When police swept through a Gypsy camp in central Greece last month, they found guns, drugs and stolen goods. But they also found what appeared to be a stolen child. Little Maria, as she was called, caught the attention of the authorities because she has light skin and blonde hair, an unlikely child of dark-skinned Gypsy parents. The little girl was taken to a home for children, and her Gypsy parents were arrested and charged with abduction.
Just recently, after a worldwide investigation, the Gypsies’ claim of adoption from Bulgarian parents was verified. Although they did not adopt through legal avenues, the biological parents were located and they admitted to giving their child away because they were too poor to support their family.
Say the word “Gypsy,” and most people think of homeless families roaming the countryside in colorful caravans. In fact, although they typically earn a belowaverage income, ninety percent of Gypsies today live in houses. They are also routinely suspected of criminal activity, but there is little support for this as well. While the authorities may have acted on cautious suspicions, age-old prejudices no doubt played a role in how the situation unfolded.
Over the years, many myths about Gypsies have been accepted as fact. Early English children’s books entertain young readers with tales of Gypsy kidnappings, and until today, European children are warned not to wander too far into the woods, lest they be snatched by Gypsies. However, renowned expert Professor Thomas Acton says, “I know of no documented case of Roma/Gypsies stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.”
Today, there are thousands of Gypsies living in squalid conditions around many European cities. Long viewed as secondclass citizens, they have more recently become the public scapegoat as financial woes have resulted in steep austerity measures in countries such as France, Greece and Italy. Even in the progressive European culture, where citizens of divergent lifestyles are embraced, racial fissures still run deep.
Last week, we discussed the role of the larger German population, including the Church, in the Holocaust, namely their silence in the face of Nazi genocide. The Gypsy story illustrates that society is still willing to tolerate discriminatory behavior toward certain groups. In prewar Europe, a dangerous shift in attitude was in the making even before Hitler, ym”s, rose to power.
A priority of the Third Reich was to establish a master race. Through the practice of eugenics (a social philosophy aimed at “perfecting” humanity via the elimination of traits considered “undesirable,” i.e. non-Aryan), they sought to eliminate the lower class and expunge all subhumans, that is to say, the Jews. In truth, eugenics was not a Nazi invention. In the early 1900s, German doctors were considered leaders in this field. This was a highly respected area of medicine that envisioned a hierarchy of humans, with the strongest at the top, and the racially inferior and the handicapped on the bottom. This notion began to gain widespread support, and even world leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill showed interest in this concept.
In 1920, two eminent German academics published a work called “Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life.” These scholars argued that the purpose of medicine is to preserve a perfect society, not to heal and ensure individual well-being. Each person, it follows, must be judged according to his or her contribution to the larger cause, and if they are not an asset to society, they must be removed.
When the Nazi Party rose to power, they found fertile ground for their deadly shift to racial and genetic “cleansing.” Nearly half the doctors in Germany joined the Nazi party, and Josef Goebbels used the state-controlled media to convince Germans that merciful killings of the disabled were necessary, in order to build a master race. The first human beings who became victims of organized mass killings were society’s most vulnerable and defenseless members: handicapped children. Authorities avoided closely-knit families who were more likely to support their disabled child, and initially focused on orphans and broken homes.
Although Gypsies were ranked as an inferior race and a threat to Nazi purity, there was confusion among Nazi leadership regarding their treatment. Many thousands were killed in the concentration camps, but the majority of European Gypsies survived the war.
The only people that the Nazis sought to completely annihilate were the Jews. The Nazis’ hatred and will to rid the world of Judaism and the Torah was unparalleled. Recently, Professor Guenther Lewy of the University of Massachusetts conducted a study of Gypsy persecution, and concluded that the Nazi policy was influenced by “the attitudes of the German people to the Gypsy minority.” Some Nazi leaders proposed relocation, but they were pressured from below, for example, by local municipalities who wanted to get rid of their Gypsies, the “asocial” tribe dwelling within their midst.
In light of these revelations about eugenics and the attitude of German society toward minorities, it is clear that the Holocaust did not take place in a vacuum. The people of Europe and beyond held many beliefs that laid the foundation for perhaps the greatest crime humanity has ever witnessed.