The Roma population of Austria amounted to around 12,000 people before 1938, of whom about 9,000 lived in the easternmost province of Burgenland in more than 140 separate Roma settlements. They worked as agricultural labourers during the summer and as travelling artisans or musicians during the autumn and winter. Another 3,000 Roma and Sinti lived in the capital, Vienna, and in the other eight provinces of Austria, most of them belonging to Sinti families who earned their living with itinerant trades during the summer and had a fixed domicile during the winter.
Effects of the Economic Crisis
Most Roma and Sinti in Austria were hit hard by the economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s, with travelling Sinti and Lovara groups facing exclusion from local markets and country fairs and the settled Burgenland Roma finding themselves being pushed out of the local labour market in their home towns and villages by masses of unemployed workers returning from the big cities. The lack of any kind of national public welfare system made the impoverished Roma totally dependent on local welfare. In 1933, the mayors of Burgenland organised a conference to discuss the so-called ‘Roma question’ and possible ways to get rid of them.
Racial Laws in 1938
Like in most other European countries, the Austrian police had started to register Roma and Sinti in special files, which after 1938 served as a basis for their deportation to the concentration camps. Especially in Burgenland the (at that time) illegal Nazi party campaigned with the slogan ‘Burgenland zigeunerfrei!’ (Free Burgenland of ‘Gypsies’!) well before 1938.
When Austria was annexed by the German Reich in 1938, racial laws were soon implemented and Roma and Sinti were among the first to be stripped of their civic rights. They were forbidden to enter the centres of towns, to attend school or to vote. Several hundred of them were immediately deported to local work camps all across the country.
The Largest ‘Gypsy Camp’ of the Reich
The first deportations followed in 1939, with about 2,000 Austrian Roma deported to Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and soon to the new Austrian concentration camp at Mauthausen. The deportations did not have the intended effect, since thousands of elderly Roma, women and young children were left behind and the local administrations now had to look after them. It was therefore the regional social welfare administrations that initiated the creation of large detention camps in 1940. In the autumn of 1940, the Ministry of the Interior ordered Austrian Roma to be gathered in several guarded camps. Camp Lackenbach in the province of Burgenland was to become the largest ‘Gypsy camp’ of the Reich with a total of more than 4,000 prisoners.
Mass Murder in Kulmhof and Auschwitz
It was also the regional welfare administrations which in the autumn of 1941 pushed for, organised and financed further mass deportations of Austrian Roma. The deportations started at the beginning of November, when 5,007 Roma together with 5,000 Jews were deported to the ghetto Litzmannstadt (Lodz) in occupied Poland. Sixty per cent of the deportees were children under the age of twelve. Within days typhoid fever broke out in the ‘Gypsy camp’ in the Litzmannstadt ghetto and around 630 people died during the first six weeks. In December and early January 1942, the remaining Roma were deported to the nearby extermination camp Kulmhof and murdered in gas vans. Not a single member of this group survived.
The second wave of deportations started after the so called ‘Auschwitz-decree’ of December 1942 and resulted in the deportation of probably 5,000 Austrian Roma and Sinti to Auschwitz-Birkenau in early 1943, where most of them died. Altogether, only between 1,000 and 1,200 Austrian Roma and Sinti survived, some as survivors of concentration camps, others as refugees in neighbouring countries such as Hungary and others still in hiding.
Roma Testimony Disregarded
In the first years after World War II, Austrian Roma and Sinti were initially not recognised as victims of Nazi persecution. Indeed, the years of imprisonment and forced labour in Camp Lackenbach were not recognised for decades. Only a few of the Nazi commanders and ‘Kapos’ (prisoners forced to supervise other camp inmates) of Lackenbach and other Roma camps were ever prosecuted and in the end almost all were acquitted, in blatant disregard of the testimony of Roma survivors. It was only in 1984 that Austrian Roma were legally granted equal treatment with other groups of victims for their suffering.