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Gypsies during World War II [...] treatment of the Gypsies by the Nazi in World War II, concentrating on pre-war treatment, and treatment during the war, including the round up of the Gypsies as compared to the Jews. It will also describe what made a Gypsy and how they were rounded up and transferred to the concentration camps. The Gypsies of Europe lost thousands during the war in the concentration camps, but their history is full of persecution and hatred. Even today, many Europeans look down on the Gypsies. These people have suffered as much as the Jews at the hands of Hitler's Nazis, but their story is far less known.
Who were the Gypsies in Europe? The gypsies, broken into different tribes or bands, first appeared in Europe sometime in the fifteenth century. After studying their language, made up of dialects of Sanskrit, Persian, Kurdish, and Greek and called "Romani," many experts believe they migrated from southern Asia in "waves" over one thousand years ago, and settled in many areas of Europe, but centrally in Germany (Lewy 1). The Gypsies have always been nomads, subsisting on many portable skills such as telling fortunes, training animals, sharpening implements, and others. However, their mobile lifestyle frightened many sedentary town dwellers, and they came to be regarded as "noisy, dirty, immoral, deceitful, and generally asocial. Their self-proclaimed ability to see into the future both attracted and terrified" (Lewy 2). As society rejected them, they tended to turn to stealing, begging, and other crimes to live. This convinced many of their detractors that they were indeed a threat to organized society. Thus, from earliest times, the Gypsies of Europe were shunned, outlawed, and persecuted. In the nineteenth century, another wave of Gypsies migrated to Europe, settling mainly in central Europe and speaking a Romani dialect made up largely of Rumanian descent. The original Gypsies now called themselves "Sinti," while the newcomers called themselves "Rom" (Lewy 4). During this time, the first stirrings of racial superiority were also occurring in Germany, and the whites began to look at the darker-skinned Gypsies as inferior and suspect. One Gypsy historian writes that even during this time, Protestants and Catholics distrusted the Gypsies, and felt their presence threatened "the spiritual values of Christian society, were a security threat to the various German states, and affected the physical health of the general population" (Crowe 33). During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, countries with large populations of Gypsies, such as Germany and Bulgaria, began to enact legislation limiting their freedoms and sometimes banning them from areas altogether. Often, they were forbidden to travel, which created great hardships for a nomad people used to traveling for their livelihood and their lifestyle. Thus, the Gypsies of Europe faced persecution and prejudice throughout their history, but it only got worse as the Nazis took over Germany on the eve of World War II.
What it is Like to be a Gypsy
Many Gypsies assimilated into European life, and gave up their nomadic ways. They took jobs, raised families, and were productive members of society. However, most Europeans still believed in the stereotypes, that gypsies were lazy, thieving beggars who had little place in normal society. To be a Gypsy in Europe was to live outside the "norm." Gypsies also had many different traditions and beliefs that set them apart. Gypsies had long engaged in trades that required them to move from town to town, such as fortune telling and animal training. In addition, their family structure is more far-reaching than traditional society. They see all Gypsies as their brothers, and they have many superstitions and beliefs that guide their lives, that often did not mesh with other residents. They have strict gender rules that separate the men from the women, and strict rules of conduct for each. Perhaps one of the biggest differences in Gypsy society is that they consider each member of the group equal, and do not look to one leader for advice or leadership, and so, they have difficulty following the directions of one leader or group in society (Stewart 58). It has always been difficult to be a Gypsy in Europe, but the time during the Nazi regime may have been the worst. One young German girl who grew up as a Nazi remembers her teacher pointing out a young Gypsy girl in the classroom, and calling attention to her untidiness and dirty hair. She instructed the entire class to shun her and laugh at her. She writes, "The little girl cowered in her corner. For the rest of the school year she looked tidy enough, but kept her eyes down and never spoke to anyone again" ("Growing Up" 41). This is what it is like to be a Gypsy, for even today, the most important aspect of being a Gypsy is persecution. While there are still thousands of Gypsies in Europe, most have given up the old ways, and no longer travel in caravans during the summer months, plying their wares. Gypsies still fight for their identity and their culture, as they struggle to prove their worth in an often disapproving society.
Before the War
Even before the advent of war, the Gypsies were persecuted and shunned by society. As early as 1929, the city of Frankfurt Germany set up a "concentration camp for Gypsies" outside the city limits because of complaints by citizens (Lewy 9). Therefore, the persecution of Gypsies began long before the Nazi regime took power, and in fact, historian Lewy notes, "When the Nazis intensified the harassment and persecution practiced by earlier regimes, most of their neighbors remained superbly indifferent" (Lewy 14). Adolph Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, and his regime initially had many other people to consider than the Gypsies. There were the Jews, whom Hitler despised and hoped to eradicate from Germany. However, the Gypsies soon became a priority in Hitler's administration for a variety of reasons. The Nazis began to refer to it as the "Gypsy Problem," and gave increasing attention to removing the Gypsies, thereby continuing the "pure" "Aryan" race of white Germany.
As the Nazis looked at removing the Gypsies from society, they developed a three-track program. First, they left the harassment and legislation of the Gypsies to the local states, who increased measures from previous years. After about 1937, the Nazis watched the Gypsies even more closely, and began to incarcerate them or move them to concentration camps. Finally, after about 1938 or so, the Nazis began to lump the "racial inferiority" of the Jews and Gypsies together, seeing them as a "Plague" affecting the country (Lewy 15-16). These steps sometimes overlapped each other, creating difficulty with the policies, but they were all meant to ultimately remove the Gypsies from German society.
Track Number One. During this early track in the Nazi regime, the laws of the earlier Weimar Republic did not alter much. Several German states continued to enact their own laws to regulate the Gypsies, including fingerprinting them, or banning them from certain cities and towns. During this time, Gypsies faced increasing scrutiny, including unannounced searches of their homes, fingerprinting and identity cards, special licenses for their trade, and laws against their traveling in "hordes." Gypsies were not recognized as real members of society, and if they broke any of the laws governing them, they could face automatic sterilization (Lewy 17-18). One of the problems with this initial track was that the Gypsies were still being handled locally, and one community could simply banish a band to another location, which would then have to deal with them again. By 1936, The Nazis had increased their efforts against the Gypsies. They banned additional Gypsies from entering the country, and German Gypsies were banned from travel throughout the country. Before the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, police swept through the city and removed all the Gypsies to a camp outside the city (Friedlander 255). Many of the German people considered Gypsies to be little more than beggars, and so, these measures did not seem harsh or even particularly restrictive to them. During this time, one German official noted, "With the help of such measures, employed with determination, it should be possible to stop the Gypsy plague, the ultimate aim being the extermination of these parasites'" (Lewy 19). Continued sweeps of Gypsy camps continued during this time, and many wintertime Gypsy encampments were closed down or removed from cities and towns. Many locations began to create municipal Gypsy camps, banishing Gypsies from the cities because often their encampments lacked sanitation and water. In fact, one author notes that the Germans even contacted the League of Nations about the feasibility of shipping all their Gypsies to an island in Polynesia (Crowe 31). Often the Gypsy camps were called "concentration camps," but many of them bore little resemblance to the notorious camps in use during the war. Often, police officers accompanied the Gypsies during relocation, and they were told not to say where they…[continue]
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