It’s disturbing enough that whole segments of our society insist on ignoring the holocaust, or denying its reality at all. But it seems even stranger to me that many of a group that has so suffered at the cruel hands of history should choose to jealously guard their tragedy, to the exclusion of other equally tormented groups.
This is the case with a certain segment of the world’s Jewish population, that for one reason or another, must claim the holocaust as their own, and deny the systematic murder of half a million Roma in the same way that so many others have tried to deny the systematic murder of six million Jews. It’s as if solidarity in suffering will somehow diminish the magnitude of their own tragedy.
Now, the ignorance of the Romany loss in the holocaust can be significantly blamed on European governments’ not finding it necessary to memorialize a group they have long sought themselves to marginalize. But why so many in the Jewish communities? What a strange opposite to the old adage that “misery likes company”! I don’t get it.
I am neither Jewish nor Roma, so many will say that I cannot ever hope to understand the collective consciousness surrounding the holocaust. This is true. I cannot. Nor can I imagine why so many — Jews and Gentiles alike — insist on denying that the Roma, too, were victims of Nazi extermination.
Slowly, and thankfully, this is beginning to change. The Roma are beginning to find a voice for their suffering, and today – August 2 – is a significant marker in their centuries-long tragedy.
Today, Roma are preparing to come together in dozens of cities throughout Europe and beyond to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liquidation of Zigeunerlager, the Romany camp, at Auschwitz. On the night of August 2 and 3, 1944, nearly 3,000 Romany men, women, and children were murdered in Nazi gas chambers in what has come to be known as the “Porrajmos,” Romany for “The Devouring.”
For the last sixty years, the eagerness on the part of some to maintain the character of the holocaust as a “uniquely Jewish experience” has led to a nearly wholesale marginalization of the suffering endured by the Romany people in World War II.
For years, politicians and historians alike insisted that Roma became victims of the Nazi campaign not because of their ethnicity, but because they were “asocial.” In other words, the world was ready to believe that they and they alone were to blame for any persecution they endured.
History tells us, however, that on July 31, 1941, Reinhardt Heydrich, the chief architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution, set in motion the machinery of the Holocaust by ordering the eradication of “all Jews, Gypsies and mental patients.” No other groups were included wholesale in that role, implying that like the Jews, the Roma were targeted because of their ethnicity, because they were “genetic contaminants” of the Master race.
Nazi records and historical analyses have estimated that the percent of Europe’s Roma that perished in the holocaust is equal to or even higher than the percent of the Jewish population that was lost. However, unlike the Jews, the Roma left almost no records of the atrocities committed against them. In many ways, the world was not even aware of their disappearance. No memorials were erected to their dead, no funds set up for their survivors.
Until now. Finally, sixty years after the closing of the Roma camp at Auschwitz, this last injustice is being righted.
One such commemoration is being held today in Poland. The event will climax with a silent march to the site of the former gas chambers. There, young Roma will read aloud the names of those who perished on that dark night, in the Porrajmos.
Similar events are being organized elsewhere. Candles will be lit in remembrance in dozens of cities in Europe and beyond, including Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Belgrade, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Paris, and more.
The worldwide Commemoration of Roma Victims in Brussels, also scheduled for today, is expected to be the largest yet collective act of remembrance, with about forty Romany organizations participating.
This particular commemoration has a dual purpose. It is intended to pay respects to all of those who died in the holocaust, as well as the victims of present-day ethnic-cleansing campaigns, such as those in Kosovo. Thousands of Roma will hear messages from Christian and Muslim Romany leaders alike, all calling for the full emancipation of the Roma and the universal respect for basic human rights.
“In recalling the final desperate fight of those who died in Auschwitz,” said Imer Kajtazi, president of the Romani Union of Former Yugoslavia in the Diaspora, “I shall speak of all those who have died since — the victims of ethnic-cleansing in Kosovo and elsewhere. And I shall call upon all activists to renew our struggle in their name.”
Though I am neither Roma, nor Jewish; though I have lost relatives to neither concentration camps nor police brutality; though I am not poor but privileged in every sense of the word, I would like to counter the cry of those who would say that I do not know, I cannot understand. I can read, and hear, and see, and feel; I am able to know pain in my heart for those who have needlessly suffered, however remote they might be from my own reality.
I only hope that the small things I am able to accomplish through the years may make some difference along the way, if only to teach through this single blog one single person who did not know that there were “gypsy” lives lost in the holocaust. It is in these small steps, where one person at a time awakens to the reality of the suffering of others, that real change begins. This is where we – as a world – begin to honor that 60-year-old cry of the Holocaust survivors: “Never forget. Never again.”
For my article “Roma worldwide to commemorate those who perished in the holocaust,” which contains more information on the denial of the Roma tragedy as well as regional events, please see: http://www.dzeno.cz/?c_id=4539
For further reading on trends against recognition of Roma in the holocaust, see Alan Rosenbaum (ed.), Is the Holocaust Unique?; Boulder: The Westview Press (1995).
Also, Ian Hancock’s “Uniqueness of the Victims: Gypsies, Jews and the Holocaust,” Without Prejudice: The EAFORD International Review of Racial Discrimination 1(2):45-67 (1988)
Posted By Stacy Kosko (Czech Republic)
Posted Aug 2nd, 2004