Again this year, we’re fighting for inclusion in our own history. The UN Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony at the UN General Assembly in NYC in January is again NOT PLANNING to include a Romani or Sinti speaker in their activities. Last year, we undertook a letter writing campaign and were able to get the wonderful Dr. Ethel Brooks to speak [a video of that is available here]. She was only the SECOND Romani representative EVER to speak in the event. Why is this? Why are Roma and Sinti Holocaust victims consistently denied representation?
‘‘[o]ur ashes mingled in the ovens why should that be remembered separately today?’’
(Romani Holocaust Survivor in Hancock 1987).
It is plain to see that for all the success of the Jewish Holocaust survivors and their supporters, other groups victimized by the Nazis have been less able to achieve similar acknowledgement of their victimization. Even within academia, scholars are unable (or unwilling) to agree that Roma and Sinti also faced the wrath of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ and despite the obvious similarities between treatment of Jews and that of Roma and Sinti, we have not achieved the same level of redress for the wrongs committed. There appear to be several reasons why our plight has not thus far been equally remembered or grieved. The primary issue seems to revolve around a lack of perceived agency, political resources, and intercultural or diasporic networks needed to generate a wider resonance or our cause. Victim agency (or lack thereof) is not, however, sufficient explanation by itself for the consistent denial of our own historical claims. This is especially true in the face of the consistent rebuttal of our vociferous attempts to gain equal representation.
Any such claims to inclusion are, unfortunately, mitigated by social conditions (that are themselves produced and reproduced through human agency (or lack thereof) and of which state power is only a small, yet important, part). Much depends on the ability of victim groups to articulate and gain public and political agency and historically “Gypsies” have been systematically denied any form of agency within social, political, or economic spheres. Even as late as the 1930s and 1940s many of our families were still partially nomadic and many were illiterate. We did not have birth certificates or identification cards and many of our family members were buried in unmarked mass graves that have yet to be found. The “number” of Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust is most likely more than three times that currently reported in academic and other sources. Even today, many Roma live in abject poverty and are consistently and systematically denied access to adequate housing, employment, education, and health care. Our “agency” is limited to those who can, despite all obstacles, achieve enough education to be considered “human” in the eyes of the historically (and currently) anti-Romani majority.
However, even the very act of our persecution is questioned. For example, early compensation policy was open only to those persecuted on racial, religious, or political grounds, which should have rightfully applied Roma and Sinti, however, the West German administrators of the compensation programs argued that ‘‘Gypsies’’ were ineligible for indemnification because they were persecuted for criminal rather than racial reasons. Indeed, they would often rely on research conducted during the Nazi period to illustrate Roma and Sinti ‘‘asociality’’ and thus to deny them compensation. Second, the compensation process, even for Jewish claimants, was exceedingly complex and required a wealth of documentation. Claimants were expected to have identification, medical reports, and other information pertaining to their claims. For many Sinti and Roma, they either did not possess such items or the Nazis took these documents during their time of persecution. Moreover, they did not have access to as many facilitative agencies such as the Claims Conference and the other Jewish organizations as were available to Jewish claimants. Global payments, such as those made to Israel and the Claims Conference, were not even considered for any other group.
Unfortunately, the Roma and Sinti did not possess the same level of organization as the Jewish population did, even prior to WWII. For example, Jewish organizations began to document Nazi crimes even during the Holocaust, understanding the political and symbolic importance of such documentation. Jewish leaders realized at an early stage that their calls for reparations were likely to be only of secondary concern to the Allies, who, once the war ended, would busy themselves with their own claims against Germany. Historically, reparations had been paid to the victors, not the victims of war and mass violence; therefore, the Jewish leadership recognized that it would be necessary to muster sufficient support for Holocaust reparation. The idea of a “national” claim to reparations meshed with the called for re-establishment of the state of Israel. This also helped to create a more modern Jewish national identity, which included all Jews, no matter how diverse, within it’s borders.
The Roma and Sinti were not as fortunate. It was not until as late as the 1970s and 1980s, when a new discussion of forgotten victims emerged, that we were able to mobilize sufficient public support to even challenge public opinion and representation as ‘criminal’ and deserving of concentration camp internment. Yes, that’s correct – many believed that out of all of the victims of the Holocaust, the Roma and Sinti deserved to die. Roma and Sinti have, therefore, been historically criminalized and not victimized. Even today, such a dichotomy exists in many European countries – we are the cause of the treatment we receive at the hands of neo-Nazis and Fascists. Little has changed in the levels of criminalization we experience on a daily basis. As well as this, we still lack a cohesive unity, despite the collective experiences of our populations.
