Discrimination against and marginalisation of Roma started with various administrative measures in the interwar period, when Hungary joined several other European countries in issuing special ‘Gypsy legitimation cards’ for Roma, a practice introduced and coordinated by the international police organisation INTERPOL in the late 1920s and 1930s. Emulating Nazi persecution practices, the Hungarian provincial authorities started to demand the ghettoisation of Roma communities in local camps as early as 1943.
Anti-Roma Measures after German Occupation
After the Occupation of Hungary by German troops on 19 March 1944, the Hungarian government started to implement persecution measures against Jews and so called ‘Gypsies’. Between April and June 1944, a total of 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to death camps in occupied Poland. At the time, the majority of Hungarian Roma were employed as agricultural labourers and many of them had been drafted into the regular Hungarian Army.
‘Gypsy Work Battalions’
On 13 August 1944, decree number 15.740/1944 of the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior ordered the drafting of ‘Gypsy work battalions’. These were non-combatant and unarmed battalions of the Hungarian Army into which Roma – like Jews – were recruited as allegedly ‘racially inferior’ members of the Hungarian nation. The decree envisaged the recruitment of up to sixty battalions totalling between 10,000 and 12,000 men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. It was primarily Roma regarded as non-sedentary or who were unemployed who were forcefully recruited by police units all over the country during roundups in the Hungarian counties of Zemplén, Csongrád, Zala, Fejér, Baranya, Pest, Heves, Borsod and Komárom and in the regions of so- called ‘Upper Hungary’, which is now southern Slovakia. Those drafted were often housed in special ‘Gypsy camps’. Draftees who escaped from the work camps were treated as deserters, persecuted and if apprehended, often court-martialled on the spot.
Construction of ‘Gypsy Ghettos’
As the war progressed, Hungarian racist organisations urged a more brutal and radical persecution of Roma and demanded the construction of special ‘Gypsy ghettos’ within larger towns or the expulsion of Roma from the cities to the countryside. By September 1944, Roma were only allowed to enter the city of Debrecen in eastern Hungary on high holidays and only with special permission from the local police. Those who violated this regulation were banned from the territory of the city for life. One month later, the city was liberated by Soviet troops, but in western Hungary the fascist Hungarian government and German troops held out till March 1945.
Deportation Decree in February 1945
The situation in the ‘Gypsy camps’ and in the work battalions deteriorated after the Hungarian government under Miklós Horthy was replaced by a fascist government under Ferenc Szálasi and his Arrow Cross Party on 15 October 1944. On 2 February 1945, Szálasi decreed the mass deportations of Hungarian ‘Gypsies’. Local massacres are documented in various places, such as Lajoskomáron, Doboz, Várpalota and Lengyel. Thousands of Roma from western Hungary – men and women, sometimes even with their children – were deported to Camp Csillageröd, situated in a military fortification complex on the banks of the Danube in Komárom. From there many of them were deported to Dachau and then on to other concentration camps in early 1945. Smaller ‘Gypsy camps’ existed in other towns and villages in western Hungary from whence inmates were deported to other camps or were used as forced labourers for German defence projects such as the ‘Eastern Wall’. This was a six-metres-wide trench combined with a high earthen mound – a futile project which cost the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews and Roma. Though probably intended, systematic genocide was finally prevented by the collapse of the German Army on the Eastern Front in early 1945.
Undiscovered Material from Post-war Court Proceedings
During court proceedings against Hungarian fascist perpetrators following the end of World War II, countless testimonies of fascist atrocities – including Roma testimonies of persecution, deportation and murder – were collected and documented by the Hungarian authorities. Owing to extremely limited access to archival material before 1989, academic research into the topic only started during the late 1990s and concentrated on collecting survivors ́ testimonies. Only recently have researchers started to make use of the extensive material from the post-war court proceedings. According to current research, at least 50,000 Hungarian Roma were drafted into forced labour battalions. The death toll among these draftees as well as the total number of murdered Roma are still under discussion.