“I can see that the sadness has returned. And it’s not a beautiful sadness- beautiful sadness is a myth. Sadness turns our features to clay, not porcelain.” ― David Levithan, Every Day
Maami Babka was always sad, even when she was happy. Her heart had been lost along the way somewhere, perhaps in Slovakia or perhaps with the ghosts of her family. Her eyes were always distant, as if looking for the heart that was already lost. She spoke sparingly and when she sang, her gravelly voice dragged rough over our emotions.
This past week the “International Roma Conference and Culture Festival 2016,” was held in Azad Bhavan, New Delhi, India, which purportedly “officially validated for the first time” the Indian (and Hindu) origin of the Roma. Looking at the conference brochure, some of the attendees listed surprised me (and some did not). What surprised me the most, was the sudden insistence that we are children of India and a push to reconnect us with “sister communities” in Punjab and Rajasthan and comments by respected Roma, such as Jovan Damjanovic the president of the World Roma Organisation- Rromanipen that, “recognition from the Indian authorities will be the first step towards countering the negative perceptions about the Roms.”
I was born here.
Or rather, close to here, further up the valley.
A late February snow dusted the roofs and children scuttled between the shacks gathering wood or water. At least that’s what I was told. I remember visiting with Maami and Bibi Lemija, standing a while up the valley, reminiscing about the osadas that no longer existed. The ones that were replaced by trenches and tanks during the war. The ones that vanished in smoke and screams.
Today marks the United Nations International Day of Commemoration of Victims of the Holocaust. For only the third time in its history, there will be a Romani/Sinti speaker. Please show your support. Wear red. Take a moment of silence. Share your photos, videos, and memories.
A thin blanket of snow lay on the window sill and the 4am sky sat heavy above. I could smell the warmth of bread from the kitchen and the fire chattered in the living room.
“It’s time,” Maami said
Our response to the collective traumas that befell our people mirrored that of the states in which we lived – suppression and denial. Just as we moved on with our lives, so the nations around us moved on with theirs. After the Holocaust, my family did not know what to say to one another. How do you talk about something so horrific? Metaphors about hungry smoke, wolves, and butterflies trickled through their conversations, but nothing was really ever said outright. They simply pushed it away, deep in the corners of their collective mind.
Similarly, we have consistently been erased from Holocaust history and remembrance. Politics of memory – suppressing remembrance of these traumas by burying them deep in the political system – assigned our experiences to oblivion.
Our Romani never had wagons, at least not that I remember. We had broken down shacks and cottages with patched up roofs and gaping holes for windows. We’d had it good for a while, the elders said fondly. Many had worked for the landed elite around the castles and estates such as Halič, Spiš, Svätý Anton, or Vígľaš. It was tough but decent, they told us, for a while at least. But, as with every other place we stayed, laws were passed against us – for example, fingerprint collections (1925) and a law about wandering Roma (1927). My family were lucky, they said. Nestled in the mountains between Slovakia and Poland, laws were slow to drift over our villages. Some of them already left, Maami said, even before the first war came.