Romani Rose: Society must condemn antigypsyism just as it condemns antisemitism
Romani Rose comes from a well-respected Sinti family in Germany. During the Second World War, 13 of his relatives died in the concentration camps and others survived forced labor, imprisonment, life in illegality and being subjected to medical experiments, later giving testimony about their suffering.
Since the year 1982, Mr Rose has chaired the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg. This year he visited the World Romani Festival KHAMORO in Prague for the first time, where he opened a traveling exhibition from the Documentation and Cultural Center of Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg called "Racial Diagnosis: Gypsy".
Mr Rose is a leading European civil rights activist who has played an essential role in achieving recognition of the Romani and Sinti victims of the Holocaust and their compensation. He was born in 1946, the same year that his father, Oskar Rose, and his uncle, Vinzenz Rose, demanded that the Nazi perpetrators of these crimes be punished.
The Rose family hired a private detective who, in 1947, tracked down the location of Robert Ritter, the Nazi racial theorist whose work was so influential to the genocides of the Holocaust. In 2017, Romani Rose was awarded Germany's highest state honor when President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented him with the Great Cross, a Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Q: You have come to the Czech Republic at what is an historical moment, the Czech state has finally bought out the industrial pig farm that was built at the site of the former concentration camp at Lety u Písku ...
A: Yes, in the case of Lety a positive decision has finally been taken and the industrial pig farm will be demolished. That is certain. The farm was built on a site where women, children and men were murdered in a camp under Czech guards; it was a monstrous process through which a pig farm was built on land where people died under such terrible circumstances... It's difficult for me to even say the words. This was not just humiliating to the victims, it dishonored all those responsible for it. Given the claims made by the Czechs against Germany for what the Germans did to them, it was shameful that the Czechs treated their own victims in such a humiliating way, that they did not perceive that they were denying the victims their dignity. I am very glad that the previous administration brought this state of affairs to a close. By doing so, the Czech Republic has restored its own dignity.
Q: What should be the role, in your opinion, of the new memorial there?
A: Above all, that location should serve - naturally, after its necessary rehabilitation as a remembrance site - as a place to commemorate those who lost their lives in the camp. For us, such memorial sites, including the former concentration and extermination camps, are first and foremost enormous cemeteries. They are the largest graveyards of the members of our minority in Europe. Their main task should be to document the genocide that was perpetrated there. We need these places of memory for education, just as we in Germany have, for example, a memorial in Berlin that documents the chronology of the Nazi measures that led to the "Final Solution". We want to expand the memorial now to include the biographies of the people concerned, because it is through the life stories of our fellow human beings that big historical events can be communicated. Using the life story of an individual, we can demonstrate how those involved were already part of a 600-year history thanks to which they saw themselves as Czechs and had the same patriotic relationship to their country as did others who identified that way. The question of "majority" and "minority" was not even raised in those days. First of all, everybody had a nationality with which they identified, spoke their own language, had their own culture - but that was not limited in any way, on the contrary, people also identified with the cultural development of the Czech (or rather, the Czechoslovak) state. There were also Romani people, for example, who achieved big successes as athletes wearing the colors of their country, and the public must be reminded of all this again, they must be offered the stories of specific people, of heroes with whom they will be able to identify.
Q: Is there such a story that sticks in your own memory?
A: In Germany there was, for example, a police official who saved the lives of several Sinti families by getting them out of the country or hiding them in his own apartment. The story was told to me by a very famous family of musicians, the Weiß family, and at that time the police official was still alive. I immediately initiated his being nominated for the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He was not among the police officials who shot and killed innocents on the eastern front - on the contrary, he saved human lives. The Order of Merit was given to him personally by the then-Interior Minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a memorial plaque commemorating his bravery was installed at his former office in the headquarters. By now there are many such memorial plaques installed and in my opinion that is the right way forward.
Q: How, in Germany, did people come to terms with the genocide of the Roma?
A: Processing the history of the genocide of the Roma did not begin in Germany until the civil rights movement began. The spark was a hunger strike by 12 Sinti and former prisoners of the concentration camps, which was held at the Dachau memorial. Five survivors from different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, participated. The action was reported on by the international media, including The New York Times, as well as by German television. It led to the German Chancellor - Helmut Schmidt at the time - acknowledging the genocide of the Sinti and Roma in 1982. Three years later another Federal Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, further developed that position when he also recognized this tragic wrong during a speech in Parliament, which was still located in Bonn at that time. Those developments and other civil rights initiatives led to a change in thinking, at least at the level of the bureaucracy and politicians.
Q: Did you assume, in the beginning, that activism would have that kind of influence?
A: Today we can look back at 45 years of civil rights work and successes we would never have considered possible 30 years ago. Today in Germany we have the umbrella organization of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, which has regional organizations in each state that conclude agreements about the rights of our minorities at state level with the representatives of those states as equal partners, agreements that guarantee us protection and support. In addition to the Central Council we also have the Documentation and Culture Center, which is a professional workplace focused on researching the history and the cultural achievements of our minority in the arts - music, painting, poetry and all other areas. We have a staff of 25.
Q: The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of the Holocaust in Germany was unveiled in Berlin in 2012 after many years of negotiations. Why did it take so long?
A: The memorial to the Jewish victims in Berlin was also discussed for 15 years before it was installed, I think. In our case it took 20 years for us to see it realized in its final form. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that by approving this memorial the German political representatives have created a very visible recognition of this chapter of German history. The memorial is not located somewhere on the periphery, but in the center of Berlin, directly in front of the German Parliament and in the immediate vicinity of a symbol of the German capital, the Brandenburg Gate. Thousands of visitors pass by the memorial daily. German politicians are reminded of it daily on their way to work, and they are also expressing their sense of accountability to our minority in other states. On the basis of these historical events, German political representatives honor the exceptional obligation they have toward Jewish people. That commitment also exists toward our minority, especially in relation to the European Union Member States that have all espoused the same values and anchored some of them as integral components of their Constitutions and laws. International agreements have been signed that stem from the common experience of our European history. Here I am thinking primarily of the rights of minorities, the rights of the individual, the right to liberty, freedom of speech, all of these rights, the idea that nobody can be disadvantaged because of their religious belief, or their political opinions, or the color of their skin, or their origins. These are all the rights that are anchored in our legal system and have been taken up by many Member States. In relation to the rights of minorities, the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms was also ratified, including by the Czech Republic with respect to its own national minorities. However, it is still necessary for German political representatives to have a more intensive impact and to draw attention to the deficient situation in some of the Member States.
Q: What is your view of the situation in the Czech Republic?
A: In the Czech Republic, in some areas, the situation is comparable to apartheid. This especially concerns the education system and the pressure that was put on Romani women who have been forced to undergo sterilization. All of that is publicly-known wrongdoing, it's a component of this society. The entire origin of such behavior stems from the fact that what is considered the source of these problems is the social status of some Romani people, which is then raised to the level of being considered an element of the identity of the whole minority - and what is not taken into consideration, to say nothing of being acknowledged, is that this behavior originates first and foremost in just one thing: Racism, both in the past and today. The origin of this behavior is the antigypsyism which, just like antisemitism, is deeply ingrained in European history and is the cause of this exclusion and stigmatization. Today, in the Czech Republic and many other countries, mainly Slovakia, the situations is that Romani people live without any prospects in ghettos that are too similar to the ghettos we know of from the apartheid era in the Republic of South Africa. This must be dismantled, step by step. We must do our best to send the clear signal that we condemn antigypsyism just as we condemn antisemitism, so the people in those countries will once again be able to believe they have a future of some kind there. People should have the chance to live in a country where equality applies, and it is necessary to work first and foremost on reforming the education system.
Q: Today parallels are being drawn in the Czech Republic with society in the 1930s...
