As Bibi and I stood together at the side of the road, she self-consciously picked at the sleeve of her sweater. I knew that bruise-blue numbers crawled there, marking her as subhuman. We never talked about it and she always tried to keep them covered, but sometimes when we were cooking she’d roll up her sleeves and I’d see them there, glaring and crooked. In the crackling silence of night, she’d sit in front of the fire, whiskey in one hand, pipe in the other and repeat the names of her lost relatives.
Dinah, František, Alina, Asja, Leszek, Ješenja, Duša, Albina, Tomasz, Rozali…
each one heavier than the last.
Scholar Jeffrey C. Alexander (2004) claimed that “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”. Alexander also pointed out that, in order for an event to be represented as cultural trauma, the event must be culturally classified by the collective as a master narrative, one which constructs the core of its collective identity. Smelser (2004) also suggested that, in order for an event to be considered a cultural trauma, the memory of the event must be culturally and publicly represented as obliterating, damaging, and as a threat, both to the existence of the culture with which the individual identifies and to one’s own identity and self.
For Maami and her surviving family, their future identities were certainly shaped in “fundamental and irrevocable ways”. They fled their homes, they lost two-thirds of their siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, they lost their livelihoods. They were haunted for ever by the hungry smoke and its terror. Whether or not this was felt by the whole collective as a master narrative is somewhat debatable. Maami, Papu, and others focused on a positive and useful sense of historical events – not on the truth of them. For example, many stories that referenced anything related to the War were told as cautionary tales, as reference manuals for how to deal with being illegal and unwanted. Many stories featured the hungry smoke – wisps of cold that crawled in the night, suffocating and stealing entire families, leaving nothing behind. There was no master narrative – no “story producing all other stories”. Their memories were coloured with the green and gold of sunlit forests, the black-brown of newly turned earth, and yes – the pale, creeping metaphor of hungry smoke – but this smoke was not the entirety of their memories.
The traumas they suffered were like pebbles – hundreds of smooth, round, grey pebbles – stacking wearily on top of one another. This one a beating by the Hlinkova Garda; this one a week without food; this one a squalling baby gone silent and bloated in the night; this one and this one the SS Einsatzgruppen; all of them adding to the weight of their lives. Some were jagged – memories of loved ones faces, torn in terror; Dachau; Dysentery – cracking the smooth facade of life after.
E mašina maj piskinel,
čore Romen maj ladinen.
Čore Romen avka roven,
bo len ľidžan pre šibeňa.
E mašina maj piskinel,
čore Romen maj ladinen.
Roven, roven, čore Roma
sar len ľidžan pre šibeňa.
Roma, Roma, ma roven
de, imar pale na avena.
Jaj, de mamo so kerava,
imar amen murdarena.
On the other hand, Papo and Baba Edita, they lived in relative safety. The blitz and its bombs visible on the horizon through the corners of torn blackout paper, sometimes the ground shaking from their impact, but all in all safe. The Holocaust a word they had no understanding of. They heard of relatives passing, but always simply shrugged, puffed their cigarette and said, “people die in wars”. Their narratives held different, slower rhythms: The clip-clop of Hmara’s hooves as they were asked to move on again; the gentle sound of rain on the hedgerows; shouts of “dirty black pigs” echoing through the still air. They fled, but there was less urgency, less immediacy.
However, narratives from both sides of my family were viewed through a unique filter – the idea of the past reappearing in the present, the melding of two different times as indistinguishable from each other. Experiences of before the War and after the War are very different for Baba Edita and Maami Babka, yet each expressed them in the same way – a colliding of today with yesterday and of tomorrow with now. Nostalgia was a way of forgetting, of surviving, of bringing together the disparate narratives of a diaspora. Over all, the stories had the same roots, the same shadows and lights, though some were more suffocating than others. In fact, Eyerman (2004) argues that, “as opposed to psychological or physical trauma which involves a wound and the experience of great emotional anguish by an individual, cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people who have achieved some degree of cohesion. In this sense, the trauma need not necessarily be felt by everyone in a group or have been directly experienced by any or all.”
This fractured meta-narrative is one that has shaped Romani lives all over the world. Whether or not my relatives directly experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, our histories are bloated and stinking with other, hideous half-hidden truths – slavery, branding, rape and forced assimilation, mutilation, hanging, beating and humiliation, sterilization, murder… each torment cracking holes in our stories, creating a descent into “wordless nothing” (Arthur Frank, 1995) in the face of such traumatic and chaotic memories. However, Mikhail Bakhtin (1981, 1984) emphasized the social perspective of language, the fact that language is spoken (and written) between and among language users: it is a dialogic interaction, a process whereby communities of speakers are always co-creating the meaning of the language which they utter to each other.
In this regard, the silences in the oral histories my grandparents told spoke as loudly as all the words combined. The words they simply couldn’t bring themselves to speak clattered conspicuously at our feet. Words like rape, execution, murder, concentration camp. The hungry smoke devoured everything, including the words it defined. It left hungry ghosts in its wake – those unable to rest, those seeking their families. It left terror and silence.
Our lives were forever affected by its presence – the poverty, alcoholism, and silence tore its way through our families. Stories were corralled behind whisky bottles and Maami’s skirts. I absorbed the words and their absences. My childhood was cradled in the soft breath of horses as we rocked our way through life. But, there was always a sense of something coming, something terrible. We didn’t trust, we didn’t settle, we didn’t integrate. We waited. Our history shimmered distantly, sometimes brought into sharp focus by the crooked, crawling bruise-coloured tattoo on Bibi’s arm, or the tears Maami could not longer suppress for her lost relatives. The Post-Traumatic Stress that caused my grandmother’s hands to shake and reach for the bottle, crawled its way into my father and his brothers, too. I see it, black in my veins as I sit reluctantly in the doctor’s office; I hear it, heavy in my voice as I struggle to integrate.
As Ceija Stojka wrote, “ich lebe mit meinen verstorbenen” – I live with my deceased.
It was not the encounter with death that brought the most pain, the but the ongoing experience of having survived it. Maami’s half-told stories carried the weight of her family members as though she carried their bones directly. Perhaps she did, perhaps that’s what these words, these silences are – the remains of her family, their silhouettes shrouded in hungry smoke.
… and as children we carry them too. We may not know their names or their faces, but we feel the weight of their absences. We hear the breaking of hearts as they’re poured into whisky glasses. Their emptiness crawls into the corner of our eyes as we watch the future unfold without them. As we walk through our lives, we walk with our hungry ghosts – those left behind, always looking for the leaves on the road and the woodsmoke in the distance.