Defiance during the Pharrajimos: Romani Resistance Day

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas

May 16th is the reminder that there is no destructive force which cannot be opposed. In a 1940s Europe awed by the overarching National Socialist rule and the tacit complicity of so many countries, resistance was not even dreamed of. With racial laws justifying the atrocious treatment of groups deemed to be not worthy of living along with the superior race, and overt annihilation strategies, the hierarchy of  state led production of knowledge invaded every field of existence, to the most basic elements that sustain life. However, uprising appeared where most unexpected, in defiance to a monstrous rational model that had to prove efficient in the efforts to dispose of millions of people. On the night of 16th of May 1944 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the entire Roma population of the camp revolted against their aggressors, in a desperate attempt to defend themselves from sure death. The testimonies of the survivors from the neighboring camp reveal a story that was only rarely told, a story of the Pharrajimos and its victims who fought, until the last moment, for their right to life and humanity.

by Mihai-Alexandru Ilioaia

Resistance Day

Resistance Day marks the commemoration of 16th of May; a day that lives in infamy, yet also serves as proof that one can never completely break and hammer a people into dank submission, regardless how much fear, violence and murder is thrown at them. The Nazi concentration camps were perfectly built to make not only escape impossible, but the mere thought of dissent and for the most part, they succeeded, in their horrifying manner, to keep the undesirables, shipped from all over the continent, under check. But every now and then you could see that, despite all efforts to dehumanize, to crush and to intimidate, there were flickers of rebellion coming from the victims of the most efficient killing machine in history. One such event took place on the 16th of May 1944 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, when the entire Roma population of the camp revolted against their aggressors, in a desperate attempt to defend themselves from sure death.

Seventeen months prior to that night, at the order of Heimlich Himmler, the Romani people relocated from countless ghettos across the Reich to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp – where a special family camp was set up for them, meaning that men, women, children and elders lived there together, without being broken up – which was to be referred to as Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp). Around 23,000 Roma were interred there throughout its existence, with around 20,000 of them ending in the gas chambers, many without even being properly registered. With the infamous “Angel of Death”, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele as the camp physician, many of the inmates, particularly children, ended up being used for pseudo-medical experiments, establishing a horrifying half-existence marred in eldritch fear and repugnance. Resilient as they are, however, the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum claims that the “Sinti and Roma tried as best they could to cope with the misery of the camp; the fact that they remained with their loved ones surely helped. Many of them had musical instruments, and they set up an informal orchestra, which often played during visits by high-ranking officers.”[1]

Romani children during the Holocaust. ©Romedia Foundation

Romani children during the Holocaust.
©Romedia Foundation

On the fateful day, the inhabitants of Zigeunerlager knew that the camp authorities were planning on eliminating them all[2], to make space for the next batch of prisoners, much more fit for labour than those who spent months in the harsh conditions of the camp. They knew exactly what was going to happen to them, seeing it so many times before, having their camp next to the crematory, and rather than silently let themselves be lead  to the gas chambers, fought back. Men, women and children improvised crude weapons that were no match for the SS’ equipment, yet when the troops came to lead them to their death, they were welcomed, to their great surprise, with the “stones, iron pipes, wood panels, barbed wire [and] smuggled pikes” which were collected in the barracks. They managed to repel the first attack that came with the early morning, composed of about 100 German soldiers, with rifles and dogs, as they caught them off-guard and in need of orders. But then the attackers regrouped and launched a full assault on the Zigeunerlager, one that lasted for hours. A bloody battle ensued, where many Roma were butchered, yet Nazi bodies also strew the battlefield, a feat that appeared unimaginable to most inmates. As the trains that brought the Roma’s would-be replacements already arrived during the skirmish, increasing the number of prisoners, fears from the authorities that the camp revolt will spread lead the Lagerkommandant to call off the attack and left Zigeunerlager be (Barsony, Janos. Personal interview. May 2014).

In the following weeks, measures were taken by the jailers to insure that such a flagrant defiance of the camp order cannot happen again: around one thousand young, able-to-work Roma were transferred to Buchenwald, another thousand was transferred in July to other camps, while women were sent to Rawensbrück, leaving but half of the original 6,000 people in the Zigeunerlager, mostly old, weak and children. They were murdered and burned in the fires of the crematory on the 2nd of August, the whole lot. Once again they attempted to resist, but this time they didn’t even have a fighting chance and that was the end of the Zigeunerlager. It’s far from a happy ending, but few stories from that time are.

Sinti Roma Women  © Anne Frank House

Sinti Roma Women
© Anne Frank House


In Romanes, the Holocaust is referred to as Pharrajimos , which means “devouring”, hinting at the violence and dimensions of the extermination. Due to the treatment of the Romani before, during and even after the war as less-than-citizens, with sketchy legal status for many of them, the number of Roma exterminated during the Holocaust is a matter of much debate, with estimates ranging anywhere from 220,000 and 1.5 million lives lost.[3] Even at its most conservative estimates, the number of Roma killed during the Holocaust is an appalling figure that comes in sharp contrast with the recognition the massacre receives and with the way the Roma continue to be treated and referred to today.

Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at The University of Texas at Austin, claims that the lack of more detailed information about the Pharrajimos comes partly from the low rate of literacy that existed throughout the Roma population, making scarce the kind of written first-hand accounts of the events that helped documenting the Jewish victims’ suffering, as well as from the lack of a unified collective consciousness. He goes on to suggest that this results partly because of the way the Roma choose to deal with collective traumas, claiming that they are “are traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others” .[4]

Today, the Roma holocaust is still widely underrecognized. Neither at Nuremberg, nor in the following decades of making amends did Germany include the Roma in their reparations scheme, as it did with the Jewish survivors. Moreover, the Württemburg Ministry of the Interior even claimed in 1950, during a hearing regarding restitution payments that “the Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of their criminal and antisocial record”[5]. West Germany finally officially acknowledged it in 1982, with a proposal being accepted – by the now German federal state – in 1992, to erect a monument for the victims of the genocide. With almost 20 years until its implementation, the Memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of National Socialism was at last unveiled, in Tiergarten, near the Reichstag, on the 24th of October, 2012, by the Chancellor Angela Merkel[6].

In Hungary the 2nd of August was designated in 2005 by the Parliament as “Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day”, yet most European countries make no or insufficient mention of the Roma victims in their official position regarding the Holocaust. One of the few exceptions is the cornerstone set in 2005 for recognition and public awareness, thanks to the intense cooperation of the civil sector Roma organizations in Hungary, part of which Romedia Foundation was one of the most keen advocator. The result was the inauguration of the Roma Holocaust Memorial, on the 2nd of August, in the Nehru Park, in Budapest, along the Danube bank, to commemorate all the Roma victims of the Holocaust. Furthermore, and partly as a consequence of this, the awareness of the Pharrajimos among the general population is depressingly low, with little thought paid to the Roma victims when discussing the Holocaust. However, efforts are still being made in this regard on several fronts, from the official mechanisms, such as the forwarding, in 2012, to the European Parliament, of a legal draft that would see the recognition of the Roma genocide put into European law, but also through grassroots efforts of NGOs and other associations to raise awareness of the matter and try to change the pervading indifference with which it is treated.

Nehru Park, Budapest Roma Holocaust Memorial

Nehru Park, Budapest
Roma Holocaust Memorial


The events of 16th of May are still poorly known outside scholarly fields, but recent efforts are made to change that. In November 2006, at the council and commemoration held in the former concentration camp in Neuengamme, it has been decided for the day to be commemorated as “Roma Resistance Day” (Barsony, Janos. Personal Interview. May 2014), a move that hopefully will make this incredible story of bravery and defiance in the face of hopelessness more widely known, adding another piece of the puzzle, not only to the history of the indignities the Romani suffered during World War II, but to the grander history of the Holocaust and of tyranny.

While the need-to-remember argument may seem a cliché by now, Europe should, more than ever, increase its efforts on making the Roma genocide widely known and recognized, to serve as a counterforce to the increasingly violent rhetoric and action against the Roma. If Roma would be commonly seen as victims of repeated abuse at the hands of authority, it would make it much more difficult for far-right groups to get away with calls of deportation, forced sterilization or even extermination of the Romani population, calls that are now received with indifference or even silent agreement by the media or the general public. However, on this day, a different narrative emerges, one of resistance, that puts forward dignity and shows that a human being cannot be stripped of its humanity.