After World War I, the Roma population in Croatia, together with the rest of the population, became subjects of the new Yugoslav state. According to the official population census from 1931, there were around 70,000 Roma living in interwar Yugoslavia, at least 17,000 of whom lived in the Croatian territories, mostly in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Most Roma lived in rural areas and led an economically marginal existence, working mainly as craftspeople and traders. They were excluded from the education system and were hence completely uneducated. They did not have any form of political, economic, cultural or other organisation.
Racial Policies of the Ustaše Government
In early April 1941, the army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia collapsed after a brief military conflict with the Axis Powers. Then, with the help and support of the Axis Powers, a pro-fascist movement called the Ustaše, led by Ante Pavelić, declared the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (ISC). Soon the Ustaše government passed racial laws in which Roma, together with Jews, were legally defined as ‘non-Aryan’ members of the population. The influence of the racist German ‘Nuremberg Laws’ is apparent. The ISC authorities advocated settling the Roma on deserted estates in the southern parts of the country, while others suggested settling all Roma on the Adriatic island of Mljet.
Deportation to Jasenovac
The final step in the persecution of Roma began with a circular of the Ministry of the Interior and a decree issued by the Ustaše Supervisory Service on 19 May 1942, which ordered all Roma to be rounded up for deportation to Jasenovac concentration camp. Croatian military and police authorities, supported by ethnic German units organised in the Ethnic German Culture League, together with units from the Croatian Home Guard conducted mass arrests of Roma until the end of July and deported most of them to Jasenovac. It is important to emphasise that Roma, unlike other prisoners, were not officially recorded as individuals, but as parts of a certain ‘railway carriage’, which is one of the problems in determining the actual number of Roma victims in ISC.
Special Camps and Executions
Jasenovac Concentration Camp was the largest Ustaša camp. From 1941 to 1945, it became a place of imprisonment and forced labour and an execution site for Serbs, Jews, Roma, communists and anti-fascists. Upon arrival in Jasenovac, some Roma were immediately executed, while others were sent to the small village Uštica, another part of the Jasenovac camp, to stay in the homes of Serbs who had previously been deported. This camp was called ‘Ciganski logor’ (‘Gypsy camp’) and was enclosed by barbed wire and thus converted into a concentration camp in which many Roma were tortured and murdered by the Ustaša. Soon, owing to the great number of newly deported Roma and non-Roma inmates, some Roma were sent to the village of Gradina, which is located in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, extensive mass murders were committed. Some Roma had to work on building an embankment, but they too were soon executed.
According to the statements of surviving non-Roma inmates of Jasenovac camp, Roma were the ‘most isolated inmates’ and the Ustaša were particularly cruel to them. It is believed that in July 1942 there were almost no Roma left alive in Jasenovac, apart from a few who were forced to dig mass graves, and they too were killed at the beginning of 1945.
Almost Complete Eradication of the Pre-war Roma Population
The result of the Ustaša government’s policy was the almost complete eradication of the pre-war Roma population. The first post-war census (1948) registered only 405 Roma in Croatia. The Roma population on the territory of the ISC was evidently almost completely destroyed, even though there are no reliable official data owing to methodological problems. This is the reason why estimates of the number of Roma killed in the ISC range from a few thousand to as many as 60,000.
Activities of Roma NGOs
The suffering of Roma in World War II was consigned to oblivion in Croatia. At the Jasenovac Memorial Site, only one memorial plaque was erected for Roma victims. The International Remembrance Day of Roma Holocaust Victims was marked in Croatia for the first time on 2 August 2012 at the Roma cemetery in Uštica village near Jasenovac. The commemoration was organised by Veljko Kajtazi, a Roma representative in the Croatian parliament, and by Roma NGOs, and it was attended by several hundred Roma. In 2014, the Croatian parliament declared 2 August as ‘International Remembrance Day of Roma Victims of the Pharraimos (Holocaust)’. Following an initiative of Veljko Kajtazi, in March 2017, the Croatian parliament changed the name to ‘International Remembrance Day of Roma Victims of Genocide in World War II (Samudaripen)’.