A group of Romani prisoners, awaiting instructions from their German captors, sit in an open area near the fence in the Belzec concentration camp.
Photo credit: Archives of Mechanical Documentation, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives
The persecution of the Roma and Sinti began under the Weimar Republic. The “gypsies” were entitled to full citizenship but under Article Nine of the Weimar Doctrine, were subject to special discriminatory laws. On July 16, 1926, a law was passed which required all Romani and Sinti people to register themselves with officials. This first law did not seem to really affect their lives until the laws that followed in succession which prohibited the Romani and Sinti from traveling. This is what is known as the beginning of the Parrajomos. This severely inhibited the Romani and Sinti way of life which required constant travel. This forced a lot of families to turn their travel wagons into permanent cabins for stay and forced them to find new careers which left many jobless and in poverty. The next law passed required several Romani to leave their families and attend labor camps. When the Weimar Republic ended in 1933 and Hitler took power, The Romani were subjected to a sterilization law which required many Romani to get sterilized against their will to prevent the mixing of Romani with Aryans and taint the perfect race the Nazi were attempting to construct. Next, a “Law against dangerous habitual criminals” was created which allowed the Nazis to arrest any “gypsy” as they deemed appropriate. Along with The Roma and Sinti people, other “asocial” groups such as beggars, alcoholics, and the homeless were subjected to this law. The next method of persecution came about on September 15, 1935, in the form of The Nuremberg Racial laws. These laws claimed that Jews, Negroes, and other minorities such as The Romani, were stripped of their civil rights and liberties and deprived from marriages with The Aryan race. The Romani were said to have alien blood and Hitler wanted to prevent any mixing of that blood to the extent of taking blood samples from people to see if they had tainted blood from any “Gypsy” heritage. In the beginning of the 19th century, medical theorists had begun work on criminology biology where they thought they could distinguish criminals by their DNA or blood. Since The Romani already had become to be seen as a group of vagabonds and criminals, these scientists aimed to use their blood to label as criminal or dangerous. “In June 1936, a Central Office to “Combat the Gypsy Nuisance” opened in Munich. This office became the headquarters of a national data bank on Gypsies. Also in June, part of the Ministry of Interior directives for “Combatting the Gypsy Nuisance” authorized the Berlin police to conduct raids against Gypsies so that they would not mar the image of the city, host of the summer Olympic games. That July, the police arrested 600 Gypsies and brought them, in 130 caravans, to a new, special Gypsy internment camp (Zigeunerlager) established near a sewage dump and cemetery in the Berlin suburb of Marzahan. The camp had only three water pumps and two toilets; in such overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, contagious diseases flourished. Police and their dogs guarded the camp. Similar Zingeunerlager also appeared in the 1939s, at the initiative of municipal governments and coordinated by the Council of Cities (reporting to the Ministry of Interior), in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and other German cities. In 1938, there was a roundup of The Romani people and they were sent to concentration camps” (USHMM.org). One can see from the content of their initial persecution in The Holocaust, Hitler was targeting these people to create his perfected Aryan race and at this pivotal moment once theses people were placed into camps, they were not labeled as Jew or Gypsy, but rather impure. At this time , much like the Jews were branded with a yellow Star of David, The Romani and Sinti were adorned with either black triangles, which were the symbols for asocials, or green patches, which were the symbols for professional criminals. The Romani were also sometimes given a letter Z to wear as well. From this point on, The Romani faced the same fate as many Jewish people, being forced to walk long distances to camps or being packed into tiny rail cars. Both of these groups of people were dehumanized, stripped of their individuality and treated as if they were infected and diseased cattle. It is at these camps that many lives were taken by the gas chambers or disease. Historians estimate almost half a million Roma and Sinti lives were taken at this time; wiping out eighty percent of the “Gypsy” population in Europe.
-Photo courtesy of USHMM. A group of Romani people marching to Belzec concentration camp.