Voices of the victims

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Poland

Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska

According to available estimates, the population of Roma in pre-war Poland amounted to between 30,000 and 50,000 people. The official data from the Polish census of 1931 recorded 30,000 Roma living in Poland at that time; however, it is worth mentioning that these statistics were often questioned.

When Poland regained independence and was reunified after World War I, various Romani groups ended up in the newly formed Poland. Nevertheless, the authorities did not implement any central strategy or policy towards Roma, because their main focus was on internal issues connected to the functioning of the state.

Occupied Poland

After the Nazis came to power in Germany and the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, this situation changed. The new administrative structure introduced by the occupiers resulted in the incorporation of a part of Polish territory into the German Reich. Furthermore, the ‘General Government’ established in the occupied territory of Poland subsequently became the centre of the extermination of Jews and Roma. The remaining territory in the east was annexed by the USSR in October 1939 and occupied by the German Wehrmacht in 1941.

Murder Outside the Camps

The extermination of Roma and Sinti on former Polish territory during World War II was distinctive because it was not carried out exclusively in camps. During 1942 and 1943, several thousand Roma, most of them Polish, fell victim to the SS ‘Task Forces’ (Einsatzgruppen) and died where the perpetrators apprehended them. These forces murdered both individuals and groups travelling with caravans and buried their bodies in the forests. The settled Roma were also victims of the extermination outside the camps. One example was the mass murder in Szczurowa (southern Poland) where in July 1943, German police murdered ninety-three Roma by shooting.

Imprisonment in Ghettos

In occupied Poland, a regular practice was also to imprison Roma and Sinti in the ghettos that had been created for the Jewish population. From there, they were then taken, together with the Jews, to concentration or extermination camps in Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor and Belzec. Administrative and police decrees issued by the Starost of Warsaw district and the chief of Warsaw police provided the basis for putting the Roma in ghettos. Roma were deported along with Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka where they perished in the gas chambers.

‘Zigeunerlager’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau

On 26 February 1943, the first transport of Roma and Sinti prisoners arrived at the ‘Zigeunerlager’ (‘Gypsy camp’), a separate camp section at the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The largest contingent consisted of Sinti and Roma from Germany and Austria (more than14,000 people), about 1,300 of whom were of Polish nationality.

Roma were deported to Auschwitz from July 1941 on, even before the so-called ‘Zigeunerlager’ was set up. According to available sources, they comprised about 370 people. This group of Roma came from German-occupied Poland, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the territory of Germany itself and they were allocated camp numbers from the so-called general series numbers.

The final liquidation of the ‘Zigeunerlager’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau took place in the gas chambers on the night of 2 August 1944. In total, about 20,000 Roma and Sinti from twelve countries died in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Estimates of the numbers of murdered Polish Roma range from 10,000 to 35,000 people. In 1995, Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon put the figure at 13,000 victims.

Commemoration

The first ceremony commemorating the extermination of Roma and Sinti occurred in communist Poland. In 1966, a monument honouring the victims of the mass murder in Szczurowa was erected on the initiative of the local authorities. Acts of commemoration initiated mainly by Polish Roma were organised after the fall of communism in 1989. In 1993, ceremonies commemorating the liquidation of the ‘Zigeunerlager’ were held for the first time: In 2014, a commemorative stone was unveiled in Treblinka and in 2016, a monument honouring the Austrian Roma and Sinti murdered in Kulmhof (Chełmno-on-Ner) was inaugurated.