About Sinti & Roma

The first sightings of groups of ‘colourfully dressed, dark-skinned itinerant strangers’ in Western Europe date back to the beginning of the 15th century. These nomadic people stated their country of origin as ‘Little Egypt’ and were well received in Dutch cities. They were known as ‘Egyptians’ in the Netherlands – similar to the English word ‘gypsy’ – as well ‘heathens’, i.e. pagans, those who have not been baptised. In Germany, they were referred to as Zigeuners. It later became clear that they originally hailed from the Byzantine Empire, and possibly even from India originally. Their language – Romani – is similar to languages spoken in Northern India.

The authorities changed their attitude from the beginning of the 16th century, increasingly regarding the combination of beggary and a nomadic life as parasitical and antisocial. The letters of recommendation from the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund the ‘heathens’ produced were declared invalid, and placards appeared calling for gypsies to leave the country. Their punishment ranged from physical beatings to imprisonment. Gypsies were banished wherever they went,and after 1700 the provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel were actually the scene of ‘pagan hunts’. There are no historical records of gypsies in the Netherlands after, roughly, 1730, as they had all been murdered, expelled or gone into hiding.

During the second half of the 19th century new reports emerged on itinerant groups of strangers in the Netherlands. These people were known as ‘Hungarian tinkers’ and would soon be referred to as zigeuners, as in Germany. Many of them actually originated from Romania, where slavery of these Romani-speaking ‘gypsies’ had recently been abolished. Some of them had decided to emigrate to Western Europe or – preferably– the United States. While the local Dutch authorities initially left them alone because they were such skilled craftsmen, the central government continued to regard them as unwanted strangers and sought to deport them. Some groups became trapped at the Dutch borders because neighbouring countries also refused to admit them.

The itinerant Roma and Sinti of the early 20th century were not usually identified or treated as ‘gypsies’. From 1900 to 1930, Romani-speaking horse dealers were a common sight at Dutch cattle markets. Since they had French or German passports, they were not really regarded as ‘gypsies’. Similarly, the ancestors of many Dutch Sinti who travelled through Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium were viewed as performers of various stripes and musicians. In 1928, the Dutch Border Police discovered that many of them had Dutch citizenship, which meant they could not be deported as unwanted strangers.

In Germany, meanwhile, there had been a public debate on the ‘fight against the gypsy plague’ since 1905. The Dutch authorities’ main objection was to the actual caravans in which the ‘gypsies’ lived, and from 1903 Dutch government policy began to target the entire population of caravan dwellers, of which Sinti and Roma made up only a minority. It seemed as though they could be safely assimilated into this group and fly under the radar, but the Second World War brought all that to an end.