NAZI Targets: The Gypsies--The Porrajmos

Figure 1.--This photograph is unidentified, but is apparently two Wehrmacht officers with a Gypsey family. We do not know where the photograph was taken, but looks to have been taken during World War II, perhaps 1942. It looks rather like the northern Caucasus.

The Jews were the best known, but not the only NAZI targets. There were also the Gypsies. The NAZI antipathy toward the Jews was less intense than that toward the Gypsies. It was also less racially based. NAZI pseudo science claimed that Jews were diseased carriers and polluters of the Aryan races. The attitude toward the Gypsies was more that they were useless people, much like the handicapped people targeted by the T-34 program. The NAZIs were probably incluenced by complaints by civic officials of gypsies, especially petty crime. I believe the arrest of the gypsies began NAZI officials had really decided what to do with them. I'm not sure when the decession was taken to begin killing them. The NAZIs begin arresting German gypsies and confining them to the Dachau concentration camp (July 12, 1936). Confinement conditions were not as punative as they would later be for Jews. The SS sent German gypsies and gypsies from German-occupied countries to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the so-called ‘gypsy camp’ (March 1942). The SS liquidated the gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau (August 1, 1944). All 6,000 gypsies at Auschwitz were gassed. This was one of the last actions at Auschwitz before the SS began destroying as the Red Army approached.

The Gypsey People

The Gypsies or Roma as they preferred to be called are nomadic people found throughtout Europe since 15th century. They are believed to have at least in part originated in India and speak an Indo-Iranian language known as Romany. The Roma have resisted assimilation. They are generally seen as traveling in caravans and made a living through trading. There impacy was especially important in Hungary and Romania as well as various other parts of the Audto-Hungarian Empire. The most typical dress is the brightly woman's colored outfit. omen suit. There is not an actual traditional children clothes. Often children wear old clothes and go barefoot. In folk festival they wear very colored clothes.


There was a long history of anti-Gypsey actoins throughout Europe. This included Germany and the former German states like Prussia. There is some similarity with the Jews who the Germans killed or drove east during the Medueval era. The Gypsies arrived in Germany, mostly from Romania,Hungary, and usyri after this occurred. One source has compiled a list of 148 attacks of various nature on Gypsies in the German states (1416 and 1774). Authors describe 'Gypsy hunts' as a sport. Participants would take and display severed heads. One source siter an unmed Rheinish aristocrat was bragged about trophy of “a Gypsy woman and her suckling babe' (1835). By this time legal contraints began providing a degree of protection. But by the same token, German officials began using the law to more to comtrol the Gypsey minority. A conference called 'The Gypsy Filth' was held in Swabia (1890s). Munich officials created the Central Office for Fighting the Gypsy Nuisance (1899). German officials began compoliling a registrar of Gypsies including names and personal data for Gypsies living in Germany. Alfred Dillman this data as one of the sources for his book, The Gypsy Book, identiftiung more than 3,500 Gypsies from all over Europe. The purpose was to assist the police. Dillman admonished the German people "unflaggingly to defend itself" against the Gypsies. He called them "pests" and a "plague." This would be the sane kind of language the NAZIS woulkd later adopt for both the Gypsies nd Jews. Prussian authorities issued a directive to combat 'the Gypsy Nuisance' (1906). The Prussians negotiated bi-lateral agreements concerning the Gypsies with with Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Russia and Switzerland. Germany's new Socialist Government took strict actions against the Gysies afrer World War I (1919-21). The Government banned Gypsy camps and 'nomadism'. Gypsies were ordered to turn in trading licenses. They were banned from holiday resorts and spas. This was not an effort to prevent them from using the hotels and spas, but rather to prevent them from hawking their goods and seevices to guests. The Government followed this up by requiring all Gypsies over age 14 years to carry identifty cards with both photographs and fingerprints (1922). It is interestingv thatv these regulations were implemebted by aSocilist Government and not the pre-War Imperial Government or military authorities. Other actions included banning the entry of fireign Gypsies ad deporting the foireign Gypsies already in the country. The Governmrnt also prohibited Gypsey social gatherings. Bavarian officials enacted the Law for the Combating of Gypsies, Travellers and the Workshy (1926). Prussian authorities carried out armed raids to enforce the registration regulations (November (1927).

Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (July 1933)

The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring is sometimes called the Law Against Lives Not Worthy of Life / Lebensunwertes Leben was created by university professors, jurust Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche. They used it for the title of their book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life (1920). Binding has . Binding had retired from the University of Leipzig. Hoche waa professor at the University of Freiburg. Hoch explained the thesis of the book, some living people who were brain damaged, mentally retarded, psychiatrically ill were "mentally dead", "human ballast" and "empty shells of human beings". He believed that elimating these people was benefivcial to society ans disposable individuals of no value. Neither author, however, used thge term for people considered racially inferior. This was a step taken by the NAZIs. NAZI authorities issued a law sometimes called the Law Against Lives not Worthy of Life / Lebensunwertes Leben (July 1933). The proper name was the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gr. Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) or "Sterilization Law". It was enacted on July 14, 1933 and came into force January 1934. The law autorized the compulsory sterilization of any citizen who in the opinion of a Genetic Health Court (Gr. Erbgesundheitsgericht) was affected by a list of alleged genetic disorders. The elaborate interpretive commentary on the law was written by three dominant figures in the racial hygiene movement: Ernst Rüdin, Arthur Gütt and Falk Ruttke. The purpose was to to prevent any "hereditarily-diseased offspring". Some 0.4 million Germans were sterilized underthe terms of the law. The methods used for sterilization process was vasectomy for men and tubal ligation for women. The later was a more invasive procedure and hundreds of women died as a result. Some sources claim that the the Law was directed at racial groups such as the Gypsey community and Blacks. This does not seem to be the case. The Herreditary Race Courts were primarily concerned with the physically and racially handicapped Germans. We have noted some references to the sterilization of Gypsies married to Germans. Apparently they were then left alone. Any children conceived before sterilization were than sterilized themselves after they reached age 12 years. [Bubenickova, et. al,pp. 189-90] Another source claims that Gypsies were offered sterilization rather than arrest. We can not yet confirm this. One group that apprently was sterilized in large numbers were the mulatto children born in the Rhineland during the French occupation. One report was that the Gestapo rounded up and sterilized most of them (1937). If so this woold have been an etra-legal action. We can not yet confirm this. Most of the children would have been begun their teen years by that time. Jews and Aryan-Jewish Mischlinge were not sterilized in any number under the terms of this law as far as we know. The sterilization of Jews, defined as 'racially foreign' was not mandated under the 1933 law. The Blood Protection Law, part of the Nuremberg Laws (1935), criminalized marriage or sexual relations between Jews and non-Jewish Germans. A a result, steriliziation was not apparently seen as a priority. Subsequently the effort to deal with the hndicapped went far beyond sterilization. While large numbers were srerilized, tens of thoudands were euthenized as part of the T-4 Program. This appears to have involved severly handicapped (both mentally and phsically) adults as well as children, some of whom were only mildly handicapped.

Legal Actions

The Gypseys were not specified in the Nuremberg Laws, but the Laws provided the foundation for actions against unwanted minority groups, especially the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. NAZI autorities anf jurists generally applied the Law to the Gypsies as wellas Jews. The Law prohibited marriage or sexual unions between non-Aryan and Aryan people. The subsequent National Citizenship Law deprived both Romanies and Jews of their German citizenship and thus civil rights. NAZI authorities began to formulate even more radical policies. State Secretary Hans Pfundtner of the Reichs Ministry of the Interior drafted the first document referring to "the introduction of the total solution to the Gypsy problem on either a national or an international level." (March 1938) The Interior Ministry was a police agency closely linked to the SS. At the same time we begin ti see SS Reich Füherer Heinrich Himmler begins to describe the Final Solution of the Gypsy Question ("die endgültige Lösung der Zigeunerfrage") (March 24 and December 8, 1938). The NAZIs launched Gypsy Clean-Up Week (June 1938). NAZI thugs beat uo an arrested of hundreds of Gypsies throughout the country which now incuded Austria. It was a kind of dress rehersal for Kristallnacht.

NAZI Attitudes

The Jews were the best known, but not the only NAZI targets. There were also the Gypsies. The German antipathy toward the Jews was less intense than that toward the Gypsies. It was also less racially based. Gypsies had to obtain documents proving regular employment. Those without such documents could be sentenced to a 2 year sentence in the workhouse. NAZI pseudo science claimed that Jews were diseased carriers and polluters of the Aryan races. The attitude toward the Gypsies was more that they were useless people, much like the handicapped people targeted by the T-34 program. [Kuper, p. 94.] Many saw Gypsies as anti-socials. [Burleigh and Wippermann] The NAZIs were probably incluenced by complaints by civic officials of gypsies, especially petty crime. Eventually NAZI racial policy, however, emerged as the deciding factor in policies toward gypsies.

Initial Arrests

A major NAZI iniative after seizing power was to take control over the police and centralize police functions (1933). This meant that actions against the Gypseys was taken out of local hands and the decessions made in Berlin. Himmler seems to have taken a personal interest in the Gypseys. He set up the Reich Central Office for the Fight Against the Gypsy Nuisance (1936). He issued a circular,'Combtting the Gypsey Nuisance (December 8, 1938). He wanted to destinguish between pure and cpart Gypsies. He wanted themidentified and registered because of their 'strong compulsion to wander'. His instructiin read, " It has therefore become necessary to distinguish between pure and part-Gypsies in the final solution of the Gypsy question. To this end, it is necessary to establish the racial affinity of every Gypsy living in Germany and of every vagrant living a Gypsy-like existence. I therefore decree that all settled and non-settled Gypsies, and also all vagrants living a Gypsy-like existence, are to be registered with the Reich Criminal Police Office-Reich Central Office for Combatting the Gypsy Nuisance. The police authorities will report (via the responsible Criminal Police offices and local offices) to the Reich Criminal Police Office-Reich Central Office for Combatting the Gypsy Nuisance all persons who by virtue of their looks and appearance, customs or habits, are to be regarded as Gypsies or part-Gypsies." He used two earlier NAZI laws decreed in 1933--the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny and the Law Against Dangerous Habitual Criminals). These laws were used as the authority arresting Gypseys. The initial arrests were apparently almost all men who were loitering or unemployed or perhaps suspected of criminal activity. Many were reportedly sterilized. At this stage, we do not think that children were sterilized, although my information is still limited. The initial arrest of the Gypsies began before NAZI officials had really decided what to do with them. Ominously in his Curcular, he uses the phrase 'final solution of the Gypsy question' in the last paragraph.

NAZI Pseudo Science

The leading NAZI scentist who addressed the racial status of Gypies was Dr. Robert Ritter at the University of Teubingen. Ritter was not a medical doctor nor did he have any academic training in genetics. He was a psychologist. It is interesting that the NAZIs who were obsessed with race commonly drew their racial doctrine from men who had no real academic training in genetics. Ritter was working on the question of "criminal biology." This was a field that was not just limited to America. Researchers in America and other European countries also addressed the question of crime and heredity. It was often mixed up with the Eugenics Movement. Ritter was an enterprising, but little known academican and realized that the NAZI focus on race provided real opportunities to gain the attention of Germany's new leaders. In this he was successful and became one of Germany's most prominent "scientific experts" on race with all the status and financial rewards that this conferred. The Gypseys were seen as part of the Aryan people who migrated from India. The NAZIs thus had to explain their current "inferrior" status. Ritter offered the theory that NAZI officials could use to justify their actions on a racial basis. Ritter suggested as the Gypseys migrated north and westward that they intermingled with inferior peoples (Persians, Armenians, Slavs, and others). (Note that Persians (Iranians) were very sympathetic toward the NAIs in World War II. Here the NAZI hatred of the Jews and hostility toward the British were the dominant factor. The Iranians apparently had no idea of the full ramifications of NAZI racial policy.) Ritter claimed that the Aryan blood became diluted and the Gypsies acquired te characterstics of the inferior peoples which predisposed them to criminal and other anti-social behavior. Ritter did not recommend that the Gypsies be killed, but he did suggest that they be isolated from Germany society and the sterilization of those who had been especially taintedcwith impure blood. Himmler learned of Ritter's work and he order an assessment of the available research on Gypsies (1937).

NAZI Policy

The NAZIs begin arresting German Gypsies and confining them to the Dachau concentration camp (July 12, 1936). I think that these arrests for the first time included whole families, but this needs to be confirmed. Gypsies were not specifically identified as non-Aryan in the initial Nuremberg Laws (1935). The NAZIs later defined them "unassimilable with Aryan blood" (1937). The NAZIs began arresting and confining whole families. This was never done to the Jews. Many Jewish men were arrested, especially after Kristalnacht (1938), but not families. Confinement conditions for the NAZIs in the camps were not as punative as they would later be for Jews in the NAZI gettos and camps opened in occupied Poland.


