Voices of the victims

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Romania

Viorel Achim

In the population census of 1930, 262,501 persons declared themselves to be of ‘Gypsy origin’, representing 1.5 per cent of the population of Romania. They lived in varying numbers in almost half of the country’s settlements. The vast majority of this extremely heterogenous population lived in villages and was engaged in agriculture or in occupations connected with agriculture. Only 37.2 per cent declared their native language to be Romani.

The interwar decades were an era of modernisation and progress for the Roma population. This modernisation was spearheaded by leaders of Roma origin recruited from the intellectual and business milieus, and new Roma organisations campaigned for emancipation.

The Romanian ‘Solution of the Gypsy Question’

Under the fascist dictatorship of Marshall Ion Antonescu (1940–1944), Romania became an ally of the German Reich. In line with Antonescu’s vision of an ethnically homogenous Romania, ethnic minorities were to disappear, either by repatriation, resettlement or through deportation. In 1942, the Roma population was estimated to be 208,700.

This policy applied only to Roma who were considered by the Romanian authorities to be unassimilated or whose assimilation was not regarded as desirable. The Romanian ‘solution’ to the ‘Gypsy question’, to use the official language of the time, was to deport these Roma to Transnistria.

Those to be deported were selected by the local gendarmerie and police, who carried out a special census of ‘problem Gypsies’ on 25 May 1942. All ‘nomads’ (i.e. Roma living as itinerant traders) were to be deported, as well as any ‘sedentary’ Roma with ‘criminal records’ or who did not have their own means of existence or an occupation to provide for their basic needs (these people were considered ‘dangerous and undesirable’). Of the second category of Roma, the families of mobilised Roma and Roma eligible for mobilisation together with their families were – in theory – exempted from deportation.

Deportation to Transnistria

Roma were taken from all regions of the country and deported in two operations: the ‘nomadic’ Roma between 1 June and 15 August and the ‘sedentary’ Roma between 12 and 21 September 1942. They were deported as families, so that more than half of those deported were children. In early October 1942, there were 24,686 Roma in Transnistria, 11,441 of whom were ‘nomadic’ and 13,176 of whom were ‘sedentary’; another sixty-nine had been deported after being released from prison. This number later increased by a few hundred, so that the total number of Roma deported to Transnistria can be estimated at approximately 25,000.

The Tragedy of Roma in Transnistria

In Transnistria, deported Roma were settled in special areas inside or on the edge of several dozen villages located in eastern Transnistria on the banks of the river Bug. Many were accommodated in houses evacuated by local Ukrainians, others in huts dug into the earth. Some of these settlements comprised several hundred deported Roma and were called ‘Gypsy colonies’.

The conditions were extremely harsh. In some places, only those Roma who worked were given food. Clothing was a serious problem. They lacked the most basic items, including vessels for the preparation of food. Health care was effectively non-existent. They had few opportunities to work and earn a living. Approximately 11,000 deported Roma died of hunger, cold, disease and deprivation. About 2,000 Roma managed to flee from Transnistria or were repatriated in 1942 and 1943.

During the Soviet offensive, 12,000 Roma returned to Romania in the spring of 1944 together with the retreating army and Romanian occupiers. Several hundred were repatriated only in 1945 and 1946.

After 1944

The persecution of Roma came to an end on 23 August 1944, when Antonescu was removed from power. The return to normality was difficult, especially for the ‘nomadic’ Roma who had lost all their possessions, including horses, wagons and tools.

The deportation of the Roma was one of the counts of indictment in the trial of Ion Antonescu and his main collaborators in May 1946. During the communist years, everything related to Transnistria became taboo.

Commemoration

In November 2004, by accepting the Final Report of the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, the Romanian state officially recognised Roma, alongside Jews, as victims of the Holocaust and accepted responsibility both for the deportations to Transnistria and for the Holocaust. Starting in 2005, Roma victims were commemorated in official ceremonies. The Holocaust memorial in Bucharest, built in 2009, refers explicitly to the two groups of victims (Jews and Roma).