Strangers in a Strange Land: Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands- The World War Two Experience and After

On 11 March, 2001,  Prime Minister Kok of the Netherlands oversaw the installation of a monument in memorial  of  Roma and Sinti victims of Nazi persecution. The monument, unveiled on the site of the former Westerbork concentration and deportation camp, is the first federal monument to the plight of the Roma and Sinti. Previously, the only monuments had been small and locally funded. In his speech, Kok discussed the importance of memory. 

Two days later, in recognition of its contribution to "the preservation and promotion of democracy and the enhancement of the vigilance against all forms of dictatorship, discrimination and racism", the Geuzenpenning (the Geuzen medal of honour) was presented to the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC). The Geuzenpenning was presented to ERRC representatives Eva Orsos and Dimitrina Petrova, and to Lalla Weis of the Landelijke Sinti Organisatie, by Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet during a ceremony in the Grote Kerk Church in Vaardingen. The award is given annually  in remembrance of the fifteen members of the Dutch resistance group "Geuzen", who on March 13, 1941, were executed by the German occupying forces.  

At the same time of these events, a group of Roma families was cornered in a parking lot in Pagdal where they had been living.  They were told they would have to leave the town limits by the upcoming Friday or face a fine of 5000 guilders (about 2500 euros). They left on the 15th of March, only to face similar experiences in the next town they settled in. This family’s case is far from exceptional. 

Such is the frustration of the Roma and Sinti population in the Netherlands.  They continually struggle for recognition of their human rights and acknowledgement of their persecution during the Second World War. However, they continue to be discriminated against.

History  

The Roma have been made up of many different groups of people from the beginning, and   throughout their history have absorbed many outsiders. Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by Europeans at first  to be from Turkey or Egypt, and they were called, among other things, Egyptians or ‘Gyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from. In Dutch the Roma and Sinti are referred to as the zigeuner.

 The grammar and vocabulary of the language of the Roma and Sinti are close to those of Sanskrit. Modern scholars no longer doubt that the groups originated in India, but many questions concerning ethnic origins and the period of their earliest migrations remain to be answered. 

There are two theories about the wandering nature of the Roma and Sinti. The first, and more cynical theory states that because, as a group, they are not welcome anywhere, they are compelled to wander the earth. The second theory suggests that in the Middle Ages,  pilgrims enjoyed the status of privileged travellers. Realizing this, Roma and Sinti groups took to the road, passing themselves off as pilgrims (Hancock). 

The Holocaust’s Other Victims

In the Romany language, the Holocaust is referred to as the “Porrajmos”, a word that means “the devouring”.  The Nazis tried to eradicate the entire Roma and Sinti population of Europe in the same manner they tried to destroy the Jews. Roma and Sinti were considered “life undeserving of life”, as well as an “inferior race”. These ideas, however, were hardly new. Anti-gypsy policy had existed in Germany and throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, even during times when Jews were accepted. These laws were based on the premise that a nomadic way of life was nothing more than a cover for criminal activity. In the Netherlands, this anti-Gypsy attitude became even more pronounced in the beginning of the 20th century. Gypsies were subjected to different parking restrictions. Many public establishments had signs forbidding Gypsies to enter. In 1927 the Law Against Contagious Diseases advised border guards to take special precautions with Gypsies entering the country. In December, 1937, the German Agency International Kriminalpolizei Kommission (IKPK) established a satellite agency in the Netherlands specifically to deal with Roma and Sinti. The Nederlandse Zigeuner Centrale was supposed to send fingerprints and photos of all Dutch Roma and Sinti to Germany. However, due to financial considerations, it was dissolved in January, 1939 (Sijes, 169).

As a result of this pre-war attitude, the Dutch did not initially object to the first anti-Gypsy laws that the Nazis put into place. Dr. Marcia Rooker, an expert on Roma and Sinti during and after the war feels, “Dutch people thought the German occupation was a good opportunity to get rid of the traveller problem”. As Ben Sijes recalls, “it was common even before the war that Gypsies were taken somewhere under police supervision. So when they began to be deported it was not so special. It was hardly noticed by the Dutch”  (Piersma, 77).

The exact number of Roma and Sinti killed in the Second World War is unknown, although it is estimated to be a number between 500,000 and 1 million. Intensive research into this subject only began about 20 years ago, and many facts had already begun to disappear. Additionally, many of the Roma and Sinti were killed not in concentration camps, up to 170,000 are estimated instead to have been shot by the Einsatzgruppen, or storm troopers, who did not keep records (Sijes, 171). In the Netherlands it is commonly accepted that the Nazis murdered 215 Roma and Sinti. This figure only takes into account the “Zigeuner transport” of 1944. However, by this date many Gypsies were already in camps or had been deported elsewhere. They are difficult to identify because they registered not by ethnicity, but as criminals, asocials, or political prisoners. They were held in camps like Amersfoort and Buchenwald, also Vught and Bergen Belsen, among others (Beckers, 28). 

