Uncovering the Past
World War II ended more than 60 years ago, but the Roma Holocaust in Slovakia is only now being recognized. by Maria Husova 30 January 2006
Tens of thousands of Roma in Europe were among the victims of the Holocaust, but many Slovaks still don’t know that people other than Jews were victims of persecution during World War II. Only recently, moving stories of Roma survivors have begun to emerge. Those survivors are finally seeing their pain acknowledged in memorials, and some have even received compensation.
The Roma Holocaust is called Baro Porrajmos
in the Roma language, which literally means large losses of human lives or “the Devouring.” Porrajmos
is a strong word, reflecting the most traumatizing period in the history of Roma. Like some other ethnic groups, Roma were considered by the Nazis an inferior race leeching off the rest of the population.
Many Romani survivors, like 77-year-old Jozef Balogh, are still reluctant to talk about their experiences. Balogh, who lives in the eastern Slovak town of Kosice, was deported to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany when he was 16 years old. He said he still hears the shouting and swearing of the SS officers.
Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
“They deported us from Kosice, along with the Jews, like cattle in wagons, to the town of Moldava nad Bodvou [eastern Slovakia],” Balogh said. “The same day, in the evening, they deported us to Hungary to an underground prison in [the town of] Komarom Dunantul. About a month later they deported us to Dachau. There I experienced terror. You cannot imagine what it is to wake up in the morning with dead people lying next to you. It is hard to talk about what I had to experience there. Hunger, misery, fights.”
Balogh called the morning lineups “horrible,” recalling one in which an SS officer clubbed to death 10 to 20 people. “I can still hear it all today,” he said. Horrible, too, were the experiments the Nazis conducted on him. Once, an SS officer held a gun to the head of a Polish doctor, who was forced to experiment on Balogh, he said. He never found out what the Nazis were trying to discover. Balogh would not talk in detail about the experiments, but he said they stressful but not painful.
Balogh was the first Rom in Slovakia to receive financial compensation for his forced work for the Third Reich from the German foundation Erinnerung, Verantwortung, und Zukunft
(Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future). The Berlin-based foundation was created in 2000 by German law to financially compensate former forced laborers and others victimized by the Nazi regime.
Zuzana Kumanova, a Slovak expert on Roma history and culture, said Roma were not compensated as a group after World War II, although compensation could be claimed individually, provided the claim was supported by evidence of suffering. Between 2001 and 2004, the International Organization for Migration distributed financial aid to Slovak Roma born before 1945 who survived the war, in what was the first formal recognition of their suffering, as a group, in 60 years.
But Kumanova said this is hardly real compensation for the Holocaust. The public knows what happened during the Holocaust, but few people know that it also happened to the Roma, she said, adding that the persecution that Roma endured during World War II was largely dismissed after the 1945 liberation. Many crimes have not been investigated and the perpetrators have never been punished. Even most Roma themselves believe that suffering and subjugation must be quickly forgotten.
In 1940, SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the first transport of Roma to the Zigeunerlager,
or Gypsy camp, where they were sterilized and used as laborers for the German ammunition industry. In 1942, deportations intensified and Roma were transported to a special “Gypsy” concentration camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Romani prisoners wore tops with black triangles and had a tattoo on the forearm with a number and a “Z,” for the German word for Gypsy, Zigeuner.
More than 22,000 Roma entered Auschwitz and more than 19,000 starved to death, succumbed to disease or were gassed, according to historical accounts.
On the night of 2 August 1944, the “Gypsy” concentration camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenau was shut down. Some of the Roma from the camp were transported to the concentration camps at Buchenwald, where 918 Roma prisoners from across Europe were deported, and Ravensbruck. But the rest, 2,897 Romani men, women, and children, were killed in gas chambers in a single night. Following lobbying in the early 1990s, particularly by Polish and international Roma organizations, the day of 2 August has been known unofficially since 1994 as the International Day or Remembrance of the Roma Holocaust. Since then, every year, memorial vigils for the victims take place in the former “Gypsy” camps.
According to estimates, some 300,000 European Roma died during World War II. In Slovakia, Roma were persecuted but were not herded en masse into concentration camps, according to Kumanova. Instead, Slovakia had work camps where hundreds of Roma died building railroads, reservoirs, and roads, according to Kumanova. The last major work camp was in Ustie nad Oravou, central Slovakia, where Roma helped build Oravska priehrada, the largest reservoir in Slovakia, she said.
