicz, “but you don’t have a lot of testimony from them.” Some Jews held prejudices against the Roma; Yiddish children’s books, for example, often featured Roma people as criminals. After the war, however, the survivors of both minorities became united in a quest for recognition of their attempted annihilation.
Until the 1980s, the large-scale massacre of Romani during World War II was often referred to as “the forgotten genocide,” said Joskowicz, author of the book “Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust.” It is regarded as a “known unknown,” he said, and is finally beginning to get more scholarly attention.
“Roma are so profoundly marginalized on all counts,” he said. “You will never find their history in textbooks, beyond just being on a list of people who were murdered. You’ll never hear about their lives.” He added, “We need these testimonies to make them visible.”
The Roma and Sinti testimonies database currently includes 115 stories recounted by survivors, most of whom once lived in the former Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Čapková said the goal was to double that number by next year.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates there were one million to 1.5 million Roma living in prewar Europe — half in Eastern Europe — before widespread Nazi persecution, deportation and killings began in 1939.
Kocze said the database was a significant step toward getting their stories told. “It’s legitimizing and giving some authentic voice to Roma, and providing an account of the past to traumatized victims of the Holocaust,” she said. “It’s an act of recognition.”
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