The Importance of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month

The month of June marks Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. As with Black History Month or LGBT Month, the idea of this commemoration is to raise awareness about this community, their history and the persecution they have suffered, and indeed, are still going through.

It is a simple fact that Gypsies and travellers are still looked down upon in many countries. Local communities snub a group of travellers if they stay in town for a few days; Gypsies are referred to as 'Gyppos' or other somewhat derogatory names. I am not defending any breaching of laws that travellers might cause - for example, if caravans are parked on private property - but the majority of our societies, so used to our fixed homes and areas, cannot fathom this particular lifestyle.

The history of the Gypsies/Roma, however, is a rich and cultured one. The Roma people originated in India around 1,000 years ago and were drawn westwards into Europe by the allure of cities such as Tehran and Constantinople (now Istanbul). Of the estimated 12 million Roma in the world today, approximately 10 million reside in Europe; some travellers, however, have made it far as the American continents.

So why is this so relevant on a Holocaust education blog?

The simple fact is that hundreds and thousands of Gypsy Roma people were persecuted under the Nazis. There is still debate as to who the term 'Holocaust' applies to; is it solely to the Jewish people who were murdered in their millions, or does it also cover the groups that also suffered persecution and death at the hands of the Nazis? It is true that the Jews were the only group that Hitler and his party wanted to wholly annihilate; in the case of the Gypsy Roma, they felt that some may be able to be re-educated into society and live more stable lives in cities and towns, undertaking mostly menial work. Thousands that did not fit this ambiguous Nazi prototype, however, were marked for imprisonment in concentration camps and extermination.
Whoever the term 'Holocaust' seeks to cover, I often feel that the Gypsy Roma - and other groups - who suffered Nazi persecution are overlooked. The Imperial War Museum's exhibition on the Holocaust, for example, first mentions the Jews, and then goes on to talk about 'other groups' such as Gypsies, homosexuals, 'asocials' and political opponents, as if these groups make up something of an afterthought. This is not to undermine Jewish suffering in any way, of course, and the Jewish community definitely lost more lives than any other persecuted group. Suffering, however, cannot be compared, and all those who were categorised by the Nazis certainly suffered hugely.

The Gypsy Roma community, however, do have their own word for what happened to them under the Nazis: porrojmos, which is Romani for 'devouring'. Their lifestyle and people were certainly 'devoured' to a large extent by the Nazis. Thousands of Gypsy Roma were deported to Auschwitz, for example: most were kept in a separate 'Gypsy camp' for 17 months, before the SS liquidated the entire section in one night; almost 3,000 innocent people lost their lives. They were also a curiosity to the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who commissioned portraits to be drawn of selected Gypsies to examine their bone and facial structure; many others were experimented on in horrendous ways.

Just as discrimination still takes place against groups that the Nazis persecuted - the LGBT community, the Jews, different religious communities - so the Gypsy Roma Traveller community is still largely looked upon unfavourably. Therefore, I encourage everyone to find out just a little bit about Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, and to broaden your own knowledge about this group. Knowledge, after all, is ignorance's worst enemy, and ignorance is often the driving force behind distancing ourselves from 'others' and holding prejudices about them.

You can find out a little more about this commemorative month on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website.