I'm not sure when the the NAZIs made the decession to begin killing Jews. It seems to have been an after thought to utilize the killing machine set up for the Jews. The NAZIs set up a gypsey camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau (March 1942). Himmler appears to have vasilated as to the appropriate policies toward Gypsies. Some reports suggest that he considered sparing some gypsy tribes considered "pure gypsies". The task of deporting the Gypsies interned in German concentration camps was given to Himler (1942). He finally ordered all gypsies in Germany deported to Auschwitz (December 16, 1942). This meant the decession had been made to kill them. There were executions in German camps, but the German camps did not have the facilities for killing large numbers of people and disposing of the bodies.

Killing Actions: The Porrajmos

The NAZIs as with the Jews did most of the killing of Gypsies in death camps opened in occupied Poland. The first killing action, however, took place at Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany (July 1940). SS doctors used 250 Romani children as guinea pigs to test the Zyklon-B crystals later beung considered for use in gas chambers being built to kill Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Einsatzgruppen attached to the German armies invading the Soviet Union (June 1941) began the mass killing of Gypsies. The numbers were limited,min poart because the NKVD had already deported so many Siviet Gyosies to Siberia. Himmler in the rest of NAZI-cotrolled Europe authorized deportations to Poland where the death camps were in full operation (December 16, 1942). The accounting is imprecise but between 0.5-1.5 million Gypsies were then transported from the Reich and other areas of German occupied Europe to the death camps. [Milton] It ammounted to about half of the European Gypsey people. This Holocaust is called the Porrajmos ("the Devouring") in Romani.

NAZI-Controlled Europe: Country Trends

We are not sure to what extent the SS rounded up Gypsies in German-occupied countries and transported them to death camps. As far as we can tell, there was a less intense effort to do this than was the case of Jews. And the decision to kill Gypsies seems to have been largely adopted to take advantage of the killing process set up for Jews than any long term pre-conceived process. Unlike the Jews who were depicted as mortal enemies of the German people, the Gypsies were just seen as nusiances. There the Germans bregan killing Gypsies who fell into their hands. This is a topic that we have not yet pursued in detail. We do not that most of the Gypsies in Austria and Germny were killed. And in those occupied countries with small Gypsey popultions, most were also killed. The process varied from country to country. Axis allies Hungary and Romania, both with substantial Gypsey populations, were special cases. German Einsatzgruppen as part of the Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union murdered most of the Gypseys they encountered, but because the NKVD before the War had deported so many Soviet Gysseys to Siberia, many survived. Most Italian Gypsey survived. There was no major Italin Fasist action aginst Gypseys.


The SS liquidated the gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau (August 1, 1944). All 6,000 gypsies at Auschwitz were gassed. This was one of the last actions at Auschwitz before the SS began destroying as the Red Army approached. Estimates of the number of gypsies killed by the NAZIs vary. Sir Martin Gilbert offers a figure of 0.2 million. Yoors estimates 0.5-0.6 million [Yoors, p. 34.] Most other authors offer estimates netween these two estimates.


Bubenickova, Ruzena, et al., "Tabory utrpeni a smrti (Camps of Martyrdom and Death), (Prague: Svoboda, 1969). , pp. 189­190

Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang Wippermann. (New York: Cambridge, 1991).

Gilbert, Martin. Auschwitz and the Allies (New York: Henry Holt, 1981).

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961), 439p.

Kuper, Leo. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 256p.

Marushiakova, Elena and Veselin Popov. "Factshhets on Roma: Soviet Union before World war II," Education of Roma Children in Europe websire.

Milton, Sybil. Former senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute estimates that 'something between a half-million and a million-and-a-half Romanies and Sinti were murdered in Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe between 1939 and 1945. Judith Latham, First U.S. Conference on Gypsies in the Holocaust (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America Transcript, 1995), No. 3-23928.

Yoors, Jan. The Gypsies (1971).

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Created: 11:48 PM 11/1/2005
Last updated: 12:22 AM 11/27/2016