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Journal of Genocide Research, 3(1):79-85 (2001)

REVIEW ESSAY

Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend to Minimize the Romani Holocaust
A review of Guenther Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies
Oxford University Press, 2000

When OUP sent me the manuscript of The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies for evaluation, I returned it in some dudgeon, barely critiqued, saying only that it represented to me another example of the growing body of literature devoted to diminishing the place of the Romani people (“Gypsies”) in the Holocaust, and whatever I had to say in a review of the manuscript would probably go unheeded.

Lewy’s agenda was clearly already in place and the published work has demonstrated that. This is a book which seeks not only to exclude the Nazis’ Romani victims from the Holocaust—which is not anything new—but goes a step further to say that they were not even the targets of attempted genocide. Heavily reliant on Zimmermann (1996), it adds little to that author’s existing documentation but differs considerably in its interpretation.

There are two aspects of this work that must come under scrutiny: firstly the claims it makes in support of the author’s case against genocide, and secondly, the biased tone in which those claims are made.  I shall summarize the first aspect first.  In short, Lewy states

1) That there was no racially-motivated general plan for a Final Solution of the Gypsy Question;
2) That the Nazis made a distinction between sedentary and migratory Romanies in the East and between mixed and unmixed Romanies in Germany, and spared some from death because of this;
3) That as a consequence the estimated number of half a million Romanies murdered is a gross exaggeration, and that “perhaps the majority” of them in Germany actually survived, and weren’t even transported to the East; and
4) Because there was no intent to kill all Romanies, and because policies against them were not motivated by Nazi race theory, their treatment cannot be compared with that of the Jews and therefore they do not qualify for inclusion in the Holocaust—in sum because their treatment did not constitute a genocide and it was not motivated by a policy based on Nazi race theory.

I shall address these points in turn, though only briefly; my arguments can be found in more detail in Hancock (1996).  Firstly, that there was no “general plan” is hardly unique to the Romani case; the incarcerations, deportations and gassings took place nevertheless. We lack numbers of documented “general plans” for Nazi actions throughout the entire period, for all categories of victims. In fact “[n]o direct or indirect evidence . . . has been delivered which could prove the existence of a formal written order by Hitler to start the mass extermination of the Jews” (Hornshøy-Møller, 1999:I:313); absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  In any case the disposition of the Romanies had been made the responsibility of the various Zigeunergeschäftzimmer throughout the Reich.

The statement that Nazi policy towards Romanies was not race-based is patently absurd.  The belief that Romani “criminality” was a genetic defect which caused “hereditarily diseased offspring” is racist in itself, and was justification for terminating Romani “lives unworthy of life.”  That very term (Lebensunwertesleben) was first used in print by Liebich in 1863 to refer specifically to Romanies; it was used six years later in an essay by Kulemann—once more solely to refer to Romanies—and again in the title of Binding & Hoche’s influential 1920 treatise on euthanasia; here, they listed individuals with incurable, inherited diseases as one of their three categories of those they said should be put to death.  And it was used yet again just one year after Hitler came to power as the title of a law ordering sterilization that was directed at Romanies.  Romanies were classified as possessing “alien” (i.e. non-Aryan) blood along with Jews and people of African descent following the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, and in November that year marriage between members of those three groups and Germans was made illegal.  Statements against Romanies referring to their being a “racial” problem are numerous and well-documented.  Criteria for determining who had Romani ancestry were exactly twice as strict as those determining who was of Jewish descent; the fact that even Gypsy-like people were targeted demonstrates that the Nazis were taking no chances with the possibility of undetected Romani ancestry infecting German citizens.  Romanies were never regarded as a political or economic or religious danger to the Third Reich, as were the Jews: individuals of mixed Romani and European ancestry posed the greatest threat, and it was solely a racial one.

Secondly, the fact that some categories of Romanies were exempted from deportation is true; but the same is also true for some categories of Jews.  The six thousand Karaim who successfully pleaded to be spared, for example, or the Jews married to non-Jews.  Eichmann himself was prepared to spare the lives of one million Jews in return for ten thousand trucks.  This position on Eichmann’s part may be compared with Himmler’s desire to save some “pure” Roma as anthropological specimens; neither was acted upon.

Thirdly, of the estimated ca. 20,000 Romanies in Germany in 1939, fully three quarters had been murdered by 1945.  Of the 11,200 in Austria, a half were murdered. Of the 50,000 in Poland, 35,000; in Croatia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Luxembourg, almost the entire Romani populations were eradicated.

