After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the conquered Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as well as parts of Belorussia came under the German civilian administration of the Reichskommissariat Ostland (RKO), led from July 1941 onwards by Reich Commissioner Hinrich Lohse. One of his subordinates was General Commissioner for Estonia Karl-Siegmund Litzmann. A census ordered by Litzmann in December 1941 registered 743 Estonian Roma – 399 of them living in cities, the rest in the countryside.
The Policy of the German Occupiers
The basic decision to persecute and eventually murder Roma in Estonia was made by the German occupiers, but the contribution of the Estonian authorities to implementing this policy was by no means insignificant. In summer 1941, the German authorities in Estonia were not yet pursuing a systematic extermination policy against the Roma even though they were already systematically murdering the entire Jewish community of Estonia at this time. Terror against Roma in Estonia was thus local and often arbitrary. In September 1941, the prefect of the Estonian security police in Viljandi, following a German order, had all Roma in his district arrested. According to witness statements, they were shot by the Omakaitse – the paramilitary Estonian ‘self-protection’ organisation. From September 1941, Estonian Roma were subjected to police surveillance and forced labour.
Registration of All Roma
In December 1941, Hinrich Lohse finally ordered ‘non-sedentary’ Roma to be ‘treated exactly like Jews’ – i.e. murdered. To justify the decision he named the transmission of diseases, general unreliability, ‘work shyness’ and the potential danger of espionage. At the same time, however, he did not clearly distinguish between ‘sedentary’ and ‘vagrant’, which once again gave the occupation troops and the local Estonian police a lot of leeway for arbitrary measures. Assignment to one of these two categories was based solely on the racist perspective of the persecutors. On the basis of the Lohse directive, large-scale registration of Roma began in January and February 1942. Many of the Roma classified as ‘vagrant’ were then arrested as part of a ‘gypsy operation’ on 19 February 1942 and detained in local Estonian prisons. Children and youths up to the age of seventeen were separated from their families and taken to children’s homes or sent to the ‘labour and education camp’ in Laitse. Children and youths from this camp were shot dead in the spring of 1944.
From Arrest to Systematic Murder
The basis for murdering most of Estonia’s Roma was a further directive issued by Lohse in July 1942; those Roma classified as ‘sedentary’ were now also to be murdered. Among others, a total of 243 Roma were shot in the Harku concentration camp in October 1942.
In January and February 1943, following an order by the commander of the Security Police and SD in Estonia, Martin Sandberger, the only systematic Estonia-wide operation was launched, with Roma arrested and detained in Tallinn’s main prison, later renamed the ‘Reval labour and education camp’. The exact number is unknown. In March 1943, several Roma categorised as unfit for work, among them numerous small children, were sent to the Jägala camp and then shot in the Kalevi-Liivia woodland close by. In May 1943, Lohse issued a new directive, changing policy once again – all Roma capable of work were now to be interned but not shot. Obviously, the Roma were to be used for forced labour. This enabled some Roma to survive until the summer of 1944. The remaining Estonian Roma – between 150 and 300 people – were then taken to the Murru work camp in the district of Padise in the summer of 1944 and evidently shot after their arrival. By the time the German armed forces withdrew in October 1944, thirty-one Roma had managed to survive in Tallinn and fifteen in Laitse.
The Almost Complete Extinction of Estonian Roma
The exact number of victims is unlikely ever to be determined. Estimates put the number of Roma murdered at between 800 and 1,000; only 5 or 6 per cent of Estonian Roma survived. In 2007, a memorial was unveiled in Kalevi-Liivia for the murdered Roma. It states that 2,000 Roma were killed.