Keren David

We must speak up for the Roma, the 'forgotten' victims

'If genocide gets no attention, the circumstances that led to it hardly change at all. The same hatred. The same language.'

October 30, 2019 17:59

Never forget’ is something we say about the Shoah, again and again. And, as the genocide of Europe’s Jews passes out of living memory, it is a challenge to all of us born after the war to keep alive the memory of those terrible events.

So the title of the Wiener Holocaust Library’s latest exhibition is particularly chilling. Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti, gives a wealth of information about the murder of as many as 500,000 people, tracing the history of persecution against Roma and Sinti people in Europe from before the war to the present day, and examining reasons why so little attention has been given to their plight.

An estimated 20,000 Roma and Sinti people were murdered at Auschwitz. Others were massacred by Wehrmacht units and death squads or deported to “colonies” where conditions were so brutal that thousands more died. They were raped, murdered, experimented on by “racial scientists”. In Romani, it is known as the Porajmos —“the devouring”.

Since the war, survivors and their communities have struggled to get recognition or compensation. At first, Germany refused to accept that there had been a Roma and Sinti genocide at all, claiming that the killings were carried out for criminal and “asocial” reasons. That word, “asocial”, those accusations of criminality, dog Roma people still.

The exhibition, which contains first-person accounts, photographs, official documents and other records, could hardly be more timely. Last month, Bulgarian football fans shamed their nation by giving Nazi salutes during an international match against England. The football fans were insulting England’s black players. But this was just one manifestation of local racism. In Bulgaria, the Roma community faces discrimination with eerie echoes of the Nazi era and it comes from all sections of society.

Krasimir Karakachanov, Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister for public order is the head of the right-wing Bulgarian National Movement. Earlier this year, he declared: “The truth is that we need to undertake a complete programme for a solution to the Gypsy problem.”

He has developed a “concept for the integration of the unsocialised Gypsy (Roma) ethnicity”, which defines Roma as the Nazis did, as “asocial gypsies” and “non-native Europeans”.

He wants to set up compulsory “labour education schools” for Roma children, limit the number of children born to Roma women and send some community members on work programmes. His party has also called for “reservations” for Roma people, suggesting, grotesquely, that they could become tourist attractions. Karakachanov’s programme could soon become law.

But the persecution and discrimination suffered by Roma and other groups is far wider than just Bulgaria, or even Eastern Europe. An Italian interior minister suggested creating a register of Roma people, a plan that was dropped after an outcry. An EU report on anti-Gypsyism from 2016 found that “ the most heinous forms of anti- Gypsyism, hate-motivated crime and harassment, continue to hamper Roma inclusion.

Thirty per cent of those surveyed had experienced some form of harassment including physical violence motivated by anti-Gypsyism. Very few such incidents were reported to the police — why would you, if you feel the state is part of the problem?

Laura Marks, chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, went to Auschwitz in August to take part in the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the “Gypsy Family Camp”. She was shocked by the lack of knowledge there is about this atrocity, particularly in the UK, where there are no known survivors to speak at public events. “Only by defending all oppressed groups, are we going to address prejudice and to challenge the growing levels of hatred of ‘outsiders’,” she wrote in the JC.

We Jews are sometimes accused of making too much of the Holocaust, of using it to garner sympathy. But, with the Roma, you see that, if genocide gets no attention, the circumstances that led to it hardly change at all. The same hatred. The same language.

Roma people often live in extreme poverty, at the edge of society. It can be hard for us to feel connected to their plight. But our relative wealth, our assimilation, education and place in society did not save us from fascism. And our relative privilege (however obscene it may be to use the word when talking about genocide) should compel us to speak out for the murdered Roma of the past and the persecuted victims of prejudice in the present day.

‘Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide Against the Roma and Sinti’ is at the Wiener Holocaust Library until March 11

October 30, 2019 17:59

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