Lastly, the claim that the Nazis’ treatment of their Romani victims did not constitute genocide is bizarre to say the least (“The various deportations of Gypsies to the East and their deadly consequences do not constitute acts of genocide”— p. 223). This claim has been made more than once already, most forcefully by Katz:

The only defensible conclusion, the only adequate encompassing judgment . . . is that in comparison to the ruthless, monolithic, meta-political, genocidal design of Nazism vis-à-vis Jews, nothing similar . . . existed in the case of the Gypsies . . . In the end, it was only Jews and the Jews alone who were the victims of a total genocidal onslaught in both intent and practice at the hands of the Nazi murderers (Katz, 1988:213)

But there is no evidence that Jews or any other targeted group were intended to be eradicated from the face of the earth, however passionate a Nazi vision that might have been.  We find instead numerous statements such as that in a letter from Thierack to Martin Bormann dated October 13th, 1939, in which he refers to “the intention of liberating the German area from Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies” (emphasis added).  Hitler’s own statement, made publicly on January 30th earlier that same year, envisioned “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” (emphasis added).   Documents such as that issued on August 14th, 1942 by the Central Security Office’s Department VI-D(7b) asking for information on Romanies living in Britain, and that British POWs be routinely interrogated about the condition and status of Romanies in that country suggest that, had the Nazis won, their anti-Romani policies would have been extended overseas.

Similar fact-finding memos about Jews overseas also existed—but no document has been identified specifically expressing the intent to exterminate every Jew or Gypsy on the planet. That being the case, such statements as Katz’ or the Anti-Defamation League’s (below) or Lewy’s are revisionist and subjective, and cannot be used to distinguish the fate of Jews from the fate of Romanies.  What we have as a result are various interpretations based on circumstantial evidence (the “intentionalist” approach, the “semiotic” approach and so on—see Breitman, 1991), and it is his interpretation, not his objective evidence, upon which Lewy rests his case.  It is also interpretation which prompts the statement in the Auschwitz Memorial Book that “[t]he final resolution, as formulated by Himmler, in his ‘Decree for Basic Regulations to Resolve the Gypsy Question as Required by the Nature of Race’ of December 8th, 1938, meant that preparations were to begin for the complete extermination of Sinti and Roma” (State Museum, 1993:xiv).

Disqualifying Romanies as victims of genocide is Lewy’s major criterion for also excluding them from the Holocaust itself, for denying, in fact, that there was a Romani Holocaust.  The battle over ownership of that word and who it applies to is a latter-day phenomenon, yet it has been a part of the English language for centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary first appearing in print around 1250 AD.  Its use in a religious context dates from 1833, in a book by Leitch Ritchie, in which is described the fate of over a thousand people in 18th century France who were locked inside a church and burned to death at the order of King Louis VII: “Louis VII . . . once made a holocaust of thirteen hundred persons in a church  (p. 104).”  It has led to a distinction being made between Upper-Case Holocaust and lower-case holocaust, or to the abandonment of the term altogether for Shoah.  This at least is specific to the fate of Jews, as Porrajmos (“paw-rye-mawss”) is to the fate of the Romani people.

A widespread interpretation of its meaning is found at “Holocaust” on the Anti-Defamation League’s website, where it states:

The Holocaust was the systematic persecution and annihilation of more than six million Jews as a central act of state by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Although millions of others, such as Romani, Sinti (sic), homosexuals, the disabled and political opponents of the Nazi regime were also victims of persecution and murder, only the Jews were singled out for total extermination (ADL, 2000).

A more scholarly interpretation, and one which names Romanies correctly, is found in the German government’s handbook on Holocaust education:

Recent historical research in the United States and Germany does not support the conventional argument that the Jews were the only victims of Nazi genocide.  True, the murder of Jews by the Nazis differed from the Nazis’ killing of political prisoners and foreign opponents because it was based on the genetic origin of the victims and not on their behavior.  The Nazi regime applied a consistent and inclusive policy of extermination—based on heredity—only against three groups of human beings: the handicapped, Jews, and Sinti and Roma (“Gypsies”).  The Nazis killed multitudes, including political and religious opponents, members of the resistance, elites of conquered nations, and homosexuals, but always based these murders on the belief, actions and status of those victims.  Different criteria applied only to the murder of the handicapped, Jews, and “Gypsies.”  Members of these groups could not escape their fate by changing their behavior or belief.  They were selected because they existed (Milton, 2000:14)

Significantly, the very inventor of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, referred to the genocide of the “gypsies” even before the Second World War was over, in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944:249-250).

