MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — Europe’s largest minority group, the Roma, migrated from northwest India to present-day Europe more than 1,000 years ago. European society has historically characterized the Roma as social outcasts and discriminated against them. This is because of stigmas surrounding their distinct cultural practices and traditionally nomadic lifestyle. This discrimination culminated during the genocide of the Roma in the Holocaust. The ramifications of the Holocaust exacerbated intergenerational poverty, contributing to the 80% poverty rate among the Roma today.
In the years preceding World War II, the Nazi party considered the Roma a threat to their political agenda. According to the 1938 Nuremberg racial laws in Germany, the Roma were “racially unworthy, criminal and anti-social gypsies.” This discriminatory rhetoric enabled Nazis to spread false stereotypes about the Roma in mass media. It also helped prevent them from voting, working or going to school.
During World War II, Nazis persecuted and exterminated Roma, Jewish people and other “undesirables” in forced labor camps. As a form of ethnic cleansing, Roma in the Holocaust underwent medical experiments, torture and forced sterilization. Many Roma deaths were not recorded, but an estimated 500,000 Roma died during the Holocaust. Today, many Roma people still do not know what happened to their ancestors and relatives who suffered in the Holocaust.
After The War
Discrimination against the Roma continued after World War II as the public regarded them as inferior and criminal. For example, the Austrian government labeled the Roma in the Holocaust as “concentration camp swindlers,” accusing them of falsifying their experiences. Even more, Nazis did not face prosecution for their crimes against the Roma people.
The Roma in the Holocaust who survived the war came home to find that their loved ones, material possessions and communities were gone. However, most did not receive any restitution or government aid, leaving them in extreme poverty without economic opportunities.
The Roma Today
The aftermath of the Holocaust still affects the Roma today. In Hungary, for example, political parties use stereotypes perpetuated by the Nazis to evict them from non-Roma neighborhoods. As a result, the Roma are located largely within poor urban districts, segregated rural areas or town outskirts.
Further, the Roma are still one of the most marginalized groups in Europe. More than 80% of the Roma population lives on less than $1.90 a day. This is disproportionate compared to the European Union’s average poverty rate of 21%. Thus, the Roma continue to battle low education access, high unemployment and poor health resources in their communities. Because society views the Roma as asocial, it is extremely difficult for them to receive the aid they need. Therefore, poverty persists through each generation.
Public awareness about the Roma in the Holocaust has increased during the last few years. By addressing the systemic inequality responsible for the Roma genocide, museums like the Wiener Holocaust Library in London advocate for the Roma people. In their display called “Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti,” the Wiener Holocaust Library tells the little-known stories of Roma Holocaust victims. Additionally, this museum helps Roma people find records of their ancestors and loved ones who experienced the Holocaust.
The Roma Support Group, a nonprofit charity based in London, is also improving the lives of thousands of Roma. Its mission is to “free society from misunderstandings” about the Roma by empowering the community. In their Project Community Advocacy Project, the Roma Support group worked to reduce social exclusion by holding “8,785 hours of advocacy sessions.” These sessions addressed homelessness, poverty and access to resources in the Roma community.
Overall, the Roma Support Group helped 1,413 Roma with employability skills, improved health awareness for 2,270 Roma and reduced social isolation for 2,364 Roma. By tackling the root causes of discrimination, nonprofits like the Roma Support group are actively decreasing poverty in the community.
Telling Their Stories
The Roma in the Holocaust suffered one of the largest genocides in modern history. And yet, European society overlooked their vulnerability by perpetuating the discrimination upon which the Nazi Party capitalized. However, the world can reduce the Roma poverty rate and empower the community by acknowledging their pain and telling their stories. It is important to support advocacy projects, like the Roma Support Group, that help reduce social exclusion.
– Abby Adu
Photo: Wikimedia Commons