There are many discrepancies regadging the final number of victims. Albert “Sekkeman” Halberstadt was a prisoner in camps Vught and Sachsenhausen beginning in 1942. “When they say in the Netherlands that 215 Gypsies died in concentration camps, then I say that those are lies. They are just plain lies. There were many more destroyed, I have been in the camps, I am the one who knows, and not the gentlemen who were enjoying the sun in other countries. They cannot judge…. We Gypsies can know, because they are our people”. Adolf Frans Petalo, another Roma prisoner asserts, “There were many, many more. At least more than 500. A lot of Gypsies weren’t registered yet”.  (Beckers, 65, 77-78).  Rooker says that she has found no evidence for any number far above 245 and those who quote higher numbers are overlapping the Dutch and Belgian deportees.

In the beginning of the war, Dutch Roma and Sinti were not subjected to the same restrictions faced by the Jews.  In 1940 a law was passed that limited that ability of caravan dwellers to travel, although it was not fully enforced until 1943, when all horses were confiscated by the Wehrmacht, and 27 centralized campgrounds were established and guarded by Dutch police forces. It is speculated that these campgrounds were established in preparation for a massive round up to be held later. Also in 1943 a national registry of criminals was established. Many Gypsies were considered criminals based on their ethnicity and itinerant lifestyle and so were registered on this list.  To avoid registration many Gypsies went into hiding in private homes, or fled to large cities like Amsterdam or The Hague where they tried to become anonymous. 

In the early years of Hitler’s regime, Roma and Sinti women were forcibly sterilized. It was only in the later years that they were deported and marked for extermination. Of a pre-war population of about 2000, many anticipated the fate to come and escaped to Belgium or France. In these countries Roma and Sinti were rounded up but generally not deported. According to historian Dr. Leo Lucassen, the extermination of the Jews was, for the Nazis, the highest priority. Therefore in the Netherlands the Roma and Sinti were not officially persecuted until much later in the war. On December 16, 1942, Heinrich Himmler gave out a secret order that all Gypsies would be deported. The Hauptaktion was to be completed in Germany by March 1943, after which it would begin in the Netherlands and Belgium.  On March 29, 1943, Himmler gave out the Auschwitzerlass, the order that all Dutch Gypsies should be deported to Auschwitz. Over a year passed before this order was carried out, delayed by the higher priority of deporting the Jews, and also because of a nationwide workers strike in Holland, which significantly occupied the German’s attention. On May 15, 1944 there was a razzia, a round up of all remaining Gypsies living in the Netherlands by the Dutch police. The razzia not only emptied   centralized campgrounds, but also sought out Gypsies living in hiding. One Roma woman who survived credits the small size of the town she hid in with her survival, “There was one nice German guard who warned us about the raid. We had nothing to eat, and he would throw a grenade in the water to try to kill some fish, which he would give to us. He literally saved our lives. He was executed on the Dam by the SS, two days before the liberation”.

Without any prior legal action having been taken against them, Dr. Lucassen describes this raid as “thunder coming from a clear sky”. The arrested individuals were taken to the Westerbork transit camp. Many were released because they convinced the authorities that they were merely caravan dwellers that were ethnically Dutch. Others had (probably fraudulent) Swiss and Guatemalan passports. Ultimately, on the 19th of May, 245 people were deported to Auschwitz, only 30 returned. 

This transport included Anne- Maria “Settela” Steinbach. Forever memorialised in the famous photograph of her terror stricken face before the door of the train car closes, Steinbach was for many years a representative of the Dutch-Jewish population which was decimated during the war. It was only in 1995 that Dutch journalist Aad Wagenaar discovered that she was not, in fact, Jewish but a Sintezza.

The Experience in the Camps

Theresia “Crasa” Wagner a Sinti prisoner in Auschwitz remembers, “When we came to Auschwitz, there were also trains with Jews. They had to get into trucks and were taken to the woods straightaway. We didn’t know about the gas chambers then. But when we came to the camp, we had to stand in Appel and undress ourselves. Nobody wanted to because it was shameful to undress in front of a strange man.  Everyone stood around each other, men, women and children and the Germans whipped us. During the Selektion, Dr. Mengele selected girls for his experiments. The Germans decided who was fit for labour and who went to the gas. Everyone who could work had to work” (Beckers, 41). 

