Treatment of Romanies


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    The German Church and the People are practically the same body.
    Adolf Hitler, ( 1889- 1945 )


    Treatment of Romanies in Christian Europe mirrors the treatment of the other non-Christian minorities, most notably the Jews. The main difference is that the Romanies did not arrive in Europe until the Middle Ages. Christians followed the traditional series of actions: restriction of marriage and other civil rights, black propaganda, special dress codes, restrictions under purity (later known as racial hygiene) laws, accusations of witchcraft, flogging, branding and mutilation, forcible removal of children, condemnations to slavery, forcible expulsion, selected execution and ultimately mass extermination.

    One of the earliest cases of action being taken against Romanies is apparently by Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula and less well known as a Roman Catholic convert. He transported 12,000 people, probably Romanies, “who looked like Egyptians” for slave labour. In 1496 the Reichstag in Landau and Freiburg declared Romanies to be traitors to Christian states and carriers of the plague. They were vermin on the otherwise healthy Christian body. It was widely believed that Romany blacksmiths had forged the nails used to crucify Jesus. In 1500 the Augsburg Reichstag also declared Romanies to be traitors to Christian states and accused them of witchcraft. During the sixteenth century almost all European states introduced laws against the Romanies, generally banishing them.

    Under Edward VI a law was introduced in England requiring Roma to be seized and branded with a “V” on their breast and then enslaved for two years. Escapees were to be branded with an “S” and enslaved for life. Lutherans found Romanies as objectionable as Catholics did. A Swedish archbishop decreed in 1560 that Romani children should not be christened and that the Romani dead should not be buried. In 1563 the Council of Trent, which Roman Catholics hold to be an infallible authority, affirmed that Romanies are debarred from becoming priests. Five years later Pope Pius V ordered the expulsion of all Romanies from the domain of the Catholic Church.

    Romany children were often forcibly taken from their families to be raised by more acceptable Christian foster families. Sometimes this was explicitly authorised by official decree, as for example 1710 when Prince Adolf Frederick of Mecklenburg-Stelitz ordered that all Romanies be flogged, branded, deprived of their children and expelled, and executed if they returned. Children under the age of ten were to be given to Christian families. In 1726 Charles VI decreed that Romani men should all be killed instantly. Women and children were to have their ears cut off and flogged all the way to the border.

    The nineteenth century saw improvements but Christian authorities around Europe continued to remove Romani children from their parents and foster them with practicing Christian families. In some areas the practice continued into the twentieth century. Romanies were classified as “degenerates” and “social deviants”. In Switzerland in 1926 an organization called Pro Juventute started systematically removing — effectively kidnapping — Romany children. The children were given new identities and placed in Christian foster homes. The following year the Czech authorities initiated a similar programme.

    Perhaps stimulated into action by the Swiss, in the 1930's the Nazi regime revived the full range of traditional Christian measures against the Romanies. Mixed marriages were prohibited by a new citizenship law (Reichsbürgergesetz) of 15 th September 1935. Civil rights were restricted just two days later. The following year on March 7th voting rights were restricted. Internment started soon afterwards. Official papers of the period use traditional Christian language, for example describing the Romany people as “a plague”. On 16 th March 1936 voting rights were removed altogether. By 1940 internment camps for Romanies were in use in France and Austria. Romanies, like Jews, were obliged to wear traditional Christian “badges of shame”. In Buchenwald Romani children were used to test the efficacy of Zyklon-B gas crystals. Soon mass exterminations would begin, and not just in Germany. In September 1941 the SS carried out mass killing of Romanies and Jews in the Ukraine, and more mass killings took place in Yugoslavia the same year. In 1943 Himmler ordered all Romani camps to be closed, which in practice meant that all internees were to be executed. It is estimated that up to 1,500,000 Romanies were killed during the period 1939-1945 — all of them by Christian soldiers in Christian armies attended by Christian chaplains.

    Persecutions continued in many countries even after the end of the Second World War. Pro Juventute for example continued to kidnap Romani children and send them to be brought up in Christian homes. According to the testimony of those children, now adults, they were told that their mothers were whores. Those in orphanages were punished severely by nuns if they ever asked about their families. Abuse seems to have been common. These child kidnappings often took place while the father was performing military service. Parents who opposed the abduction of their children were themselves put under legal guardianship — i.e. committed to mental institutions. Pro Juventute systematically erased all records of such proceedings so that parents could never find out where their children had been placed.

    As in many other instances, moral outrage at this behaviour by the Christian authorities was manifested mainly by secular forces. The only significant humane voices within the Christian ranks came from Quakers. As early as 1816 John Hoyland had published a book calling for better treatment of Romanies in England.

    Pro-Juventute still exists. Its kidnapping practices ended in 1973 after they were publicised to widespread international condemnation. Today Pro-Juventute claims to be non-denominational, but it had a strong Catholic ethos for most of its existence. The Pro Juventute website ( makes no mention of the organisation's Catholic past, and refers to its history in the most oblique terms. Today, Pro-Juventute and the Swiss authorities continue to refuse Romanies access to any remaining records that would enable them to locate their kidnapped children.


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    §. Most of the chronology in this section comes from a selection of books referenced in detail at See also Roy L. Brooks (ed.), When Sorry Isn"t Enough: The Controversy Over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice, New York: New York University Press (1999), pp. 68-76. The term Romany is used to denote what where until recent times called Gypsies, from the erroneous belief that they originated in Egypt (So many of the source documents cited actually refer to Gypsies or Egyptians). The term covers three main groups, the Jenisch, Sinti and Roma and some source documents refer specifically to one group. For example the Pro Juventute campaign of child abduction in Switzerland was targeted specifically at the Jenisch.

    §. For personal testimonies see*rev and

    §. “Si la fondation a évolué au fil du temps, son principe fondateur demeure inchangé: s"engager pleinement pour le bien-être des enfants et des jeunes en Suisse”. “If the foundation has evolved over the course of time, its foundation principle remains unchanged: the engage fully for the well-being of children and young adults in Switzerland”. Hidden away in the organisation's chronology on its website are the following two entries.

    1926. Sur proposition du conseiller fédéral Giuseppe Motta, pro juventute crée l 'Œuvre des enfants de la grand-route soutenue, dès 1929, par des subventions fédérales. Il s"agit d"appliquer la «Loi fédérale sur l'heimatlosat» alors en vigueur. 619 enfants Yenisch sont ainsi mis sous tutelle à la demande des autorités tutélaires compétentes des cantons et placés dans des familles d"accueil ou des homes.

    1973. Elle dissout par ailleurs l" «Oeuvre des enfants de la Grand-route» suite aux fortes critiques des médias.

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