According to the Latvian census of 1935, 3,839 Roma lived in the country at that time. During the German occupation of 1941–1945, Latvia was under the Nazi civil administration known as Reichskommissariat Ostland (RKO).
Ambivalent Anti-Roma Policy
German anti-Roma policy in Latvia proved to be very inconsistent and ambivalent, with the spectrum of persecution ranging from relative tolerance in some provinces to complete annihilation in others. One of the reasons for this was that legislation on Roma in RKO remained in flux throughout the occupation. The first mass murder took place on 5 December 1941, when the German Security Police shot one hundred Roma from Libau (Liepāja). This prompted a decree sanctioning this action issued by Reich Commissioner for the Ostland Hinrich Lohse on 24 December (and backdated to 4 December in order to justify the mass murder in Libau, as Michael Zimmermann has convincingly argued), in which he described ‘Gypsies who wander about in the countryside’ as dangerous elements because they spread diseases and appear to be unreliable and work-shy. Therefore, they should ‘be treated in the same way as Jews’, i.e. murdered.
Broad Leeway for Arbitrary Treatment
The fact that Lohse did not mention sedentary ‘Gypsies’, although the Roma murdered in Libau had been town dwellers, gave the subordinate authorities broad leeway for arbitrary treatment. The German Security Police in Latvia decided that settled Roma with regular work and no political or criminal record should be treated like the ordinary local population, while the Order Police would arrest ‘Gypsies’ indiscriminately.
More than a dozen mass executions of Latvian Roma are recorded between 1942 and 1943. In several provinces, including Rositten (Rēzekne) and Windau (Ventspils), the mass murders extended to the whole Romani community. In Mitau (Jelgava) alone, 810 Roma were shot. The German Security Police, with the help of the Order Police and local auxiliary forces, thus murdered approximately half of the Romani minority in Latvia.
Surviving Roma were subjected to severe restrictions such as confiscation of property, police surveillance, restrictions on movement and – in at least one documented case – forced sterilisation. At the same time, Romani children of sedentary families in Talsen (Talsi) and other parts of the country were allowed to attend Latvian primary schools. The unimaginable situation whereby in one Latvian region Romani children attended school while in neighbouring regions the mass executions of Roma continued unabated was typical for Latvia under German occupation. Further research should focus on these contradictions.
Not Officially Commemorated
At least half of the Romani population of Latvia were annihilated by the Nazis during World War II. In post-war Latvia, Romani victims were not included in the official commemoration of those murdered during the Holocaust. So far, not a single monument to the murdered Roma has been erected. In 2015, a first special exhibition on this subject was presented by the ‘Roma Cultural Centre’ in the Academic Library of the University of Latvia in Riga and later in other Latvian cities.
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