I come from a family of mad women and strong women. Sometimes, they seem to be both, mottled with the bruised fingerprints of hungry ghosts. Phuri Baba survived the Holocaust. At least, her body did. Her mind left her, somewhere along the way, carried on the flames of Nazi hatred. Her husband, Phuro Paapo, he didn’t make it. I always thought he died in England, but he didn’t. He never left the Zigeunerlager. He too vanished like smoke, along with four of their children. Every day Phuri Baba drank their memory from bottles of whiskey and gin and every day she was unable to find them. She saw in the faces of her surviving children all the smiles and tears of those who never came home.
Maami too, drank her memories and stared at the fire, silent as the snow falling outside. One of only a handful of survivors, Maami still heard her brothers’ voices as they sang songs into the night, or her sister’s musical laughter, echoes of lives torn from her grasp. My father was raised on the bottle, himself a survivor; his twin brother dying within the first six months of life. Of the eight children Maami carried, only three survived into adulthood – all of them the youngest; all born in the bitter years immediately after the war.
According to scholars such as Jeffrey Alexander, “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves an indelible mark upon their group consciousness, marking their memory for ever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 2004).
For my family, and indeed many others, the Holocaust became just such a trauma, embedded silently within our culture, trickling down through the generations, like sand ticking through an hour-glass. Maami never spoke about the horrors of the war she witnessed firsthand. Even when she reached the bottom of another bottle, she’d turn her hollow eyes to me and wordlessly implore me to go get just one more. For a long time I never understood her urge to drink or the reasons for her many silences.
My mother, on the other hand, was not strong and her silences were of another kind. Raised by her mother, a strict traditional řomnji, somehow she’d lost herself. Baba barely mentioned her own family. When she did it was only to reference those few still living. Baba didn’t drink, but she buried herself in adamant denial of the supernatural or spiritual, terrified of the hungry ghosts that haunted her life. Born right after the war, my mother was constantly berated for playing “make believe” and never learned how to read or write. As she grew she swallowed her dreams and looked to her older sister for everything. Bibi Prajťori (known as little leaf since she was a small, waif-like child) was almost eleven years her elder and was as solid and reserved and silent as my mother was not. Born prior to the war, Bibi was the eldest of a large number of children; my mother the youngest. Only the two of them survived.
Despite the fact that formal definitions insist that cultural trauma must be “accepted and publicly given credence,” (Neil Smelser, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 2004) the women in my family carry the memory alone, in the names of their dead children and husbands who never came home. When even the United Nations cannot bring itself to speak their names, how can we, as women, put down the burden of the losses that our families experienced?
Sometimes, in the silences between words, my mother would stare at me as if I was someone else. Perhaps, in that moment, I was a lost sister or brother; perhaps I was too similar to the memories that strolled the cloisters of her mind. Sometimes, when she would hit me, it seemed as though she punished me for existing; a painful reminder of the trauma that grew through our family like the mold that rotted the walls of our houses.
Yet memory, in the form of history and tradition is central to our society and to our social interaction. Memory provides us as individuals, as well as us as a collective, a cognitive map, helping to orient who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. Memory is central to our identity – both individual and collective. Scholars have traditionally defined collective memory as “recollections of a shared past which are passed on through ongoing processes of commemoration, officially sanctioned rituals which remember a group through calling upon a common heritage, with a shared past as a central component” (Ron Eyerman, The Past in the Present: Culture and the Transmission of Memory, 2004), though for my family, and many others, remembrance of the Holocaust was largely done without words, in the shroud of night, or the silence of a snow-filled afternoon.
Roma have, according to academia, been completely silent about our history, especially regarding the Second World War. So much so, in fact, that we have been accused of being “a people without history” or “a people who forget”. Accordingly, academia has done little to investigate the silences that litter our lives, instead believing that we are a people to whom the past simply does not matter. According to Mirriam Kaprow, ours is “a world without nostalgia, inhabited by a people who seem to celebrate impermanence” (Resisting Respectability: Gypsies In Saragossa, 1982). If this were true, the Holocaust should have had no lasting effect on my family, my community, or my culture. Yet, my story is not unique.
Although most certainly victimized during the Holocaust, the Roma were also criminalized, since according to the Nazis we were not only racially impure but also “asocial criminals”. As such, it was the the criminal police (‘Kripo’) who were responsible for the Roma and not the Gestapo. In fact, even after the war the persecution of Roma and even the mass slaughters were often explained in the very terms the Nazis had used, as a necessarily firm repressive, security-driven policy for dealing with the wayward (and nationally non-affiliated) poor (e.g. Döring 1964). Indeed, even today, there are still some historians whose ostensibly sympathetic accounts of the Holocaust explicitly suggest that in some way the Roma provoked their own persecution (Lewy 2000: 11). Roma who survived relied on silence to rebuild their lives. Those who had not directly experienced the camps could not be made fully aware of the horrors that lay within them; likewise, those who barely escaped the mass-killings, rapes, or forced labour, found solace in their own silence. The continued criminalization of the Roma has led, in no uncertain terms, to our repeated erasure from commemoration and remembrance ceremonies and to an externally enforced silence that has bound our elders’ lips shut.
When I asked my grandmother why we, as Romani survivors, did not remember publicly, she said to me, “you remember Čexi (Czech Republic), na? When we went through there going for the summer. You remember how beautiful it was? They think us Gypsies are not beautiful, so they hide us away. They hide our memory too. There were camps there, I heard, Hodonín and Lety. Your kako told me that there are pig farms and hotels there now. That’s how these people remember us. They drink wine and sun themselves on our bones and the pigs shit on your dead ancestors. How can we remember when people still say we should die?”
People tell me all the time that attitudes are changing, that we need to move on and to put the past behind us. Yet, this implies a denial of the trauma and suffering that our families experienced. I read a story a long time ago, that said Roma scrawled black butterflies on the inside of the wooden barracks in one of the Zigeunerlager, as a symbol of freedom. When I asked my bibi Lemija (Maami’s sister) about it, she said that the Roma are like those butterflies. In order to survive we change and grow and we never mourn for the caterpillars that we once were, instead always flying upwards towards heaven.
Perhaps this is true. Yet, as a daughter of the Holocaust and survivor of alcoholism and cultural trauma, I firmly believe that recognition of the Roma is a necessary, and required, part of integration. The “Decade of Roma Inclusion” has failed to note that since its conception in 2006, the United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony has only invited two Romani speakers to take part. Even then, their role and capacity for recognition has been minor and downplayed. In the inaugural opening message, Kofi Annan did not even address the millions of Romani victims, instead stating that, “Millions of innocent Jews and members of other minorities were murdered in the most barbarous ways imaginable” (Message for the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, the UN, 2006).
My family were not criminals. Those little children were sisters and daughters; brothers and sons.
They deserve the same respect as any other victim and the same space for recognition and commemoration.