By Michael Meagher, Boston University
The Nazi genocidal program's death toll of eleven million is common knowledge, as is the figure of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Nazi death camps. Most people are aware that other
ethnic groups, including the Roma, Romani, or Sinti (more colloquially known by the non-
preferred term ‘Gypsies’) were persecuted and executed in large numbers as well, however very
few who are not experts in the Holocaust or the Romani people have even a passing familiarity
with the approximate number of Romani who were exterminated, the timeline and process of
Romani persecution, or the locations in which these murders occurred. These aspects of the
Holocaust are largely unknown and unstudied, but an overview of the fate of the Romani in
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a step toward correcting this omission.
Beginning in July of 1941, Romani people were deported to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) from
as far west as France, as far east as the Soviet Union, and almost every country in between.
Initially, only small numbers of Romani were confined in Auschwitz, however deportations to
the camp increased dramatically as a result of a decision made during the Nazi high command
meeting in January of 1932, a historical moment whose outcome was similar to the aftermath of
the Wannsee Conference for European Jewry in 1942.
In the one-year period from late 1943 to late 1944, over nineteen thousand Romani arrived
in Birkenau. These Romani prisoners were housed in the ‘Gypsy family camp’ at the far edge of
the compound. Unlike other inmates in Nazi camps, the Romani in Birkenau were allowed to
keep their hair, clothing, and possessions, and were permitted to live together in family units.
These differences were instituted in order to preserve the illusion that the camp in which the
Romani were confined was merely a prison camp, not a death camp, however the reasoning
behind this obviously shallow façade remains murky.
Commandant Rudolf Hoess noted in his memoir that as he passed through the Romani
Zigeunerlager he witnessed people dancing and playing instruments in the barracks. Based on
these observations, Hoess brazenly claimed that he was not entirely sure if the Romani were
aware that they were imprisoned.
The reality of their confinement were certainly apparent to the Romani; for them, life in
Birkenau was hardly less difficult than for other prisoners. Death from starvation, disease,
exposure, and exhaustion were all commonplace, and the Romani were recruited for forced labor
assignments, as well. Additionally, the Romani were disproportionately subjected to Dr.
Mengele’s medical experiments, as SS medical staff were particularly interested in conducting
experiments on the Romani.
Dr. Mengele and his team assigned a Jewish painter from another area of the camp to
create portraits of some of the Romani who were involved in his experiments. As little to no
photographs of Romani prisoners in Auschwitz were taken, these paintings are among the only
images of Romani people imprisoned in Birkenau.
The Zigeunerlager was gradually liquidated throughout the spring and summer of 1944.
By the time of the camp’s liberation, almost all of the 21,000 Romani imprisoned there had
already been exterminated in the gas chambers. Conservative estimates place the Romani death
toll throughout Europe at over 500,000, both from death camps and executions by bullet during
the German invasion of the Soviet Union. However, as this facet of the Holocaust remains
understudied, a precise total of the number of Romani who were killed is uncertain.
Lewy, Guenter. “Himmler and the 'Racially Pure Gypsies'.” Journal of Contemporary History,
vol. 34, no. 2, 1999, pp. 201–214. JSTOR. Web. Accessed 28 May 2019.
Voices of Memory Series Vol 7 Sławomir Kapralski, Maria Martyniak, Joanna Talewicz-
Kwiatkowska Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum 2011
This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at http://togetherrestoring.com/writehistory