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Helsinki Commission Chairman Remembers Romani Holocaust

Washington – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today urged governments to do more to address the continuing human rights violations against Roma. Chairman Smith said that August 2nd and 3rd should be a special time to remember the Romani Holocaust. “From New York to Berlin to Auschwitz, August 2nd and 3rd are the days during which Roma gather to remember the tragedy that befell their people during World War II,” Chairman Smith said. “On that night, in 1944, the order was given to liquidate the Romani camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In a single evening, 2,897 Romani men, women and children were killed in gas chambers.”

“Much has changed for Roma over the last half century, of course, but not enough. The fact is, Roma still live in a world where walls built under police guard are euphemistically called ‘social hygiene measures,’ where pogroms are called ‘police actions,’ where public officials speak openly of a ‘Chinese solution’ to the birth of Romani children, and where Romani asylum seekers are, as an entire class, dismissed out of hand,” Smith continued. “Since the fall of communism, the countries where the greatest number of Roma live have allowed this situation to get progressively worse. From Nea Kios in Greece to Csor in Hungary, local authorities have sent the message that their Romani minorities are not welcome — and national officials have stood by in shameful silence.” “I join with others in remembering the Roma who fell before the Swastika, the Iron Guard, the Arrow Cross, or other symbols of fascism. I hope that this day, however, will encourage governments to act as well as to reflect.”

“As part of the Helsinki Commission’s ongoing effort to examine the plight of Roma more fully, we held a hearing on Romani human rights issues on June 8. Based on the testimony of our witnesses, there are two steps governments should take to turn around this state of affairs,” Chairman Smith said. “First, consistent with recommendations from the OSCE and the European Union, European countries that lack them should adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws to protect Roma from the discrimination they now face in public places, education, employment housing, and access to health care,” Chairman Smith added. “Second, governments must do far more to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership and, accordingly, unequivocally and publicly condemn anti-Roma manifestations, from acts of violence to statements of intolerance.”

Statements from the Helsinki Commission’s June 8 hearing are available at the Helsinki Commission website.

Background: Although the Roma were among those targeted for complete annihilation by the Nazis, their suffering before and during World War II is not well known. During the 1920s and 1930s, institutionalized racism against Roma took on an increasingly virulent form, and policies similar to those instituted against Germany’s Jews were also implemented against Roma: race-based denial of the right to vote, selection for forced sterilization, loss of citizenship, incarceration in work or concentration camps, and, ultimately, deportation to, and annihilation at death camps. During the war itself, at least 23,000 Roma were brought to Auschwitz, and almost all of them perished in the gas chambers or from starvation, exhaustion, or disease. Some Roma also died at the hands of sadistic SS doctors, like Joseph Mengele. Elsewhere in German-occupied territory, Roma were frequently killed by special SS squads or even regular army units or police, often simply shot at the village’s edge and dumped into mass graves. Approximately 25,000 Roma from Romania were deported en masse to Transnistria in 1942; some 19,000 of them perished there. Although it has been very difficult to estimate both the size of the pre-war European Romani population and war-time losses, some scholars put the size of the Romani population in Germany and German-occupied territories at 942,000 and the number of Roma killed during the Holocaust at half a million.

After World War II, the post-Nazi German Government strongly resisted redressing past wrongs committed against Roma, seeking to limit its accountability. In addition, Roma have been discriminated against in court proceedings and their testimony has often been viewed as, a priori, unreliable. The first German trial decision to recognize that Roma as well as Jews were the victims of genocide during the Third Reich was not held until 1991. Understanding of the nature and extent of Romani losses continues to expand, as new archival material becomes available and as a new generation of researchers begins to examine this part of the Holocaust. Earlier this year, the Czech Government completed the transfer to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum of copies of the Lety archives; these archives may be the only surviving complete records from a WWII concentration camp specifically established for Roma.

Other chapters from the war-time period continue to open:
• On Oct . 4, 1999, Dinko Sakic was sentenced to twenty years in prison by a Croatian court for his role in commanding a camp where 85,000 inmates, mostly Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croats, perished.
• In March 2000, the Dutch Government agreed to pay $14 million in compensation to Dutch Roma for their treatment by the Dutch Government after World War II. (Jews and others also received compensation.)
• Latvia is currently seeking the extradition of Konrads Kalejs from Australia for his alleged role in commanding a team responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Jews, Roma and communists.

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