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Roma History: The Baro Porrajmos- The Romani Holocaust

  • Table of Contents
  • Roma History- Introduction, Origins, the Migrations, and the Roma presence in Europe from the Medieval Period to the Second World War
  • The Romany Holocaust; Roma in Post-WWII Eastern Europe & Yugoslavia
  • Kosovo History- from the Medieval Nemanjic Dynasty to 1989
  • The 1989 Revocation of Autonomy, the Nonviolent Resistance, the Kosovo Liberation Army, the 1999 NATO War, and Kosovo Today
  • Bibliography & Further Reading
  • Reports & Excerpts
  •  

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    “Roma were punished by all sides. We were slaves to everyone- Serbs, Albanians and Germans. They hated Roma here.”

    - Hačim Minuši, Prizren, Kosovo

    “I cannot remember any bombing, any violence. All I remember is that we didn’t have any bread to eat.”

    - Djafer Čuljandji, Prizren, Kosovo

    In 1938 Heinrich Himmler ordered ‘a settlement of the Gypsy problems on grounds of race.’ Roma in the third Reich were required to wear yellow armbands bearing the word Zigeuner. They were removed from school and banned from traveling. Those who could not prove employment faced imprisonment in Buchenwald or Dachau. After the Second World War began, German Roma were expelled en masse to the Polish territories.

    Soon the Roma were earmarked for extermination; the Reich Racial Hygiene Research Unit determined who was a Gypsy, and who was not; who lived, and who died. The differentiation between immediate liquidation and detention in an Arbeitslager meant little; it often concerned only the timing of death. The armbands changed. Roma now wore black triangles, which denoted them as asocial- or green triangles, which identified them as career criminals.

    Vichy France deported 30,000 Roma to the camps. The Romanian fascist leader Antonescu had thousands of Roma dumped in the Transdniester region, where they were left to die of exposure and starvation. The Czechs- themselves classified as subhuman by the Nazis- killed scores of Roma at the Lety camp (for further reading, please refer to the activist Paul Polansky's work in uncovering the history of Lety- especially Black Silence: the Lety Survivors Speak (Guernica 1998) and The Gypsy Genocide at the Patrin Web Journal.

    At least 400,000 Roma throughout Reich-occupied Europe were exterminated.

    WWII and the Baro Porrajmos in Yugoslavia

    Germany invaded Yugoslavia in June of 1941. Kosovo was invaded by Italian forces from Neighboring Albania; Bulgaria occupied Macedonia. Croatia became a puppet state, run by Ante Pavelic, a Croat lawyer and founder of the Italian-supported Ustaša- a separatist Croat terrorist group that managed to assassinate the Yugoslav king Aleksandar Karageorgevic in Marseilles, France in 1934.

    The Ustaša did not, like other Reich allies, behave passively when it came to Hitler’s desire to remove the Jews, and the Roma, from Europe. 28,500 Roma (Crowe 1995:219) lived in Croatia and the sections of Bosnia-Herzegovina that were ceded to it. The new state forced them to register with the authorities; it banned them from sidewalks and parks. Roma faced a myriad of rapidly-established laws that effectively prevented them from functioning. Between 26 and 28,000 Croatian and Bosnian Roma were murdered by the Ustaša. Many were killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp, 95 kilometers from Zagreb, on the Bosnian border. Others found themselves shot in reprisals for partisan activities, while others were deported north, to the General Government- the rump area of Poland where every major Reich death camp was built.

    Roma Prisoners in Dachau.  © Lydia Chagoll- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

    Roma Prisoners in Dachau. © Lydia Chagoll- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

    German occupation forces in Serbia targeted Roma as well; 40- 60,000 Roma lived there. Executions began in October of 1941, usually by firing squad. A concentration camp for Jews and Roma was established in Zemun (now a district of Belgrade), staffed by Ustaša from neighboring Croatia. At least 12,000 Serbian Roma died in the Baro Porrajmos.

    Kosovo’s Jews were targeted in the Holocaust; its Roma were not. Kosovo was in the Italian zone of occupation; the Italians deported Jews and Roma in a haphazard, and sometimes half-hearted, fashion. Individual Italian officers refused to carry out deportation orders, and the Italian zones became sites of semi-refuge for European Jews and Roma; some Roma and Jews were even provided with false papers by the Italian authorities. Sometimes the safety was illusory. Kosovo’s Jewish population was rounded up and deported to the northern camps by troops from the Albanian Skanderbeg SS.

    Noel Malcolm estimates that roughly 1000 Kosovar Roma died during the war.

    Roma in Post-WWII Eastern Europe

    “Roma had work then. They got credit. They had better salaries. And at the end of the month, we could afford to buy sugar and oil.”

    - Isak Avdo, Prizren, Kosovo

    After initial low counts in post-WWII censuses, the Roma population of Eastern Europe climbed. This was not only due to birth rates; Roma did not identify themselves as Roma for years after the Baro Porrajmos.

    The new communist regimes established in Eastern Europe after World War II introduced a myriad of laws regarding Roma in their territories. These laws, on the surface, intended to improve the social, educational and economic standing of Roma; the practice was to forcibly remove them from their culture, and all the positives and negatives of it. Roma would be assimilated into each majority; they’d go to school and work. Livestock trading, animal training, and other traditional Roma livelihoods were outlawed, as were encampments and seasonal travel. Eastern Europe was not unique in these laws; Western European nations had created similar laws a century before.

    Roma were to be educated- but not in Romanes. Their cultural expression, national dress, and other traditions were discouraged. These laws were not difficult to enforce. The Baro Porrajmos had already encouraged Roma to not be Roma.

