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Recalling the Roma Holocaust
11 Aug 2014 Compiled by Spectator staff Politics & Society
THE ROMA Holocaust in Slovakia largely took the form of forced labour in awful conditions leading to death and illness, and later moved to a second phase – direct mass murders. As the August 2 commemoration date of the Roma Holocaust passes, historians are returning to the theme of what took place. The Holocaust was the result of legislation adopted by the Slovak war-time state (1939-45), which mirrored the legislation of Nazi Germany, including the racist Nuremberg laws. The precise number of Roma killed in Slovakia during the Holocaust remains unknown, with data from many regions missing. The total number of European Roma victims is estimated between 300,000 to 500,000.
“Propaganda stemmed from stereotypes of both Slovakia and Germany,” Arne Mann, an ethnographer of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, told The Slovak Spectator. “Those stereotypes have been present here for several centuries.”
Restrictions on Roma
To target the Roma, the Slovak state introduced various restrictions even before the mass murders began. First, Roma as well as Jews were forced to do labour for the Nazi military and thus became part of the war effort, but carrying pickaxes and shovels instead of weapons.
Second, an Interior Ministry edict defined the term “gypsy” as a person whose parents were Roma and avoided working. Other edicts introduced restrictions for those who were not willing to work. For example, the Roma were forced to leave their villages and establish their residence at least two kilometres from the municipality in a place which could not be seen from the road. Furthermore, the Roma were only allowed to visit towns and cities during certain hours of the week and were banned from using public transportation, buying beer in bars or owning a dog, according to Mann.
Another measure against the Roma was the creation of labour camps for people considered to asocial. A report from the local mayor saying that a particular person refused to work was enough for the authorities to send someone to the camps. Roma worked 11 hours per day in the camps in horrible conditions. In one camp, typhus spread among prisoners, so all straw and blankets were burned and prisoners slept on wooden desks.
“When [the Nazis] took them in the summer, the Roma were shoeless; but they let them work this way even during the winter,” Mann said. “Truly, the conditions were like those in liquidation camps; many prisoners harmed themselves or tried to escape.”
Roma worked on the construction of railways in eastern Slovakia, the Čertovica mountain road and the Orava water reservoir.
During the Slovak National Uprising, numerous Roma joined the fight against the Nazis. After Germany defeated the rebels, the most cruel phase of the Roma Holocaust began as the SS special corps initiated killings of groups of Roma.
“A big execution took place in Čierny Balog village, where they killed 60 Olach Roma,” Mann said. “They were captured near the town of Zvolen, imprisoned in a school and then the Roma men were shot dead while the women were gathered in barns and burned.”
The Nazis were also preparing deportations similar to what was done with the Slovak Jews, but the war ended, Stanislav Mičev of the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising told the Slovak Radio. The first goal was to destroy the Jews, the Roma were next and the Slavs were third, he added. However, many Roma from southern and eastern Slovakia, which belonged to Hungary at that time, were also taken to Nazi camps.
Slovaks willing to help
Generally, relationships between the majority population and the Roma were not as bad as Nazi propaganda presented. Most Roma lived in rural areas and farmers hired them as labourers, paying them in kind. In villages, where this form of cooperation existed, mayors were usually not willing to let them go to labour camps, according to Mann.
For example, in Kuzmice, a village in eastern Slovakia, locals had a good relationship with the Roma and helped them survive the war. When troops of Slovak fascist militia – the Hlinka Guard – came, they destroyed all the Roma houses. After the guards left, the villagers took all the important remains of their previous houses, transported them to a nearby forest and helped the Roma build temporary shelters. Roma lived there until the front moved closer to Germany, then the villagers helped them move back to Kuzmice again.
“This is proof that relationships were not tense everywhere,” Mann said.
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