I remember the first time I spoke out, the word “Holocaust” stumbling from my lips and falling heavily on the table in front of me. I remember being consumed in a fire of shame, sadness, and fear the moment I heard myself say it. My relatives rarely used the word “Holocaust”, instead speaking about a hungry smoke (bokhalo thuv) that slowly enveloped Europe and devoured their families and friends. I didn’t see it when I was younger, but as I grew the small things started to add up into one, giant, realization;
The Holocaust was not solely a Jewish event.
The bruise-coloured tattoos that crawled up arms, quickly hidden, never mentioned. The names that fell into the fire twice a year, toasted by shots of burning whiskey and a tearful prayer to Devljikanji daj. Names that had never had faces. Remembrances measured out in empty bottles and hollow eyes. It wasn’t so much the words that were spoken by those who carried these burdens, but the words that they could not speak. The words that coiled in their throats like barbed-wire, biting and bloody.
So, when I stood up with a trembling heart before a class intent on the Jewishness of the Holocaust, I wasn’t sure that the words would allow themselves to be spoken. But, that didn’t matter. As soon as I introduced myself as a Romani woman whose family were Holocaust survivors an eerie silence collapsed from the walls of the classroom. The professor took a step back. Several students shifted uncomfortably. Then, the thing I expected least of all erupted from a quiet-spoken young woman in the back of the class:
“HOW DARE YOU!” She spat, the rage hurling itself across the classroom, white-hot against my cheeks. “You can’t come in here at tell us that the Holocaust wasn’t Jewish. That’s anti-Semitic. You can’t claim this if you’re not Jewish. I can’t believe you just tried to insert yourself into a historical event that doesn’t concern you!”
And there it was. And there I was. And the silence rang painfully in my ears as my eyes filled with tears and I didn’t know whether to stay standing or run from the classroom. In the end, my knees gave out and I sank to my seat as the class exploded into a heated debate about what the Holocaust meant and who was allowed to claim the horror of it. No one noticed as I gathered my bag and scuttled out into the hallway.
I didn’t say the word Holocaust again for more than three years.
It was then I found a supportive professor, Jewish herself, who encouraged me to express my thoughts however I liked. We talked at length about cultural trauma, heritage, language, and history. She connected me with Romani groups on the internet and helped me discover Romani authors, artists, and activists writing about the Holocaust. The past several years I have visited the United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony at the General Assembly Hall in New York. It’s also because of this that I have realized the reaction I experienced in the classroom that day, isn’t just relegated to students on college campuses. It is thread woven consistently throughout discourse surrounding the Holocaust, especially here in the US.
As the granddaughter of survivors, I feel the erasure of Romani from the Holocaust deep within my bones. It’s an ache that never leaves. It’s an affront to my personal and cultural history.
For example, Jewish scholars such as Yehuda Bauer, argue that “the case of the Gypsies has not been studied sufficiently, and one must reserve judgement on the question of parallelism until some basic problems are cleared up. The end result is not really known. The Gypsies were simply not important enough for the Nazis to be dealt with centrally. Hitler never mentions them. They were merely an irritant. The tragedy of the Gypsies happened at the same time as the Holocaust, yet the Holocaust is very much a unique case – the mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.” In fact, Bauer takes his argument even further, stating that, “Roma were not Jews, therefore there was no need to murder all of them”. (in Sybil Milton, The History Teaher, 24:4 1991). Other people have argued that the Jews were murdered because of their race and their religion and did not deserve such a fate, whereas “Gypsies” were murdered for being asocial criminals and deserved every moment of their pain. Guenther Lewy argues that “because there was no intent to kill all Romanies, and because policies against them were not motivate by Nazi race theory, their treatment cannot be compared with that of the Jews and therefore they do not qualify for inclusion in the Holocaust”.
And, it would seem, the UN Holocaust Memorial committee agree with them. Since creation of the event in 2005, they’ve invited only two Romani speakers to the event. This coming year, 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Holocaust Programme. I am pretty certain that they again will not invite a Romani (or Sinti) speaker; even though this seems to fly directly in the face of Un General-Secretary, Ban Ki Moon’s commentary,
“Denying historical facts, especially on such an important subject as the Holocaust, is just not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to call for the elimination of any State or people. I would like to see this fundamental principle respected both in rhetoric and in practice by all the members of the international community”
Earlier this year, the Programme sent out an invite to survivors to send photographs and an “inspirational message”. Since my relatives who survived are no longer alive, I have taken it upon myself to submit multiple photographs of them with brief messages calling for the remembrance of the Romani Holocaust.
I am almost 100 percent certain that none of these images will be featured in their presentation, on their website, or in any of their materials.
If you are a survivor or the relative of survivors, PLEASE consider sending a photograph and message. The more that they see, the more they will be forced to include us in their commentary. I plan to be at this event. I plan to take photos of my relatives, so that even if the Programme will not officially recognize them, I WILL. I won’t forget – no matter how academia and politics insist that the Romani did not suffer any great injustice and were not part of the Jewish Holocaust.
Below are details of the event in January and the call for submissions, as well as the photographs I have been sending to them. The photographs are all that I have of my family members who survived. Being Romani, we didn’t really own cameras and so we didn’t take many photographs. I don’t have many of my family in my possession.
Survivors please help us celebrate the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Holocaust Programme with your photo and message
27 January 2015
Dear Holocaust Survivors,
The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme will mark its tenth anniversary at the Holocaust Memorial Ceremony to be held in the General Assembly Hall in New York on 27 January 2015. We invite survivors to send us a photograph and an inspirational message. Survivors may wish to tell us why it is important for the United Nations to encourage Holocaust remembrance and education around the world or comment on a particular UN Holocaust Programme educational product or activity that you have found to be valuable. For more information about our activities please visit www.un.org/holocaustremembrance. And of course we hope that you are able to attend the ceremony in New York or participate in an event to be organized in your country by the United Nations Information Centre. Please limit your messages to 50 words or less and kindly provide us with your name, postal address or email address, so that we may contact you if necessary. Please scan and send your photo and message to us by 1 November 2014, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to:
The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme
Department of Public Information, United Nations
405 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
Please note that select photos and messages may be included in our educational materials, posted on our website and social media or in our exhibit to be installed in the United Nations Visitors’ Lobby during the month of January.
We look forward to sharing our tenth anniversary with you.
Kimberly Mann, Manager
The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme