Discrimination in Holocaust Remembrance: The Ultimate Irony
How much more time will pass before Roma and Sinti (“Gypsies”) are sufficiently, publicly and regularly recognized as one of two ethnic groups slated for complete extermination in the Holocaust? What will it take for Holocaust education to include Romani persecution in a way that teaches not only who Romani people are, but also the very relevant continuities in European Nazi ideology?
As a Romani descendant of Holocaust victims and survivors, I was an audience member at the United Nations Holocaust Remembrance events, located in the New York City UN headquarters, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. In 2009, during the Remembrance week in January, there was an exhibit and event on Hungarian Roma in the Holocaust at the Hungarian mission to the UN. It was attended almost exclusively by Hungarian dignitaries and people connected to them. (See http://www.romea.cz/english/index.php?id=detail&detail=2007_1155) The effort’s significance in the Hungarian context must not be discounted, but its educational value to the larger public was virtually nonexistent. The UN Remembrance ceremony proper subsequently failed to include Romani victims by the name of their ethnic group, with the exception of a brief mention. It is important to note that these annual ceremonies are 1.5 to 2 hours long. They have included as speakers or performers not only key UN figures and Jewish representatives, but also scores of people from other ethnic groups. At least some of these time slots could have been – and should be – given to Romani participants.
Indeed, following written protests from Romani people and supporters, as well as a meeting between myself and Ms. Kimberly Mann of the UN Holocaust Outreach Programme, the Polish Romani representative Andrzej Mirga was flown over to give a full-length speech at the main New York City event in 2010. The Romani community and survivors were very grateful for this. However, we must ask why such representation stopped again as quickly as it started. The substantive inclusion of Romanies has not been replicated in the UN lobby exhibits or in any other UN-sponsored program during or since that time. We need to see not a one-time token gesture but rather a permanent change in approach.
In 2011, the Remembrance event included a brief video testimony from a Romani survivor. However, once again no Roma or Sinti had been invited to participate, and as usual the Holocaust and its aftermath were implicitly defined as an exclusively Jewish matter. More often than not, the world’s media reify this inaccurate definition, a practice that is unlikely to change until a different tone is set in the most publicized official commemorations.
In 2012, for a minute or so out of the entire program, a Sinti person was featured, again only on the screen. It was Setella Steinbach, whose story was recounted as part of a string of portrayals of child victims. Setella had long been shown in Holocaust-related materials as a Jewish victim, so it was most appropriate and appreciated that her true identity was recognized at this time. Unfortunately, several other mentions of child victims in the program, which as a whole centered around children of the Holocaust, referred to young victims as if only Jewish children had been involved. Later in the program, a parallel on-screen display was shown, honoring specific Jewish Holocaust survivors and their contributions to society. The absence of a single Romani survivor was a stark reminder of the widespread idea that Roma and Sinti have few cultural merits, in addition to being unworthy of participation in Holocaust remembrance planning. Had any of us been asked, at the very least, for a suggestion, a prominent Romani/Sinti Holocaust survivor easily could have been included in that part of the event.
As just one example of Holocaust commemoration utterances that ring painfully hollow to Romani survivors, their families and communities, many of whom are endangered by neo-Nazi activity daily, I will mention the speech made by Prof. Robert Krell. Overall, it was a moving talk in which he spoke not only of wartime atrocities but also, quite astutely, of post-war reverberations in survivor families. He spoke of the need to keep memory alive, to educate, and to be aware of the present-day effects of racist ideologies. Similar speeches are given each year (not only at the UN), and yet it is very rare that the author thinks to mention the very obvious, very real and very destructive link between the ideology that led to the Holocaust and the neo-Nazi and other racist dogmas that continue to keep Romani people segregated, poorly educated, and frequently unemployed. Rampant discrimination, not to mention the deportation of Romani refugees, is endemic to the same countries where anyone of even one-eighth Romany blood was legally singled out for extermination in the events being commemorated. Because of anti-Gypsyism, Roma and Sinti are at constant risk of physical attack in Europe, not to mention interethnic tensions in certain parts of New York City and other places. And beyond the risk of physical harm, they face a kind of constant discrimination that can easily slip into more dangerous hatreds, and which proper commemoration of the Holocaust ought to discuss. Neither the United Nations nor the annual United States Days of Remembrance in Washington, D.C. have succeeded in this regard.
