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September 26, 2021

 

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František Kostlán: Both the Jews and the Roma were victims of the Holocaust

21.5.2021 7:58
(PHOTO:  Institute of the Terezín Initiative)
(PHOTO: Institute of the Terezín Initiative)

The scandal around the Terezín Initiative (TI) in the Czech Republic, which earlier this year, through its governing body and that of its Institute of the Terezín Initiative (ITI) refused to allow the names of the Romani victims of Nazism to be read aloud on the Yom HaShoah holiday, has more aspects to it and is more complex than some observers have described. This is not about "racism" or "xenophobia", but about a Holocaust legacy that is not being managed.

It is absolutely impossible, in this case, to agree with the rejection of the reading of the names of the Romani victims of Nazism. The person behind this entire scandal is the director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Leo Pavlát.

"Racism and xenophobia"

Writing in the Czech daily newspaper Mladá fronta DNES, Šimon Krbec has angrily commented, to a certain degree correctly, as follows:  "How else can we interpret the remarks by the board of directors of the Terezín Initiative that 'the existence of the Holocaust is solely associated with ethnic Jews' or that 'for [victims of a] different ethnicity a different term must be used', or that 'it is impossible to connect this occasion to the suffering of Romani people, homosexuals, Polish resistance fighters and other victims of German nationalism' if we are not to understand them as xenophobic?" Likewise the lawyer Klára Kalibová has had absolutely no compunction about labeling anybody who does not share her opinion on this issue a "racist".   

Certainly we would be able to find a couple of antigypsyists or racists among members of the Jewish community, people who pass judgment on those around them just like the majority society does without realizing that such opinions, sooner or later, will also be applied the Jewish minority, and therefore to them. That's not what this case is an example of, though.

I dislike the fact that the governing bodies of the TI and ITI do not want the names of Romani victims to be read on Yom HaShoah. I also disagree with the conclusions that led to that decision. 

In my view, it is correct to use the term "Holocaust" to refer to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against the Roma. As for the suffering, it is just as painful for the Jews as it is for the Roma and for the other victims of totalitarianism.

Be that as it may, accusing the TI of "racism and xenophobia" stems from ignorance of the situation - the opinions of those opposed to the readings of the names of the Romani victims on Yom HaShoah stem from their own inner states at this time, their states as the victims of Nazism and as the second and third-generation descendants of such victims, states that are the direct consequence of the Holocaust itself. Let's look at this more closely. 

Pavlát's campaign

What has not yet been written about is the fact that the person behind this entire scandal is the director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Leo Pavlát. Since 2018, he has been "working" to remove the director of the ITI, Tereza Štěpková, from that post (the ITI organizes the public readings of the names of the victims of Nazism on Yom HaShoah). 

Besides the reading of Romani names during what Pavlát believes should be a "purely Jewish day", he is also bothered by the projects on Holocaust victims who were Romani that the ITI is involved in. Pavlát has alleged that Štěpková does not want to cooperate with the Jewish Museum, but that could be a maneuver to obscure the fact that it is he who has been attempting to get her fired.

Through his constant pressure, Pavlát has eventually managed to seat a couple of people who share his opinions on the board of the TI and then on the board of the ITI. Those people then began to pressure the director of the ITI, of which the TI is the establisher.
 
The previous members of the governing bodies of both entities had backed the director of the ITI in her decisions. Currently it unfortunately seems that Pavlát and those who share his views may soon manage to remove Štěpková from her job as ITI director because, despite their orders from above, she still had the names of the Romani victims of Nazism read aloud on Yom HaShoah this year. 

The Nazis wanted to annihilate the Roma too

Writing in the TI journal in 2018, Pavlát referenced the founding documents for Yad Vashem (the memorial in Israel to the heroes and the victims of the Holocaust), which he said "define the Holocaust as the murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices" and justify that definition by saying that "the Jews were not the only victims of Hitler's regime, but they were the only group whom the Nazis wanted to annihilate completely." The fact that the Romani victims of the Nazis were not recognized as Holocaust victims after the war comes exactly from such allegations that Romani people were not also slated for annihilation throughout the entirety of Nazi-occupied territory.   

That claim, of course, is quite a distortion of the facts. The Nazis' intentions toward the Jews and the Roma were the same: To annihilate them for the same reasons - racial ones. 

The sole difference between the Nazis' approach to these groups was that they also considered the Jews to be their ideological or political enemies, but they did not consider the Roma in that light. In my opinion, that is no reason to allege that the Roma were not Holocaust victims, of course.

In the 1930s it was established in Germany through the Nuremberg Race Laws that the Jews were racial enemy number one, and racial enemy number two were the "gypsies and gypsy half-breeds". As the historian Michal Schuster has written for Romano vod'i magazine (and as was reprinted online by Romea.cz), the commentaries on the Nuremberg Race Laws stated the following in 1936:  "Besides the Jews, only the Gypsies are among the races alien to Europe."  

What the Nazis called the "Final Solution to the Gypsy Question" was undertaken during the Second World War throughout almost all of Europe by murdering hundreds of thousands of Romani people in the broadest possible range of camps as well as through mass executions performed outside of such camps, and that "solution" was based on defining them as "racially inferior". The German Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit (established in 1936), led by Dr Ritter, established on the basis of "research" that "gypsies are not of pure blood" and therefore posed a threat to "Aryans".

Ritter recommended that Romani people be deported and thereby removed from the gene pool. Himmler, the head of the SS, initially proposed creating special reservations for Romani people, but in practice the Nazis instead began to put all of the Roma into local concentration camps. 

