How many pages do our history books devote to the grim Roma past?


When talking about Holocaust, we tend to remember the extermination of Jewish people, even though there were many other communities who suffered during that time. One of those communities is the Romas. In Ion Antonescu’s fascist Romania, Roma people were put on trains and taken to Transnistria, where they lost everything, from their homes to their belongings and even their lives.


Many of us associate the Holocaust with the deportation of the Jewish people to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps during the Second World War. However, few know that in the same time, by order of Marshal Ion Antonescu, more than 25,000 Romas were loaded onto wagons and taken to Transnistria. 11,000 of them died of hunger, cold or typhus or were killed by shooting.

Hitler gave Antonescu the territory from east of Basarabia, between Nistru and Bug rivers, in exchange for supporting his campaign against the Soviet Union. In 1941, the deportation of Jewish people to Transnistria began, and a year later of the Roma ones. The name „Transnistria” is a combination of the prefix “trans” meaning “beyond” and the name of the Nistru River.

The Romas died in silence and their death was hidden from the Romanian people who were not supposed to know that those at the helm had turned Romania into a criminal state, like Nazi Germany in terms of violence and number of victims. Romania under Marshal Ion Antonescu had become a fascist state.

In the first wave, nomadic Roma were deported and one measure that deeply affected them was the confiscation of their horses and carts and with them the possibility of earning a living. For many, the wagon served as a home.

The second wave included Roma who could not justify their existence, homeless and without a stable job, living by theft and begging.

At the time of deportation, the Roma were forbidden to carry material goods, but instead the rumour was that, once in Transnistria, they would have land, a stable job and everything else necessary for a good living.

Actually, the real reason for the deportation of the Roma was the ethnic policy of the Antonescu regime. The aim was to achieve an ethnic homogeneity by excluding minorities and bringing back Romanians from neighbouring countries.

In the hope of improving their way of life, the rumour prompted many of those who owned property to sell it, go to the train stations and go among the other Roma.

Hundreds of families spent about a week en route to Transnistria, accommodated in cattle train wagons.

Once in Transnistria, the Roma were sent to farm work on a state farm and had to live in stables like animals.

The Roma were deprived of the most basic things. They had no medicines or medical care, and in the event of illness they resorted to healing spells and herbs, which were very common among their community.

Everyone between 12 and 60 years of age were subjected to compulsory labour and those who could not work were shot.

The amount of food, which consisted of cornmeal and potatoes, was often not enough, sometimes not at all. Thousands of deportees died, mostly children. Desperation drove some of them to resort to shocking acts of cannibalism. In some cases, the Romas, after their child died, had to cut off parts of the child and burn them to feed their other offspring. Others ate the flesh of corpses. Because of the miserable and completely unhuman living conditions, thousands of Roma died of typhus.

To prevent the risk of disease, the Ukrainians would tie their mouths shut and, using a stake, would pick up the dead and throw them on top of each other into a pit fenced with barbed wire.

This desolate chapter came to an abrupt end on August 23rd 1944, when Marshal Ion Antonescu was dismissed and arrested. In September 1944, an order was issued stipulating that the Roma returning from Transnistria were allowed to resume their work and occupations, as if nothing ever happened and that the living in harsh conditions and the death of thousands of people was just a parenthesis in the Second World War.

Romani-language writer Luminița Cioabă has collected fragments of the experiences of her family deported to Transnistria: “My family, both my father, my mother and my grandparents during the Second World War were deported near the Bug River in Dumanovca, Ukraine. I heard these testimonies long ago, when I was a child. I want to tell you that I come from a world of nomadic Romas who used to travel by tent and in the evening the old men would tell this story of theirs, the story of the Bug as they call it, and they cried and remembered the ordeals they went through, saying that not even the baby snake should go through what we went through. It was a different Auschwitz, an Auschwitz that people don’t know, an Auschwitz of hunger and cold.”

After the war, the subject of Roma deportations was hushed up, only after the fall of the communist regime were the horrors of the Holocaust revealed. In today’s Romanian society, the statement “It would have been nice if Antonescu had lived!” can sometimes be heard and are words guided by racism and discrimination. But if we allow ourselves to break away from stereotypes and get to know the history of this minority that is always on the edge of modern society, these words begin to lose their voice.

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