Romani People in Germany and Poland

Wellesina McCrary  |  Romani People in Germany and Poland

Wellesina McCrary | Romani People in Germany and Poland

Please read about the historical background of the Europe's Romani minorities, antiziganism and persecution in The Romani Genocide >>

Nazi Policy Influence Roma and Sinti Lives

In 1930s Nazi Germany, "anti-Gypsy" measures including compulsory registration and mass arrests of the Romani and Sinti intensified. Deprived of their rights, Romani prisoners became among the first to be sent to concentration camps.

After the outbreak of war, they were deported to German-occupied territories, shot in mass executions or murdered in camps. In December 1942, Heinrich Himmler issued a decree ordering the deportation of German Roma and Sinti to the so-called Zigeunerlager or "Gypsy Camp" created on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The first transport to the "Gypsy Camp" at Auschwitz arrived on 26 February 1943. Transported in overcrowded cattle wagons, the Romani had experienced nightmarish conditions: many, including children, had died from hunger and the bitter cold of winter or, later on, thirst and the perishing heat of summer. By the time of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s liquidation in 1944, about 20 000 Roma and Sinti had died in gas chambers, of disease or through medical experiments conducted by Josef Mengele.

Between 1942 and 1944, 23 000 Romanis were transported to the "Gypsy Camp" (Zigeunerlager) in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were all tattooed with numbers on their left forearms. Unlike in any other subcamps in Auschwitz, families were not separated from each other in the "Gypsy Camp": men, women and children lived together in barracks with thin walls, no floors and bunks on both sides. Barracks meant for 400 people housed twice as many. Sanitary conditions were horrendous. Only three barracks were equipped with a washbasin and only two had toilets.


Just as any other Auschwitz prisoner, Romani prisoners were punished for the pettiest of "crimes". They had to stand on rollcall for hours on end, suffering from cold, hunger and the machinations of the guards. They were tormented, forced to do physical exercise such as jumping and falling to the ground or running. They were also whipped. For various offences they were also forced into a bunker where there was only room to standing, or they were sent to a penal company. The guards often stormed into the barracks at night and beat the prisoners with sticks.

The ghastly sanitary conditions, cold, overcrowding and hunger in the barracks allowed disease to spread easily and such an outbreak among Romanis in March 1943 resulted in the need to open a hospital block in two barracks.  Conditions for treating the sick were poor: the prisoners lacked clothing, bedding and medicines. They suffered from hunger, scabies, tuberculosis or pneumonia. In May 1943, prisoners sick with typhoid were killed en masse in the gas chambers.

The chief doctor in the Zigeunerlager was Dr Josef Mengele who conducted experiments on sick prisoners and Roma children before killing them. After the camp’s liquidation on 2 August 1944, some of those Romanis still alive were transported to Buchenwald or Ravensbruck camps. The rest were gassed.

The End of the War and Postwar Fate

After the liquidation of the "Gypsy Camp" in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, all the remaining men were moved to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Women were placed in Buchenwald’s subcamps, where they worked in slavelike conditions in industrial plants serving the needs of the German army. The inhuman conditions, backbreaking work, hunger and diseases meant that only a few survived until the end of the war and the US army's liberation of Buchenwald on 11 April 1945.

Ancient prejudices against the Romani still exist today. In many countries throughout the European Union, Roma people still suffer from discrimination as well as violations of their human rights.


The hostile attitude towards this ethnic group is today visible in hate speech spread not only on the internet, but also through the media. Such discrimination has a negative impact on the self-esteem of the Romani, deepening their sense of injustice and ultimately counteracting their inclusion in society.

Roma, fearing persecution, avoid appearing in public. They often decide not to report assaults or threats against them to the police, as they have little faith in receiving assistance. They are also afraid of revenge attacks from perpetrators. It is therefore vital to remember both their tragic past as well as the fact that prejudice and hatred continue to lead to injustice, harm and death of people who, just as anyone else, have the right to live peaceful lives.   square.jpg