I won’t ever forget this weekend and what it meant to our people.
When I was a child, my grandmother would never talk much about certain parts of her past. I didn’t realize when I was young that they were always the same parts. I remember one particular day. I must have been about sixteen and we spent the morning walking up on the moor collecting mushrooms and wood sorrel. We hauled sticks and built a fire and as evening fell other members of our families came up and built a couple of other fires. We made bakul’a marikľi [a kind of fire bread], pekade kozarisa [roasted mushrooms], and the wood sorrel. We drank a lot of whiskey – toasting all my ancestors and giving some to the fire.
As the night drew on, things got quiet and I noticed my grandmother crying. I asked her, “Mišto tuke, Maami? Nasvali sem?” [Are you alright? Are you sick?] She had me sit down on the rug next to her and began to tell me a story that I would never forget. It was fragmented and sometimes she’d stop and stare at the fire for a while and take a drink before starting up again.
Our family lived in Slovakia for a very long time. Of course, before that it was Czechoslovakia and before that it was part of Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maami was born in Bardejov in the summer time. Our family was still travelling a lot back then. My Great Grandmother and her sisters and brothers spent a lot of time in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and France. The whole family were in Slovakia (My grandfather, grandmother, their parents, brothers and sisters, and more of my Latvian relatives who had come down through Poland for the summer (for weddings, funerals, baptisms…) as well as my Slovakian relatives) right before WWII broke. There had been talk of Germany and Nazis and so forth, but Maami said they didn’t really get much news from the outside world – only from other Gypsies and that the news had been good. They said it was all just talk – big men and big words and didn’t take it seriously. They thought if they kept to their ways they’d be safe.
My grandfather and grandmother were already married, but… no children. Out of the eight or more my Grandmother conceived only three survived – all boys. The eldest survivor born in 1944 (my father was born in 1947).
Luckily, most of the families had already left to travel home before word of the joint attack on Poland by Germany and Slovakia spread.
Half of my grandfather’s family, from Jurmala, were on their way back to Latvia, through Poland – they had no idea what was coming. Of those who left on the return trip, only a fraction survived and evaded the Germans and Russians – but their lives back in Latvia took a toll – as things didn’t get any better up there for a long time.
Most of my grandmother’s family left through the Czech Republic, Southern Germany and into France to go back to the UK (I still don’t know how they made it back – if it was before the end of the war or not or if any of them were in camps as children).
Only a few of the families who stayed in Slovakia survived.
On the return trip my grandmother’s family were separated. My Great Grandmother and Grandfather, two of her sisters and three of her brothers and some of their children were caught by German troops and sent to so-called “Gypsy” camps.
Maami and her siblings (Lemija, Dinah, Elias, and Anelja) – now without their parents – stayed with their aunt Albina and her family and made it safely to the UK (when, I don’t know though my father was born in the south of England in 1947).
My grandfather and his family had become separated, but they had been able to make it to the UK first. However, he (along with my maternal grandfather) ended up being enlisted (no one ever explained that story to me) and had to return to fight.
Of those (of my close relatives) caught, only my Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather and two of their children survived (Džordže and Zorana). Three of my grandmother’s brothers and a sister (and some aunts and uncles) perished.
Great Grandmother Nada became alcoholic. I know Maami had a hard time sometimes after the war with her. She never talked about her father. Paapo had been changed by the war too. When he came back from fighting he was a different man. He never spoke of his father or his grandfather… not even much about his family at all.
I don’t know if his family survived.
They never talked about what really happened to their families. How they fled, where they hid, what happened. Sometimes stories blurred, sometimes a name was mentioned and then a cloud of remembrance crossed their faces and they’d change the subject.
But, mostly it was just silence.
No one talked about it. Not in my family, not in school. No one talked about the Holocaust at all and even if they did, they never talked about our people. In fact, for many years I thought what happened to my family was separate from the Jewish Shoah. We had no word for it. Sometimes my grandmother would say “našľol sar muxľi” (they disappeared in smoke).
This weekend I heard one of my sisters talk about what happened to our people in a ceremony at the UN General Assembly in New York. I fought to hold back tears. Only one other speaker briefly mentioned the Řoma and Sinte; there were no prayers in our language; no poems in our name. Dr. Ethel Brooks gave an AMAZING speech, but many in the audience seemed not to know who the Řoma and Sinte were. There were confused looks and whispers of “she means the Gypsies“.
In total about 15 Řoma and Sinte were present – a much larger contingent than in previous years. This year also marked only the second occasion since the beginning of the remembrance by the UN (in 2005, I believe) that a Řomani delegate has spoken.
It was a great start. A wonderful beginning. But, we can’t let it end here. The hatred growing in Europe echoes of the past. Next year we need to fill that room with red shirts. We need to have another speaker. A speaker every year. In many countries the Řoma and Sinte were almost completely … wiped out. How many families were destroyed? It’s hard to know because a lot of families were like mine – they never talked about it. Many Gypsy families were unlisted; many of their graves are unmarked.
We need to talk about this. We need to remember. Sometimes it upsets me now that my Maami and Paapo have passed. I feel like it’s up to me to remember Nada and the others…
This weekend was something that I never thought I would see in person.
I feel blessed to have been a part of it.
It opened my eyes, gave me a kick up my academic ass, and made me realize why I started speaking out at all.
I’ve allowed myself to lose focus; to lose myself.
and never again.
Below is the video of Dr. Brooks speech: