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The Netherlands

Karola Fings

Sinti have lived in the Netherlands since the Middle Ages, while Roma first arrived in the nineteenth century. If they plied an itinerant trade, they were counted amongst the woonwagenbewoners, who earned their living as travelling performers, traders or road construction workers. In the 1930 census, some 11,000 ‘travellers’ were registered, only a few hundred of whom were Sinti or Roma.

In May 1940, German armed forces marched into the Netherlands. Adolf Hitler ordered the formation of a German civilian government, headed by Arthur Seyss-Inquart as commissar for the occupied Netherlands. In the same year, the German occupation authorities introduced an identification card for ‘travellers’. The registration of all woonwagenbewoners began in October 1941. By June 1942 around 10,000 names had been included in the centralised register.

Collection Camps

In 1943, the commander of the Security Police ordered that all travellers be expelled from the area around the main headquarters of the German troops in Hilversum, while shortly afterwards the senior police chief (Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer) had all horses confiscated from ‘Gypsies’. As of July 1943, travelling in caravans was generally prohibited. A few months earlier, in May 1943, following an order issued by the German authorities, Dutch police had been instructed to set up twenty-seven collection camps for a total of 1,163 registered caravans. The largest of these camps were in Apeldoorn, Utrecht, s’Hertogenbosch, Tilburg, Groningen, Amersfort and Westerbork. Some families anticipated the danger and moved into apartments or went into hiding.

From Westerbork to Auschwitz

The measures enforced in 1943 were related to an order issued by the Reich’s head office for security on 29 January of that year, which also took effect in the Netherlands on 29 March: Sinti and Roma were to be deported to the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The order was not implemented in the Netherlands until the deportation of Jews was almost completed. On 14 May 1944, the general director of police in the Netherlands passed on the relevant directive to the security police (the SiPo) and the SS intelligence agency, the Sicherheitsdienst.

On May 16 1944, police transported 578 people to the ‘transit camp for Jews’ in Westerbork. The criminal and military police, as well as the municipal mayors, were evidently allowed to exercise some discretion im making their arrests. Although Dutch nationals were actually supposed to be exempted, this rule was not strictly observed. Under German supervision, a selection process then took place in Westerbork, which resulted in 279 people being classified as ‘Aryan asocials’ and released. Of the 299 ‘Gypsies’ who remained, several held Italian, Guatemalan or Swiss passports. While the Italian and Guatemalan citizens were released, Swiss diplomats only succeeded in securing the release of one family.

Very Few Survivors

On 19 May 1945, a train left the Westerbork camp with 245 Sinti and Roma on board. It was one of the last to arrive at the ‘Gypsy family camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau, on 21 May 1944. Seventy-two men and boys were selected as ‘fit for work’ and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, while thirty-five women and girls were deported to Ravensbrück. Those who remained in the camp died or were murdered in one of the gas chambers on the night of 2–3 August 1944, but of the people deported from Auschwitz to other camps, sixteen women and fourteen men did survive.

The deportation and murder of the Sinti and Roma was ignored for a long time. The first study was published at the end of the 1970s. In 1994, a Dutch journalist discovered that the person shown in a film sequence of a deportation train leaving from Westerbork was not, in fact, Jewish, but a Sinti girl called Settela Steinbach. On 27 January 2011, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Zoni Weisz, who had survived in hiding, attracted enormous public attention when he beame the first Sinto to give a speech in the German Bundestag. There are monuments commemorating the deported Sinti and Roma in six Dutch boroughs.