Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images

Roma fear being brushed out of the history of the Holocaust

About 19,000 Roma died at Auschwitz, yet the they have no official presence at commemorations

PARIS — Presidents and prime ministers, movie moguls and elderly survivors of slaughter gathered on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp where about 1.1 million people were killed. "The French Republic will never forget," French President François Hollande said to those gathered at the site in western Poland, including 300 Auschwitz survivors. Remembering what happened there, said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is "of fundamental importance … for prevention of future genocides."

That commitment to remember is deeply felt in Europe, and yet there is a group of Europeans who suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis but whose voices are all but absent from this week's ceremonies — the Roma, sometimes called Gypsies. Some Roma organizations sent representatives to Tuesday's gathering at Auschwitz, but they were not among the official speakers. Roma groups also asked to participate in this week’s Holocaust Remembrance events at United Nations headquarters in New York, but there is no Roma speaker on the program.

Many Roma say they fear being lost to the history of the Holocaust — a measure of their broader, ongoing struggle to be treated as full-fledged citizens of Europe. "Leaders speak about the victims of the Holocaust, and how cautious we have to be not to have it happen again," Marius Taba, monitoring officer for the Roma Education Fund, in Budapest, Hungary, told Al Jazeera. "So how can they ignore some people?"

Declared "racially inferior" by German authorities in the 1940s, much like the Jews, the Roma were victims of a determined campaign by the Nazis to herd them into ghettos and labor camps, and ultimately to kill them. By the war's end, the Roma were believed to have lost anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people across central and western Europe through starvation, disease, mass shootings and gassing. Of those, at least 19,000 died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

View Full Gallery

After the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 and the end of World War II, many Roma who survived had no country to return to, and no new country willing to take them in. An ethnic minority believed to have migrated to Europe from India during the Middle Ages, Roma communities are spread throughout Europe.

There are about 10 to 12 million Roma on the continent today, but many fear being brushed out of the history of the Holocaust — the defining event of modern Europe. For example, Roma survivors, or the offspring of those killed, were for many years ineligible for Holocaust restitution payments because the German government argued that the Nazis had killed them because they were labeled criminals, not because of their race. That policy was reversed in 1979, but by that time many survivors were dead, and it contributed to a persistent public perception that the Roma were not true victims of the Holocaust. "There are still scholars who, when you talk about the Roma Holocaust, say 'no, no, no, that was a separate genocide. The Holocaust was Jews,'" Taba says.

With little about the Roma included in books, movies or teaching materials about the Holocaust, the Roma must tell their own stories. "We've learned about this issue through members of our family, our fathers and grandfathers," says Djordje Jovanovic, 35, research director for the European Roma Rights Center in Toulouse, France, whose great-uncle was among the Roma killed at a concentration camp in Croatia. Many Roma organizations will observe a separate commemoration of Auschwitz, at an event on Aug. 2 to mark the anniversary of the 1944 massacre in the camp of about 3,000 Roma.

The marginalization of Roma extends far beyond how European history is taught. A European Union report last year found that many Roma "live in deep poverty, lacking sufficient access to health care, education and training, housing and employment" and are subjected to widespread discrimination.

Mistreatment of the Roma in Europe can take many forms, from restaurants turning away Roma patrons to schools denying Roma children an adequate education. Jovanovic, 35, was raised in Belgrade, and says that he and other Roma children were made to sit in the back row of the classroom. He says he was "beaten every day" during high school and, after graduating from college, taught at a special-education school. He discovered that many Roma children were placed there even though they had no learning difficulties. "It is just perceived that if you are Roma you are automatically allocated there," Jovanovic says.

Ten years ago, E.U. officials launched what they called a "Decade of Roma Inclusion," obligating member countries to integrate Roma into public schools and social services. But incidents of apparent bias against Roma persist. In October 2013, French police removed a 15-year-old Roma girl from a bus during a school outing and deported her and her family to Kosovo. Last June, a 16-year-old Roma boy was badly assaulted near Paris and was left, unconscious, inside a shopping cart — part of what police say is a recent rise in anti-Roma attacks. Both incidents sparked widespread debate about the Roma's marginal status.

Even without the official acknowledgment of the Roma at events like this week’s Auschwitz commemoration, the open discussion of these issues may be a sign of progress. "At least we can see that there is an awareness that something is supposed to be done," Jovanovic says. "But it will take a long time." 

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter