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Europe’s hidden shame: Romani Nazi death camps barely merit signposts

Europe’s untouchables: the Roma and Sinti. Kristina Ulmer, CC BY-SA

Gypsies, tinkers, pikeys, travellers – everyone knows the terms, not to mention the even more derogatory ones. The Roma and Sinti people have been the subject of prejudice and discrimination in Europe for centuries.

This has ranged from gypsy hunts in 16th century Bohemia, to incarceration and extermination under the Nazi regime, to present day discrimination against a population of more than 12 million people across Europe.

In the UK, a third of residents said in a survey a few years ago that they were prejudiced against gypsies, travellers and Eastern European Romani. This scale of bigotry pervades much of Europe.

Somewhere between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti people are estimated to have lost their lives during the World War II. This imprecise statistic is a deliberate result of the disregard given to the process of forced labour and extermination that they went through.

The people beneath the Jews

In Nazi racist ideology such people were beneath contempt and considered to be worth less than Jews, so they did not see a need to record their incarceration or death. The lack of detailed record by an otherwise fastidious and technically obsessed regime is one of the reasons for the absence in history and concentration camp museums of the gypsy holocaust, or porrajmos, as the Romani call it.

Of the concentration camp sites across many of the countries that the Third Reich successfully invaded and annexed during World War II, there are few signs of the places where the Roma and Sinti were incarcerated and the vast majority lost their lives. It would seem that even remembrance is denied to a culture where the oral rather than written tradition is more common in recounting history.

My own research into the field known as dark tourism – the attraction by visitors to sites of death, destruction and mass killing – has recognised the enduring attraction of concentration camps and sites associated with the Nazi holocaust.

These sites exist to preserve a memorial and educate future generations about the mistakes of the past. Their preservation is normally linked to education, promoting future tolerance and understanding. Auschwitz, near Krakow in Poland records more than one million visitors per year; and Sachsenhausen, just north of Berlin achieves close to 400,000 visitors every year.

Lety camp only has this sign. John Lennon

The limited number of sites associated with the gypsy holocaust has also been the subject of exploratory work. For example the remains of so-called gypsy camps in many parts of the Czech Republic – where there was a significant Roma and Sinti population prior to the war – have been lost and their locations are rarely commemorated. Indeed, Lety Concentration Camp, one of the largest Roma and Sinti camps is commemorated by a single sign (in Czech) and just one interpretive board.

The site of this former camp is now covered by a sprawling industrial pig farm and pork processing plant established after the war and of such a scale that there is no vestige of the former buildings. Czech nationals collaborated and participated in identifying and incarcerating Roma and Sinti, but this dark period of the country’s history is a narrative that is yet to find a proper voice.

Echoes of the past

This lack of commemoration and concern is not limited to the past. In contemporary Europe, Roma and Sinti still suffer discrimination and prejudice. It is notable that the European Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg declared in 2008, “today’s rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists …”

Roma and Sinti often live in ghetto-like conditions around Europe. Their settlements are characterised by crumbling infrastructure, high rates of unemployment, low educational participation and poor levels of educational attainment.

In the UK between 75,000 and 300,000 gypsies and travellers are functionally illiterate. The average school leaving age is under 13 years and the propensity for depression and other mental health problems is 20 times higher than the norm. Domestic abuse is common and infant mortality rates are among the nation’s highest.

This depressing and tragic evidence of discrimination has set these peoples apart from much of Europe for centuries. Their problems and issues go largely unreported and even their tragic past is either partially ignored or deliberately overlooked.

It has been said that until a nation can confront the very worst of its past, it cannot progress and grow. Here we have a tragedy that is both part of our shared past and a real element of our present. This excluded and oppressed minority require both a voice and our urgent attention.

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