When the Nazi party came into power in Germany in the 1930’s, the first victims of Adolf Hitler’s reign were his political opponents who could potentially defeat his position in the government. This included education and wealthy Jewish people, who he blamed for the economic issues in Germany. Then there were the Communists, who had become a predominant political party in Germany after World War I. Once those enemies were demonized through propaganda and sent to concentration camps, the Third Reich set out on getting rid of other undesirable people with their goal of creating what they considered to be a master race.
The “Gypsy” people of Eastern Europe originated from India a very long time ago, and migrated to Romania and Bulgaria. Eventually, these tribes called “Sinti” and “Roma” began to travel across the continent of Europe, including Germany. The Sinti and Roma people have dark skin and hair, so they were clearly non-Aryan, and did not fit in to the blonde hair and blue eyed “perfect” human the Nazis were going for. Their persecution was racially motivated, but they were mostly targeted for having an abnormal lifestyle of traveling from place to place, which made them harder for the Nazi party to control. Throughout the years of the Third Reich, laws were changed to deal with the “gypsy question”, camps were formed, and horrifying experiments were conducted on the Roma and Sinti people. While the true number of victims is unknown, there were an estimated 500,000 Roma people who died during the Holocaust.
The “Gypsy” Question
In Nazi propaganda, Jewish people were always portrayed as money and power-hungry devils who were plotting to take over the world. Roma, on the other hand, were classified as simply a “nuisance” to Nazi society. In a lot of ways, people thought the Roma peoples were charming, and even admire their care-free life. At first, The Chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was not sure how to handle this dilemma. Since they were not a priority issue to tackle, he thought that if they could convince Roma people to settle down and stop wandering, they would allow them to become part of Nazi society. They also considered creating reservations for them to live on, sort of like the Native American tribes in the United States. Even though the stereotype is that “gypsies” travel all the time, there were plenty of Sinti and Roma people who actually did settle down in Germany, bought houses, and became regular members of society. However, the overwhelming stereotype was still that they were travelers who tended to steal and cause problems for the rest of the German community.
There are two different names for the group of people that are popularly known as “gypsies”. They call themselves, either Roma, or Sinti. Ethnically, they are the same, but the names classify different time periods of original tribes who began to migrate hundreds of years apart. Both Sinti and Roma people have dark hair and brown eyes, so they were not racially perfect by the Aryan standard of blonde hair and blue eyes. However, the bigger issue for the Nazis was the fact that they did not conform to societal norms. Without settling in one place, they were not abiding by the new social construct that the Nazis were trying to create. It was nearly impossible to brainwash them with Nazi propaganda. After he realized that the Roma were not willing to change their culture to fit in with the new world order, they all became “criminals”, even if they had never committed a crime in their lives. Himmler instructed members of the police force to get any Roma or Sinit person they saw to register as Roma with the Reich Criminal Office.
The Nuremberg Laws
The Roma and Nazis were apparently the main groups affected by the Nazi’s racial Nuremberg Laws and became classified as non-Aryan. There were Afro-German people who also fell under the Nuremberg Laws, but there were so few of them living in the country at the time. In order to be considered Roma, someone had to have at least two grandparents who were both Roma. They were not allowed to marry or date anyone who was non-Roma/Sinti. This racial distinction put them in a lower class of society.
However, unlike people who were Afro-German, there were plenty of Roma and Sinti people who were born with light skin, hair, and eyes. Anyone with Roma blood but could pass as white were usually left alone by the police. If they had settled down, got a real job, and began living a normal life in Germany, they could sometimes get away with not being persecuted. But they still had to live with the fear of getting caught for refusing to register themselves as Roma with the government. Unlike Jewish people, the Nazis were not digging too far into someone’s family tree to find the hidden Roma. They were mostly concerned about cleaning up the vagabond communities who were still living the old ways of life, and that is where the majority of the victims came from.
It is common knowledge that Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow star on their chest during World War II to signify the star of David, but every enemy of the Nazi party was forced to wear a symbol on their clothes, as well. If a Jewish person was included in multiple categories, they would have a different color underneath a yellow triangle to form a star. For example, a homosexual Jewish person would have a pink triangle under a yellow one, forming a star.
For the Roma, they wore triangles instead of stars. People fell into several different categories, so their triangles would change depending on their situation. After registering with the SS, Roma people were forced to wear either green, brown, and black inverted triangles on their clothing out in public. Black triangles signified anyone who was “a-social” or a vagrant. Brown was for the Roma race in general. Green was given to anyone who had a criminal record.
People where given these badges when they were still living in ghettos, or in the case of the Roma, when they were in holding camps. Once people were herded into concentration camps like Auschwitz, having these triangles and stars made it possible for the Nazi guards to identify who these people were.
In 1933, a German man named Adolf Witt went up against a Romani man named Johann Trollmann in the light-heavyweight boxing championships. Adolf Hitler himself was a fan of boxing, and obviously wanted Adolf Witt to win, because it would prove racial superiority. To the shock and disappointment of the white audience, Johann Trollmann won the match. As the champion, Johann Trollmann should have gone to the Olympics to represent Germany in boxing. The judges announced that there was no winner.
The audience was so angry, they started climbing into the ring and rioting. Seeing that there was no escaping the building without giving the mob what they wanted, the judges reluctantly handed the championship belt to Johann Trollmann, and the audience chanted his name. The support from his fans brought him to tears.
Sadly, once the judges had safely escaped the arena, they announced yet again that Johann Trollmann would not be allowed to keep his Championship title. Instead of retiring from boxing, he didn’t give up. In a future fight, Johann Trollmann showed up with bleached blonde hair, and thick white powder all over his skin, mocking the racist decision of the judges. In 1935, his license to professionally box was revoked.
In 1936, he was arrested for being Romani, and taken to a labor camp, where he lived for several years. He was still a celebrity, and a Nazi guard recognized him. He demanded to have a fight, probably hoping that he could go home to his friends and brag about how he beat the great Johann Trollmann in a match. A crowd of guards and prisoners gathered to witness the fight. Even though Trollmann was now skinny, weak, and starving to death, he still won against the healthy German. This made the man so infuriated, he came up behind Trollman with a shovel and beat him to death. He later tossed him in a pile of corpses, and riddled his already-dead body with bullets. It was not until 2003 that the German Boxing Association posthumously gave him his championship title, and a monument was made in his honor in 2010 in Viktoria Park in Berlin.
The Marzahn Camp
For the first few years of Adolf Hitler’s reign, the Nazis allowed the Roma people to continue to live in Germany while they focused most of their efforts on Jewish people. This all changed in the spring of 1936, when Germany was getting ready to host the Olympics in Berlin. Like most cities getting ready to host the Olympics, they wanted to clean up their image before they welcomed guests. There was a field lined with their caravans, and the government wanted it cleaned up. The Nazi party rounded up all of the Sinti and Roma people, and forced them to live in the Marzahn concentration camp in Berlin. While they were living in these camps, German doctors studied their physical attributes and personalities, claiming that their criminal behavior was hereditary.
When the Olympics were over, no one was allowed to leave the concentration camp, and it became a holding place every time the Roma or Sinti were arrested. Over time, the camp would get over-crowded, and people were shipped to Auschwitz, where they were used for forced labor, and killed. In 1986, a memorial was placed in the former location of the Marzahn Camp.
Aryan “Alien” Hybrids
Romani people originally came from India and migrated across the world. But these Roma tribes existed for so long in Europe without a written history, scientists had no idea where they actually came from. For a while, the issue of the Roma people perplexed the Nazis. They theorized that they were Germanic tribes who were originally Aryan. There are some mixed-race Roma children who have light skin and hair, even though the vast majority have dark skin and hair. So, genetically, they should have been good enough to exist in the Nazi’s ideal world.
They gathered scientists to classify Roma people into “black” and “white”, purely based on their physical attributes. They also looked for any families with a “Muslim-sounding name”. In the end, they concluded that the Roma were Aryan at one point in time, but their skin and hair grew “blacker” the more they lived like savages. They called them an “alien race” that they felt should be exterminated.
Human Experiments and Sterilizations
Similar to people who were physically handicapped, scientists concluded that Romani people were inferior. Men were sterilized so that they could never reproduce. Joseph Mengele is remembered for conducting terrifying experiments on human beings during the Holocaust, and the Roma people were no exception. They became part of the twin and dwarf experiments.