How can these speakers, one after the other, call for effective Holocaust education without so much as mentioning that the Romani population, currently Europe’s largest ethnic minority, was decimated during the war – exterminated in proportions similar to the Jews according to Simon Wiesenthal and many other historians – and presently subjected to experiences such as “Gypsies to the gas!” graffiti (even on playgrounds) on a regular basis? How can teachers and professors call themselves Holocaust educators when most of their students, when informally polled, still have virtually or absolutely no idea who “Gypsies” or Romanies actually are? These issues, so absurd and ironic that the lack of logic surrounding them should be patently obvious, were once again brought up for the Romani audience members listening to Prof. Krell’s speech. One sentence, however, stood out in particular: when speaking of Einsatzkommandos in Lithuania, Prof. Krell referred to over 100,000 Jewish victims “and a few others.” According to Martin Weiser, Lithuania was one of the countries in which “almost all Gypsies were killed.” Their ethnic group has a name, and it is not “some others.” Their families have suffered as much as Jewish families have. However, what really caused the Romani audience members (and at least one Jewish attendee we know of) to look at each other, stunned, was the flippant tone in which Prof. Krell pronounced “and a few others.” What could have been a highly effective speech was thus tainted with hypocrisy.
In this most recent commemoration, any mentions of Romani victims were once again so minor that a Jewish woman, who had just attended the entire event and whom we met afterward, had no idea who Roma were and what they had to do with the Holocaust. She came up to one of our group’s members and asked what her sign meant. We were each wearing a large brown triangle with the inscription “Gypsy” (with quotes) in front, and a large Z with the word Zigeuner on our backs. The woman was upset that she had never been told about the other group slated for extermination in the Holocaust, and wondered aloud about the Holocaust education she had received, as well as about the program she had just seen. She called the situation “disgusting.” Eventually, she introduced us to a gentleman who was identified as one of the event’s organizers, and she briefly explained why we were standing there with signs. I did not catch the man’s name, as there was a bit of a commotion and he then quickly disappeared. He was eager to point out that a Romani speaker (meaning Andrzej Mirga) had been invited two years ago. I calmly countered that we expect to be included every year, and to have a Romani speaker, musician, or both, for at least five minutes out of the lengthy program. His reply was negative. At this point I said, “This is untenable. It’s morally untenable. It’s academically untenable. And it’s historically untenable.”
This is what I and many, many other Romani community members firmly believe. We are asking not only for a token mention but for inclusion in the organization of commemorative events and the preparation of educational material for schools. Right here on the East Coast, there are Romani academics, musicians, community leaders, survivors and/or relatives of survivors who have never been asked, but who very much want to be involved. Even if we accept the most conservative estimates for Roma and Sinti murdered in the Holocaust (in the hundreds of thousands), allowing Romani representatives a real five minutes each year in a ceremony that lasts up to two hours would hardly be disproportionate. These same people might be consulted to assure that new materials released into schools and media outlets actually explain enough about who Romanies are and what happened to them – a level of awareness with the potential to mean that the Romani victims of the Holocaust did not die entirely in vain. Again, to deny us such input and participation, in an effort that is aimed at learning lessons, at telling the hard truths about history, and at guaranteeing “never again,” would be morally, academically, and historically bankrupt
Petra Gelbart, Ph.D., New York University
Postscript, November 2012: The UN Holocaust Outreach Programme recently held an event discussing both Jewish and Romani mass graves in Eastern Europe. Four panelists were invited; none of them was Romani. Two of them stated, inexplicably, that the Romani experience was separate from the Holocaust. When questioned about the inclusion of Romani people, the head of the Programme claimed that Romani representatives are being invited and consulted, adding in the same breath that “a Roma expert” is being flown in for teacher training. This person is indeed an expert and I welcome his input, but, contrary to what the audience at this event was led to believe, he is not Romani. Many letters of protest have once again been sent by Roma/Sinti, Jews, and others, but we have yet to receive any real response regarding plans for the regular inclusion of voices coming from Roma and Sinti themselves.
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