Roma Resistance Day: Defiance During the Pharrajimos

Roma Resistance Day: Defiance During the Pharrajimos

By Katalin Barsony-Romedia Foundation

On May 16, 1944, Roma imprisoned in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp rebelled against their captors. May 16, Roma Resistance Day, commemorates this courageous revolt and also the suffering of Romani people during the period of the Nazi regime’s rule in Europe. Unfortunately, the significance, even the existence of the importance and existence of this day and the events it recalls are scarcely recognized. We need to take into account the specific political and social contexts of people in different regions so we can engage more of them in remembrance of the event.

We live in hard times, when the labels of being different, of being a migrant, of being a Roma are among the hardest to carry. When we organize cultural events to remember the past we must think about the needs of our communities in the present. But to do so in the current socio-political conditions in Hungary is tantamount to suicide. Organizations that once shared our goal of fighting for remembrance now try to use it for their own political ends. Our work has not changed over the past 23 years, and we must remind our friends and former partners of the fact. In doing so we must address the core of the problem — what happened on May 16, 71 years ago.

The Nazis promulgated racial laws justifying their appalling treatment of groups they deemed unworthy of co-existing with the dominant race. They worked to control all aspects of life including science which they twisted to permit their strategies of racial annihilation. There was tacit complicity in many countries and resistance was often not even dreamt of.

But an uprising did occur, and where it was most unexpected, at one of the sites where the Nazis’ plans to exterminate millions of people were being carried out. On the night of May 16, 1944, the entire Roma population of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp rose up in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The testimonies of the survivors from a neighboring camp reveal a story that is only rarely told, a story of the Pharrajimos — the Roma genocide — and its victims who fought to the end for their right to life and humanity. 


Roma Resistance Day

Resistance Day marks not only the commemoration of May 16 but also serves as proof that no-one can ever completely break and hammer a people into complete submission, regardless of how much fear, violence and murder is brought to bear. The Nazi concentration camps were designed to make  escape impossible and to crush the mere thought of dissent. For the most part, they succeeded in keeping the prisoners who were brought in from all over the continent under check.

Seventeen months before that night, on the order of Heinrich Himmler, the man responsible for the death camps, Romani people were relocated from numerous ghettos across the Reich to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A special family camp — the Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy Camp”) — was set up where men, women, children and elders lived together. Approximately 23,000 Roma were held there in total, and of them, about 20,000 died in the gas chambers, often without even being properly registered. The camp physician was SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death” and many inmates, particularly children, were used in horrifying pseudo-medical experiments. But the people were resilient. The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum notes 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]

On the fateful day, the inhabitants of the Zigeunerlager learned that camp authorities were planning to eliminate them all[2] to make room for another batch of prisoners who were in better shape for manual labor than those who had spent months living under the harsh conditions of the camp. The Roma lived next to the crematorium and had witnessed such exterminations. Rather than allowing themselves to be silently led  to the gas chambers, they fought back. When soldiers came to the camp they were met with “stones, iron pipes, wood panels, barbed wire [and] smuggled pikes” which had been collected in the barracks. The Roma managed to repel the first attack by 100 German soldiers that came in early morning, but the attackers regrouped and launched a bloody offensive. The Romas’ weapons were no match for the German guns but there was a bloody battle and the Germans suffered casualties. The trains bringing the Romas’ would-be replacements arrived during the skirmish and the authorities feared the revolt would spread through the camp. The Lagerkommandant called off the attack and withdrew his men. (Source: Barsony, Janos. Personal interview. May 2014).

Over the following weeks, measures were taken to ensure that such a flagrant defiance of authority could not happen again. A thousand young, able-bodied Roma were transferred to Buchenwald, in July another thousand were moved to other camps, while women were sent to Ravensbrück, leaving only half of the original 6,000 inhabitants of the Zigeunerlager, mostly the old, the weak and children. All of these people were murdered and burned in the fires of the crematorium on August 2. Once again they resisted, but their attempts were futile and the Zigeunerlager was emptied.



In Romanes, the Holocaust is referred to as Pharrajimos, which means “devouring” indicative of the scale and violence of the extermination. The number of Roma killed in the Holocaust has been the subject of much debate. Many were not citizens, and had uncertain legal status. Estimates range from 220,000 to 1.5 million lives lost.[3] Even the lowest figure is staggering and stands in stark contrast to the level of recognition of the event and also knowledge of the mistreatment Roma continue to suffer today.

Romani children Romani children during the Holocaust. ©Romedia Foundation

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 is due in part to the low rates of literacy that existed throughout the Roma population. The kind of written first-hand accounts that helped document Jewish victims’ suffering are lacking. There is also the lack of a unified collective consciousness. Hancock points to the way Roma choose to deal with collective traumas, claiming they are “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others.”[4]

Whatever the reasons, the Roma Holocaust has remained under-recognized. Germany never included the Roma in their reparations scheme as they did Jewish survivors. In 1950, the Ministry of the Interior of Württemburg claimed during a hearing on 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 made official acknowledgement in 1982. In 1992 the German federal state proposed to erect a monument for the victims of the genocide. On October 24, 2012, almost twenty years later, the Memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of National Socialism, situated in the Tiergarten near the Reichstag in Berlin, was finally unveiled by Chancellor Angela Merkel.[6]

Most European nations make little or no mention of Roma and Sinti in their official statement on the Holocaust. In Hungary, Parliament designated August 2 “Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day,” in 2005. This important milestone in ,recognition and public awareness came about thanks to the intense cooperation of Roma civil society organizations, and the Romedia Foundation was one of the most vocal advocates. The result was the inauguration on August 2, 2006 of the Roma Holocaust Memorial in Nehru Park, in Budapest, on the banks of the Danube, to commemorate all Roma victims of the Holocaust. Effort are being made to increase awareness of the Pharrajimos amongst the general population. In 2012, a legal draft was forwarded to the European Parliament which would enshrine recognition of the Roma genocide in European law. NGOs and other organizations are making grassroots efforts to raise awareness and reverse the pervading indifference with which it is treated.



The events of 16th of May are still little known outside academia, but efforts are made to rectify the situation. For the past 23 years, even as political conditions have changed, the Romedia Foundation has continuously advocated for recognition of the plight of Romani communities during the Nazi era. The Roma Holocaust memorial (established in coalition with Roma Polgárjogi Alapítvány, Romaversitas etc.) is one aspect of the foundation’s work. Publication of the book Pharrajimos: the Fate of Roma during the Holocaust in 2004 and the Historia Romani series of documentary films in 2005 are others. We organized the Requiem for Auschwitz concert series in Hungary in 2012; we advocated with Verband Deutscher Sinti und Roma for the recognition of the sufferings of Roma during the Nazi times in 2012; and we contributed to the digital exhibition about the suffering of our communities in different European countries. We also produced the first Hungarian information campaign about the Pharrajimos and the “Requiem for Auschwitz” documentary film.

The Hungarian Romani community has  continuously supported Romedia in these very important efforts. In the years when we had no memorial to our suffering we gathered at night in front of the Hungarian Parliament. We  believed better times would come and there would be a place dedicated to remembering. But we could not foresee that the plight of our communities would again be politicized and used by non-Roma to undermine our basic agreements.

No one should be able to challenge the right of a people to have their story recognized and remembered by future generations. But today, Lety u Pisku a former concentration camp in the Czech Republic is being used a pig farm, and Grabler Lake in Hungary, a place where more than 100 Roma were murdered in 1945 is a private site to which we are not allowed access.

We constantly remind governments and citizens alike that in order to stop history from repeating itself, we must remember it. We must commemorate the suffering of the Roma, as well as the Jews and other victims of the Nazis like political activists and homosexuals.

We might like to think that this argument has been sufficiently made by now, but the need to remember in the face of increasingly violent rhetoric and action against Roma is urgent. If it were widely recognized that Roma have been repeatedly abused by governments it would make it harder for far-right extremists to justify their demands for deportation, for forced sterilization or even the extermination of the Roma population. Even now these calls are met with an indifference that amounts to a tacit agreement on the part of the media and the public. We must return to the spirit of May 16, of dignity and the demonstration that a person cannot be stripped of his humanity whatever the odds that are stacked against him.

It is possible to make progress. In November 2006, at a commemoration held in the former concentration camp in Neuengamme, it was decided for that the day be commemorated as “Roma Resistance Day” (Barsony, Janos. Personal Interview. May 2014). This move will do its part in making this incredible story of bravery and defiance in the face of hopelessness more widely known. It is another piece of the puzzle, not only inthe history of the indignities the Romani suffered during World War II, but to the grander history of the Holocaust and of all tyrannies we must remember everywhere.