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Porrajmos (Porajmos) "the Devouring"

The period of totalitarian regimes marked the most tragic episode in the history of the Roma: the Holocaust (Pojramos, 'the devouring' in Rromani language), which saw the death of more than half of the Roma population in Europe. The Porrajmos, literally "the Devouring," is the term that the Roma use to describe the Nazi regime's attempt to wipe their people off the face of the Earth; for the genocidal wave of terror known to most of the world as the Holocaust. An estimated half million Roma were killed during the Second World War - only five percent of the Czech-born population survived. The wartime fate of the Roma - who, like Europe's Jewish population, were singled out for extinction by the Nazis along racial lines - is less widely understood; their tremendous suffering and loss often reduced to little more than a historical footnote.

Gypsy is a collective term for Roma and Sinti. Gypsiologists have delineated three main tribal groups: (1) the Kalderash (2) the Gitanos (3) the Manush, also known as Sinti. "Sinti" is the term of self-ascription used by a Romani people primarily in historically German-speaking areas of Europe. Unlike the Jews, they are held together, not by a common tradition of home, but by a common tradition of homelessness.

First often welcomed, Sinti and Roma became victims of discrimination, repression, and persecution in all European countries already during the 15th century. The development of close group ties, continuous travelling and the focus on specific professions and trade helped them to survive, but fixed them to the fringes of the society. First systematic attempts to integrate and assimilate them were started in Germany during the 18th century. The policy of settling them down combined with "education to regular work and Christian family-life" and compulsory schooling for the children was actively supported by the churches. But during the 19th century finally, it proved to be a complete failure, because it was mostly perceived as repression and force; and the policy followed only the interest of assimilation without any consideration for the Sinti language, traditions, and way of life, The societal and administrative pressure to assimilate did not stop, but the living conditions of the Sinti and newly immigrated Roma temporarily ameliorated during the 19th century, when they were able to offer goods and services demanded by the rural population. The increasing industrialization changed the living conditions signiflcantly; administrative reglementation, control and registration of the nomadic "gypsies" were introduced and consequently the pressure to settle down grew. Some German states, for instance, introduced laws "against gypsies, travellers, and the workshy" (e.g., Bavaria 1926, Hesse 1929) which introduced the duty to register with the local authorities or the restricted-residence permission, simply prohibited travelling (Hesse) or created a licence requirement for travelling even in small groups (Bavaria).

But for National Socialism even these measures of harsh repression and compulsory assimilation were unappropriate; the Nazis declared the "gypsies" as and "Inferior race", defamed as antisocial and criminal (Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935). In September 1935 the so-called Nuremberg laws were adopted placing restrictions not only on Jews but also the Sinti and Roma (gypsies). Since 1936, the Sinti and Roma were "race-biologlcally" examined and registered (e.g., Reich Race Hygiene Institute under Bobert Ritter). "Legitimized" with "criminal-preventive" reasons, many Sinti and Roma were interned between 1938 and 1940 (Festsetzungserlass of 1939), sterilized, 0d resettled within the GeperaLgouver Poland (Umsiedlungserlass of 1940), since 1942 deported to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other death-camps (Himmler's Auschwltz Erlass of 1942).

The unreliability of pre-Holocaust population figures for Sinti and Roma and the paucity of research, especially on their fate outside Germany during the Holocaust, make it difficult to estimate the number and percentage who perished. Scholarly estimates of deaths in the Sinti and Roma genocide range from 220,000 to 500,000.

It was probably Ritter's "race-biological research" that SS chief Heinrich Himmler invoked in his circular on "Combating the Gypsy Nuisance" of December 8, 1938, recommending "the resolution of the Gypsy question based on its essentially racial nature." He ordered the registration of all Gypsies in the Reich above the age of six and their classification into three racial groups: Gypsies, Gypsy Mischlinge [part-Gypsies], and nomadic persons behaving as Gypsies. In 1939, the Nazi's Office of Racial Hygiene issued a statement saying "All Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick [...] the aim should therefore be the elimination - without hesitation -of this defective element in the population."

So-called "pure Gypsies," as members of the "Aryan race", initially weren't targeted for extinction along racial lines and even continued to serve in the Germany army. But in December 1942, Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the German SS and the principal executor of the "Final Solution," gave orders that all Romani candidates for extermination be transported to Auschwitz; and in November 1943, expanded the order: all "Gypsies and part Gypsies" were be treated "on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps." Himmler ordered the deportation of all the Roma and Sinti to Auschwitz, to the so-called 'Zigeunerlager' [Gypsy camp] - no matter what kind way of life they led, but only on the basis of their race.

It is estimated that roughly 500,000 European Sinti and Roma were victims of the Nazi persecution and killed during the Holocaust. This fact still today has very strong subjective (affectlce) and objective (structural) consequences. Many cases of psychologically determined disturbances which go back to the traumatic experiences of the death camps are reported among members of the victim generation as well as of the second generation. There is a deeply rooted mistrust against the 'state', be it federal or state administration, police, military, local authorities, or universities. This mistrust was fed by a more or less unbroken 'administrative practice, distrust and lack of empathy for the life-style and behavior of the "gypsies" on the side of police and local offices after the war.

Some of the "gypsy researchers" who had played a terrible role in undertaking "race-biological" research and in selecting minority group members for extermination continued to work as "police advisers" and experts in compensation cases after 1949. "Gypsies" were again defamed as criminal, workshy, and Inferior, Nazi registration, persecution, and internation were longtime justified as criminal prosecution, not racial persecution, Discrimination against Sinti and Roma stayed on the agenda in most European countries, therefore they lacked the outside pressure and domestic political interests which supported early compensation payments for Israel and individual Jewish victims since the early fifties. A decree of the Baden-Wurttemberg interior ministry, for instance, formally instructed the compensation offices about its internal checking of compensation claims of "gypsies" and "half-bred gypsies"; acoordlingly, these persons were not regarded as primarily racially prosecuted, but because of their antisocial behavior. In the same tradition, an infamous German Federal Supreme Court (Bundes ) ruling stated in 1956 that gypsies tended toward criminality, esp, larceny and fraud, that they were lacking the ethicly founded respect toward private property, and that racial courses of persecution did not play a role before Himmler's Auschwitz-Decree of 1942.

It took until 1982 that a Federal Government -- Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- officially recognized the Nazi annihilation of the European Sinti and Roma as genocide and crime against humanity. Predecessor chancellors and federal presidents still had declined to receive Sinti and Roma delegations. Through the Holocaust, the tradition-oriented and family-conscious Sinti and Roma not only lost a great part of the older generations, but continuously suffer breaks and losses of cultural and linguistic transmission, mainly because they cannot refer to written sources. In consequence, but probably also as a result of continuous assimilation processes within the modern consumer society, many Sinti and Roma families speak German and are no longer able to use Romanes. Already during the 1930s, nearly one third of the Sinti were settled; today about 90% of the Sinti and Roma population have a permanent residence. Mainly Roma of Hungarian, Polish and Yugoslav origin are still semi-nomadic, but a significant number of Sinti and Roma prefer to travel during the summer or at least during the summer vacation.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:17 ZULU