There was a special Gypsy camp in Auschwitz called the Zigeunerlager. Separated from the Jews, the Gypsies were allowed to live in family units. It was from this camp that Dr. Josef Mengele selected many of the subjects for his medical experiments. As Wagner recounts, “Dr. Mengele was very strict, he gave everybody a shot, and we tried to suck it out of each other as much as possible because we knew it was poison. Those were experiments, I even got a shot, all of us, all Gypsies, got one” (Beckers, 43). 

In March 1943 there were 20,000 registered Gypsies in Auschwitz. Although they were not gassed, disease, hunger, and the experiments of Dr. Mengele caused 14,000 to die within 15 months. In June 1944 only 6000 remained. Dr. Mengele ordered the transport of 2000 of these survivors to other camps.  The night from August 1 to August 2 1944 is known as the Zigeunernacht, as this was the night the Zigeunerlager was liquidated and all 4000 remaining inhabitants were gassed (Beckers, 112).

Repatriation and Reparations

After the war, the returning Roma and Sinti faced the same cold reception the Jews experienced. In recounting her liberation, Frieda Menco, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, describes her return to Holland. She had to stop first in Czechoslovakia and then in Brussels, where “we were treated like queens, we got pommes frites and I got a dress. Then we took a train to Tilburg [Holland], and everything was dark and cold. Nobody liked us to be back”. Menco’s mother made many efforts to reclaim her pre-war property with only varying degrees of success. Many times she was simply turned away, “They didn’t want to be bothered by such a poor looking woman, and besides, they didn’t believe her.”

Sixty years later, survivors and their families are searching for a settlement. Immediately after the war, Frieda Menco notes “talking to the government about recompense would have been a waste of time. They made my mother stand in lines for hours..we were given a certain amount each month to live on. She reported what they took away from us, which was a lot. But we never got back what they took from us”.

 The situation faced by the Roma and Sinti was even less promising because there are fewer of them and they carry less political weight than the Jews. Further, their itinerant lifestyle made it difficult to prove what they had lost. Immediately after the war, according to Rooker, aid was only available for returning prisoners of war and members of the Resistance. In the 1970s, under the War Benefits Act, many returning survivors applied to the Dutch government for help. However, Rooker points out, “They are so marginalized and so illiterate that most information never reaches them”. As a result, the system is rife with problems. First, survivors had to prove they were victims. This provision accounted for many Roma and Sinti adopting Jewish-sounding last names. A lobby for Catholic victims denied that any Roma and Sinti had survived to return. Ultimately, many did successfully apply and received aid. However, it was only those victims of the razzia who were acknowledged (Beckers, 118). 

In continuing negotiations for reparations, Dr. Theo Van Boven of Maastricht is spearheading the efforts of the ERRC to settle with the German government for recompense for slave labour. Additionally, 79 companies including Volkswagen, BMW, and Siemens are being investigated for use of slave labour. Reaction to these claims is that because the labour was organised by the Nazi government, the onus is on the current government to recompense the survivors. However, Volkswagen issued a statement that while they are under no “legal obligation to pay compensation”, they felt a “moral obligation.” Siemens ran its own labour camp in Poland near Auschwitz. One of the Roma prisoners, Anna Mettbach, was 16 when she worked there in 1944.  She reports, “The food and the treatment were just like in Auschwitz, only there was no crematorium. The dead were incinerated in factory ovens”.

Efforts by the ERRC echo recent, high profile initiatives by the world wide Jewish community to be compensated for their own slave labour during the war. Rooker credits the end of the Cold War with the sudden change in policy. As new records and information continue to surface, many companies are now faced with their history of slave labour.

  Recently an archive centre was founded in Heidelberg to encourage research into Roma and Sinti prisoners in concentration camps. A major goal of this archive is help gather material evidence, something that has been a challenge for Roma and Sinti, the majority of whom are illiterate and who rarely keep written records.  

The  Dutch Foundation for the Relief of Returning War Victims (SOTO) conducted an investigation about the reception of survivors in Holland. Results indicate that Roma and Sinti received little to no understanding and were not well looked after when they returned. Recently however,  the Dutch government has acknowledged responsibility to pay for lost bank accounts and stocks. There is also a sense of national guilt over the chilly homecoming many survivors received. Similar to the sentiments of companies that employed slave labourers, Lucassen maintains that in addition to the material debt, the Dutch people feel there is also a moral debt to pay, especially those who made little effort to recover lost bank accounts. “Big institutions, like ABN- AMRO, do not want to be associated with a lack of generosity to the victims. Kok and the last purple [equally represented] government awarded, on average, more money to the Gypsies that to the Jews.”

How Are They Treated Today?