A: In those days people were startled by the Nazi measures. When their neighbors were being rounded up and sent, before their very eyes, to be transported to the concentration and extermination camps in Poland, they were unable to imagine it because they had a long history of sovereignty, thanks to which they felt like natural members of society. There is no clash between a cultural and a national identity! I have two mother tongues, German and Romanes, I have my own kind of music and poetry, and I am also connected to German culture because that, too, is my culture. Today I frequently say that we are Germans first and foremost and then Roma, with our own cultural identity. This is just what my grandfather said: We are Sinti and German - German Sinti. This is apparent also thanks to the regional divisions of Germany - the Sinti live in all of the states, and the kind of Romanes they speak reflects the specifics of German dialect as well. Sinti in Bavaria speak differently than Sinti in [what was once] Prussia. When we speak Romanes with each other, we can exactly recognize who comes from where.
Q: Could you illustrate for us how Romani people at that time were integrated into German society?
A: The ties with the country were reflected, for example, in the fact that our people served as soldiers in the Imperial German Army [during the First World War] and were frequently highly-decorated. Because they all lived in an integrated way, whether as laborers, employees, academics or artists, when the Nazis came to power it was difficult for them to identify who was who. Jewish people were more easily identified because of their religious faith. The Nazis then began to research the genealogical records going back to the 16th century. On the basis of those records, they established racial assessments that set forth what they viewed as the degree of "miscegenation". For example, even somebody who was identified as just one-eighth "Gypsy" was considered inferior and therefore designated for annihilation by the Nazis. For our people, all of this was absolutely unimaginable, given the matter-of-fact way they had always perceived themselves as being a component of German society. If we look at the photographs taken during the deportations of entire families in the year 1940, we see that the people are wearing their best clothes. They had been deceived, they had been told that they were being taken to Poland to work, that they would be working in agriculture, that they would own their own agricultural businesses.
Q: What is your perspective on the concept of Porajmos [a proposed Romanes-language term for the Holocaust of the Roma].
A: I reject it. I do so for one simple reason: The concept of Porajmos does not express this annihilation in the sense of the Nazi practice, i.e., on the basis of what was deemed to be a biological fact of existence. What is much more important, and what the people using this concept must realize, is that the term is degrading. That concept is not comprehended by high politicians at international level either. What we have here, therefore, is a concept in Romanes that nobody knows what to do with. However, if I say "Holocaust", then everybody knows that I am speaking about the planned, systematically implemented annihilation of entire families on the basis of biological parameters that was undertaken on an industrial scale in Auschwitz and other concentration camps using the most modern technological means.
Q: Is antigypsyism still present in German society today?
A: Great rejection can still be felt in German society. Despite this, at the political level, many unimaginably positive things have managed to be achieved. This is all a long process. Take, for example, the fact that between 20 and 25 % of people in Germany are antisemitic, despite there being legal repercussions for the public expression of antisemitism. It is, therefore, not surprising that prejudices against our minority - antigypsyism - are widespread, given that it is more tolerated in the public arena. If a member of our minority criticizes the authorities, then his or her ethnic origin is immediately brought up. The reporting will not say whether a critic is a German, Czech or Slovak, but goes to a deeper level, just like the Nazis did. Then the negative criticism is presented as a sign of the person's (ethnic) origin, and naturally that means the burden of the prejudices against the entire minority is brought to bear on the criticism.
Q: What are the German authorities doing to combat this?
A: A commission is to be established in the German Parliament that should investigate antigypsyism, assess the degree of it, and give the Government specific recommendations during every legislative period about which means to use to eliminate it, so there could be some positive developments in this area. However, you know that if I, as a member of this minority, criticize antigypsyism, it is like screaming into the void. This must be the task of all of society. The problem, though, is the image of our minority that has been created, just as the stigma against Jews that people have in their heads is a problem - we did not create this image, and the Jews did not create the stigma associated with them - society has created both over the course of centuries and is responsible for their existence.
First published in Romano voďi 6/2018.
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