    Communist assimilation policies in Yugoslavia and other nations had many positive effects. Schooling for Roma children became mandatory; in prior times Roma were not thought to be worth educating. Within a few generations, literacy found its way into Roma culture, as did, in some areas, an understanding of the necessity of education- a necessity that older generations of Roma were denied.
    Brotherhood & Unity: a Rom in Tito's Army

    Brotherhood and Unity: a Rom in Tito's Army

    Positive quotas were set for Roma entering university and seeking government jobs. Perhaps the greatest impact these regulations had were exposing the majority ethnic group’s children to Roma children in classrooms; before, none had any interaction with Roma, and this exposure ensured that stereotypes would not simply be taken at face value. Racism directed at Roma is less easy to accept when it affects your playmates. Education and quotas created higher living standards for Roma in Eastern Europe, and socialized medicine extended the average Roma lifespan.

    Roma in Kosovo

    "In Tito’s time I had a job, and after that I even got a pension."

    - Azem Beriša, Kosovo Polje/ Fushë Kosovë, Kosovo

    "Tito gave us all our rights. The right to everything."

    - Rexhep “Redjo” Skenderi, Plemetina, Kosovo
    A Roma Couple: Pristina, circa 1960s

    A Roma Couple: Pristina, circa 1960s

    Yugoslavia’s Roma fared better than others. They were classed as an official national minority (as opposed to a nation) with the right to their own language and cultural expression. On census forms, they- and many other nationalities- enthusiastically declared themselves as Yugoslavs. Along with mandatory schooling, quotas for government work, and university entry, the Yugoslav government later forbade media outlets from using the word Cigan; it instructed them to use Rom instead. 

    Yugoslavia created primary school classes in the Romanes language; this may have been a unique offering in post-WWII Eastern Europe, and by 1983 ten primary schools offered Romanes language instruction through grade four. Roma literary journals and magazines were published; Roma movies were shot in Serbia and Macedonia. Yugoslav Roma theatre companies toured Europe. Josip Broz Tito toyed with the idea of creating a Roma autonomous area in Macedonia; he did not, due to Macedonia’s new, and often challenged, status as an ethnicity instead of a geographic region. 

    Bulgarian irredentism- they claimed Macedonia as theirs- played a role as well. Shutka and its environs flourished; its Roma musicians and actors became known throughout then-Yugoslavia. Belgrade broadcast radio and television programs in Romanes. An educated Roma middle-class of small businessmen, traders and communist party members emerged, albeit small in number. 

    Roma benefited from Yugoslav policies; many others did not. Educational policies were not taken seriously by local officials; Roma still had the highest infant mortality rates in Yugoslavia. A 1978 study noted that only 100 Roma were currently attending universities in Yugoslavia. Generational racism would not be rooted out in a half century; after Yugoslavia’s dissolution Roma found their rights removed, and became the victims of the conflicts that few paid attention to.

    Kosovar Roma continued to practice ethnic mimicry. They were aided- and sometimes even coerced- by the authorities. Non-Roma last names were assigned to Roma families by municipal officials, often in an attempt to bolster the population of their own ethnic group. Yugoslav census takers noted that many who claimed to be Turkish, Albanian or Serbian appeared as though they were Roma. 

    Serb and Roma Pioneer Children: Gracanica, Kosovo Circa 
1970s

    Pioneers: Serb and Roma children, Gracanica, circa 1970s

    "Our children weren’t in school; the teachers didn’t want them there. But every once in awhile Belgrade decided that Roma children should be educated, and the police would arrest a set of Roma parents because their children weren’t enrolled. Dad would get his butt kicked; all the Roma parents would rush their children to school. Soon the campaign would end; our children would stop attending, because the teachers didn’t want them there and they didn’t want to be there either. But soon another campaign would begin."

    -Roma woman, aged 68, Gracanica, Kosovo - 2003

    The estimated Kosovar Roma population stood at 100,000 in 1971. The declared figure in the 1971 census was under 15,000. In the 1981 Kosovo census- the last census not boycotted by Albanians- only 34,126 declared themselves Roma. The real number may have been five times that. Albanian clerics pressured Muslim Roma to register as Albanians in both Macedonia and Kosovo.

    The rising social and economic status of Yugoslav Roma began to end after Tito’s death in 1980. The process accelerated when the country ended in 1991. Yugoslav Roma were regarded by the Yugoslav constitution, not as a nation, but as a protected ethnic minority; not so in Yugoslavia’s successor states, which often do not recognize Roma within their borders at all. They are denied citizenship and what it bestows- the right to residence, state health care, social assistance and education. Croatia is rectifying this with new laws. Roma children have been excluded from Croat schools by both the government and ignorant parents; in September 2002, in Drzimurac- Stelac, Croat parents ejected Roma pupils from the school, insisting that only academically-gifted Roma be allowed in school with their children (Reported in B92, Sept. 10, 2002).

    Exceptions to these exclusionary rules are Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro; these states recognize Roma as official state minorities with all rights to citizenship. Montenegro even became a preferred place of flight for Roma fleeing the Kosovo conflict in 1998. Montenegro set up refugee camps for Roma refugees; other states only sought to deny them entry on frivolous administrative grounds.

    Roma were not the specific targets of ethnic attacks during the Yugoslav civil wars until the NATO campaign ended in Kosovo in June of 1999. In Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, they still found themselves expelled. Roma settlements in the combat areas of both countries were destroyed during the 1991-1995 wars.

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