Nazi Reichsminister of Justice Otto Thierack, September 14th, 1942
“The Gypsies had been murdered in a proportion similar to the Jews: about 80% of them in the area of the countries which were occupied by the Nazis.”
Simon Wiesenthal, in a letter to Elie Wiesel, December 14th, 1984
Dennis Reinhartz reminds us of the importance in acknowledging significant events of the Romani past to hopefully obtain a “clearer discernment of their present” (Kenrick, 2006:95). Influenced by policies of racial hatred, Nazism in Yugoslavia gave license to a genocidal slaughter of Roma. Perhaps more than any other region of Nazi occupation, Roma were systematically “disposed of” by mass shootings and mobile gas chambers, particularly in retaliation for the deaths of German troops at the hands of Partisans. The Partisans, mobilized under Tito, would not only form the new government of Yugoslavia after the war, but their legacy would forge a central memory in nationalistic ideology for the next half-century.
On March 25, 1941, under pressure from Hitler and surrounded by Axis countries, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia reluctantly signed the Tripartite Pact. Serbian officers were outraged at what amounted to their government’s betrayal and, with backing from Britain, overthrew the government the following night. Churchill proclaimed that the Yugoslav nation had “found its soul,” calling the coup a patriotic movement of “a valiant and warlike race at the betrayal of their country by the weakness of their rulers and the foul intrigues of the Axis Powers.” “Cherish the hope,” Churchill enthusiastically continued, while promising British aid to the new government (Churchill and Gilbert, 1999:408). On the streets, Serbs gathered and exuberantly shouted, "Bolje rat nego pakt! Bolje grob nego rob!" ("Better war than pact! Better graves than slaves!"). Hitler was furious, making a promise of his own – to punish Belgrade and the Serbs. In a victory speech the following summer, Hitler recalled:
We were all stunned by that coup, carried through by a handful of bribed conspirators who had brought about the event that caused the British Prime Minister to declare in joyous words that at last he had something good to report. You will understand, gentlemen, that when I heard this I at once gave orders to attack Yugoslavia. To treat the German Reich in this way is impossible. (Copeland, Lamm, and McKenna, 1999:478)
On March 27, 1941 under Directive 25, aptly called Fall Strafe (Operation Punishment), Hitler ordered Belgrade “to be destroyed by continuous day and night attacks of the Luftwaffe” (Domarus and Hitler, 1990:2387). On April 6, 1941, Germany’s 12th Army advanced into Yugoslavia. By April 12, Serbia was under the quisling government of Milan A?imovi?. In August, the Serbian government was reorganized as the puppet Government of National Salvation and A?imovi? was replaced with Yugoslav Army General and Nazi loyalist Milan Nedi?. As a World War I war hero and Serb politician, Germany expected Nedi? would calm the Serbs and subdue the Partisans. The plan only served to fuel resistance. Once again, Hitler was faced with the nationalist pride of the rebellious Serb resistance.
On September 6, Hitler issued a reprisal decree that for every German killed, 100 Serb civilians would be shot; for every German wounded, 50 Serb civilians would be shot. German forces did not waste time applying the new law. In October, the Serbian Volunteer Command entered the Serb town of Kragujevac and carried out one of the most brutal massacres of World War II. In retaliation for a Partisan and Chetnik attack near Kragujevac that killed ten German soldiers and wounded twenty-six more, the Serb Volunteer Corp rounded up civilians for execution, including 300 secondary school students and their teachers. The executions lasted two days, October 20 and October 21. The German command reported 2,326 executed. It took the survivors four days to bury the dead.
On October 26, 1941, General Harald Turner issued order number 44/41, specifying Jews and Roma should be the primary targets of retaliation. He further stated:
The Gypsy cannot, by reason of his inner and outer makeup, be a useful member of international society … As a matter of principle it must be said that the Jews and Gypsies represent an element of insecurity and thus a danger to public order and safety. It is the Jewish intellect that has brought on this war and that has to be destroyed. Gypsies, on account of their inner and outer disposition, cannot be useful members of the family of nations. It has been established that the Jewish element plays an important part in the leadership of the bands and that Gypsies in particular are responsible for special atrocities and intelligence. That is why it is a matter of principle in each case to put all Jewish men and all male Gypsies at the disposal of troops as hostages. (NA, NOKW-802, 26 October 1941; Nuremberg Documents)
In a report on the shooting of Jews and Gypsies, Lieutenant Walther, head of the execution squad, complained that digging the graves was most time consuming as the “shooting itself goes quickly (100 men in forty minutes).” Of the Roma, he added:
The shooting of Jews is simpler than that of the Gypsies. It must be admitted that the Jews are very cool in the death - they are very quiet - while the Gypsies cry, shout and move constantly when they are already on the shooting place. Some even jumped off the volley into the pit and tried to play dead (Walther, 2004:121)
Figure 1: A Serbian gendarme serving the Serbian puppet government led by Milan Nedic, escorts a group of Roma to their execution. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije.
In 1942, SS Turner drafted a report for the new Generaloberst Löhr in which he itemized the accomplishments of the previous administration. He wrote, “Serbia only country in which Jewish question and Gypsy question solved” (NA, NOKW-1486, 29 August 1942; Nuremberg Documents ).
Figure 2: Retaliatory execution in Pancevo, Serbia. Courtesy Deutsches
Some Roma managed to survive the shootings and avoid the camps by hiding or joining the Partisans. Reili Mettbach was eight years old when her family fled Germany in 1939. Himmler’s Decree for Basic Regulations to Resolve the Gypsy Question as Required by the Nature of Race, issued December 8 of 1938, finalized the “Gypsy problem” as one of race and set the stage for annihilation of the Romani people across Europe. The waves of deportations and arrests of Roma quickly followed. Reili’s family went first to Yugoslavia. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia they fled to Romania. As the Germans invaded Romania and Hungary, her family fled once again, this time to Bulgaria. When the Germans invaded Bulgaria, Reili’s family returned to Yugoslavia. Faced with shooting squads or camps, her family learned to hide. Reili, like many young Roma in Yugoslavia, became a messenger for Tito’s Partisans.
They picked me to bring the message there because I could speak Yugoslavian. And I blended in with the Yugoslavian kids: I was dark, skinny, barefooted, raggedy. Who would pay attention to a kid? And they said to walk on the railroad tracks so I don’t get lost . . . And I walked down the railroad tracks. It was late evening. There was woods on one side. And on the poles where the telephone wires went, they had three or four Yugoslavians. Partisans. Hung them. And when I walked, I saw the legs and looked up. They already hung there three or four days. (Sonneman, 2002:98)
Reili’s family hid in a farmhouse with two other families. It was four o’clock in the morning when the police stormed the farmhouse and forced all three families into a truck. “Everybody was crying and screaming and the kids were crying too because the mother cried. And we knew it was bad, bad, that we had to go in the bad camp” (Sonneman, 2002:99). Reili’s family was sent first to Ravensbrück and then to a forced labor camp on the Yugoslavian border. Her father was sent away to the men’s camp and her mother sent to work in the kitchen. Reili and her cousins were placed with the other children and forced to work in a rock quarry day after day, each blurring into a year and a half of internment.
There was no Sunday. There was no winter day. In the winter-time they give you thin clothing, just for the meanness of it. They give you wooden clogs, if they fit or if they didn’t fit. You just followed orders. You didn’t say were [sic] too weak. You got beaten, you got hurt, you got taken away. You just don’t say, “I don’t feel good, I’m tired, I don’t want to, I’m homesick, I’m still a child.” You followed orders. You made no waves. (Sonneman, 2002:101)
It is also during Nazi occupation that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was dissolved and carved amongst Germany and her allies. Most of Kosovo was annexed from Serbia into Italian controlled Albania, fostering the idea of “Greater Albania.” As the Turks did in 1389, the Italians (and Germans after capitulation) encouraged Albanians to move into Kosovo, pushing the Serbs out as they did. The success of such encouragement is stunningly clear in a 1942 statement issued by Kosovo Albanian leader, Ferat-bey Draga, "the time has come to exterminate the Serbs . . . there will be no Serbs under the Kosovo sun" (Bajrami, 1983:313). In Kosovo, as with much of Yugoslavia, World War II incited violent civil wars between Chetniks, Partisans, German and Italian forces, and the ethnic Albanians. The majority of Albanians were aligned with the Germans and Italians.
