Journal of Genocide Research, 3(1):79-85 (2001)
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 (âGypsiesâ) in the Holocaust, and whatever I had to say in a review of the manuscript would probably go unheeded.
Lewyâs agenda was clearly already in place and the published work has demonstrated that. This is a book which seeks not only to exclude the Nazisâ Romani victims from the Holocaustâwhich is not anything newâbut 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 authorâs 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 authorâs case against genocide, and secondly, the biased tone in which those claims are made.Â I shall summarize the first aspect first.Â 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 âperhaps the majorityâ of them in Germany actually survived, and werenât 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 Holocaustâin 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).Â Firstly, that there was no âgeneral planâ is hardly unique to the Romani case; the incarcerations, deportations and gassings took place nevertheless. We lack numbers of documented âgeneral plansâ for Nazi actions throughout the entire period, for all categories of victims. In fact â[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 Jewsâ (HornshĂ¸y-MĂ¸ller, 1999:I:313); absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.Â In any case the disposition of the Romanies had been made the responsibility of the various ZigeunergeschĂ¤ftzimmer throughout the Reich.
The statement that Nazi policy towards Romanies was not race-based is patently absurd.Â The belief that Romani âcriminalityâ was a genetic defect which caused âhereditarily diseased offspringâ is racist in itself, and was justification for terminating Romani âlives unworthy of life.âÂ 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 Kulemannâonce more solely to refer to Romaniesâand again in the title of Binding & Hocheâs 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.Â 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.Â Romanies were classified as possessing âalienâ (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.Â Statements against Romanies referring to their being a âracialâ problem are numerous and well-documented.Â 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.Â 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.Â The six thousand Karaim who successfully pleaded to be spared, for example, or the Jews married to non-Jews.Â Eichmann himself was prepared to spare the lives of one million Jews in return for ten thousand trucks.Â This position on Eichmannâs part may be compared with Himmlerâs desire to save some âpureâ 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.Â 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 Nazisâ treatment of their Romani victims did not constitute genocide is bizarre to say the least (âThe various deportations of Gypsies to the East and their deadly consequences do not constitute acts of genocideââ 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-Ă -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.Â 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 âthe intention of liberating the German area from Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsiesâ (emphasis added).Â Hitlerâs own statement, made publicly on January 30th earlier that same year, envisioned âthe annihilation of the Jewish race in Europeâ (emphasis added).Â Â Documents such as that issued on August 14th, 1942 by the Central Security Officeâs 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 existedâbut 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 Katzâ or the Anti-Defamation Leagueâs (below) or Lewyâs are revisionist and subjective, and cannot be used to distinguish the fate of Jews from the fate of Romanies.Â What we have as a result are various interpretations based on circumstantial evidence (the âintentionalistâ approach, the âsemioticâ approach and so onâsee Breitman, 1991), and it is his interpretation, not his objective evidence, upon which Lewy rests his case.Â It is also interpretation which prompts the statement in the Auschwitz Memorial Book that â[t]he final resolution, as formulated by Himmler, in his âDecree for Basic Regulations to Resolve the Gypsy Question as Required by the Nature of Raceâ of December 8th, 1938, meant that preparations were to begin for the complete extermination of Sinti and Romaâ (State Museum, 1993:xiv).
Disqualifying Romanies as victims of genocide is Lewyâs major criterion for also excluding them from the Holocaust itself, for denying, in fact, that there was a Romani Holocaust.Â 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.Â 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: âLouis VII . . . once made a holocaust of thirteen hundred persons in a churchÂ (p. 104).âÂ 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.Â This at least is specific to the fate of Jews, as Porrajmos (âpaw-rye-mawssâ) is to the fate of the Romani people.
A widespread interpretation of its meaning is found at âHolocaustâ on the Anti-Defamation Leagueâs 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 governmentâs 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.Â True, the murder of Jews by the Nazis differed from the Nazisâ killing of political prisoners and foreign opponents because it was based on the genetic origin of the victims and not on their behavior.Â The Nazi regime applied a consistent and inclusive policy of exterminationâbased on heredityâonly against three groups of human beings: the handicapped, Jews, and Sinti and Roma (âGypsiesâ).Â 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.Â Different criteria applied only to the murder of the handicapped, Jews, and âGypsies.âÂ Members of these groups could not escape their fate by changing their behavior or belief.Â They were selected because they existed (Milton, 2000:14)
Significantly, the very inventor of the term âgenocide,â Raphael Lemkin, referred to the genocide of the âgypsiesâ even before the Second World War was over, in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944:249-250).
