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The Roma: a Minority in Europe

Roni Stauber
Raphael Vago


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1This volume stems from a conference organized by the Stephen Roth Institute in December 2002 at Tel Aviv University and was the first international conference held in Israel on the Roma. Participants held in-depth discussions on various aspects relating to the history and current situation of the Roma in Europe. Prior to the conference, the editors of this volume, with the support of the German foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, initiated a visit to Israel by a group of ten Romani Nazi camp survivors from Hungary, accompanied by representatives of the second generation. The group, which was organized and escorted by Dr. Katalin Katz, met with high school students and educators and visited Yad Vashem as well as other memorial institutes and sites. In addition, they participated in a conference session dedicated to testimonies of Roma camp survivors.

2The term Roma appearing in the title of this volume refers to people generally known as Gypsies. The term only became common in recent decades, as part of the continuing democratic and liberal process that Europe has been undergoing. The word ‘gypsy,’ or Zigeuner, is associated with negative stereotypes rooted in European culture; hence its use in public discourse and in the media has ceased, although it is still employed frequently in daily life. The term Roma is also linked to the struggle for the acceptance of Gypsies as equal citizens in Europe with a unique ethnic identity. Nevertheless, since ‘Roma’ became more prevalent only after World War II, some authors dealing with Gipsy history before and during that period, including several of those included here, prefer to use the term ‘Gipsy.’

3It should also be noted that the questions of who is a Roma and the relationship between the various Gypsy groups are part of an ongoing debate about the ethnic definition and ethnic boundaries of the ‘Gypsies,’ themes widely discussed in this volume.

4The essays included here present some of the main issues resulting from the encounter between the Roma and the surrounding European society, from the time of their arrival in Medieval Europe until today. The history of their persecution, and in particular, their genocide during the Nazi era, occupies a central place in this volume. Significantly, some authors did not limit themselves to one historical period, but sought to emphasize the continual history of prejudice and persecution, which reached a peak during the Nazi era and did not cease with the end of the war.

5Shulamith Shahar’s article focuses on the perception of the Gypsies in Early Modern Europe. She shows how the discourse even at that time exhibited prejudices and deep dislike of the Gypsies, who were widely perceived as an integral part of the vagrant criminal underworld and classified as a ‘rabble’ because of their unacceptable way of life. Shahar’s chapter can perhaps serve as a road map to the emergence of modern ‘Gypsy’ (Roma) stereotypes, providing a better understanding of negative attitudes toward them in the modern era. It traces two distinct perceptions dating back to Early Modern Europe: their image as a distinct ethnic group, and their representation as a mob of mixed origins. Shahar demonstrates that these views largely fashioned the attitude of the surrounding European society toward the Gypsies and to a certain degree determined their fate.

6Peter Widmann discusses the influence of criminal biology theories which emerged at the end of 19th century on Nazi theoreticians, and consequently on the persecution of the Roma. Focusing on Germany, he shows how in the 1920s the concept of ‘born criminal’ was fused with social stigmatization of the Roma as criminals. Following dissemination of the concept that the roots of crime lay in heredity, a ‘restless way of life’ also viewed as an inborn characteristic, came to be associated with criminality. This approach, claims Widmann, undermined the traditional policy which sought to force the Roma and other ‘travelers’ to abandon their nomadism and opened the way for much more drastic means, such as sterilization and murder. It was, however, the encounter of criminal biology with other ideas absorbed by the Nazis, such as racial theory and social Darwinism, which paved the way to the genocide of the Roma, Sinti and other ‘travelers.’

7Indeed, the depiction of Gypsies, Roma and Sinti as well as other travelers in Germany as criminals in the first years of the Nazi regime actually furthered a perception held by German bureaucrats prior to 1933. As shown by Michael Zimmermann, measures against Roma, Sinti and other ‘travelers’ in Germany escalated in the first years of the Nazi regime. In a comparative study, Zimmermann analyzes similarities and differences between the ‘Final Solution’ of the Jews in Europe, the policy of annihilating the Gypsies and the murder of millions of Soviet prisoners. A central question in his essay is whether the Nazi ‘Gypsy policy’ might be considered ‘genocide.’ Zimmermann relates to issues such as ideology and perceptions, mental predisposition in favor of mass extermination and the intensity of persecution. While he reveals a number of similarities between the Nazi policies of destruction of these three groups, he also discerns significant differences that stem from the varying patterns of hostility toward Russians, Jews and Gypsies and in the severity of their persecution. Relating to the 1948 UN definition of genocide, Zimmerman characterizes the annihilation of the Jews and the Gypsies, but not the death of millions of Russian war prisoners, as genocide. Nonetheless he points out a major distinction between Nazi attitudes toward the Jews and the Gypsies, which affected implementation of their destruction.