Himmler's order in December 1942 to deport Romani people to the Auschwitz extermination camp resulted in the deployment of the "Final Solution to the Gypsy Question". After that Romani people were also deported to other extermination camps. 

What's more, most Romani people did not perish in the concentration camps but were directly executed by the murderous units of the Einsatzgruppen SS, whose task was to murder Europe's Jews, Roma (and communists) in "mopping-up" operations following German Army advances. "In the war's immediate aftermath it was never unequivocally stated that, along with the Jews, the Roma had also been among those who were racially persecuted, as the Nazi theory that the Gypsies/Roma were an asocial element in society was basically still accepted. The prejudices that the Nazis had used to justify committing genocide therefore survived," Schuster reminds us.  

A horribly unique genocide

In that 2018 article for the TI journal, Pavlát writes the following:  "The Romani suffering during the war, including the murder of thousands of Roma in the gas chambers, would not be diminished or reduced in any way if the ITI were not also casting doubt, through its Holocaust.cz website, on the fact that the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question was a horribly unique genocidal project." It is exactly these words - "a horribly unique genocide" - that conceal the actual reason for this attempt to "privatize" this suffering or engage in "competition among the victims".   

Speaking in an interview on ROMEA TV about the ban on reading the names of the Romani victims of Nazism on Yom HaShoah, those were the terms used by the journalist Patrik Banga ("privatization of suffering") and author Jiří Padevět ("competition among the victims"). Padevět was a member of the board of the ITI until recently, but the decision by his fellow board members to forbid reading the Romani names on Yom HaShoah as well as the behavior of some of those involved in this dispute disgusted him and left him no choice but to resign. 

Both of these phrases indicate the direction in which we should head if we want to get to the essence of this matter. Many Jewish people from the postwar generation are looking for some kind of meaning to ascribe to the immeasurable suffering that the Jews as a whole and their own family members and other loved ones went through during the Second World War, because such great suffering, which makes no sense, is also retrospectively unbearable, sometimes even intolerably painful - and it creates or maintains the deep trauma (or post-traumatic stress disorder) that has been inherited intergenerationally. 

If anybody would like to learn more about the details of what kind of innner states the concentration camp survivors and their descendants have had to live with and put up with, you can read my essay on this subject, which I entitled "My Holocaust". Many people who have been afflicted by this - many more than just Leo Pavlát - have found the meaning that they are looking for in the uniqueness of Jewish suffering. 

The feeling, or the statement, that the Jews have been chosen by God to suffer on behalf of their fellow human beings is a component of the Jewish tradition. Understandably, such people are bothered when that image is called into question by those who claim that others have suffered just as deeply as they have (and as their forebears did). 

Anybody alleging that such behavior is about "racism" or "xenophobia", should first familiarize themselves with the available facts about the history of the Jewish people and about the Jewish present. After all, it is not the case that Pavlát and other board members of the TI are against the names of Jewish and Romani victims being read together under any circumstances whatsoever.

What bothers these people is that this is happening on the "purely Jewish holiday of Yom HaShoah", which in their view is dedicated especially to reading the names of Jewish heroes and victims of the Holocaust - and for that reason, they propose that the readings of the names of both Jewish and Romani victims take place on other occasions. "For the readings of the names of all who were murdered and whose deaths are generally associated with the term 'Holocaust', I consider 27 January, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance and Prevention of Crimes against Humanity, to be appropriate," Pavlát has written. 

(A small group of Romani people, one that is not in any way significant, has also said they are opposed to reading the names of the Romani victims of Nazism in public, but this is because their leader, František Lacko, used to work for Štěpková at the ITI and there is bad blood between them. His crusade against such remembrance of the Romani victims stems from a desire for personal revenge against her. Reading the victims' names does not violate Romani "tradition", as Lacko claims, and he is only bringing this up now because it suits his personal purposes. I wouldn't take this small group seriously or give them any more room than their "importance" deserves.)    

Societal responsibility is important

I personally disagree with the reasons the reading of the Romani names of Holocaust victims on Yom HaShoah has been rejected. I do not feel like a "professional victim" and I do not want to become one.

In my opinion, it is inappropriate for the victims of the Nazis (or of the communists, or of other totalitarians) to "compete" with each other, and I do not believe Romani suffering was or is less than Jewish suffering. How people put up with suffering is an individual matter. 

As a person who has been following antigypsyism, antisemitism, extremism, racism and xenophobia for several decades, unlike those advocating the ban on reading all victims' names on Yom HaShoah, I am aware that each such differentiation of human experiences and feelings by ethnicity or religion leads to the indirect support of extremism and further secures the hatred of our fellow human beings. As I wrote in one of two letters sent by e-mail to the ITI board ahead of their decision in this matter, through my own work I have confirmed that any attack on a minority in society is, at the same time, an attack on the Jewish minority (and naturally, vice versa), because intolerance never remains just associated with one kind of difference. 

During the time of the anti-Romani demonstrations in the Czech Republic (2011-2013) I directly witnessed how such attitudes are formed, how the slogan "Gypsies get to work!" is replaced by the slogans "Gypsies to the gas chambers!" and then "Hitler should have finished the job!" - and how gradually, the Nazis were joined in their demonstrations by locals and others who had never had anything to with extremism until then. We defended the Great Synagogue in Plzeň on the spot from such Nazi marches - and as they marched by, some chanted the slogan "Jews to the gas chambers!" as police officers mutely watched. 

Along with others, we also read the names of the victims of Nazism there, during the synagogue's event, and the ethnicities of the victims never even crossed my mind. In my experience, privileging the feeling that a sacred day is "just for us" over our responsibility for what is happening in society as a whole is a kind of blindness. 

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Extremism, Nazism, Racism, Roma



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