Who Were the “Gypsies”?
In 1939, 30000-35000 people known as ‘Gypsies” lived in Germany and Austria, which was incorporated into Germany in March 1938. The total population of Gypsies living in Greater Germany and all the countries occupied by Germany during the war is unknown; scholars Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon have provided the rough estimate of 942,000.
Gypsies are believed to have arrived in Europe from northern India in the I 400s. They were called Gypsies because Europeans thought they came from Egypt. This ethnic minority is made up of distinct groups called “tribes” or “nations.’ Most of the Gypsies in German-occupied Europe belonged to the Sinti and Roma tribes. In Germany and western Europe generally the Sinti predominated, and the Roma in Austria, eastern Europe, and the Balkans. The Sinti and Roma spoke dialects of a common language called Romani, based in Sanskrit, the classical language of India.
For centuries, Sinti and Roma were scorned and persecuted in Europe. Zigeuner, the German word for Gypsy, derives from a Greek root meaning “untouchable.” In the Balkan principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, Gypsies were slaves bought and sold by monasteries and large estate holders (boyars) until 1864, when the newly formed nation of Romania emancipated them.
Many Sinti and Roma traditionally worked as craftsmen, such as blacksmiths, cobblers, tinkers, horse dealers, and toolmakers. Others were performers such as musicians, circus animal trainers, and dancers. By the 1920s, there was also a small, lower-middle class of shopkeepers and some civil servants, such as Sinti employed in the German postal service. The numbers of truly nomadic Gypsies were on the decline in many places by the early 1900s, although so-called sedentary Gypsies often moved seasonaly, depending on their occupations.