The second aspect of the book—and the one which concerns me most—is the tone in which it is written. This is a book about Romani people written by someone who does not know any Romani people, and who admits to deliberately not seeking their input in its compilation.  No Romanies are credited in the acknowledgments.  Lewy has no expertise in Romani Studies, and apart from a couple of recent articles excerpted from the same book, he has never published anything on Romanies before this. It reflects one facet of a disturbing trend which seems to be emerging in Holocaust studies, most recently expressed on an Australian-based Holocaust website which proclaims that “just mentioning Gypsies in the same breath as the Jewish victims is an insult to their memory!” (David, 2000).  This statement differs hardly at all from that made by the Darmstadt city mayor who, in an address to the municipal Sinti and Roma Council, said that their request for recognition “insults the honor of the memory of the Holocaust victims” by aspiring to be associated with them (Anon., 1986), evidence that this kind of antigypsyism extends well beyond the confines of Holocaust scholarship. The motive for writing this book, therefore, was evidently not to add to our knowledge of Romanies, but to support the Jewish “uniquist” position, Lewy’s swan-song upon his retirement from The University of Massachusetts.  He has now turned his attention to writing a book on the Armenian genocide, no doubt with the aim of also distancing it from any comparison with the Holocaust.

His section on history is flawed and anemic; most of it relies heavily on Fonseca’s journalistic, non-academic book Bury Me Standing.  He accepts negative stereotypes without comment, quoting e.g. Martin Block, whose 1936 book was commissioned by the Nazi Party and served as one of their fundamental guides to the “Zigeuner,” and who says Romanies “are masters in the art of lying.”  Having made the point once, Lewy then reinforces Block’s statement in a footnote by repeating Fonseca’s similar racist observation that “Gypsies lie. They lie a lot.  More often and more inventively than other people” [her emphasis].  He unnecessarily quotes the editor of a Roman Catholic magazine who recently wrote that Romanies are “with exceptions, a lazy, lying, thieving and extraordinarily filthy people . . . exceedingly disagreeable people to be around.” Throughout his opening chapter Lewy seems to take delight in documenting the “nasty” aspects of Romanies; he doesn’t seem to like us very much at all.  In a blame-the-victim statement (p.11) he says “prejudice alone, I submit, is not sufficient explanation for the hostility directed at the Gypsies . . . certain characteristics of Gypsy life tend to reinforce or even create hostility.”  He even puts himself in charge of what we should be called, maintaining that “in fact there is nothing pejorative, per se, about the word ‘Zigeuner’” (p. ix). One suggestion I did make before returning the original manuscript to OUP was that the author remove the word “mysterious” in his description of us from his text.  The very first sentence of the dust-jacket notes reads “[r]oaming the countryside in caravans, earning their living as musicians,  pedlars and fortune-tellers, the Gypsies and their elusive way of life represented an affront to Nazi ideas of social order.”

Accepting uncritically the second-hand opinions of prejudiced non-Romani authors and presenting their statements as fact, and repeating undefended racist venom while calling it merely “intemperate,” suggests that to Lewy such statements are not questionable, and that we are not real people at all, but simply subjects in books written by other non-Romanies.  We are not real people with real sensitivities and real aspirations in the real world, and we were not real people in the Holocaust.

There are dozens of examples of this kind of insensitivity here and in Lewy’s other writings.  He repeats for example Yehuda Bauer’s viciously insulting statement that my people were nothing more than a “minor irritant” as far as the Nazis were concerned.  The Nazis never called us that; this is Bauer’s and Lewy’s interpretation.  The Nazis called Romanies a plague and a menace (Zigeunerplage, Zigeunerbedrohung); minor irritants aren’t sent to gas chambers, and who else, besides Jews and Romanies, were sent to gas chambers? Was the Bureau of Gypsy Affairs moved from Munich to Hitler’s capital in Berlin in 1936 simply so that the Nazis could keep a closer eye on a “minor irritant?”

In a paper presented at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s symposium on the Romani Holocaust in September, 2000, Lewy stated that “Gypsies were fortunate in not being the chosen victims of the Holocaust,” heedless of the gross insensitivity evident in using a word such as “fortunate” in the context of the Holocaust.  In the same paper Lewy maintained that Romanies weren’t sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be killed, and that in some camps, they were merely murdered for carrying disease or for taking up space.  He makes much of the fact that Romani prisoners were kept together in families in Birkenau, as though this somehow made their ultimate destruction less terrible; he doesn’t say why, though—that separating the families made them completely unmanageable for the guards.  It was not because the Nazis wanted to be “kinder” in any way, though that is his implication.  He claims that the other prisoners “envied” the Romanies because of this, but provides no evidence that this was in fact true. This doesn’t quite match Lagnado & Dekel’s interpretation, viz. that the Romani family camp provided “comfort” and was “a vast playground, an ongoing carnival” (1991:82), but Lewy’s purpose is the same.  Zimmerman, however, writes that keeping families together “reflected efforts to keep the friction and resulting bureaucratic problems associated with the deportation and internment as small as possible” (Zimmermann, 1990:107-108).  Nor does he mention that there were concentration camps where it was the Jewish inmates who were kept together in families.  He mentions that Romanies married to Germans were not transported, but doesn’t add that Jews married to Germans weren’t either, or that those same Romanies were sterilized, but that policy did not affect those same Jews.  Arguments can be made by what is not said, as much as by what is said, and this is a common technique of Lewy’s.  Throughout his writing, Lewy tempers his prejudices with the requisite sympathetic lip-service presumably lest he be accused of bias, yet he includes no discussion of the ongoing persecution of Romanies since 1945, of how there was no representation at the Nuremberg Trials, or no war crimes reparations forthcoming, of how neo-Nazi violence is directed—today—mainly at the Romani people, of how The New York Times and CNN have both called Romanies “the most persecuted in Europe today.”  If the Holocaust is to mean anything, it must stand as the supreme example of prejudice gone insane, and the ongoing threat it poses to all people.  It cannot be mystified into a single event left back in history.  If it is, it could so easily happen again.  Why doesn’t Lewy examine the situation of the Jews and the Romanies today, half a century later?  Because he doesn’t, in fact, care. The fate of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is his obsession, even in a book about its Romani victims.