At the Dachau concentration camp, Dr. Sigmund Rascher used Roma men and women in a warming experiment from 1942 to 1943. The German air force had requested to know if a pilot who fell into the ocean at freezing temperatures could survive if they had contact with another human body for warmth. The split people into several groups. Some of them had food and rations, while others could only drink sea water while their bodies were forced to endure the freezing temperatures. When they were near-death, doctors would study how their organs were failing over the course of the experiment. Needless to say, not all of them survived.
In 1940, Germany and Romania formed an alliance, and they decided that they were going to get rid of the Roma in that country, as well. There was a piece of land between the Dniester and Bug rivers that was known as “the dustbin”, which is where they forced Jewish and Roma people to live. The only thing live in this area was the rubble of homes that were destroyed in the war. All of the Roma people’s horses, carts, gold, and any objects of value were confiscated. Children were walking barefoot through the snow. Many of them collapses and died on the way there. One survivor recalled a pregnant woman shot in-between the eyes, because she was walking too slow.
One of the survivors, a man named Mihai Iorga, explained that the group arrived in the middle of winter, and they were not given access to food or water. His mother tried to embroider things and exchange her crafts for food in a nearby town, and police beat her on several occasions before she finally traded some of her work for potatoes. When they ran out of food, she would have go to through the cycle of beatings all over again before she could feed her children. Many women shared stories of being raped by the guards at gunpoint. People resorted to eating dogs, and any small animals they could catch. Even though these were not technically concentration camps, they were so bad, most people died from disease and starvation.
One of the reasons why so little is known about the Roma experience during the Holocaust is that survivors are not willing to speak about what happened to them outside of the people who are in their communities. Sadly, many of the survivors were people who were captured and taken to concentration camps towards the end of the war, because they died so quickly. A man named József Forgács from Hungary described the experience of his family and neighbors being herded on cattle trains, shaved, and starved nearly to death. A lot of his family members were killed.
He only lived in an Austrian concentration camp for 8 months before Soviet soldiers showed up to set them free. Forgács and the rest of the Roma survivors were not given transportation to return back to Hungary, so they had to walk. Many small children were too weak to survive the journey, and died along the road. When they finally came back to their village in Hungary, everything was destroyed. Some Holocaust survivors were given compensation from the government for the suffering, but there was a loophole that they needed to have been there for a year or more in order to qualify, even though it was extremely rare to last a year. Since the majority of the Roma survivors were only there a few months, these people all across Europe were forced to start their lives over with absolutely nothing.
Today, it’s very taboo to say anything negative about Jewish people, because there is an automatic association with Nazism and the Holocaust. Since Jewish people are white and well-spoken, it’s easy to understand and sympathize with their pain. Anti Semitic statements are taken very seriously, but the same cannot be said about the modern-day negativity towards the Roma.
Unfortunately, the attitude towards the Roma people in Europe has not improved very much since the 1930’s. Today, politicians still have the same negative things to say that the Nazis were saying back then. They claim that they are dirty, unhygienic, and criminals. And yet they are not offering any solutions to help these people adjust to an appropriate way of life. No government wants to take them in as citizens, even if they have been settled in a country since before World War II. A reporter named Charlet Duboc from Vice News visited Romani people across Europe and listened to their stories about moving from country to country. They are desperately trying to find honest work, and yet they are being denied no matter where they go. They still struggle with getting access to education, health care, and housing.
Where Do we get this Stuff? Here are our Sources.
Himmler’s Circular of December 8, 1938: “Combating the Gypsy Nuisance”. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Gypsy in the Ring. The Brave Life of Johann Rukeli Trollmann. Christina Newland. Fightland (Vice).
Roma Holocaust Victims Speak Out. BBC. 2009.
The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration. Anton Weiss-Wendt. June 1, 2013.
Classification System in Concentration Camps. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined. Indiana University Press. 2002.
Two Survivors of the Roma Genocide Share Their Stories. Antonia Zafeiri. Open Society Foundation. 2014.
GENOCIDE OF EUROPEAN ROMA (GYPSIES), 1939-1945. The United States Holocaust Museum.