January 10, 2011
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which documents the tragic fate of Europe’s Roma at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II, is alarmed by the precarious situation of the Roma in today’s Europe. It calls on European central and local governments to be mindful of the danger that is unleashed when an ethnic group is singled out and targeted for discrimination and the need to uphold the rights and freedoms of Roma in accordance with international and regional obligations.
Recent anti-Roma acts and sentiment span the continent. Violent attacks against Roma have occurred in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia and the Russian Federation and government authorities have organized deportations in France and Italy. In many places, Roma are singled out for isolation and denied their civil rights, and a number of national and local government officials have recently made anti-Roma statements.
The Vice Mayor of Milan, Italy Riccardo De Corato, said about the Roma “these are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me.” (Italy’s Crackdown on Gypsies Reflects Rising Immigrant Tide in Europe, Washington Post, October 12, 2010). A Hungarian member of the European parliament, George Schopflin, representing the government party Fidesz, declared “the Roma are those who need to change. Their contemporary existence is absolutely dysfunctional.” (Evenimentul zilei, Bucharest, August 22, 2010). In September, the Vice Chairman of Jobbik, the far-right Hungarian party, and a member of the European Parliament, Csanad Szegedi called for the mass internment of Roma in “public order protection camps"(external link). And in October the Czech Republic’s former deputy prime minister Jiří Čunek declared that “Romanies genetically lacked discipline" (external link)”
Roma have been an important part of the culture and history of Europe for centuries. Originating from the Punjab Region of India, the Roma population settled on the European continent between the 8th and 10th century C.E. They were called “Gypsies” because Europeans mistakenly believed that they came from Egypt. They often worked as craftsmen, blacksmiths, cobblers, tinsmiths, horse dealers, and tool makers as well as musicians, circus animal trainers and dancers.
Roma were persecuted for centuries all over Europe. During the Middle Ages, the Roma were expelled from Spain and France. At the beginning of the 15th century, the first anti-Roma laws were enacted in Germany. In Romania, which has the highest Roma population in Europe today, Roma were sold as slaves as late as 1856 by private landlords and the Orthodox Church.
Their persecution culminated during the Holocaust when they were targeted for destruction by the German government. At least 220,000 Roma were killed by the Nazis and their allies. They were murdered in Nazi killing centers in occupied Poland and in Croatia, Romania, and the Soviet Union. Several thousand Roma became victims of Nazi medical experiments. The German authorities incarcerated Roma in the concentration camps of Bergen Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Ravensbruek. Thousands were deported to the killing centers of Auschwitz-Bikrenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. About 23,000 Roma were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau alone. At least 30,000 Roma were massacred in the Baltic States and elsewhere in the occupied part of the Soviet Union by German mobile killing units. In occupied Serbia, thousands of male Roma were shot while women and children were murdered in gas vans by German troops. In Croatia, local fascists killed about 25,000 Roma, many of them in the Jasenovac concentration camp. In Romania, the government of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the main ally of Hitler on the Eastern Front, killed approximately half of the 26,000 Roma deported to Transnistria, in occupied Ukraine. In France, thousands were interned in local camps, and Roma in occupied Belgium and the Netherlands were deported to Auschwitz.
The economic and social situation of European Roma is complex. However, they are entitled to the same rights and freedoms granted other citizens. The history of the Holocaust shows that targeting an entire group leads to an increase in xenophobia, racism, and extremism throughout society, potentially resulting in harmful consequences for individuals, communities and nations. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum urges Europeans – government officials and citizens alike -- to understand the plight of Roma within its historical context.
A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Federal support guarantees the Museum’s permanent place on the National Mall, and its far-reaching educational programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors. For more information, visit www.ushmm.org.