8Zimmermann notes that the Nazi policy of persecution of the Gypsies in Europe was inconsistent, influenced by factors such as differing racial theories toward various segments of the Gypsy population, their categorization as travelers versus sedentary people, and the degree of fanaticism of Nazi bureaucrats in the various parts of Europe, as well as the level of hatred of local bureaucrats who exploited the war to get rid of Gypsies and other vagabonds.

9Zimmermann’s analysis of Nazi policy toward the Gypsies in Europe is followed by case studies of their persecution in Austria, Hungary and Romania. The role of local bureaucrats in intensifying the hounding of Roma and Sinti is revealed in Erika Thurner’s essay about their fate in Austria. Nazi measures against the Roma and Sinti after the Anschluss had already been formulated as ideas prior to 1938, claims Thurner. This was a result of deep animosity toward the Gypsies, which had become entrenched among Austrians over the centuries. After the Anschluss the local Nazi administration imposed even harsher measures on the Roma and Sinti in Austria, and in the Burgenland in particular, than those implemented initially in Germany. The local authorities, the police and other law enforcement agencies carried out internment, as well as deportation to the east, with the assistance of health, welfare and labor bureaus. Fewer than one-third of Austrian Gypsies survived the war. Nevertheless, discrimination against them, and even persecution, has continued. Not only were the perpetrators not punished, but the Gypsies’ suffering during the war was not officially recognized and in order to avoid paying them compensation the authorities frequently portrayed them as swindlers. This attitude has hardly changed and awareness in Austria of the Nazi policy of genocide of the Roma and Sinti remains slight.

10In Hungary, too, the Nyilas (Arrow Cross), the local Nazi collaborator, played a major role in the internment, deportation, and murder of Hungarian Roma in the last months of the war, while the surrounding society remained indifferent. Katalin Katz focuses on the Komárom camp, the main site in Hungary for the concentration of Roma in the last stages of the war. The author based her study on a series of interviews with 57 survivors, which exposes the suffering of the Roma in Hungary, as well as in the concentration camps of Germany, during this period. Persecution of Hungarian Roma continued after the liberation when they returned to their devastated villages. Using various theories and methodologies, Katz seeks to trace the construction of historical memory among the Roma. Collective memory was absent, denied due to the attitude of both the authorities and society since the war, as well as to Romani cultural codes relating to memory of suffering and persecution. By letting the victims speak and by combining fragments of memory, Katz contributes to a reconstruction of the collective memory of suffering among the Roma in Hungary.

11The deportation of Romanian Roma to Transnistria and the death of some 25,000 of them was a lacuna in Romanian historiography, which Viorel Achim fills in his study. The author, one of the few academics in post-1989 Romania studying the fate of the Roma during World War II, was a member of the International Commission of Historians on the Holocaust in Romania. As such, he represents a growing awareness among the Romanian public of the cruelty displayed by the Antonescu regime toward the Roma and their fate, a topic that was taboo for generations. Achim’s approach is to examine the attitude of Romanian society to the persecutions, and ultimately the deportation of some 45,000 Romanian Roma to Transnistria, known until now only as the killing fields of a significant part of Romanian Jewry. As source material, the author brings numerous appeals from various segments of the Romanian population against the anti-Gypsy policies of the Antonescu regime. While he leaves moral judgment to the reader, he demonstrates that Romanian society, especially in the small towns and villages, exhibited humanitarianism, though perhaps for utilitarian reasons, toward a certain type of Roma—those who had settled and were known individually to the local people as an integral part of the local economy or entertainment scene. This was in contrast to their attitude toward migrant Roma, who remained a faceless rabble onto which classical stereotypes of the Gypsy were projected.

12Questions of ethnic definition and the construction of ethnic-national identity constitute principal issues of this volume. Involving complex subjects, such as collective memory, myth making and social constructionism, they have triggered intense debate among researchers dealing with Romani studies. As noted above in Shahar’s article, the question of whether the Gypsies were an ethnic group or a motley group of individuals from various nations was raised as early as the Middle Ages and in Early Modern Europe, thereafter affecting their fate. Gilad Margalit and Yaron Matras focus on identity, ethnicity and nationalism among Romani speakers in Germany. They analyze the dichotomy between two distinct self-images: those who perceive themselves part of a dispersed transnational ethnic minority; and those who, despite their cultural distinction, view themselves as Germans and reject the idea of a nonterritorial collective identity. The authors discuss the efforts of the Sinti, Lovara and Roma each to define a distinct ethnic identity and its boundaries in relation to the surrounding population. As always in a discourse about ethnicity and nationalism, myths of origin, traditions of wandering and migratory waves play a major role in defining the limits of their ethnic identity and bonds with Gypsy groups in neighboring countries, as well as with other Gypsy groups in Germany. A particularly controversial issue in the polemic over ethnic identity today is the question of assimilation versus integration of the Roma into the majority of the nation state while preserving cultural distinctiveness.

13The history of persecution, and especially the mass murder and destruction of communities during the Nazi era, is a major component of Romani ethnic identity and of their relations with European nations. Significant similarities exist between Jews and Roma. Roni Stauber and Raphael Vago discuss the impact of the history of persecution on the ethnic identity of Jews and Roma and its role in the process of nation building. Persecution in both cases affects the defining of symbolic ethnic boundaries. However, like Jewish national writers and political leaders in the past, Romani leaders and intellectuals understand well that basing national identity solely on traumatic events could be counterproductive to the efforts to strengthen national self-esteem and establish relations with the surrounding nations. Thus, alongside commemoration of their persecution, they stress legends that highlight the notion of bravery as part of the myths of origin and exodus. The relationship between commemoration of the Holocaust and commemoration of the Porrajmos (the genocide of Roma, Sinti and other ‘travelers’ during the Nazi era) is complex. The well-established Jewish commemoration of the Shoah has had a clear impact on Romani efforts to institute an official memory of their destruction and arouse worldwide attention to their suffering. However, Romani intellectuals and scholars reject the distinction accepted by some leading scholars of the Nazi extinction policy, between the selective murder of Gypsies in different parts of Europe and the Nazi plan to exterminate the entire Jewish people. The polemic has gone beyond historical evidence to include questions relating to morality, hierarchy of the ‘victims,’ ‘Jewish exclusivity’ and discrimination. As in the case of the Jews, remembrance of the Romani tragedy during the war has important implications for their present place in Europe and for their future. The search for identity runs through a definition of origins and historical destiny to forms of modern political activism.

14Discrimination and persecution of the Roma persisted in the postwar era. During the communist period, violence against them was not a widespread phenomenon, but discrimination against them continued. Following the collapse of the communist regimes, violence against the Roma increased, as did explicit racist and discriminatory action, both official and unofficial. Together, Romani representatives and human rights activists began a struggle to improve their socio-economic and civic status. Two chapters are devoted to the post-communist realities in Central and Eastern Europe: Eva Sobotka in the context of human rights and Roma policy formulation, and Pál Tamás in Central European policy toward the Roma. The bitter legacy of the communist regimes’ treatment of the Roma, a topic that has come under scrutiny in the past few years, constitutes a starting point for a discussion of post-1989 developments. Both studies emphasize the linkage between changing patterns of European integration—expansion of the EU and efforts of cooperation and integration of other bodies—and their influence on Romani self-perceptions and political and social activism. Focusing on the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, Sobotka distinguishes between ‘human rights policy’ and ‘human rights politics,’ analyzing the influence of international politics on changes in policy making at the state level. She outlines the development of Roma representation on the national level, a growing trend since 1989, based on the emergence of civil society in the respective countries, and the new legal structures related to ethnic and minority representation. Tamás deals with the growing public debate in Central Europe over the status of the Roma in light of the integration of these states into the EU. Using a sociological approach, he analyzes the attitude of various elite groups toward the Roma and explains how Central European Romani NGOs, supported by Western organizations, monitored Western government attitudes and adjusted their demands accordingly. Thus, the Romani insistence on adhering to a ‘common European standard’— a perception that developed over the 1990s—ensured that their plight appeared on the agenda of the committees of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Nevertheless, he points out that since accession to the EU the ability to impose changes from outside has weakened and it is not yet clear through which channels and tools pressure can be exerted with the intensity observed in the debates prior to integration.

15The editors trust that this volume, like the conference preceding it, will contribute to greater awareness and knowledge of the unique history, culture and identity, as well as the current circumstances, of the Roma in Europe.

16Roni Stauber and Raphael Vago

17Stephen Roth InstituteTel Aviv University

18November 2005


19Shortly before publication of this volume, we learned that Michael Zimmerman had passed away. Professor Zimmerman was a leading expert on the fate of the Roma during World War II. His untimely death is a great loss to academic research in this field.

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