Porajmos: The Forgotten Genocide of the European Gypsies

Photo: German Gypsies Collected for Deportation to Camps - Bundesarchiv, R 165 Bild-244-52 / CC-BY-SA
Photo: German Gypsies Collected for Deportation to Camps – Bundesarchiv, R 165 Bild-244-52 / CC-BY-SA
An estimated 80% of the population of Roma, Gypsies and other travellers in Europe were executed between 1936-1945. The history books barely mention it.

In the run up to the 1936 Olympic Games, it was important that the city streets were pristine. After all, the eyes of the entire world were on Germany, and the Führer wanted to show his country at its best. Buildings got a lick of paint. Cleaners swept the roads and gutters. Litter-pickers covered every inch and filled their rubbish bags. The police relocated the homeless; and the gypsies were rounded up. They were taken to camps and they were there before the Jews.

The gypsies were part of what historian Christian Bernadac called the ‘Forgotten Holocaust‘ and their stories are yet to be comprehensively told.

Porajmos: The Gypsy Ghettos in Germany 1936-38

By the 1930s, widespread prejudice against Roma, gypsies and other travellers was endemic in Germany. Official policies and media alike conspired to link them with criminality, immorality and other undesirable behaviour. There was little dissent amongst public opinion, when the law was being seen to crack down upon these people.

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Several laws had already been passed banning travellers from public amenities, like schools and swimming baths, as well as prohibiting them from marrying outside their pre-defined race. Government sanctioned campsites were set up and it became illegal for gypsies to stop anywhere else. In the spring of 1936, Hitler’s government stripped gypsies of the right to vote.

A programme of registration had been enforced. All gypsies were on a database, named, fingerprinted and photographed. Anyone unable to produce their identification cards, showing their inclusion on this database, was instantly arrested. This database became invaluable, as the Olympic Games approached. It was used to identify and collect every person upon it.

The gypsies were initially contained in ghettos, away from public view, on the outskirts of the cities. These were desperately overcrowded with little scope for securing the basic necessities of life. The regime waited to see if there would be any domestic or international protests, but none came. The Nazi regime’s experiment had been successful. No-one would oppose the persecution of Germany’s gypsies. Prejudice against them was just too ingrained.

Porajmos: The Gypsies Taken to Dachau in 1938

Dachau had been opened as an internment camp in 1933. It housed Communists, political prisoners and any other dissidents, who had opposed the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Prior to the gypsies being taken there, prisoner labour had been used to build an extensive network of extra complexes. These included the gas chambers and the crematorium.

The Final Solution that began here led to the extermination of these gypsies. In many ways, it was a test case to see how far the regime could go. The treatment of the travellers became a blueprint for removing other perceived ‘undesirables’ – create a media scare against them; legislate as a response to public pressure; restrict further interaction between the ‘undesirables’ and the rest of the public; restrict their movements to specific areas, then move them into ghettos; wait a while, then relocate them into the camps for extermination. Once it had worked for the Roma, then the strategy was refined and used to create the Holocaust of the Jews.

As the Third Reich’s influence stretched out over Europe, more and more Roma, gypsies and travellers were sent to the death chambers. By 1945, historian Henry Huttenbach estimates that 80% of their population was gone from the continent.


  • Bernadac, C. ‘L’Holocauste Oublie’, quoted in Fraser A, The Gypsies. (Blackwell, 1992) p 258
  • Esty, K. The Gypsies, Wanderers in Time. (New York Meredith Press, 1969.) p 94
  • Huttenbach, HR. ‘The Romani Porajmos: The Nazi Genocide of Gypsies in Germany and Eastern Europe,’ in Crowe, DM and Kolsti, J (eds), The Gypsies of Eastern Europe (ME Sharpe, 1991) p 45.
  • Noakes, J. ‘Social Outcasts in the Third Reich’, in Bessel, R (ed), Life in the Third Reich. (Oxford University Press, 1987.) pp 89 and 93
  • Yoors, J. Crossing: A Journal of Survival and Resistance in World War II. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.) p 34
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Copyright Jo Harrington. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
Jo Harrington, Georgia Langley

Jo Harrington

Jo has a BA (Hons) in History and Philosophy and a MA in History. She has a book published on the history of Wicca.


1 thought on “Porajmos: The Forgotten Genocide of the European Gypsies

  1. Pingback: Forgotten Indian Diaspora In Europe – 1000 years ago « 2ndlook

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