The ‘aliens branch of the police’ (Police des Étrangers) began registering all persons entering Belgium in 1839. Over the years, it borrowed methods practised in France, which were generally accepted in the early twentieth century and already presaged the police registration of all ‘travellers’ (1912 law). In 1933, the aliens branch introduced a special pass for foreigners that was valid for two years and could be extended; ‘Gypsies’ however received a ‘travelling pass’ (feuille de route) that was valid for only three months. At this time, around twenty Roma families were living in Belgium, approximately 200 people.
Refuge from 1933 Onwards, Occupied in 1940
In the wake of the Nazis’ assuming power in the German Reich in 1933, several German and Netherlandish Roma families fled to Belgium. The military occupation of Belgium and northern France in May 1940 forced some families to settle in one place or flee to the unoccupied zone in the south. The newly created territory ‘Belgium and Northern France’ was placed under military administration and headed by a German military governor whose headquarters were located in Brussels. In April 1941, the military administration prohibited persons of the ‘Gypsy race’ (nomads de race) from staying in the coastal area. As of January 1942, ‘Gypsies’, travellers, travelling performers and persons of no fixed abode aged fifteen or older had to carry a ‘Gypsy card’ (Zigeunerkaart) at all times.
Deportation to Auschwitz
On 16 December 1942, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the deportation of all Roma in the German Reich to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. This order was extended to include Belgium and Northern France in March 1943. Because priority was given to deporting the Jewish population, arrests of the ‘Gypsies’ did not take place until October–December 1943. Those detained were first kept in prisons located near their places of residence before being transferred to the Malines (Mechelen) transit camp in the former Dossin military barracks, located between Antwerp and Brussels. A total of 25,484 Jews and 351 Roma were deported from the camp, which had been established in August 1942.
Of the 351 arrested people deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 15 January 1944 in a special train (known as ‘Transport Z’), 160 were younger than fifteen years of age. Among them were Sinti, Roma travelling and circus performers as well as itinerant traders – all of whom had been classified as ‘asocial’. One hundred and forty-five came from France, one hundred and nine from Belgium, eighteen from the Netherlands, and one from Spain; fourteen had fled the German Reich, twenty were not allowed to return to Norway and thirty were considered stateless. Mention should also be made of nine men arrested in November 1943 near Antwerp and deported directly to Birkenau, and of Steven Karoli, who escaped a raid in autumn 1943, but was arrested in Brussels on 2 March 1944 and then sent to Auschwitz via Malines.
Very Few Survivors
Half of those deported died within six months of their arrival in the ‘Gypsy family camp’, a separate section in Birkenau. Around 110 people from ‘Transport Z’ were murdered on the night of 2–3 August 1944 as part of the ‘liquidation’ of the ‘family camp’. By then, sixty-eight men and women had been classified as ‘capable of work’ and transferred to the Dachau and Ravensbrück concentration camps. Only twenty men and thirteen women, i.e. just thirty-three of the 361 deported, survived.
The few survivors returned home after liberation. Depending on where they were born and their nationality, they went back to Belgium or France so as to be recognised as deported persons. There is no evidence that they were ever compensated for the property and assets stolen from them.
Recognition Seventy Years Later
The imprisonment of Roma in the ‘family camp’ and the appalling conditions there were mentioned in the trial against the major war criminals in Nuremberg (1945–46), albeit only on the basis of witness statements given by non-Roma. It is thus all the more remarkable that on 20 January 1946, Rosa Keck’s testimony on the deportation of her family – a total of twenty-one people – was heard by a tribunal in Hasselt (Limburg, Belgium) as part of the war crimes trial.
The silence about the genocide persisted until 1976, when the historian José Gotovitch published the first study. On 24 January 2013, the Belgian Senate – the upper house of the federalist parliament – acknowledged the responsibility of Belgian institutions for the persecution of Jews in Belgium and thus also for that of Roma.