The second aspect of the bookâand the one which concerns me mostâis 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.Â No Romanies are credited in the acknowledgments.Â 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 âjust mentioning Gypsies in the same breath as the Jewish victims is an insult to their memory!â (David, 2000).Â 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 âinsults the honor of the memory of the Holocaust victimsâ 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 âuniquistâ position, Lewyâs swan-song upon his retirement from The University of Massachusetts.Â 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 Fonsecaâs journalistic, non-academic book Bury Me Standing.Â 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 âZigeuner,â and who says Romanies âare masters in the art of lying.âÂ Having made the point once, Lewy then reinforces Blockâs statement in a footnote by repeating Fonsecaâs similar racist observation that âGypsies lie. They lie a lot.Â More often and more inventively than other peopleâ [her emphasis].Â He unnecessarily quotes the editor of a Roman Catholic magazine who recently wrote that Romanies are âwith exceptions, a lazy, lying, thieving and extraordinarily filthy people . . . exceedingly disagreeable people to be around.â Throughout his opening chapter Lewy seems to take delight in documenting the ânastyâ aspects of Romanies; he doesnât seem to like us very much at all.Â In a blame-the-victim statement (p.11) he says âprejudice 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.âÂ He even puts himself in charge of what we should be called, maintaining that âin fact there is nothing pejorative, per se, about the word âZigeunerââ (p. ix). One suggestion I did make before returning the original manuscript to OUP was that the author remove the word âmysteriousâ in his description of us from his text.Â The very first sentence of the dust-jacket notes reads â[r]oaming the countryside in caravans, earning their living as musicians,Â pedlars and fortune-tellers, the Gypsies and their elusive way of life represented an affront to Nazi ideas of social order.â
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 âintemperate,â 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.Â 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 Lewyâs other writings.Â He repeats for example Yehuda Bauerâs viciously insulting statement that my people were nothing more than a âminor irritantâ as far as the Nazis were concerned.Â The Nazis never called us that; this is Bauerâs and Lewyâs interpretation.Â The Nazis called Romanies a plague and a menace (Zigeunerplage, Zigeunerbedrohung); minor irritants arenât 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 Hitlerâs capital in Berlin in 1936 simply so that the Nazis could keep a closer eye on a âminor irritant?â
In a paper presented at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museumâs symposium on the Romani Holocaust in September, 2000, Lewy stated that âGypsies were fortunate in not being the chosen victims of the Holocaust,â heedless of the gross insensitivity evident in using a word such as âfortunateâ in the context of the Holocaust.Â In the same paper Lewy maintained that Romanies werenât sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be killed, and that in some camps, they were merely murdered for carrying disease or for taking up space.Â 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 doesnât say why, thoughâthat separating the families made them completely unmanageable for the guards.Â It was not because the Nazis wanted to be âkinderâ in any way, though that is his implication.Â He claims that the other prisoners âenviedâ the Romanies because of this, but provides no evidence that this was in fact true. This doesnât quite match Lagnado & Dekelâs interpretation, viz. that the Romani family camp provided âcomfortâ and was âa vast playground, an ongoing carnivalâ (1991:82), but Lewyâs purpose is the same.Â Zimmerman, however, writes that keeping families together âreflected efforts to keep the friction and resulting bureaucratic problems associated with the deportation and internment as small as possibleâ (Zimmermann, 1990:107-108).Â Nor does he mention that there were concentration camps where it was the Jewish inmates who were kept together in families.Â He mentions that Romanies married to Germans were not transported, but doesnât add that Jews married to Germans werenât either, or that those same Romanies were sterilized, but that policy did not affect those same Jews.Â Arguments can be made by what is not said, as much as by what is said, and this is a common technique of Lewyâs.Â 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 directedâtodayâmainly at the Romani people, of how The New York Times and CNN have both called Romanies âthe most persecuted in Europe today.âÂ 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.Â It cannot be mystified into a single event left back in history.Â If it is, it could so easily happen again.Â Why doesnât Lewy examine the situation of the Jews and the Romanies today, half a century later?Â Because he doesnât, 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.Â Romani women were being involuntarily sterilized in Slovakia into the 1980s.Â 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 âa minor irritant.â 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.Â 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.Â Romanies were not only Holocaust victims, but they are also the main targets of skinhead violence todayâyet not even one session on Romanies was included in the entire Stockholm forum.Â 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.Â 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 donât know?Â We are an abstraction, to be discussed in our absence and, worse, even in our presence, as though we donât really exist, with no thought for our feelings or our dignity.Â Though stained by its crass insensitivity it will, I am sorry to say, be widely read, and is already being quoted as âevidenceâ 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 Masterâs 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 veinâMargalit, 2002âless flagrantly written but promoting the same message].
Lewy unfairly criticizes Kenrick & Puxonâs groundbreaking 1972 Destiny of Europeâs Gypsies, the first full-length book of the subject in English, as âshort of [being] a satisfactory treatment.âÂ 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.
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