I haven’t written here for a few days. Honestly, August 2nd and all of the media surrounding it, really took it out of me. As a relative of survivors, the way remembrance of the Holocaust is mishandled year after year is … not only disappointing, but hurtful and draining.
Yet, it’s also not surprising.
A look at any definition, such as that from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, illustrates why the term “Holocaust” is (and will continue to be) problematic for non-Jewish peoples. The word itself comes from the Greek, ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt”. It is considered a religious term, and since the 1960s, the word has come to be used by scholars and popular writers to refer specifically to the Nazi genocide of Jews.
And herein lies the problem – there has never been space in this terminology, this remembrance for the Roma and Sinti. We didn’t face some other foe, we didn’t burn in some other fires, but yet we are not remembered as part of the “Jewish” Holocaust. Some say this is because Hitler targeted the Roma as asocial criminals; others say that the Holocaust was solely a Jewish event.
It has been proven time and again that Roma and Sinti were targeted on racial grounds and that Hitler included us in his “Final Solution” for complete annihilation. Yet, this has done little to change people’s thoughts on the Holocaust and survivors.
Yehuda Bauer contends that the Holocaust should include only Jews because it was the intent of the Nazis to exterminate all Jews, while the other groups were not to be totally annihilated.Inclusion of non-Jewish victims of the Nazis in the Holocaust is objected to by many persons including Elie Wiesel, and by organizations such as Yad Vashem established to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. They say that the word was originally meant to describe the extermination of the Jews, and that the Jewish Holocaust was a crime on such a scale, and of such totality and specificity, as the culmination of the long history of European antisemitism, that it should not be subsumed into a general category with the other crimes of the Nazis.
The phrase “Lebensunwertes Leben – Life unworthy of Life” still seems to be applied to the Roma and Sinti, as though our suffering and loss doesn’t matter; as though we don’t deserve to be remembered. In fact, one argument commonly used to credit this erasure of the Romani from Holocaust memorials and services is that the Roma are “a people who forget rather than remember their history” and therefore do not commemorate historical or cultural events (Michael Stewart: “Remembering without Commemoration” 2004). As such, the Roma and Sinti, therefore do not need to remember or be remembered.
My grandmother would argue with this. She would ask how she was supposed to forget. My aunt would ask how it was possible to carry so many dead souls with you every day. The remnants of my family arrived broken and distraught in England with no place to put their horror. My family there had heard little of the reality of the war and even less about the Holocaust. My grandmother, a young woman who’d just lost most of her family, had no one but her surviving family members to share her grief and her trauma with, and they did not want to remember. Their narratives were trapped behind their eyes like wolves in the dark, soothed only by bottle after bottle of whiskey or brandy heated in tea. There was no space to unpack what had happened to them, to explore their anger, fear, or sadness. Even for those who returned to communities of shared experience, their lives were destroyed and focus naturally fell on rebuilding and recovering.
However, being “Gypsy” was still illegal in most of Europe even after the end of the war and liberation. Our families had everything they owned taken from them – property such as houses, wagons, horses; money; jewelry; clothing; everything. There was nowhere for them to return to and nothing for them to find when they got there. They did not need to remember, as their very lives were consumed by the evidence of everything that had happened to them (and in some cases was still happening). Our families faced continued marginalization and discrimination. They found no relief from societal structures of prejudice and stereotypes, which were substantially influenced by the misanthropic racial ideology of the Nazis and other fascist regimes.
Roma and Sinti were excluded from the Wiedergutmachung (war crimes reparation) on the grounds that we were not persecuted on racial grounds, but because of “asocial behaviour”. Jewish denial that the persecution of the Roma had been based on racial grounds successfully excluded Romani from what became exclusively a Jewish Holocaust. It became near to impossible to convince pubic opinion that the Roma, too, had suffered a genocide. In fact, this continued “criminalization” of the Roma and Sinti is responsible for much of the abject poverty and exclusion that we face today. Just as during the Third Reich, Romani are considered “asocial” and “criminal” by virtue of their race.
Everything done to us was done because of our race. Politicians still call Romani “antisocial, mentally backward, unassimilable and socially unacceptable” (Vladimir Meciar, former prime minister of Slovakia). There are still pogroms, mass evictions, and calls for gas chambers and genocide. Every day news reports spur racism with their insistence that Romani are “terrorising”, “stealing”, “kidnapping”, “murdering”, “polluting”. They call for “solutions” to the “Gypsy problem”, either willfully ignorant of the connotations such phrases hold, or using them to deliberately allude to the past.
While there is still so little room for us in everyday life, how can there ever be room in global consciousness for us as victims of genocide?
Tears of Blood – Bronislawa Wajs (“Papusza”)
(How we suffered under the German soldiers in Volyň from 1943 to 1944)
In the woods. No water, no fire — great hunger.
Where could the children sleep? No tent.
We could not light the fire at night.
By day, the smoke would alert the Germans.
How to live with children in the cold of winter?
All are barefoot…
When they wanted to murder us,
first they forced us to hard labor.
A German came to see us.
— I have bad news for you.
They want to kill you tonight.
Don’t tell anybody.
I too am a dark Gypsy,
of your blood — a true one.
God help you
in the black forest…
Having said these words,
he embraced us all…
For two three days no food.
All go to sleep hungry.
Unable to sleep,
they stare at the stars…
God, how beautiful it is to live!
The Germans will not let us…
Ah, you, my little star!
At dawn you are large!
Blind the Germans!
lead them astray,
so the Jewish and Gypsy child can live!
When big winter comes,
what will the Gypsy woman with a small child do?
Where will she find clothing?
Everything is turning to rags.
One wants to die.
No one knows, only the sky,
only the river hears our lament.
Whose eyes saw us as enemies?
Whose mouth cursed us?
Do not hear them, God.
A cold night came,
The old Gypsy women sang
A Gypsy fairy tale:
Golden winter will come,
snow, like little stars,
will cover the earth, the hands.
The black eyes will freeze,
the hearts will die.
So much snow fell,
it covered the road.
One could only see the Milky Way in the sky.
On such night of frost
a little daughter dies,
and in four days
mothers bury in the snow
four little sons.
Sun, without you,
see how a little Gypsy is dying from cold
in the big forest.
Once, at home, the moon stood in the window,
didn’t let me sleep. Someone looked inside.
I asked — who is there?
— Open the door, my dark Gypsy.
I saw a beautiful young Jewish girl,
shivering from cold,
asking for food.
You poor thing, my little one.
I gave her bread, whatever I had, a shirt.
We both forgot that not far away
were the police.
But they didn’t come that night.
All the birds
are praying for our children,
so the evil people, vipers, will not kill them.
My unlucky luck!
Snow fell as thick as leaves,
barred our way,
such heavy snow, it buried the cartwheels.
One had to trample a track,
push the carts behind the horses.
How many miseries and hungers!
How many sorrows and roads!
How many sharp stones pierced our feet!
How many bullets flew by our ears!
Translated from the Polish by Yala Korwin.