Roma organization in Europe officially began in 1962, with the Comite´ International Rom [CIR]. The CIR attempted to assist Roma persons in taking advantage of the West German indemnification process initiated by the Jewish organizations and Israel, but it lacked the resources needed to navigate the difficult legal process and all its requirements for individual documentation (e.g., medical records, proof of citizenship). West German courts and gatekeepers continually denied individual Roma claims, or offered paltry sums. In addition, little thought was given to providing collective claims to the Roma. In 1979, Roma and Sinti held a ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to commemorate “Gypsy” victims of the Porajmos. Later, and perhaps more effectively, a hunger strike by 13 Roma and Sinti protesters at Dachau in April 1980 garnered a great deal of West German and international media attention. The hunger strikers called not only for recognition and compensation for the Porajmos, but they also demanded that postwar anti-Roma and anti-Sinti policy be removed.
In 1982, German Roma leader Romani Rose established the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, which sought to achieve the same results as the central and international Jewish organizations, namely global compensation payments. By 1985, the Roma and Sinti had achieved official recognition as victims of Nazism, and in public discourse they came to be treated as groups victimized in a similar manner to the Jews. Later, in 1990, the German government at last provided some global compensation to the Roma and Sinti, with the establishment of a Sinti and Roma culture and documentation center in Heidelberg. Nonetheless, at this late stage, many Roma and Sinti victims of the Porajmos had died before they could receive compensation, had suffered through postwar discrimination, and had not experienced the collective benefits of global compensation. For many, these efforts were truly too little, too late.
“The Frankfurt Braubachstrasse is a small, rather insignificant street joining two main transport axes in the centre of the city. The tens of thousands of tourists who cross the street every year on their way from the Paulskirche, the cradle of German democracy, to the Romer, the pseudo-romantic reconstruction of Frankfurt’s city hall, scarcely notice it. But three times every year the street is the scene of a strange pilgrimage: a handful of Roma activists and their supporters meet in front of a grey building on the left hand side of the street. This is the seat of the city public health department and the one-time workplace of Robert Ritter and his assistant Eva Justin, two leading Nazi race biologists. The annual gatherings commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, the liquidation of the so-called ‘Gypsy camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the decree authorising the deportation of Sinti and Roma to Auschwitz”.
Despite arguments for the criminalization of Roma and Sinti, Robert Ritter’s research into what he considered the racial characteristics of the Roma provided the pseudo-scientific foundations for their later extermination by the Nazis. It was NOT criminalization as more widely believed, but indeed victimization in the same way as the Jewish victims. There has been little support or solidarity from outside organizations; Roma activists operate largely alone.
One indication of the lack of interest in the subject is the absence of any precise figures of Roma deaths under the Nazis. While Roma activists put the figure between 500,000 and 1.5 million, others have advanced much lower figures, just 100,000 or so. But many Roma executions were carried out on the spot and went unregistered; many other victims were simply listed with Jewish ones. Nor did the Roma have an intellectual cadre or receptive diaspora worldwide capable of telling their story. It would be lax of me not to address claims of the Porajmos somehow being a “lesser” genocide, however, it does no one good to play the morbid game of counting death tolls and percentages, nevertheless, many claim that because more Jews were killed, they should rightly have more visibility. Yet others would argue that a greater percentage of the Roma and Sinti populations were killed in the Holocaust, making any claims for reparations more urgently pressing. These qualitative/quantitative arguments will always take place in such instances of genocide and to some extent allow victims to negotiate and create their own trauma narratives, however they do nothing to move forward our claims, and indeed they can often seem like attempts to deny other victim narratives.
In the early 2000s, even Yehuda Bauer, director of the Yad Vashem Memorial Centre, claimed once more that unlike the Jews, Roma were not a central target of the Final Solution, merely ‘minor irritants’. At the same time, we are told it is our responsibility to make the Romani Holocaust known and it is our responsibility to change if we want to overcome the persistent, Europe-wide anti-Gypsyism and to increase our lobbying and advocacy activities. We are accused of being a “people without a past”; of forgetting rather than remembering and academic research has focused on Westernized views of memory, oral history, and remembrance. Scholars have not taken into account our own modes of memory and how we may remember without commemoration. They have not listened to our stories or voices, instead silencing them repeatedly behind walls of “illiteracy” and “criminalization”. So much so, in fact, that when those of us who have achieved high levels of education step forward we are seen as being apart from, or separate ethnicities to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. In our cries for remembrance, we are still even today viewed as an unworthy criminal group who do not need commemoration or remembrance.
And so, again, we are being excluded on grounds that seem to be rooted in stereotypes that existed even long before the war. The Roma and Sinti – in the eyes of the UN – are not worthy of remembrance. We are, according to their actions and the actions of many Jewish organizations, still a criminalized minority who deserved to die. We are written out of our own histories, denied our own memories, and denied our rightful historical space. I also personally believe that much of the denial of our existence is politically motivated, with media and policy alike aiming to recriminalize and marginalize the Roma at every opportunity. It would therefore be unwise for large, highly politicized organizations to bow to our demands. We are, after all, unwelcome guests in almost every country in which we live. To accord us space in the Holocaust would begin to allow the humanization of us as a people…
and so, I will never stop pressing for our inclusion in our own historical past. The United Nations needs to pull its fingers out of the political pie and realize that, in accordance with its own charter, it exists “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace; to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends”.