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The Romani people have been discriminated against throughout history. As they moved out of India and across Asia and Europe starting in the 11th century, people were wary of these traveling artisans. The Roma have traditionally been known as “Gypsies”, from the Greek word for “Egyptian”, which speaks to one of the alleged origins of the Romani people. Today the term Gypsy is thought to be derogatory for most Roma, though some accept it because it is so widely used.
For decades leading up to the Holocaust, the Romani, like the Jewish people, were thought to be racially inferior to Germans. People in other European countries shared the same sentiments; they were worried that the Roma would pollute society with their unfavorable health and morals. During the Nazi regime, treatment of the Romani people varied by country but generally involved imprisonment or deportation. In contrast to beliefs regarding Jewish populations, Roma who were considered to be of “pure blood” were thought to be harmless and those of “mixed-blood” were those targeted for removal. In Germany, sterilization programs for the Roma began in 1933 and intermarriage between Gypsies and Aryans was forbidden in 1935. Starting in 1938, Roma were sent to Gypsy camps before being deported. If families brought any belongings when they were sent out, the items were confiscated upon arrival at their destination.
Eventually, the camps became overcrowded when the deportations slowed and Roma were forced into concentration and extermination camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Here they were segregated from the Jewish prisoners, but suffered the same fate. The Roma were distinguished fromother inmates by an inverted brown triangle on their prison uniforms. In the Romani language, the Holocaust is known as Porajmos, which can be translated to “devouring”. In total 23,000 Roma were sent to Auschwitz, where some were selected to be subjects in Joseph Mengele’s medical studies. At least 19,000 of the 23,000 Roma in Auschwitz died there.
It is difficult to determine exactly how many Roma were killed during the Third Reich. Some estimates put the number around 220,000 out of the 1 million Roma in Europe. This would mean that 25% of the European Roma population was killed during the Holocaust. In Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, almost all Roma were killed. Others believe the number of deaths to be even higher – as much as 500,000. Only recently has the world started to recognize the persecution of the Roma during the Holocaust, so there is much information still coming to light.
Discrimination against the Roma continues today, as long-standing stereotypes detract from the history, culture and language of the people.