• Version 1.0
  • Publication date 5 March 2024

Estonia proclaimed its independence from Russia in February 1918. The ensuing civil war officially ended with the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty. A failed communist coup-d’état on 1 December 1924 did not significantly dent the course of democracy in Estonia. The world economic crisis and the rise of an indigenous fascist movement, however, did. In March 1934, Konstantin Päts (1874–1956), in his capacity as the State Elder and the leader of the conservative Farmers’ Party, carried out a coup-d’état. Päts established an authoritarian rule in Estonia and proclaimed himself president. In the autumn of 1939, in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union forced a mutual assistance agreement upon Estonia. In accordance with that agreement, the Soviet Union established military bases in Estonia. In June 1940, the Soviet Union occupied and subsequently annexed Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania. According to the 1934 census, the population of Estonia stood at 1.26 million. Ethnic Estonians constituted a majority, or 88 percent of the population, followed by Russians (8%) and Germans (1.5%).

Roma in Estonia prior to the German Occupation

The earliest reference to the presence of Roma in today’s Estonia dates from 1533. As a result of the ‘anti-vagabond’ legislation enacted in the Swedish and later Russian Empire, the number of Roma in Estonia remained low. According to the Russian census of 1897, a mere 154 Roma were resident in the province of Estonia. The census taken in independent Estonia (including Petseri province and the left bank of the Narva River) in 1934 counted 766 Roma.

Linguist Paul Ariste, who began studying Romani dialects in 1934, distinguished between three distinct Roma groups in interwar Estonia: 50–60 Laiuse (Lajenge) Roma, 650–800 Latvian (Lotfitke) Roma, and up to ten families of Russian Roma. This differentiation reflects both the geographic pattern of settlement and the languages spoken. The most distinctive as well as the oldest Romani community came into existence following the decision of the Russian authorities in 1841 to concentrate all Roma in Estonia in Laiuse parish north of Tartu. The Lajenge Roma, who were primarily engaged in agriculture and settled in rural communities, had undergone thorough Estonianisation by the 1930s, nearly losing the unique dialect of Romani they spoke. The great majority of Roma who settled in Estonia during the interwar period came from Latvia. The Lotfitke Roma, who had branched out from the North Russian Roma, could all speak Estonian. The Russian Roma, however, did not pick up the Estonian language and therefore stayed in the easternmost part of the country with the predominantly Russian population that Estonia had acquired in accordance with the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty. The three subgroups interacted with one another. A majority of the Roma in Estonia remained illiterate, with an estimated 15 percent using Romani in everyday communication. An overwhelming majority of them held Estonian citizenship.1Ariste, Mustlaste raamat, passim.

The ongoing process of assimilation did not automatically eliminate traditional stereotypes of Roma. Significantly, the Estonian word for Roma, mustlased, means ‘black’ or ‘dirty’. In contrast, the shortened version of the Estonian word for Germans, sakslased (derived from ‘Saxons’) is synonymous with ‘master’. Estonians typically perceived Roma as outsiders, making an exception for the Lajenge Roma. Interaction between the Romani minority and the non-Romani population was largely limited to the market spaces, in which Roma were prominent as horse dealers. In these interactions traditional social stereotypes often came into play, but instances of race-based stigmata (e.g., the transference of the blood libel onto Roma) were rare.

The period of occupation by the Soviet Union, 1940–41, had a minimal impact on the Romani community in Estonia. Roma were a marginalised group and did not participate in politics. By contrast with the Estonian Jews, the local Roma were not made more visible by Soviet policy, and as a result public attitudes towards them did not change significantly. From the perspective of Roma, the Soviet authorities’ express ban on ethnic and racial discrimination offset their attempts to press the adult Roma into steady employment and their children into school. Judging by the number of children born in both 1941 and 1942, the Soviet occupation caused very little disruption for the Romani minority. On the night of 14–15 June, anticipating a war with Germany, the Soviets deported from Estonia 10,157 people of various social and political backgrounds who were considered hostile to the regime. Among the deportees there were 439 Jews (or over 10% of the total Jewish population), but no Roma.

German Occupation

The German 18th Army crossed the border into Estonia on 7 July 1941. After a few days, however, the Soviet resistance had stiffened. It took the Wehrmacht until 28 August to capture the capital city of Tallinn. During the intervening period, all those Jews who wished to had a chance to escape from Estonia into Russia proper. Consequently, just under one thousand Jews remained in Estonia by the time the country came under German control. So far, there is no evidence of Roma fleeing eastward during that same period.

Occupied Estonia—along with Latvia, Lithuania, and the western part of Belorussia—was incorporated into the Reich Commissariat Ostland. In December 1941, the German civil administration officially took over from the military authorities. Commissar General Karl-Siegmund Litzmann (1893–1945) in Tallinn reported to Hinrich Lohse (1895–1963) in Riga. Meanwhile Sonderkommando 1a of Einsatzgruppe A under Dr Martin Sandberger (1911–2010) was converted into the permanent office of the German Security Police (Sipo) in Estonia. Sandberger continued as the head of the Sipo, while Heinrich Bergmann (1902–1980) took charge of the criminal police division. Sandberger had created a parallel police structure: twenty times the size, the subordinate Estonian Security Police and the Estonian Criminal Police effectively carried out the ‘dirty work’ on behalf of the respective German agencies. First enunciated by the Wehrmacht, the ‘Gypsy Question’ in Estonia subsequently became the preoccupation of the German civil administration and the German Criminal Police, and ultimately of the German Sipo.

