In 1941, the territory of today’s Serbia was occupied and divided between the German Reich and its allies. In the north, the region of Bačka was annexed by Hungary, while Srem fell under the rule of the Croatian fascists. In the south, the Bulgarians took the south-east, while almost all of Kosovo became part of Greater Albania. In central Serbia, the Germans established a military occupation into which they incorporated the Banat region, which was then under a collaborationist government and had a strong local ethnic German minority. An unspecified number of Roma lived in this territory, called the ‘Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia’. According to some estimates, there may have been around 60,000 Roma living there when the Axis Powers invaded in April 1941.
Poor Living Conditions
Almost the entire Roma population lived in very poor conditions. Except for a small number who earned their living through itinerant trades, they lived in settlements in cities and towns or in villages. The majority were unemployed while the rest worked as smallholders, musicians, coachmen, bricklayers or simply took any work they could get as day labourers. Especially in the bigger cities, like the capital Belgrade, they belonged to the poorest stratum of inhabitants. Only very few Roma were able to emancipate themselves from this situation. In Belgrade, for example, a local Roma association launched its own newspaper and launched other significant cultural initiatives in the period immediately before the war.
Early German anti-Roma Measures
The German invasion dramatically changed the position of Roma. The first anti-Roma measures were introduced less than two months after the invasion. Roma were subjected to the same regulations that applied to the Jews: they had to wear a yellow armband, they were forbidden from visiting public places or using public services (medical care, transport) and they were dismissed from any state employment. Soon, however, probably because of the difficulties of monitoring compliance with this regulation as well as because of the critical situation ensuing from the partisan uprising, the anti-Roma regulations were restricted to those who could not prove permanent residence. Serbian collaborators were charged with monitoring enforcement of the anti-Jewish and anti-Roma regulations.
Faced with a strong partisan movement, on 16 September 1941, Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, ordered one hundred hostages to be shot for every German soldier killed and fifty for every soldier wounded in all areas where the partisans were active. The military commander in Serbia then ordered the shooting of communists, male Jews and male Roma. Mass shootings of Roma took place in late September, and especially in October, in Šabac, Kragujevac and other places. In late October 1941, Germans and collaborators in Belgrade rounded up male Roma from the Topovske šupe concentration camp and shot them in the days that followed, about 1,500 people in all. In December, a group of 300 Roma were shot in Leskovac, and in February 1942, several Roma were shot in Niš.
Women and children were also arrested. In Belgrade, they were taken to the ‘Judenlager’ Semlin, a camp for Jewish women and children. Even if the majority of Roma were released after providing proof of permanent residence, several hundred of them died of starvation or were killed along with the Jews, probably in gas vans.
Owing to the general lack of interest in the subject among scholars, it has so far not been possible to confirm exactly how many Roma were murdered in total; estimates of the number of Roma killed in 1941 and early 1942 put the number at about 2,500 people. It has not yet been confirmed either whether they were specifically targeted for forced labour, deportation or new segregation.
Although the Yugoslav authorities recognised the racial persecution of Roma, nobody has been prosecuted for the crimes committed against them.
In the Republic of Serbia, the Roma genocide is marked by several monuments and plaques (Leskovac, Kragujevac, Topovske šupe camp in Belgrade, and the Jabuka execution site). Since 2010, thanks to the state authorities and Roma organisations, the Roma killed during World War II have been commemorated every year on 16 December, which has been declared Roma Remembrance Day.