Close-up of a Gypsy couple sitting in an open area in the Belzec concentration camp, July 1940. USHMM, courtesy of Jerzy Ficowski.

In the weeks and months following the German surrender, the survivors of hundreds of Nazi camps slowly returned to their homes, to be reunited with the family and friends that they had left behind.  There were two major exceptions to this pattern. The first is well-known: two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and after the war few had any surviving family, or any inclination to return to their former homes. Another perhaps lesser-known group was also targeted by the Nazi genocide and found itself in a similarly desperate position upon liberation. These people were the Gypsies, or Roma and Sinti.  At the Displaced Persons’ camp Feldafing, a Jewish prisoner remembered a truckload of Roma that was allowed into the camp.  Having himself lost many friends and family, he lamented the fact that

this small band of Gypsies is the only one I have met since the liberation.  They are a sad lot, in their overly-large German civilian suits and black hats … this pitiful 'caravan' appears to me symbolic of the tragedy which befell these once free, wild and colourful people.  Their unmerciful liquidation through Europe by the Nazis could only be matched by the liquidation of the Jews … one cold, harsh fact remains: Europe will never again see colourful Gypsy caravans, hear their rhapsodic music or listen to their awesome tales.

Although Roma share origins tracing back to 13th and 14th century India, there have been large and small communities spread through Central and Eastern Europe, speaking different dialects and with different lifestyles, artistic traditions, and levels of integration into the dominant culture.  Most, though not all, were at least partially nomadic.  While exact numbers of Roma victims are not known, it is estimated that approximately 250,000 – a quarter of Europe’s prewar population – were murdered by the Nazi regime. In addition to having to rebuild their lives after the war, many found themselves confronted once again with racism and prejudice, which continues until today. While much is known about the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust, and increasing attention has been directed toward other victim-groups such as homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the handicapped, the history of Europe’s Roma remains largely under-researched and undocumented.

When the Nazis came to power in early 1933, persecution of Roma was already widespread in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where there were sizeable communities.  Under Hitler, however, what were earlier sporadic forms of oppression were organised and consolidated. Laws were passed limiting Roma's rights and movements, and violent assaults became increasingly common. Like Jews, Roma were considered a threat to the purity of the 'Aryan' race; as such, they were not only prohibited from marrying Germans, but were also sterilized at a high rate. With the outbreak of war, the death toll amongst Roma rose dramatically.  Thousands were shot by roving SS groups and Nazi soldiers, and thousands died in concentration camps.

The musical life of Roma during the Holocaust is equally as unrecorded. This is ironic, since many European Roma communities were renowned for their musical talent; many families, for example, earned their living as professional entertainment troupes. Survivors of the Nazi camps and ghettos often recalled Roma musicians and singers, but concrete details are few and far between.  Not only were Nazi records of the Roma genocide destroyed or incomplete, but until recently historians have shown little interest in exploring those records that did survive.

The fragmentary information that we have about Roma music during the Holocaust comes from limited sources, including the records of concentration camps and the memories of survivors, in many cases non-Roma. At Buchenwald, for example, the first camp band, assembled by order of camp commander Rödl in 1938, was composed primarily of Roma musicians.  The former inmate Eugen Kogon remembered this band, which played not only by orders of the SS, but also at night for themselves and their families.  He described how one night, while walking through camp,

suddenly the sound of a Gypsy violin drifted out from one of the barracks, far off, as though from happier times and climes – tunes from the Hungarian steppes, melodies from Vienna and Budapest, songs from home.

The first Mauthausen band, established in 1942, was also made up of Roma. In both cases, these musicians were soon replaced by prisoners who were formally trained in classical music.

Several thousand Roma were deported from Austria to Łódź, the second largest ghetto in Poland.  They were imprisoned in a fenced-off section of the ghetto, where they experienced harsh living conditions and persistent disease. The Jewish musician Dovid Beygelman wrote a song about their experiences, titled simply ‘Gypsy Song’.  The song ends with the words, “Gypsies suffer/ like no other/ soon we'll be dead/ we even lack bread”.  Those Roma who did not die in Łódź were sent to Auschwitz

In the small concentration camp Taucha, an SS commander ordered Ruth Elias to assemble a cabaret within 10 days.  Under pain of death, she worked desperately to gather a group of women performers and prepare a show, and was impressed with the talented Roma singers she found.  The success of her show, which was popular with the guards, she attributed to the women’s solidarity and talent: 'especially the women Gypsies were amazing.  And the greatest pleasure for us was getting the SS to applaud'.

The camp perhaps most closely tied to the fate of the European Roma was Birkenau. This was the only camp where the Nazis established a separate ‘Gypsy camp’; however, although allowed to remain in family groups, they suffered inhumane conditions, and almost all died there. Little precise information exists, but fragmentary records and references suggest that there was an orchestra and several smaller ensembles. Former inmates remembered a talented Roma violinist who played in the camp orchestra; similarly, in the sub-camp of Buna was a violinist known as Jakob 'Zigan', or Jakob the Gypsy. As elsewhere, Roma inmates also made music informally within the barracks.  At night, after work, and on Sundays, the strains of their music echoed from the Roma camp to the neighbouring barracks.  The survivor Roman Frister still remembers his 'first days in Auschwitz. I fell asleep to the singing and music of the Gypsies. They played late into the night. I think the Nazis enjoyed it.'

Sources

Elias, R., 1998. Triumph of Hope: From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel, New York: John Wiley. 

Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.

Kalisch, S. & Meister, B., 1985. Yes, We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, New York: Harper and Row.  

Kogon, E., 1950. The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them, London: Secker and Warburg.  

Silverman, J., 2002. The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust, Syracuse University Press.  

Schochet, S., 1983. Feldafing, Vancouver: November House.  

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.  

Weinreich, R. ed., 2002. Verachtet, verfolgt, vergessen:Leiden und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas in der Grenzregion am Hochrhein im "Dritten Reich", Hausern: Signum Design.