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Helsinki Commission Chairman Recalls Romani Holocaust Tragedy

Calls on Governments to Respect the Human Rights of Roma

Washington – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) observed the annual remembrance of the Porrajmos (“the Devouring” in Romani) and called on governments to ensure that the fundamental rights of Roma are respected.

During the night of August 2-3, 1944, the Romani camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated. Nearly three thousand Romani men, women and children were killed in the gas chambers in a single night. Roma have come to remember their Holocaust experiences on these days.

“Each year, Roma from around the globe–from Lety, Sibiu and Nagykanisza, to New York, London and Berlin–remember their experiences during the Holocaust,” said Smith. “I join them as they mourn their dead and seek to protect the living.”

“I welcome the progress that has been made in recent years in improving respect for the basic human rights of Roma,” continued Smith. “But the fact is, throughout the OSCE region, Roma face bigotry and discrimination of pandemic proportions.

“In the time that has passed since last year’s remembrance event, Roma have been brutally attacked in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and murdered in Bulgaria. Ukraine has yet to undertake any credible investigation into the arson murder of a family of five Roma in October 2001. Roma and other minorities still struggle to survive in enclaves in Kosovo or as displaced communities unable to return home.

“Contrary to the hand-wringing pessimists who only talk about what can’t be done to improve the situation of Roma, there are concrete and specific actions that public leaders can and should take today: adopt anti-discrimination legislation; implement desegregation of schools; investigate and punish racially motivated attacks; and open the door for Roma to participate in mainstream political parties.

“At a time when we remember the tragedy that befell so many innocent men, women and children, I hope the participating States of the OSCE will re-double their efforts to address the ongoing human rights violations of Roma.”

The Romani camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated on the night of August 2-3, 1944. Nearly three thousand Romani men, women and children were killed in the gas chambers in a single night. Over the years, August 2-3 have become days of remembrance of the Porrajmos. Porrajmos [pronounced paw-rye-MAWSS] is the Romani word for “devouring” and is used to describe the Romani experiences during the Holocaust.

Roma were among those targeted for annihilation by the Nazis; however, their suffering before and during World War II is not well known.

Discriminatory policies similar in many ways to those instituted against German Jews were implemented against the Roma under Nazi rule, taking progressively more virulent form:

race-based denial of citizenship;

forced sterilization;

incarceration in work or concentration camps;

deportation to and mass murder in the killing centers.

In addition to the murder of between 16,000 and 20,000 Roma at Auschwitz, Roma were killed elsewhere in German-occupied territory by SS and police units, and by regular Army units. Many Romani victims were shot at the edge of villages and dumped into mass graves. Approximately 25,000 Roma from Romania were deported to Transnistria in 1942; some 19,000 of them perished there.

It is difficult to estimate the size of the pre-war European Romani population and wartime losses, based on currently available documents. These subjects continue to be a focus of scholarly research and debate. Currently available records and analyses suggest that the fate of Roma could vary considerably, depending on their location. In Croatia, for example, it is believed that virtually all Roma were murdered. In neighboring Bosnia, however, where Muslim leaders intervened on behalf of their Romani co-religionists, Romani survival was much greater.

After World War II, the post-Nazi West German Government strongly resisted redressing past wrongs committed against Roma, seeking to limit its accountability. The first German trial decision to recognize that Roma as well as Jews were genocide victims during the Third Reich was not handed down until 1991.

Public awareness of the nature and extent of Romani losses continues to expand as new archival material becomes available and new generations of researchers examine the Holocaust experiences of Roma. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has collected and continues to seek additional photographs, artifacts, and documents relating to Romani experiences during the Holocaust.

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