As I write, the Greek government is already systematically removing Romanies by force and demolishing their homes at the site of the next Olympic Games, just as Hitler did in Berlin in 1936 and the Spanish government did in 1992 in Barcelona.  Romani women were being involuntarily sterilized in Slovakia into the 1980s.  Forcible deportations are still a reality for Romanies, and calls for their use as slave labor, and even for their extermination, have been heard from various governmental representatives in a number of countries in the 1990s. These facts, in the context of what the Holocaust must teach us, mean nothing to Mr. Lewy, and it is because he can feel no empathy for a people who remain complete strangers to him.

Having to deal with the same lack of concern is something that confronts Romanies constantly. Representatives in the USA wanting to be included in the disbursement of the Swiss assets looted by the Nazis have certainly been made to feel like “a minor irritant.” while Ward Churchill devoted a lengthy and critical chapter to the unfair treatment of Romanies by Holocaust scholars in his book A Little Matter of Genocide, neither of its two reviewers in a recent issue of this journal even mention it.  In January, 2000, the Swedish government hosted an international conference on the Holocaust in response to the sharp increase in neo-Nazi activity in eastern Europe.  Romanies were not only Holocaust victims, but they are also the main targets of skinhead violence today—yet not even one session on Romanies was included in the entire Stockholm forum.  The follow-up conference on Combating Racism and Intolerance which grew out of it and which took place one year later again included no acknowledgment of the Romani Holocaust, and just 90 minutes were allowed during the entire event for a discussion of Romanies and education.

The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies is a dangerous book.  It is another title representing the antiquated tradition of being an expert treatise on a people whom the author has never met nor has made any effort to meet. How can you feel compassion for a people you don’t know?  We are an abstraction, to be discussed in our absence and, worse, even in our presence, as though we don’t really exist, with no thought for our feelings or our dignity.  Though stained by its crass insensitivity it will, I am sorry to say, be widely read, and is already being quoted as “evidence” to argue for the exclusion of the Romani people from their rightful place in Holocaust history. It has been listed as one of the two sources on Romanies in the 1,000-page Special Master’s Proposal in re Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation released in September, 2000, and which is practically dismissive of the Romani case (Gribetz, 2000) [it has since been superceded by another book in the same vein—Margalit, 2002—less flagrantly written but promoting the same message].

Lewy unfairly criticizes Kenrick & Puxon’s groundbreaking 1972 Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies, the first full-length book of the subject in English, as “short of [being] a satisfactory treatment.”  But his own agenda-driven effort comes nowhere near replacing it, and my recommendation is that those wanting scholarly, contemporary sources on the Porrajmos rely on the Interface multi-volume series Gypsies During the Second World War from the University of Hertfordshire Press.

Works cited

ADL, 2000.  http://www.adl.org/frames/front_holocaust.html
Anon., 1986. “Tragedy of the Gypsies,” Information Bulletin No. 26. Vienna: Dokumentationszentrum des Bundes Jüdische Verfolgte des Naziregimes.
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Kenrick, Donald, & Grattan Puxon, 1972.  The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies.  New York: Basic Books.
Lagnado, Lucette M., & Sheila Cohn Dekel, 1991.  Children of the Flames: The Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz.  New York: Morrow.
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Margalit, Gilad, 2002.  Germany and its Gypsies.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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Zimmermann, Michael, 1990.  “From discrimination to the ‘family camp’ at Auschwitz: National Socialist persecution of the Gypsies,” Dachau Review, 2:87-113.
Zimmermann, Michael, 1996.  Rassenutopie und Genozid: Die nationalsozialistische ‘Lösung der Zigeunerfrage’  Hamburg: Christians Verlag.