The penal system in independent Estonia comprised fourteen prisons. The overall prison capacity, however, proved insufficient to accommodate the large number of prisoners arrested on political grounds in the summer and autumn of 1941. German occupation authorities therefore provided for temporary concentration camps alongside established prisons. In order not to have to transfer the camps to the jurisdiction of the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office, a formal reorganisation was carried out in the summer of 1942 on Sandberg’s orders. From July 1942, the detention centres of the Sipo and the Security Service inside prisons were no longer considered ‘concentration camps’ but ‘police detention facilities’ [Polizeiliche Haftanstalten]. Camps of the Sipo and the SD outside prisons were operated as ‘labour education camps’ [Arbeitserziehungslager].

Jews Murdered, Roma Counted, 1941

On 10 September 1941, Sandberger ordered the arrest of all Jews in Estonia. Police prefectures had to register Jews, distinguishing between males and females. The majority of Estonian Jews resided in Tallinn, and they all necessarily passed through Tallinn Central prison (conventionally known as Patarei). Following a pro-forma criminal investigation by the Estonian Security Police, Jews invariably faced a firing squad. Killings were carried out by the Estonian auxiliary police, Omakaitse, at behest of the German Sipo. By mid-October, 440 male Jews had already been murdered. Women and children were put to death within the following few months. On 1 December 1941, the Estonian Statistics Office carried out a census. The census deliberately left out Germans, Jews, and Roma. As revealed in an interoffice document, however, by that time a mere twenty-seven Jews were still alive in Estonia.2Maiste and Puur, “Rahvastiku registreerimine,” 47. This was apparently enough for Estonia to be the first European country declared ‘judenrein’ at the Wannsee Conference. In real figures, Einsatzgruppe 1 had reported 963 Jews murdered in Estonia, 666 of whom were from Tallinn. The few surviving Jewish women, typically from mixed marriages, had been identified and murdered one by one by early autumn 1942.

The General Commissariat in Tallinn did indeed receive detailed population data on the Roma from the statistics office. According to the latter, the Estonian Roma population in December 1941 stood at 743, of whom 399 lived in cities and 344 in the countryside. Viru, Valga, and Tartu were the three provinces with the largest concentrations of Roma. Provincial capitals Rakvere and Valga boasted the biggest Romani population, while two largest cities, Tallinn and Tartu, had just a handful of Roma residents. It is clear, however, that the census data was incomplete as far as Roma were concerned. A systematic examination of perpetrator records reveals the names of 915 Roma who were caught up in the web of persecution. The difference between census and victim numbers can be accounted for mainly by Russian Roma in Petseri province, most of who were ‘itinerant’. Taken as a whole, then, police records from 1941–43 provide a more accurate image of the Roma victim group than the single statistical chart of December 1941.

The Estonian Criminal Police entrusted parish elders with the collection of population data. The resultant police database contains information on either the mother tongue or the religion of individual members of the community. The Estonian Romani population of under one thousand people was made up of a mere forty-three families. Six extended families—Burkevich, Indus, Ivanov, Koslovski, Mitrovski, and Siimann—accounted for 82 percent of all Roma in Estonia. The onomastic analysis provides a corrective to the interwar estimates based on  linguistic and geographic principles. At 600, the Lotfitke Roma constituted the largest subgroup. The 138 Lajenge Roma proved twice as numerous as had been previously believed. The reminder, about 177 individuals, were thus Russian Roma. The male vs. female ratio was nearly equal: 462 and 451 (in two cases gender is impossible to establish).

Vital information available for 748 Estonian Roma enables us to establish the minority’s age profile. Half of the Romani population were children, with nearly as many small children as teenagers. The largest single group of the adult Romani population, or 29.1 percent, was aged between 20 and 40. The elderly (65 and up) constituted a mere 4.1 percent. The centenarian Gothard Koslovski was truly an exception, for the next oldest Roma was Alexander Koslovski from Petseri province—fifteen years his junior. Birth rates had increased nearly twofold from the tsarist period and remained steady throughout the interwar period.

Preconditions for Mass Murder

The coming mass murder of Roma in Estonia was a Nazi project, building on the racial legislation enacted in Germany in 1935 (i.e., Nuremberg Laws). The Estonian Security Police and the Estonian Criminal Police acted on the orders passed down by their German counterparts. At the beginning of German occupation the police branch offices received the Estonian translation of the notorious decree on the Preventive Fight against Crime by the police, issued on 14 December 1937 by the German Ministry of the Interior. As a particular category of offenders, the decree singled out so-called asocial elements. In formal terms, the fate of individual Roma depended on their ascribed status as ‘sedentary’ versus ‘itinerant’. Various German agencies, however, interpreted this distinction differently. Conflicting orders issued in this regard at different times by different authorities had spelled death to an increasing number of Roma. In Estonia, all Roma were eventually murdered.

The first ordinances concerning Roma emanated from the German military authorities. On 27 August 1941, the 18th Army prescribed engaging ‘idlers’ in physical labour. Roma were to be forced to assist in harvesting crops with their horses and carts. On 18 September, the Wehrmacht ordered the arrest of all Roma in Estonia. Head of the Army Group North Rear Areas, Franz von Roques (1877–1967), formulated it as follows: ‘Just like the Jews, the sedentary and itinerant Roma must be put under surveillance and engaged in compulsory labour.’3Head of the Army Group North Rear Areas, report, September 18, 1941, Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH-22/254. Eleven days later, Pärnu prison had as many as 302 inmates, all but 38 men. Among the prisoners were fifty Roma and eighty-seven Jews. One of the incarcerated Roma, sixty-one-year-old Sophie Siimann (unknown–1941), died on 6 October.

On 1 December, the military commander’s office amended the order. From then onward, ‘itinerant’ Roma should be arrested and handed over to the Sipo, while Roma who had lived at the same address for a minimum of two years should be placed under police surveillance. The German civil administration in the Ostland, however, proceeded from the assumption that all Roma should be treated like the Jews. Reich Commissioner Lohse communicated this decision to the Higher SS and Police Leader in the Ostland, Friedrich Jeckeln (1895–1946), on 4 December 1941. Police prefectures in Tallinn, Haapsalu, Paide, Saaremaa, Narva, and Petseri began screening the Romani population in accordance with Lohse’s order in late January–early February 1942.

Scant evidence exists about the killings of a few Roma at Tartu concentration camp that had already taken place in the autumn of 1941. The Soviet war crimes investigation mentioned a group of ‘itinerant’ Roma who had protested against their confinement to the camp administration. The latter accused the group leaders of sedition and put them to death. The rest, however, were dispatched from the camp to the countryside to perform forced labour. According to the head of the Estonian Security Police in Tartu, the German authorities had prescribed that ‘jobless roaming Gypsies who shirk honest work and engage in fraud and begging should be regarded as socially harmful elements’. Those Roma should be treated like the Jews, which at that point in time meant confinement in a concentration camp. ‘Good’ labourers with a permanent address among the Roma, however, ‘should be left in peace’.4Estonian Security Police in Tartu to the police branch offices, January 24, 1942, Estonian State Archives, R-60/1/2a. Nevertheless, as of January 1942, no Roma could enter the city of Tartu without special permission. The same regulation was likely in place for the capital city of Tallinn.

First Mass Shootings, 1942

Commander of the German Criminal Police in Estonia Bergmann headed a conference on the subject of cooperation between the German and Estonian branches of the police, held in Tallinn on 27 May 1942. Among other things, he spoke on the ‘Solution to the Gypsy Question.’ According to Bergmann, at that point Roma were to be treated like Jews if they were identified as ‘asocial persons’ with no permanent address ‘roaming around like nomads’. ‘Sedentary’ Roma fit for work should be placed under continuous police surveillance. In the case of ‘especially asocial persons’ with previous convictions, Bergmann proposed killing. With respect to Bergmann’s presentation, the police authorities commented that as of the present the ‘Gypsy problem has been completely solved’ [‘das Zigeunerproblem ist insofern restlos gelöst’] inasmuch as there were no itinerant Roma to be found in Estonia while the rest were carrying out forced labour under supervision. As earlier in Germany proper, the authorities regarded Roma in Estonia—and throughout the occupied territories—as both a social and racial threat. Significantly, the Estonian Security Police in June 1942 issued instructions to branch offices reporting on Jews and ‘Gypsies’ under the heading ‘Racial Question’.

The first documented mass shooting of Roma in Estonia took place in the border city of Narva. On the night of 1 November 1941, the Estonian Security Police rounded up 260 people, including a Roma family of three. Vera (unknown–unknown) and Valentina Indus (unknown–unknown) were among the only three children held in Narva prison at that time. They were among the forty-two Roma who were resident in the territory of Narva police prefecture as of the first week of January 1942. Three months later, that number went down to twenty. The Estonian Security Police reported on seventeen Roma (six males and eleven females) who had faced a firing squad up to 1 July 1942.5Birn, Die Sicherheitspolizei, 187. The Induses were apparently among the dead, for they did not appear on the list of fourteen Narva Roma dispatched to Rakvere on 4 February 1943.

During the first half of 1942, the police rounded up several hundred Roma. Most of them were dispatched to Harku prison, about 10 km southwest of Tallinn. A subsidiary of the Tallinn Central Prison, Harku was occasionally referred to as ‘Gypsy concentration camp’. As of July 1942, the prison housed 1,133 inmates, including 328 Roma. Over half of the Roma prisoners, 189 to be precise, were children. According to the prison director, a mere forty-two Roma were fit for work. Even those individuals, however, could not perform labour due to widespread infectious disease. Male adolescent Roma constituted a separate category of ‘offenders’. The police dispatched some sixty to seventy-five Roma boys to the ‘labour education camp for young offenders’ (also known as ‘juvenile correctional facility’) at Laitse, further southwest of Tallinn and Harku. The youngest among the 12- to seventeen-year-olds attended school, while the rest were engaged in manual labour.

The first and largest mass killing of Roma was carried out on 27 October 1942 at Harku. On that day the 243 Roma in custody (91 men and 152 women) were murdered, as the head of Department B-IV of the Estonian Security Police, Ervin Viks (1897–1983) informed his German counterpart. Those are effectively the only two instances where the police agencies explicitly stated the fact of mass murder of the Roma. In fact, the police headquarters explicitly ordered local offices to report on the number of killings, specifically of Jews, Roma, and prisoners of war.

Annihilation, 1943

The fate of the Estonian Roma was sealed by January 1943. The previous month, German SS and Police Leader Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) had ordered the mass deportation of Roma to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The order went into effect on 29 January 1943, and applied mainly to Roma from Western and Central Europe. One week earlier, head of the German Sipo in Estonia Sandberger provided for a local solution to the ‘Gypsy Question’ by prescribing the deportation of all remaining Roma in Estonia to Tallinn and its vicinity.6Head of the German Security Police in Estonia Sandberger, circular letter, January 22, 1943, Estonian State Archives, R-59/1/70. Sandberger’s order no longer distinguished between ‘sedentary’ and ‘itinerant’ Roma.

Trainloads of Roma started arriving in Tallinn from all over Estonia beginning on 8 February 1943: Haapsalu (58), Paide (25), Rakvere (92), Petseri (73), Hiiumaa (two), Saaremaa (7), Tapa (17), Valga (17), Võru (62), Tartu (eight). A further 174 persons, who originally came from smaller towns and villages, arrived at Tallinn Central Prison from the Tallinn police detention facility on 12 February. Thus, a total of 535 Roma, or over one-half of the Estonian Romani population, found themselves in the capital city at the end of winter, without knowing what lay in store for them. Apparently, a few Roma managed to evade deportation. To give just one example, the list of Roma deported from Haapsalu contained 58 names, while Sandberger in his order spoke of 69 Roma expected to be transported from that particular city.

The Roma dispatched to Tallinn Central Prison from all over Estonia between 8 and 14 February 1943 had barely a week to live. On 10 February, the German Sipo claimed 110 Romani inmates and on 17 February a further 337. In official parlance, those individuals ‘moved from the Tallinn labour education camp into the custody of the German Security Police’. This meant just one thing—mass killing. The Roma who had been in the hands of the German Sipo no longer appear in official records. There is a further piece of evidence that the handover to the German Sipo was equivalent to a death sentence. Willem Indus (unknown–1943) from Narva was sentenced to death as a ‘Gypsy’ in June of 1942. Yet the execution order was stayed until 17 February 1943—the very day when the German Sipo took charge of the 337 Roma. According to a marginal note, Indus underwent ‘special treatment’ [‘Sonderbehandlung’], that is, he was murdered.7Birn, Die Sicherheitspolizei, 189f. Willem Indus’s wife, Lonny Indus (unknown–1943), had gone to her grave one week earlier; six of their children died by bullet as well. Both mass killings most likely took place at Kalevi-Liiva.

There is evidence of at least three other massacres at Kalevi-Liiva, northeast of Tallinn, whose exact date and the number of victims cannot be established with certainty. In September and October 1942, Kalevi-Liiva served as a mass execution site for the incoming German and Czech Jews. 1,754 out of the 2,051 persons brought to Estonia by rail, via Riga, lost their lives at Kalevi-Liiva. Forty-two Roma teenagers from Laitse colony were also executed there sometime between 15 October 1942 and March 1943. The description of the massacre comes from the records of a 1960–61 Soviet war crimes trial. Witnesses differed as to the actual date of the execution. One defendant dated it by autumn 1942 and another by spring 1944. From the context, this particular act of mass murder must have taken place around the time of the first larger mass execution of Roma in Estonia, that is, around late October 1942. As of 22 January 1943, at least some of the Roma children at Laitse were still alive, as is clear from the communication of the commander of the German Sipo in Estonia: Prior to their removal, those Roma were to be categorised as ‘fit’ or ‘unfit for work’.

The details of a further massacre in Kalevi-Liiva can also be pieced together from post-war court proceedings. At least six defendants mentioned the mass execution of Roma at Kalevi-Liiva in early March 1943. They spoke of some twenty-five Roma women and the elderly from Tallinn Central Prison and as many ‘five- and six-year-olds’ from Vasalemma.8The claim that small children came from Vasalemma, which is situated next to Laitse, is impossible to corroborate. Setting this evidence alongside the available police records renders the names of 36 Roma (22 women, four elderly, and ten small children) who likely lost their lives at that particular time and place. Another massacre took place at Kalevi-Liiva in spring 1944, when a group of young Roma from the Laitse juvenile correctional facility was handed over to the German Sipo.

By the second half of 1943, there were just a handful of Roma still at large. Those approximately 90 Roma had a slight chance to survive. By late spring, the Reich Ministry for the Ostland had changed its mind, allowing for the continuous incarceration of ‘sedentary’ Roma, without treating them like Jews. The Reich Criminal Police in Berlin had gone even further, proposing on 15 October that ‘sedentary’ Roma in the Ostland be treated like the non-Romani population while confining itinerant Roma to concentration camps. Yet the bulk of the Romani population in the Baltics was already dead by then. That was essentially how the head of the German civil administration in Estonia responded to the proposal from Berlin. Litzmann stated that in Estonia the Sipo had since long apprehended all Roma [‘alle Zigeuner [sind] seit längerem durch den Sicherheitsdienst sichergestellt’]. He justified the ‘special measures’ by Estonia’s proximity to the frontline. He said he saw no need for any particular provisions regarding the remaining ‘sedentary’ Roma in Estonia, and referred to the Sipo as a supreme authority in these matters.9Reich Commissariat Ostland, interoffice correspondence, October 23, 1943, Bundesarchiv-Berlin, R-90/147.

The inconsistent Nazi policy on whether all Roma or just the itinerant Roma deserved to die contributed to inconsistent reporting regarding people’s capacity to work. In those few cases where such data is available, local authorities deemed 25 Roma in all fit for work and 24 unfit. Sometimes the relevant entry just contained the word ‘child’. Fifteen-year-old Pavel Koslovski from Petseri parish was registered as both ‘child’ and ‘fit for work’; he was killed on 17 February 1943, alongside his father, Nikolai, a farmer ‘fit for work’. The list of occupations and/or social status of Roma—as compiled by the police—is hardly representative. Among the individuals murdered in February of 1943 were the 54-year-old ‘fit-for-work housewife’ Pelageia Koslovski, the 23-year-old ‘unfit-for-work farmer’ Mikhail Koslovski, the 31-year-old peddler Lazar Koslovski, and so on. The manual labourer Ernst Mitrovski was executed on 27 October 1942 at the age of 21. All nine members of the Sepikov family suffered the death penalty, among them the ‘school students’ Vasili and Fedor. In some instances, the police deliberately tried to portray Roma under arrest as ‘work-shy itinerants’. That was the case with 14-year-old Karl Siimann (1928–1942) from Tapa. He was arrested on 1 June 1942, and killed five months later along with 242 other Roma.

The dearth of evidence does not allow us to trace the geographical mobility of Roma. Neither do we know the place of birth of the Roma victims. The only piece of relevant information of interest to the perpetrators was the arrestee’s last address. Even that data is incomplete, however; the address is missing in one-third of all cases. City residents typically had a street address listed, while those in the countryside just the name of the village and/or parish. In the latter instance, the statistics—if compiled at different times—sometimes render multiple domiciles for the same person. This is a sure sign that the Rom in question was itinerant. This mainly applies to the Russian-speaking Roma in Petseri province. Otherwise, the local authorities had registered the social status of Roma rather inconsistently. By implication, the Estonian administration was less concerned than the German about whether or not the Roma had had a permanent residence. Thus, for the entire Romani population, only seventeen persons were designated ‘itinerant’ and a further four ‘panhandler’. In just one case, the police explicitly indicated that the forty-one-year-old Alexander Milanov did not have a permanent address.

The correlation between social mobility and material wealth is difficult to derive for lack of relevant evidence. The police routinely confiscated the property of Roma slated for deportation, typically depositing it with a private individual (ethnic Estonian or Russian) on the condition that it might have to be handed over to the local authorities at short notice. Lonny and Willem Indus, who in October 1941 welcomed their sixth child, owned 42 items, while Anton and Maria Koslovksi and their four children had a mere 18. In Kiviõli prefecture, the police did not even bother listing the meagre possessions of the thirteen local Roma just sent to Rakvere, claiming they had none. The most valuable item that appears on the list of confiscated property is a horse. Just a handful of Roma had any savings. From Rakvere, the Estonian Security Police reported on money and valuables left behind by the 25 Roma who had spent time in a local prison prior to deportation. Six of the prisoners hardly had any money on them, less than one Reichsmark (the equivalent of ca. four Euro) each; three up to 10 RM; and eight up to 90 RM. Only five of the Roma in custody had managed to save some money: Anton Koslovski (38) had 170 RM, Eduard Koslovski (48) 290 RM, Astra Fenge (18) 338 RM, Willem Fenge (37) 541 RM, and Vambola Hiieküla (37) 587 RM. Juhan Siimann (32) and Amalie Fenge (43) failed to produce any cash, though they owned a pocket watch and golden earrings, respectively.

The attempts to escape from places of incarceration typically proved unsuccessful. On 20 January 1942, five Roma inmates staged an escape from Pärnu prison, yet the guards instantly captured Juhan Koslovski (20), Karl-Alfred Mitrovski (23), and Robert Mitrovski (21). Tartsan Koslovski (15) and Robert Mitrovski (23) escaped from Harku prison on 17 April 1942. Mitrovski found himself among the 243 Roma executed six months later, while Koslovski’s name no longer appears in the records. Peeter Burkevich (19) enjoyed just a few hours of freedom after having slipped away from Harku on 6 June 1942. Robert Burkevich (33) was part of the ‘Gypsy transport’ scheduled to leave Tapa station for Tallinn Central Prison on 13 February 1943. That night, he managed to flee by unlocking the door of the railway car. Apparently the fugitive did not get very far because two and half weeks later his name appears on the Murru prisoner list. Of the three Roma—Juhan Burkevich (53), Richard Koslovski (23), and Johannes Koslovski (28)—who had scaled the wall of the Tallinn Central Prison on 6 August 1943, only the youngest inmate vanished without a trace. Both his peers eventually ended up at Murru prison.

How many Estonian Roma survived cannot be established with 100 percent certainty. Four Roma managed to escape from places of detention in 1942–43, and one died in prison in 1941. Two individuals—whose names do not appear in German or Soviet records—later reported the story of their escape (from Kunda cement factory) in the spring of 1944. The whereabouts of 40 individuals remain unknown after their registration in 1941–42. Thirty of them came from Petseri province bordering Russia. Presumably, they had moved to Russia proper before the countrywide ‘Gypsy’ police operation of February 1943. This did not automatically mean survival, since the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppen routinely apprehended and executed Roma in the military zone of occupation. A total of 78 Roma entered the Murru prison between 2 February and 23 December 1943, with no further information available. According to a single testimony at a Soviet war crimes trial, the police transferred somewhere between 150 and 200 Roma to Murru in the summer of 1944 and murdered them shortly after arrival. No documentary evidence exists, however, to corroborate this particular claim. Tallinn Central Prison—which had served as a major transit point for Estonian Jews and Roma—reported 61 (German and Czech) Jews and 31 Roma remaining among its 2,867 inmates in late March 1944. Those Jews survived the war, which increases the probability that the last Romani inmates did as well.

After three years of German rule the Estonian Roma were no more. Aru, Ellermaa, Erling, Ilmjärv, Klave, Mikel, Lama, Sarjas—these Romani families were wiped out. Of yet other families, a single member survived: Jankevich, Kaljusaar, Kasesalu, Korona, Kozlov, Laamann, Ojap, Orukask, Pilve, and Rändpere. The larger extended families that constituted the backbone of the Romani community in Estonia—Burkevich, Indus, Ivanov, Koslovski, Mitrovski, and Siimann—lost three out of four members. Among the executed were three-week-old Raul Koslovski and 101-year-old Gothard Koslovski. Names of individual victims translate into 762–871 deaths, or 83–95 percent of the total Estonian Roma population, thus constituting the highest death rate among the Roma anywhere in Europe.

The Aftermath

Between 1945 and 1991, Estonia remained a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. The Nazi mass murder of Roma in Estonia did not feature high on the Soviet prosecutors’ agenda. Nevertheless, details of specific mass executions emerge from the trials of individual Estonian Nazi collaborators. With just a few Roma survivors in Estonia, oral history of the genocide in this particular Baltic country is effectively non-existent.10Ross and Roht-Yilmaz, “Romad Eestis,” 34. However, comprehensive archival evidence of both German and Soviet provenance enables a detailed reconstruction of the genocide of Roma in occupied Estonia. The late Donald Kenrick (1929–2015) and Michael Zimmermann (1951–2007) carried out the first research on the mass murder of Roma in the Reich Commissariat Ostland. Focusing on Latvia, they demonstrated how the interoffice discourse on ‘sedentary vs. itinerant’ Roma accelerated the course of the destruction. Anton Weiss-Wendt’s empirical research on Estonia further reinforces this conclusion.

According to the daughter of a survivor, Bergitta Siimann, the few remaining Roma in post-war Estonia sometimes took the names and passports of their deceased relatives. The memory of the annihilation was so persistent that some Latvian Roma did not dare to cross the border to Estonia right after the war.11“Mustlasparuness Bergitta Siiman peab tähtsaks oma juuri ja pere meelelaadi,” Valgamaalane 108, September 20, 2014. Meanwhile, Roma from other parts of the Soviet Union began settling in Estonia. According to the 1959 Census, 339 Roma lived in Estonia. The first and only monument to the murdered Roma of Estonia was unveiled on 6 May 2007 at Kalevi-Liiva. The initiative came from the Romani Association of North Estonia, which spent six long years acquiring official permit to erect the monument.12“Kalevi-Liival avati mälestusmärk Teise maailmasõja ajal mõrvatud mustlastele,” Postimees, May 6, 2007, (accessed March 9, 2022). Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, 2 August, is marked also in Estonia. According to the 2021 census, there are 676 Roma residents in Estonia, while the Council of Europe cites the figure 1,050.


  • 1
    Ariste, Mustlaste raamat, passim.
  • 2
    Maiste and Puur, “Rahvastiku registreerimine,” 47.
  • 3
    Head of the Army Group North Rear Areas, report, September 18, 1941, Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH-22/254.
  • 4
    Estonian Security Police in Tartu to the police branch offices, January 24, 1942, Estonian State Archives, R-60/1/2a.
  • 5
    Birn, Die Sicherheitspolizei, 187.
  • 6
    Head of the German Security Police in Estonia Sandberger, circular letter, January 22, 1943, Estonian State Archives, R-59/1/70.
  • 7
    Birn, Die Sicherheitspolizei, 189f.
  • 8
    The claim that small children came from Vasalemma, which is situated next to Laitse, is impossible to corroborate.
  • 9
    Reich Commissariat Ostland, interoffice correspondence, October 23, 1943, Bundesarchiv-Berlin, R-90/147.
  • 10
    Ross and Roht-Yilmaz, “Romad Eestis,” 34.
  • 11
    “Mustlasparuness Bergitta Siiman peab tähtsaks oma juuri ja pere meelelaadi,” Valgamaalane 108, September 20, 2014.
  • 12
    “Kalevi-Liival avati mälestusmärk Teise maailmasõja ajal mõrvatud mustlastele,” Postimees, May 6, 2007, (accessed March 9, 2022).


Anton Weiss-Wendt: Estonia, in: Enzyklopädie des NS-Völkermordes an den Sinti und Roma in Europa. Hg. von Karola Fings, Forschungsstelle Antiziganismus an der Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg 5. März 2024. -

15. September 1935In Deutschland werden das „Reichsbürgergesetz” und das „Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre”, die sogenannten Nürnberger Gesetze, verabschiedet.
14. Dezember 1937In Deutschland ergeht der „Erlass zur vorbeugenden Verbrechensbekämpfung”. Auf dieser Grundlage kann die Kriminalpolizei jederzeit Sinti:ze und Rom:nja in Konzentrationslager verschleppen.
17. Juni 1940Die Sowjetunion besetzt Estland und annektiert es zusammen mit Lettland und Litauen.
7. Juli 1941Die deutsche 18. Armee überschreitet die Grenze zu Estland.
16. Juli 1941Im deutsch besetzten Estland wird Mitte Juli 1941, kurz nach der Einnahme von Tartu, das Konzentrationslager Tartu eingerichtet. Unter den Gefangenen befindet sich auch eine Gruppe von Rom:nja, die im Herbst 1941 dort erschossen wird.
27. August 1941Im deutsch besetzten Estland schreibt die 18. Armee der Wehrmacht vor, „Faulenzer“ zu körperlicher Arbeit heranzuziehen. Rom:nja sollen mit ihren Pferden und Fuhrwerken zwangsweise bei der Getreideernte helfen.
Herbst 1941Hinrichtung einiger Rom:nja im Konzentrationslager Tartu im deutsch besetzten Estland.
10. September 1941Dr. Martin Sandberger ordnet die Verhaftung aller Juden:Jüdinnen im deutsch besetzten Estland an. Hunderte von Männern, Frauen und Kindern werden ermordet.
18. September 1941Die Wehrmacht befiehlt die Verhaftung aller Rom:nja im deutsch besetzten Estland.
29. September 1941Das Gefängnis von Pärnu im deutsch besetzten Estland hat 302 Insassen. Unter den Gefangenen sind fünfzig Rom:nja.
6. Oktober 1941Im deutsch besetzten Estland stirbt die einundsechzigjährige Sophie Siimann während ihrer Inhaftierung im Gefängnis von Pärnu.
1. November 1941In der Nacht zum 1. November 1941 verhaftet die estnische Sicherheitspolizei in Narva (deutsch besetztes Estland) 260 Personen, darunter eine dreiköpfige Romani Familie.
1. Dezember 1941Die deutsche Militärkommandantur in Estland ändert den Befehl vom 18. September 1941, dass alle Rom:nja inhaftiert werden sollen, dahingehend ab, dass nur ‘umherziehende’ Rom:nja verhaftet werden sollen, während diejenigen mit einem festen Wohnsitz unter polizeilicher Überwachung stehen sollen.
4. Dezember 1941Im deutsch besetzten Estland teilt Reichskommissar Lohse dem Höheren SS- und Polizeiführer im Ostland, Friedrich Jeckeln, die Entscheidung vom 1. Dezember 1941 mit und interpretiert sie dahingehend, dass alle Rom:nja inhaftiert werden sollen.
1. Januar 1942Ab diesem Zeitpunkt dürfen Rom:nja die Stadt Tartu (deutsch besetztes Estland) nicht mehr ohne eine Sondergenehmigung betreten.
20. Januar 1942Die Wannsee-Konferenz findet in Berlin statt. Thema des Treffens ist die Ermordung der europäischen Juden:Jüdinnen.
20. Januar 1942Fünf jugendliche Rom:nja brechen aus dem Gefängnis von Pärnu im deutsch besetzten Estland aus. Die Gefängniswärter nehmen drei von ihnen, Juhan Koslovski, Robert Mitrovski und Karl-Alfred Mitrovski, kurz darauf fest. Richard Eamest und Karl Koslovski können fliehen.
25. Januar 1942 – 5. Februar 1942Im deutsch besetzten Estland beginnen die Polizeipräfekturen in Tallinn, Haapsalu, Paide, Saaremaa, Narva und Petseri mit der Überprüfung der Romani Bevölkerung gemäß dem Befehl von Reichskommissar Hinrich Lohse vom 4. Dezember 1941.
17. April 1942Im deutsch besetzten Estland fliehen Tartsan Koslovski und Robert Mitrovski aus dem Gefängnis von Harku. Robert Mitrovski kommt bei einem Massenmord am 27. Oktober 1942 ums Leben, die Spur von Tartsan Koslovski verliert sich nach der Flucht.
27. Mai 1942Konferenz in Tallinn (deutsch besetztes Estland) zum Thema der Zusammenarbeit zwischen der deutschen und der estnischen Polizei. Heinrich Bergmann, Kommandeur der deutschen Kriminalpolizei in Estland, spricht über die „Lösung der Zigeunerfrage”.
1. Juni 1942Verhaftung und Verhör von Karl Siimann in Paide (deutsch besetztes Estland).
1. – 30. Juni 1942Die estnische Sicherheitspolizei weist Dienststellen an, über Juden und „Zigeuner” unter der Überschrift „Rassenfrage” zu berichten.
