“Te miri daj merlas, mange nakazinlas, joj, de kajses romes te lav, joj, de se man pačiv dela”
My grandmother’s songs always held more than their weight in melancholy. When we had our fill of stories and dancing, there’d come a quiet time that was filled with hundreds of years of aching hearts. Maami’s voice would crack as she sang the songs her aunts taught her; aunts lost to the fires of Auschwitz. When I see videos of Romani gathered together, dancing to loud frantic music, or singing giddy songs I frown… these are not the women that I knew. Maami was small, brown, wizened like a sun-dried fig. When she didn’t have a cup at her lips, she had a cigarette there… her sister, Lemija smoked a pipe, puffing quietly in her rocking chair by the fire. They could have been twins and maybe they were. Lemija was taller, paler, quieter. She barely spoke, to anyone, ever. Her husband had passed away before I was born and no one ever told me what happened to him.
Delva, Devla, so me kerdjom?
Songs are part of our lives; My uncles mainly sang about lost love, loose women, and rotten wine. My grandfather sang about princes, dragons, witches. He sang his stories, his voice as big as the sky; he even sang about the stars – about the bears, dragons, rabbits, and mice that made up the heavens overhead. My grandmother sang about loss. Many of her songs began with the same refrain: “oda kalo čirikloro piskinel” – the little blackbird is whistling – and lamented poverty, illness, violence, or death. Sometimes she cried as she sang and sometimes she couldn’t find the words she wanted to say. In those moments, the soft, fragile voice of Bibi Lemija would crawl into the empty spaces bringing them to life.
My heart turns heavy at this time of year. In a few days it will be International Holocaust Remembrance day. I hear the ghostly echoes of Maami and Bibi, as gentle and suffocating as smoke. Their words, their songs a testament to their resilience, their strength. But, we will once again be forgotten. Our voices as hollow as our bleached out bones. How many among those liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau were Romani? Barely a handful. How many of my own family returned or survived? Barely a handful, Maami and Bibi among them. I can’t imagine the terrors they saw. I can’t imagine the heaviness that fills aching hearts with each breath.
The UN Ceremony organizers called for photographs of survivors for this years event. I sent multiple photos repeatedly. I can say with one hundred percent certainty that they will not be shown at the UN commemoration. It’s painful to me to realize that with each passing generation our songs are being lost. Words falling at our feet like broken shells. It isn’t just about being recognized as part of our own histories, but being able to preserve those histories, in our own words and in our own way.
Amare khera bare tičkendar, de dičhol andre baro čoripen.
Joj, nane love, nane love, bo som čori,
jaj, nane love, bo som čori, de koruna na birinav.
These old women and old songs shaped my world. They carried the names of the dead etched in their hearts. They held the ashes in their hands. It was through them I learned how to remember and how to forget. I don’t know the names of everyone who was lost. Some are remembered in songs I can barely recall, some in stories and poems, and others only in our hearts. They sang of a land that was not ours, of paper rocks and golden sparrows. They sang to build the walls of our houses and the wheels of our carts.
When I’m asked what being Romani is, sometimes I just want to answer: phurikane gilja, phurikane džuvlja, phurikane molja.