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Blog: Roma Holocaust Memorial Day - Remembering Victims of the Porrajmos

BASW and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association are proud to support Roma Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

By Chris Kidd – GRTSW Association Member & Social Worker in Wiltshire

On the night of 2 August 1944, the ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was completely destroyed. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by Nazi officers. Their bodies were burned in pits. The remaining prisoners were deported to Buchenwald and Ravensbrück concentration camps for forced labour.

Of the 23,000 Roma and Sinti people imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered. The anniversary, often referred to as Zigeunernacht, is an opportunity to remember the Roma and Sinti people murdered under the Nazi regime and is now marked as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.

The Porrajmos

The Porrajmos ('the Devouring') is the term used to describe the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Roma and Sinti population. Roma and Sinti men, women and children were targeted for persecution and imprisonment, with a specific focus on clearing Berlin before the city hosted the Olympic Games in 1936.

As World War Two began, the persecution of Roma and Sinti people intensified. Roma and Sinti people were deported to ghettos including Łódź and to concentration camps including Dachau, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which had a specific ‘Gypsy Camp’. 

Historians estimate that between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Many more were imprisoned, used as forced labour or subject to forced sterilisation and medical experimentation.

The experience of Europe’s Roma and Sinti population has parallels with that of the Jewish people. Both populations were targeted on the grounds of their race and had previously suffered centuries of discrimination. The Nuremberg Laws, which prohibited marriage between Jews and Aryans and enshrined the loss of citizenship rights, were also applied to Roma and Sinti. As with Jewish children, Roma and Sinti children were banned from public schools and adults found it increasingly difficult to maintain or secure employment.

Despite the atrocities committed against Roma and Sinti people by the Nazi regime, their experiences were only fully recognised by the West German Government in 1981 and the Porrajmos is only now becoming more widely known.  Although the European Parliament declared six years ago to recognize 2 August as Romani Holocaust Memorial Day, far too little has been done by European societies to protect Romani lives from continued segregation and trauma and facilitate their healing from the Holocaust.

As the number of survivors and witnesses of these atrocities is dwindling, it is our duty, now more than ever, to continue their work of memory and to pass on their testimonies. 

Testimonies such as that of Ceija Stojka, a Romany Gypsy who was persecuted by the Nazis. She was deported with 200 members of her extended family to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered upon arrival. In 1986, at the age of 56, Ceija began to paint; her experiences emerged as central to her work.

Her art often reflected the trauma of her experiences and involved written stories and visual representation as a means of sharing her experiences with the world, whilst also reflecting on our shared humanity: “I want to show my own world to the people. It is important to understand that we are all human beings and art allows us to live and exist. Art can connect us.” She went on to write one of the first Roma autobiographical accounts of the Porrajmos, We Live in Seclusion: The Memories of a Romani, released in 1988, helped to raise awareness internationally of the attempted annihilation of the Gypsies.

As social workers, we have a duty to protect minority communities from racism and discrimination. We must replace anti-Gypsyism with openness and acceptance, hate speech and hate crime with tolerance and respect for human dignity, and bullying with education about the Holocaust and nomadic ways of life. Above all, we must promote diversity as a wonderful gift that makes society strong and resilient.

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