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Sinti, Roma face systemic prejudice in Germany

April 8, 2021

On International Romani Day, some 76 years after the Nazi genocide that aimed to wipe out Germany's Sinti and Roma communities, DW looks at progress for Europe's largest minority group — but discrimination remains. 

Sinti and Roma children in a Baden-Württemberg school gathering to see the visiting German president Joachim Gauck in 2013
Despite all the progress made, the Sinti and Roma minority has not achieved education equality in GermanyImage: Uwe Anspach/dpa/picture alliance

"You're nothing, you can't do anything, you're the bottom of the pile." That's what members of Germany's Sinti and Roma communities have been told for centuries, sometimes openly and sometimes subtly, said Sebastijan Kurtisi. 

As one of the interviewers for the latest RomnoKher study, Kurtisi surveyed Sinti and Roma people living in Germany, among them both Germans and immigrants. RomnoKher is the nationwide association of Sinti and Roma for the promotion of culture and education, and the study — which involved 614 interviews — was funded by the foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future." 

Like all the interviewers, Kurtisi is himself a member of Europe's largest minority group. There are an estimated 6.3 million people in the European Union, who speak the language Romani. 

Sebastijan Kurtisi
'Why are my people stigmatized as thieves, fortune-tellers, and beggars?': Sebastijan KurtisiImage: Christian Kaufmann

EU member states are required to actively promote the group's participation in the education system. The vast majority of all respondents in the study believe this promotion is necessary, with over 80% considering education very important. 

'Why do they think I am like this?' 

Sebastijan Kurtisi was born in Macedonia, grew up in Serbia and graduated from a technical school before migrating to Germany with his parents when he was 17. He now has a German passport. In the western city of Aachen, he worked on the development of desulfurization plants, and now he coaches people who face special social challenges. 

At some point, he realized just how many prejudices there are about the Sinti and Roma. "My people are only thieves, musicians, fortune-tellers, and beggars ... why do they think I'm like that?" he asked.

The authors of the study refer to racism, antiziganism and discrimination. Some 40% of respondents reported discrimination against their children — including in the classroom — by teachers and fellow students. Two-thirds of all respondents feel discriminated against because they belong to a minority, including in the education system. 

But in those schools where teachers had high expectations for Roma and Sinti children, they achieved higher educational qualifications on average. 

Interviewer Manja Schuecker-Weiss, herself a German Sintesa, has seen this in her work. She told DW about the mother of a student with a German name who was treated quite normally on the phone. When she and her husband appeared at the school, with "dark hair, dark skin [and] wearing a skirt," strange questions were asked. Suddenly the boy had to go to remedial classes, even though he was getting good grades. 

 Manja Schuecker-Weiss
Manja Schuecker-Weiss, a German Sintesa, has seen children from her community face prejudice from teachers Image: Lee Fuhler

"I often see cases like that," she explained. Despite good grades, many report getting less ambitious school career recommendations from their teachers. 

Her own daughter, who attends high school, has told her mother that she's glad to have blonde hair and blue eyes. That way, she doesn't have to explain herself to anyone. When police in the southern city of Singen recently took an 11-year-old Sinti child away in handcuffs without informing the parents, many in the community were upset. 

'Shocking difference' from overall population 

Overall, the RomnoKher study shows a lot of educational progress compared to previous studies and in a comparison with previous generations, according to Karin Cudak, an educational expert at the European University of Flensburg and one of the study's authors. 

All the children from the communities now attend elementary school, but the study also shows "that a large proportion of those surveyed still leave the education system empty-handed" — one in three has no school diploma, and no vocational qualifications either. 

As a result, many find only low-paying jobs. Among the youngest respondents, only half as many do not graduate compared to older respondents. But this is still a significantly higher proportion than in the German population as a whole: Only 5% of all adults in Germany do not have a high school diploma. 

Despite all the progress made, especially among younger respondents, there is a "startling difference from the national average for the population." Fewer minority children attended daycare, for example, and significantly fewer attained a college or university degree. 

One reason could be that families are often unable to sufficiently support the children and cannot find access to offers of help, as the survey shows.

Anxiety over Berlin memorial to murdered Sinti, Roma

Long-term consequences of Nazi persecution 

RomnoKher co-founder Daniel Strauss published an early educational study of Roma and Sinti people in 2011. His father, one of the few survivors of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, was illiterate because of the ban on schooling for certain minorities. 

"He made sure his children went to school, even though he himself had not been allowed to do so," said Strauss. 

Half of the concentration camp survivors, however, did not send their children to school. They were concerned about their children having to deal with "the same racist tendencies, the same materials, the same school management, the same teachers who excluded their parents." As a result, many families missed out on educational opportunities for another generation. 

Germany has rejected the introduction of targeted support programs — as demanded by the EU — with the argument that the German school system is open to everyone. "Not everyone experienced the genocide," Strauss pointed out. But to ensure equal opportunities, extra support is important — and it all takes time, he explained. Sinti and Roma organizations have therefore established mediator projects. 

'The word was tattooed on the skin of our people' 

Sebastijan Kurtisi is annoyed by the debate in Germany around the use of the word "gypsy" ("Zigeuner" in German, Editor's note). 

"It's not a question for me about the accuracy of the word. It's about how much this word stigmatizes us. What primal fears and traumas it awakens in us," he explained. "The word 'Zigeuner' was tattooed on the skin of our people. And then they were gassed." 

"If I tell someone, 'Please stop stepping on my foot, it's hurting me,' then they can't just say, 'Why should I? That's how we've always behaved.'"

He and others are not only concerned about the "Z-word," but also about the "rising numbers in the neo-Nazi scene, their sympathizers, the murders in Hanau [where members of the Roma and Sinti community were among those killed by a gunman in February 2020] and reports about police officers who move in these circles. It's traumatizing and awakens these primal fears that we've carried with us for centuries, that peaked in the period between 1939 and 1945." 

Daniel Strauss
The diversity of ethnic minorities needs to be understood, said RomnoKher co-founder Daniel StraussImage: Andrea Grunau/DW

Empowerment and including the positive 

Study author Frank Reuter looked at how the minority was alienated long before Nazi persecution across Europe, and how antiziganism continued afterward in many institutions. The genocide was not even acknowledged until 1982. 

Reuter quoted a son of survivors: "The children called me a 'dirty gypsy.' Some of the teachers 'were former Nazis.'" Reuter showed that some textbooks to this reinforce stereotypes about the group, while positive narratives are virtually absent. 

Both the history of the persecution, and also the success stories of the diverse Sinti and Roma cultures and the Romani language should find their place in teaching materials, believes Cudak. So far, this has only happened in isolated cases. 

In the state of Baden-Württemberg, such topics have been formalized in the curriculum since an agreement signed in 2013 by state legislators, said Strauss. But almost no one has signed up for the teacher training courses that were offered around the topic. 

Strauss is calling for an educational fund for all of Germany; more information about identity, culture and antiziganism; and more empowerment to "develop something on the group's own terms." Where there are "Romno Power Clubs" for young people, he pointed out, prospects for education also increase. 

Just as with the Sorbian or Danish minorities in Germany, cultural identity must be experienced from kindergarten onward. The diversity of the whole group needs to be understood, said Strauss. 

"A person from Bavaria is not just a Bavarian — but also a woman, or a man, a Catholic, or a Protestant, a Muslim or Jewish; tall, short, fat or thin," he said. "With the Roma and Sinti communities, many think: 'If you know one, you know them all.' It's not like that!"

This text has been translated from German.

Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author