The largest work camp, in operation from 1942 to 1944, was in Dubnica nad Vahom, western Slovakia. Entire Romani families from Slovakia were transported to this camp, which Kumanova said could also be considered a concentration camp. “The conditions [in Dubnica nad Vahom] were extremely harsh,” she said. “There were large numbers of detainees and nearly no hygiene. No access to medicine and severe malnourishment caused diseases to spread. Children and old people, especially, died.”
In February 1945, typhus broke out in the Dubnica nad Vahom camp. Germans, who were running the camp at the time, found a radical solution. On 23 February, pretending that they were transporting the sick Roma to the hospital, German troops instead trucked them to an ammunition factory and shot them. Not all died immediately, and some were buried alive. The Nazis buried the 26 Roma – 19 men, a 15-year-old boy, and six women, including one seven-months pregnant – in a common grave. Toward the end of the war, the camp was shut down, Kumanova said.
Slovak Roma were among those who took part in the Slovak National Uprising in August 1944, which started in the central Slovak town of Banska Bystrica and sought to oust the pro-Nazi government. Hundreds of Roma died in the fighting, and after the uprising was suppressed by Nazi occupation troops in October, repression of the locals, including Roma, intensified. Many were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed on the spot. Roma were executed in the towns of Cierny Balog, Svaty Kriz nad Hronom, and Motycky-Stubna, in central Slovakia. Others were deported and murdered in Kremnicka, Nemecka, and Kovacova, and in the Jewish cemetery in Zvolen, all towns in central Slovakia. Most Roma victims were from the village of Ilija, also in central Slovakia, Kumanova said.
FORGETTING THE PAST?
Although there are many memorials, obelisks, and reverent commemorations of World War II in Slovakia, until recently few, if any, mentioned the Roma as victims. But in 1995, officials in Cierny Balog built a memorial to Romani victims. Then in 2005 the Ministry of Culture launched a project called Ma bisteren!
(“Don’t forget!” in the Romani language), organized with the help of the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava, the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising in Banska Bystrica, and the In Minorita civic association, which focuses on projects that mix Romani and mainstream culture. Ma bisteren!
aims to remind the public about persecution of Roma in various towns by unveiling seven memorials, particularly in the southern part of Slovakia, which was Hungarian territory under the rule of dictator Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya during World War II.
The first of these seven memorials was unveiled on 2 August 2005 at the Slovak National Uprising Museum. The same day, the museum launched an exhibition on the Roma Holocaust in Slovakia.
Although Kumanova said the exhibition has gotten an enthusiastic response, she said, “Sixty years is really too long to [wait to] honor the memory of the murdered Roma. Moreover, most of the people who survived World War II are dead now.” She thinks the Roma Holocaust was not recognized for so long because of the communist regime’s policy of assimilation and its refusal to acknowledge ethnic identity. “There have been talks on concrete numbers of victims, but the fact that the reason for their torture, forced labor, and murder was ethnicity has never been recognized.”
After 1989, with gradual ethnic emancipation, Roma began to become aware of the reasons behind their people’s persecution during World War II. Yet most historical accounts of the war and the Holocaust written during the 1990s did not deal with the plight of the Roma. With some exceptions, historians didn’t seem interested, and many eyewitnesses refused to talk about their war experiences, Kumanova said.
Frantisek Toth, the Slovak minister of culture, said the government is interested in raising awareness about the suffering of Roma during the Nazi era, but he said efforts are hampered by a lack of information. Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, which has spurred countless publications, articles, and films, the hardships of the Roma during and after the war have received little discussion until recently, Toth said. The ministry has a program of grants for groups trying to bring to light the plight of the Roma during the Holocaust.
But Kumanova said that there is lack of information on both sides. Non-Roma are often astonished when they hear about work camps for Roma, killing of entire Romani communities, and deportation to death camps from the southern territories of Slovakia. On the other hand, Roma know their local history and have heard about the tragedy of their ancestors. Both sides need more information, Kumanova says.
“In order to avoid ethnic intolerance, racial prejudice, and negative stereotyping, the important thing is to realize that such situations [like the Roma Holocaust] could under some circumstances happen again,” Kumanova said.
Klara Orgovanova, the Slovak government’s commissioner for Roma affairs, said, “These days, it’s important to remind particularly young people of this. It’s at once a question of knowing the history and [heeding] a warning for the future.”