In 1995 the Auschwitz Committee held the 50 year commemoration of the liberation. Although many Jews came from all over the world for the ceremony, Roma and Sinti groups that arrived were not permitted to participate. The international press reported stories of many who were forced to stay behind the fence. Lilly Franz, a  survivor says, “After the bodies were cremated the ashes were put into a pond. I want to go and put flowers by that pond, it´s my only family grave” (Hovens, 40).                                        

In the Netherlands today there are approximately 40,000 caravan dwellers. Of these people, 5300 belong to the groups previously classified as zigeuner, of which a majority are Sinti. Although many are descended from families who have been in the Netherlands for generations, about 1000 people are immigrants from the former Yugoslavia  who arrived during the guest worker initiative of the 1960s and 1970s. It was also in the 1970s that the zigeuner organized themselves into a social movement and began to use the terms Roma and Sinti. Towards the end of the 1970s the Foreign Gypsy Integration Project offered permanent residence and Dutch citizenship to Roma and Sinti guest workers, provided they agreed to disperse themselves throughout the 12 provinces and agree to live in houses. However, many of these recent immigrants continue to have major problems with debt and organized crime. Dr. Lucassen attributes this to “their marginalized status when they first arrived from Yugoslavia.” Furthermore, very few have ever finished high school.

In 1999 federal laws against living in trailers were abolished in the Netherlands. Each municipality was allowed to determine for itself its policies on caravan dwellers, and most are unfriendly. There are few legal trailer parks in the Netherlands, any many Roma and Sinti object to the sedentary lifestyle that living in these parks require. As a result, many continue in the centuries old tradition of living in caravans as nomads. This behaviour is, however, not favourably received anywhere. In an effort to encourage living in houses, some municipalites began renting enormous caravans that are usually not drivable. This only increased the problem as families did move in these large caravans. Why aren’t these policies working? Rooker suggests the lifestyle of the Roma and Sinti is not malleable. “Gypsies are family oriented, but only withing their own family or clan”.  She describes a famous incident that occurred in Utrecht recently. A family from Yugoslavia was sent by the city council to live in a camp-site near a family that was well-known for making trouble. They, like the family from Pagdal, moved instead to a parking lot in order to gain attention for their situation. Room in other campsites is very limited, so they tried to gain publiticty to help them find another place to live. Municipalities still retain the right to evict itinerant groups at any time without remuneration.

Conclusion

Culturally the Roma and Sinti face continue to face obstacles. Lucassen describes their attitude as perceiving Dutch society negatively. As a result, “they don’t get educated because education will cause them to lose their identity. It automatically brings them into contact with non-gypsies.” In contrast to Eastern Europe, where Roma and Sinti are actively fighting for equal rights, in the Netherlands the community strives only to preserve their culture. For them, Lucassen states grimly, “assimilation means disappearing.” 

The Dutch federal and local governments continue in efforts to help the Roma and Sinti. They encourage education, and with programs like renting out caravans, are taking measures to help imrpove their lifestyle. However, as Rooker points out grimly, “improve their lifestyle really means become like everyone else.”

References

Anonymous- Roma woman who survived in hiding during the war

Auschwitz Committee

Beckers, Jan.  Me hum Sinthu. Ik Ben Zigeuner- Gesprekken met Zigeuners over de vervolging in de periode ´40- ´45 en de jaren daarna. 1980.  Harus Den Haag.

Gottaar, Annemarie, L. Lucassen, W. Willems.  Woonwagenbewoners en Zigeuners in Nederland.  1997. KPC Group. S´Hertogenbosch.

Ian Hancock University of Texas at Austin

Hovens, P., R. Dahler, eds. Zigeuners in Nederland. 1988. Nijmegen, Rijswijk.

Hovens, Peter,  P. Jorna, C. Van Lakerveld, L. Lucassen, L. Weis. Terug naar Auschwitz- een gedenkwaardige Reis van Nederlandse Sinti en Roma. 2002. Landelijke Sinti Organisatie, FORUM Instituut voor Multiculturale Ontwikkeling, Utrecht.

Dr. Leo Lucassen- Universiteit Amsterdam

Frieda Menco- Union of Dutch Hebrew ongregations, Humanity in Action Advisory Board

Piersma, Hinke. Mensenheugenis-  Terugkeer en opvang na de Tweede Wereldoorlog Getuigenissen.2001. Uitgeverij Bert Bakker. Amsterdam.

Dr. Marcia Rooker- Stichting Onderzoek Terugkeer en Opvang

Sijes, Ben A. Vervolging van Zigeuners in Nederland 1940   1945. 1979. Martinua Nijhoff. Rijksinstituut voor Oorlongsdocumentatie.

Dr. Theo Van Boven- Universiteit Maastricht- by phone

Van Boven. T.  Expert Opinon- Public law Agreements about the Minority- Protection for the German Sinti and Roma. 1998. Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma. Heidelberg.

Van Kappen, O. Gescheidenis der Zigeuner in Nederland. 1965. Assen.

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