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.
Papu told me that once you wrote a word down, it lost its power. Once it was written there, on the page, it couldn’t be molded or tempered. Our language, he said, only existed in the air and could never be captured and if anyone ever did, the words would vanish. He told me a story about a monk named Baldemar, a bateris – a monk who did not reside in a monastery – instead he travelled the world writing stories. One day he came to the Romani settlement in the Ondavská vrchovina Mountains, near Bartva (Bardiów/Bardejov). …
All of my stories begin, “my grandmother told me”. Her ‘talk-stories’ filled up my life like the whiskey she secreted in teacups. My mother rarely features in these stories, but she had a different way of telling, a quieter, less direct way. My parents met when our families were down in Staffordshire, around Stoke-on-Trent (they stopped there for several years). My mother had a job at that time….