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June 29, 2022



Ian Hancock: 500 000 Romani Holocaust victims? There could have been twice that.

Prague, 22.8.2014 17:38, (ROMEA)
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The repeated number of 500 000 Romani deaths in the Porrajmos is becoming the conventional, accepted total. But we do not know this for a fact. The documentation has not been completely located nor analyzed. We must guard against this figure becoming the accepted total, appearing in the (small number of) books that even acknowledge the genocide of our people. Is it a move to diminish the extent of the mass murder, the samudaripen,  in the eyes of the world? If this low estimate can be shown to be true, this is surely a cause for gladness. But the number, in reality, was in fact much higher.

Nobel prize-winner Günther Grass asked:  “Were the fates of the Jews and of the Roma and Sinti identical? We can only estimate the number, many more than one million Roma and Sinti were annihilated. But that is not the point. For me the decisive issue is the will to destroy, which was practiced in different ways.”

The question of the numbers of Romanies who were killed in the Holocaust is a vexed one. Given the nature of their mode of life, no reliable estimate of the pre-war European Romani population exists. Similarly, the circumstances of their dispatch at the hands of the Nazis make this a question which can never be fully answered. This was dealt with in some detail in Hancock (1988b) ["Uniqueness, Gypsies and Jews", in Yehuda Bauer et al., Remembering for the future: Jews and Christians during and after the Holocaust], but relies here on König’s statement that

The count of half a million Sinti and Roma murdered between 1939 and 1945 is too low to be tenable; for example in the Soviet Union many of the Romani dead were listed under non-specific labels such as Liquidierungsübrigen [remainder to be liquidated], "hangers-on" and "partisans". . . The final number of the dead Sinti and Roma may never be determined. We do not know precisely how many were  brought into the concentration camps; not every concentration camp produced statistical material; moreover, Sinti and Roma are often listed under the heading of “remainder to be liquidated,” and do not appear in the statistics for Gypsies (König, 1989:87-89)

An article entitled “Dutch World War II deaths higher than recorded” ( for Monday 8 October 2007) reported that

[t]he number of Dutch people who died in World War II is considerably higher than the accepted figure to date according to researchers at Utrecht University, reports ANP news service on Monday. The researchers say not 210,000 but 280,000 Dutch people died in the war. The discrepancy comes from the statistics of those who were deported. These are recorded as ‘emigrants’ while in reality they were Jews and Gypsies who were transported to the gas chambers in German concentration camps.

In the eastern territories, in Russia especially, Romani deaths were sometimes counted into the records under the heading of Jewish deaths. The Memorial Book for the Romanies who perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau also discusses the means of killing Romanies:

Unlike the Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom were murdered in the gas chambers at Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka and all the other mass extermination camps, the Gypsies outside the Reich were massacred at many places, sometimes \only a few at a time, and sometimes by the hundreds. In the General-gouvernement [the eastern territories] alone, 150 sites of Gypsy massacres are known. Research on the Jewish Holocaust can rely on comparison of pre- and post-war census data to help determine the numbers of victims in the countries concerned. However, this is not possible for the Gypsies, as it was only rarely that they were included in national census data.  Therefore it is an impossible task to find the actual number of Gypsy victims in Poland, Yugoslavia, White Ruthenia and the Ukraine, the lands that probably had the greatest numbers of victims (State Museum: 1993:2 [emphasis added]).

This means that statements such as “somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of the entire population of European Romanies was killed by the Nazis” (Berenbaum, M., The world must know:  the history of the Holocaust as told in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1993:129), and the low figure of 250 000 Romani deaths displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum must be considered underestimations. It would mean that, given their highest estimate, there were only 500,000 Roma in all of Europe before 1933. Several published estimates (referenced in Hancock, 1988c, "Reunification and the role of the International Romani Union", Roma, 29) put the figure in excess of one million deaths, and even 30 years ago Pauwels & Bergier listed it at 750 000 (Le matin des magiciens, 1960:430). A reference to this appeared in The (London) Financial Times in an article by Tyler, who noted that “between 500,000 and 750,000 were killed in the German death camps during the war, and another million may have been shot outside” ("Gypsy president", 26 March 1994:3). New information is reaching us all the time which is pushing the death toll upwards. Paul Polansky of the Iowa-based Czech Historical Research Center recently published a report on his discovery of a hitherto unrecorded concentration camp at Lety in the Czech Republic, which was used for the disposal of Romanies. Now used as a pig farm, Lety and a chain of other camps processed mainly Roma, killing them on the spot or sending them on to Auschwitz. Numbers from here, like those from the Romani camps in northern Italy, have not yet been figured into the estimate (Strandberg, S. "Researcher claims thousands of Gypsies exterminated by Czechs", The Decorah Journal, 5 May 1994:1; Pape, M. A nikdo vám nebude věřit, 1997). We should nevertheless rejoice in the numbers of those who lived, and not glorify those of the dead in some horrible body-count; but if we are obliged to argue with numbers and quantity in this peculiarly American way, then let us look at the situation from the other side, and count the Romani survivors of the Holocaust, only 5 000 of whom are listed in the official register of the Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma in Heidelberg, and only four of whom have been located in the United States, where over 80 000 Jewish survivors live today out of 350 000 still living world-wide. My respected colleague Donald Kenrick, co-author of The Destiny of Europe’s Romanies, the first full-length treatment of the Porrajmos, has claimed with some gladness that his own research points to the lowest figures for Romani deaths by 1945; in his new Romanies Under the Swastika (Kenrick, 1995), he estimates that they did not exceed 250 000, and in an article which appeared in The Jewish Quarterly he places it even lower, at 200 000 (Kenrick, 1994-5:47). In his 1995 book The Holocaust for Beginners, Stuart Justman places us at the end of his list and puts it even lower: "In addition to the Jews, the Nazis murdered prisoners of war, innumerable Russian civilians, political prisoners, common criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, vagrants and some 100,000 gypsies, among others." (1995:11)

If such estimates can be demonstrated as fact, then surely this is the dialogue we should be striving for, not a competition over whose losses were greater. Probably the most reliable statement regarding numbers was made at the first U.S. Conference on Romanies in the Holocaust which took place at Drew University in November, 1995, when Sybil Milton, senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute in Washington, stated that “[w]e believe that something between half a million and a million and a half Romanies were murdered in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe between 1939 and 1945.” Significantly, the same figure appeared again in a November 2001 report issued by the International Organization for Migration (the IOM), a body designated to locate and compensate surviving Romani Holocaust victims. The brief states that “[r]ecent research indicates that up to 1.5 million Roma perished during the Nazi era.” It is certainly a fact that interviews in the past four years by trained Romani personnel who have obtained testimonials at first-hand from claimants throughout central and eastern Europe have already shed startling new light on this issue:  In Greece, 50 Romanies were murdered for each German casualty. In Croatia between 80 000 and 100 000 Romanies are estimated to have perished at the hands of the Ustaša, mostly at the Jasenovac camp. The number of Romani survivors is far in excess of anything previously estimated. By extrapolation, and from the same eyewitness accounts documented in recent years, the numbers of Romanies who perished at the hands of the Nazis has also been grossly underestimated. Eventually, these revised figures will find their way into the public record, despite our detractors hoping to minimize the extent of our suffering in some despicable game of victim-oneupmanship.

Ian Hancock is a Romani linguist, political advocate, professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and scholar. 

Ian Hancock
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