‘We demand that the Gypsy martyrs at Auschwitz be avenged, not by the fury of barbarism but by the hand of Justice. Shall we ever have an Allied Court of Justice which will demand the punishment of these monsters, these assassins of 500,000 Tziganes?’ In this passage –considerably shortened here – French Rom Matéo Maximoff (1917–1999) is already demanding, just shortly after liberation, that the perpetrators be punished. Published in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1946, his article ‘Germany and the Gypsies: From the Gypsies’ Point of View’ is one of the earliest mentions of the genocide of Sinti and Roma. Particularly noteworthy is that Maximoff puts the number of victims at 500,000. As far as we know today, this was the first time that this number had been cited in a medium with international reach.
‘500,000’ as Symbolic Number
The figure ‘500,000’ quickly gained currency. Among others, it was taken up by the Jewish survivor and historian Philip Friedman, who from 1950 onwards wrote a number of articles for European and English-language journals about the persecution of Sinti and Roma under the Nazi regime. An article Friedman wrote for a Toronto newspaper published on March 24 1951 was headlined: ‘The Fate of 500,000 Gypsies’. Half a million victims – this order of magnitude illustrated the brutality and annihilative potential of NS persecution, and it corresponded semantically with the six million that, as early as 1945, had been estimated as the number of Jewish victims. In the following years, this figure was cited and popularised by civil rights movements. Most notably, the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma repeatedly referred to the 500,000 NS victims from the minority to appeal to the historical responsibility of the Federal Republic and draw attention to the council’s political demands. The number thus became a symbol for the suffering of Roma under the NS regime, which for decades had barely been mentioned in the public discourse.
The exact number of victims remains unknown to this day. However, the 500,000 figure was questioned as early as the 1970s in the book The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies (London, 1972) by the British authors Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon, which has long been regarded as a standard work. Drawing on the literature available at the time, the authors estimated the number of victims at around 220,000. In Rassenutopie und Genozid. Die nationalsozialistische ‘Lösung der Zigeunerfrage’ (‘Racial Utopia and Genocide. The Nationalist Socialist “Solution of the Gypsy Question”’), which, published in 1996, is regarded as another standard work, the German historian Michael Zimmermann lists what he considered the verifiable numbers of victims. He deliberately avoided adding the figures together because owing to numerous research gaps, the result could not have reflected the real number of victims. Nevertheless, other historians have come up with an estimate based on Zimmerman’s findings and spoken of ‘at least 90,000’ victims. Today, the figure of 200,000 is mostly taken as a reference point, even though the empirical basis remains incomplete and further research could result in an upward revision. But it is safe to assert that estimates of up to 1.5 million victims, which some Romani activists have suggested, are untenable.
How is it possible that more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the number of Sinti and Roma who were victims of the NS regime has not yet been determined? There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, the lack of political interest must be mentioned: this has led to a situation in which the respective states – and, above all, the Federal Republic of Germany – have failed to take any noteworthy measures to address this question. What is still lacking today is a joint effort by all countries in which there were Romani victims to initiate and support research. It is not the responsibility of the victims to expose the crimes of the perpetrators.
In general, research is confronted with enormous problems when tackling this question. While virtually all Sinti and Roma in the German Reich – including ‘annexed’ Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – were registered before the deportations to the extermination camps, which allows more precise numbers of victims to be established (e.g., for Austria, where 9,500 out of 11,000 Roma were murdered), a high number of unreported cases is to be assumed for many other countries. There are several reasons for this. In the case of many countries, it is not known how many Roma and Sinti were living there before the Second World War and how many of them were able to survive. After 1945, many Sinti and Roma, murdered solely because they were Sinti and Roma, were included in official statistics on NS victims not as members of the minority but as members of the respective nation. In addition, a high, albeit almost impossible to estimate, number of Sinti and Roma in Europe were victims of massacres carried out, above all, by SS death squads but also by regular German Army soldiers, police units and hit squads of Fascist allies and collaborators. Most of the victims of this ‘Holocaust by bullets’ remained nameless and uncounted. As shown by the research and excavations undertaken in eastern European countries by the French organisation ‘Yahad – In Unum’, hitherto unknown mass graves are still being discovered to this day and Roma and Sinti are among the buried. Another factor to be considered is that the perpetrators did everything they could to conceal the murders and towards the end of the war stopped compiling lists of victims or destroyed existing documents containing the names of victims in order to remove any traces of their crimes. Against this background, further research will never be able to give a precise figure, only approximations at best. It is nevertheless important to devote oneself to this task – society owes it to the victims.
A Complex Picture
The ‘Voices of the Victims’ project deliberately refrains from stating a figure. First, no new research on this issue could be undertaken within the framework of the project. Second, the project does not cover all European countries in which Sinti and Roma were victims of Nazi crimes. In addition, a purely quantitative line of research is not useful when the aim is to show what the genocide meant for those affected. Above all, ‘Voices of the Victims’ shows – based on individual examples – just how diverse and varied the forms of persecution were in the various countries, what this meant for the persecuted and which survival strategies they used in response to the all-pervading pressure of certain extermination.
Threat of Physical Extermination
The concrete act of persecution depended on the state policies implemented of the occupied or collaborating countries, on the occupation interests of the German authorities and on the power relations between the occupiers and the occupied, and within these diverging interests, various actors emerged against the background of a war that became increasingly radicalised. The range of NS policy can be seen from examples such as Lithuania, where almost the entire Romani population was murdered, and France, where the greater majority of Sinti and Roma were able to survive in internment camps. And yet, Sinti an Roma in France still had to fear for their lives and limbs as long as the German Reich had not yet been militarily defeated. The examples of other countries – for instance, the Netherlands – show that the German authorities began deporting Sinti and Roma once the deportation of the Jewish population was largely completed. Thus, when we speak of the victims of the genocide, we are referring not only to those who were murdered. The experience that physical extermination was an ever-present threat was something that hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma were forced to endure. The only reason they survived is because members of the resistance movements and the Allied forces – including Sinti and Roma – forced the NS regime to capitulate.