The Roma of Kosovo fared better than the rest of Yugoslavia. Why this is so is not particularly clear, but evidence points to a high number of Roma Partisans in Kosovo and the surrounding mountains (Crowe, 2007; Guy, 2001; Kenrick, 2006). It is also likely that Albanian hatred of ethnic Serbs, encouraged by old animosities, overshadowed ill will toward the Roma. The Italians were not as enthusiastic about the Nazi pogroms and often refused to enforce deportations and executions. That is not to say the Roma in Kosovo escaped Nazi persecution entirely. Germany reoccupied Kosovo in 1943 when the Italians surrendered to the allies. Himmler’s infamous Skanderbeg Division, made up primarily of Albanian Muslim nationalists, was not so sympathetic. The Division’s goal was to create an ethnically pure “Albania” of Kosovo and southern Serbia. The result would be a deepening of the division between the Albanians and non-Albanians. During the post-war tribunals, the Skanderberg Brigadeführer, August Schmidthuber, was found guilty of atrocities against civilians and sentenced to death - an outcome that would replay itself fifty-two years later against Serb leaders.
Because most records of mass murders went unrecorded or were destroyed, the number of Roma victims is not known. It is estimated that two-thirds of Yugoslav Roma were exterminated during World War II. The Romani Holocaust, or O Baro Porrajmos (The Great Devouring) as it is called in Romany, is the Forgotten Holocaust. The lack of census data on Roma before the war, the random rampages of the Einsatzgrüppen, and the absence of death records ensure no researcher can claim accurate numbers of Romani deaths, despite their many attempts to escalate and to minimize the toll. All of the conditions above allow revisionists to continue to write out the suffering of the Roma or group them as “other” victims of the Holocaust. All too often the debate becomes one of who suffered more when it should be enough that suffering existed. At the 1987 conference of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Erika Thurner emphasized the consequences of historical neglect of the Porrajmos:
Ignorance as to the fate of the Sinti and Roma in the Third Reich has made historical reconstruction especially difficult. It has led to further discrimination against Gypsies, and to the refusal to recognize their right to restitution of both a material and ideal nature. (7)
Romani scholars have a responsibility to the memory and to the present relevance of the Porrajmos. Therefore they must, at every opportunity, work to correct history in order to shed light on the present.
Lecture Notes for Presentation before Generaloberst Löhr, Harald Turner to Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, 29 August 1942; Nuremberg Document NOKW-1486; (Microfilm Publication T 1119, roll 20); Nuremberg Trials Records;National Archives Washington D.C.
Meeting between Justice Minister Otto Thierack and Josef Goebbels on 14 September 1942; No. 682-PS:496; War Crimes Tribunal; United States Government Printing Office,1946.
Staatsrat Turner to All Feldkommandanturen Und Kreiskomandanturen in Serbia, 26 October 1941; Nuremberg Document NOKW-802; (Microfilm Publication T 1119, roll 12); Nuremberg Trials Records;National Archives Washington D.C.
Bajrami, Hakif. 1983. Partia Komuniste E Jugosllavisë Në Kosovë, 1919-1941. Translated by G. Thompson: Enti i Teksteve dhe i Mjeteve Mësimore i Krahinës Socialiste Autonome të Kosovës.
Churchill, Winston and Martin Gilbert. 1999. The Churchill War Papers. Vol. 3, 1941, the Ever-Widening War. London: Heinemann.
Copeland, Lewis, Lawrence W. Lamm, and Stephen J. McKenna. 1999. The World's Great Speeches. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Crowe, David. 2007. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York ; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Domarus, Max and Adolf Hitler. 1990. Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations 1932-1945 : The Chronicle of a Dictatorship. London: Tauris.
Guy, Will. 2001. Between Past and Future : The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Kenrick, Donald. 2006. The Gypsies During the Second World War: The Final Chapter. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Sonneman, Toby. 2002. Shared Sorrows : A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust. Hatfield, Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Thurner, Erika. 1987. "Nazi Policy against the Romanies." in United States Holocaust Memorial Council Conference on Other Victims. Washington D.C.
Walther, First Lieutenant. 2004. "German Army Report on Shooting of Jews and Gypsies in Yugoslavia, 27-30 October 1941." Pp. xv, 319 p. in Sources of the Holocaust, edited by S. Hochstadt. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wiesenthal, Simon. 1989. Justice, Not Vengeance. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.