Porrajamos – the persecution of the Roma


Between the two World wars the ‘Roma question’ was much less in the centre of public attention than the ‘Jewish question’. Parliament did not pass anti-Roma laws and there were no lengthy debates on how to define a ‘Gypsy’; the (far) right had no agenda for the containment of the Roma community, its exclusion from Hungarian society or the confiscation of property.  The part of the Hungarian society, however, watched the Roma with racist prejudices. Although some Roma groups (makers of adobes, second-hand dealers, tinkers, craftsmen, seasonal agricultural workers) played an important part in the local economy, and many highly respected Roma musicians enjoyed wide popularity, the majority of the Roma lived on the edge of the society as second class citizens in great poverty and without the hope of advancement.

Although this attitude was typical to the administrative and law enforcement bodies,  administrative steps taken against the Roma still affected primarily the so-called ‘wandering Gypsies’, i.e. the unsettled members of the community holding no permanent jobs.

 

Mandated by local county authorities twice a year, these people were collected in so-called ‘Gypsy roundups’ and returned to their place of origin (usually to the neighbouring district or county). However, in some areas settled Roma were registered as well. Some officials and politicians maintained that ‘wandering Gypsies’ must be forced into labour camps. László Endre, the far-right, anti-Semitic sub-prefect of Pest County, who as a secretary of state in the Interior Ministry in 1944 directed the deportation of the Jews, demanded that ‘criminal Gypsies’ be locked in concentration camps. In fact, he went even further: he recommended the sterilisation of camp inmates. Unlike Jews, members of certain ethnic minorities and ‘the politically unreliable’, the Roma were drafted into the Hungarian Army along with other citizens.

 

This situation changed little even after the country’s German occupation. While Nazi ideology called for the brutal treatment of the Roma, Eichmann and his commando directing the “Endlösung” in Hungary paid no attention to tens of thousands of Roma living in the country. Neither the German, nor the Hungarian authorities made detailed plans for the deportation of the Roma. Still, during the spring and summer deportations of Jews, in some cases the gendarmerie arbitrarily attached smaller groups of Roma to Jewish transports. As a result, some Hungarian Roma ended up in German concentration camps.

 

Events took a more sinister turn in the late summer and early autumn of 1944 when state discrimination turned its attention to the Roma population. At the end of August, the Ministry of Defence ordered the establishment of 50-60 Roma labour battalions (10-20 thousand men). With the newly formed Roma companies, the ministry planned to replace student battalions organised in the spring (made up of university and college students, and high-school seniors). Following past practices, ‘wandering Gypsies’ with no permanent residence or jobs were the first to be drafted into these labour service units. In many places, local authorities made attempts to prevent the call-up of Roma day-labourers right in the middle of the harvest season.

 

However, following the Arrow Cross take-over, the organised collection of the Roma population got under way. In the increasingly confused administrative and military situation and thanks to a lack of central planning concerning the destruction of the Roma, anti-Roma  operations were limited primarily to Trans-Danubian counties (Vas, Zala, Győr-Sopron, Fejér).

 

Even from these counties, the entire Roma population was never deported. The majority of deported Roma were taken to a large collection centre in the city of Komárom. Here, reminiscent to the horrors in ghettos set up for Jews in the provinces that summer, Roma women, men and children were tortured and suffered for lack of adequate food and drinking water. Many perished there. In Komárom, the able-bodied men and women were selected for work, while women with young children, the elderly and ill were released. (Often, girls as young as 13-14 were detained for work.) While the anti-Roma campaign did not aim at the physical destruction of the entire community, many who ended up in the camps of Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück were killed and many others became the victims of inhuman pseudo-scientific experiments. Several Roma girls were sterilized by SS-physician Dr. Clauberg, who previously “practised” in Auschwitz.

 

At the turn of 1944-1945, the increasing terror turned into mass executions in Hungary (for example, at Szolaegyház, Várpalota and Lajoskomárom). Using machine-guns and hand-grenades, gendarmes, Arrow Cross gangs and unidentified militiamen killed some two hundred Roma. The victims included women, children and the elderly. The Roma Holocaust in Hungary claimed at least five thousand lives.