6. Juni 1942Im deutsch besetzten Estland bricht Peeter Burkevich aus dem Gefängnis von Harku aus. Er wird nach wenigen Stunden gefasst.
1. Juli 1942Die estnische Sicherheitspolizei berichtet von siebzehn Rom:nja (sechs Männer und elf Frauen), die bislang an ein Erschießungskommando übergeben wurden. Unter den Toten sind wahrscheinlich auch die beiden Kinder Vera und Valentina Indus.
18. Juli 1942Im deutsch besetzten Estland sind im Gefangenenlager Harku 1133 Inhaftierte untergebracht, darunter 328 Rom:nja (189 von ihnen Kinder).
27. Oktober 1942Ermordung von 243 Rom:nja in Harku (deutsch besetztes Estland), unter ihnen Karl Siimann, Leontine Siimann und Richard Siimann.
16. Dezember 1942„Auschwitz-Erlass”: Heinrich Himmler, Chef der Schutzstaffel („Reichsführer SS”), ordnet die Deportation von Sinti:ze und Rom:nja aus dem Deutschen Reich in das Konzentrations- und Vernichtungslager Auschwitz-Birkenau an.
22. Januar 1943Der Leiter der deutschen Sicherheitspolizei in Estland, Dr. Martin Sandberger, ordnet die Deportation aller estnischen Rom:nja an.
29. Januar 1943Das Reichssicherheitshauptamt in Berlin, Deutschland, erlässt genauere Anweisungen zu der Deportation von Sinti:ze und Rom:nja in das Konzentrations- und Vernichtungslager Auschwitz-Birkenau.
8. Februar 1943Beginn der Deportation von Rom:nja aus dem gesamten deutsch besetzten Estland nach Tallinn. Das Zentralgefängnis Tallinn wird zu einer Sammelstelle für deportierte Rom:nja in Estland.
10. Februar 1943Massenerschießung von 110 Rom:nja, die zuvor im Zentralgefängnis von Tallinn (deutsch besetztes Estland) inhaftiert waren, durch die deutsche Sicherheitspolizei, wahrscheinlich in Kalevi-Liiva. Unter den Opfern ist Lonny Indus aus Narva, die Ehefrau von Willem Indus, zusammen mit ihren sechs Kindern.
12. Februar 1943174 Rom:nja, die aus kleineren Städten und Dörfern in Estland stammen, werden aus Polizeihaft in Tallinn in das Zentralgefängnis Tallinn verlegt.
13. Februar 1943Im deutsch besetzten Estland gelingt Robert Burkevich die Flucht aus einem Deportationszug, der vom Bahnhof Tapa zum Zentralgefängnis Tallinn fahren soll. Er wird bald gefasst.
17. Februar 1943Massenerschießung von 337 Rom:nja, die zuvor im Zentralgefängnis von Tallinn (deutsch besetztes Estland) inhaftiert waren, durch die deutsche Sicherheitspolizei, wahrscheinlich in Kalevi-Liiva. Willem Indus aus Narva ist unter den Opfern, ebenso der fünfzehnjährige Pavel Koslovski aus der Gemeinde Petseri und sein Vater, Nikolai Koslovski.
29. März 1943Das Reichssicherheitshauptamt ordnet die Deportation von Rom:nja und Sinti:ze aus deutsch besetzten Gebieten und Ländern (Belgien, Bezirk Bialystok, Elsass, Lothringen, Luxemburg, Niederlande und Nordfrankreich) in das Konzentrations- und Vernichtungslager Auschwitz-Birkenau an.
23. Mai 1943Das Reichsministerium für das Ostland erlaubt die ständige Inhaftierung von ‘sesshaften’ Rom:nja, ohne sie wie Juden:Jüdinnen zu behandeln.
6. August 1943Im deutsch besetzten Estland versuchen Juhan Burkevich, Richard Koslovski und Johannes Koslovski aus dem Zentralgefängnis von Tallinn zu fliehen. Richard Koslovski gelingt die Flucht, während die beiden anderen gefangen genommen und im Dezember 1943 ins „Arbeitserziehungslager” in Murru verlegt werden.
15. Oktober 1943Die Reichskriminalpolizei in Berlin schlägt vor, „sesshafte” Rom:nja im ‚Ostland‘ wie die einheimische Bevölkerung zu behandeln und umherziehende” Rom:nja in Konzentrationslager einzusperren.
24. März 1944Das Zentralgefängnis Tallinn im deutsch besetzten Estland meldet 61 (deutsche und tschechische) Juden:Jüdinnen und 31 Rom:nja unter seinen 2 867 Gefangenen.
Sommer 1944Laut einer Zeugenaussage in einem sowjetischen Kriegsverbrecherprozess verlegt die Polizei im Sommer 1944 zwischen 150 und 200 Rom:nja in das „Arbeitserziehungslager” in Murru (deutsch besetztes Estland) und tötet sie.
24. Oktober 1944Ende der deutschen Besatzung Estlands.
15. September 1947Beginn des Einsatzgruppen-Prozesses in Nürnberg, Deutschland, gegen 24 ehemalige SS-Männer, die für Verbrechen in der von Deutschland besetzten Sowjetunion während des Zweiten Weltkriegs maßgeblich verantwortlich waren.
6. Mai 2007In Kalevi-Liiva wird das erste und einzige Denkmal für die ermordeten Rom:nja Estlands enthüllt, das von der Romani Association of North Estonia initiiert wurde.