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June 27, 2022



Renata Berkyová: Concept of the Porajmos as a reflection of the marginalization of Roma in historiography

6.6.2018 13:25
A commemorative ceremony for the Romani victims of the Holocaust was held on 2 August 2016 at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. (PHOTO:  Council of Europe)
A commemorative ceremony for the Romani victims of the Holocaust was held on 2 August 2016 at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. (PHOTO: Council of Europe)

In recent years, in connection with commemorations of the tragic fate of Romani people during the Second World War and the expansion of our awareness of the Holocaust and its Romani victims, a breakthrough event has been in the making. Apparently the most recent example of this in the Czech Republic is the state buyout of the pig farm located on the site of former so-called "Gypsy Camp" at Lety u Písku, which was preceded by years of relentless pressure on the highest state representatives by the relatives of the victims, activists, and experts.

For the public, the plans to make the site more dignified are opening up not just a debate about the future form of the memorial there, but also a debate about how to grasp and interpret this part of the history of the Roma. The fulcrum for this reassessment of the concept of the Holocaust and its Romani victims, from today's perspective, is the reversal of the lens used to view the history of Roma and the tendencies used to interpret that history.

The history of Romani people usually ends up in a kind of bubble, in an isolated form that even many academics rarely reflect on, and those academics implicitly thereby perpetrate the exclusion of the history of Romani people from the broader historical context. The history of the Roma, therefore, tends to end up at the center of interest just as an exotic, marginalized element, rather than as an integral component of (Czech) history.

This piece reviews the introduction and use of the concept of the Porajmos (also spelled Porrajmos, Poraimos, etc.). We will attempt to construct an argument about the conceptualization of the history of the Roma using this example.

Roma go unseen even when the eyes are open wide

During the 1990s the American journalist Paul Polansky "discovered" that there had been a camp at Lety and the talk was of a forgotten Holocaust, although the first historiographic publications and texts published about this subject on Bohemian territory were released in 1972 from the pen of the historian Ctibor Nečas (Nečas: 1972). The absolutely very first publication specifically focused on the persecution of the Roma and Sinti during the war dates from 1964 (About, Abakunova: 2016, p. 8); a recent summary of Nečas's work in the field of researching the history of Roma is also worth mentioning ((Závodská, Lhotka: 2013).

Although the shocking findings of Polansky's research were presented in a sensationalized way, they did bring the subject of the Holocaust of the Roma in Bohemia to light for a broader reading public, including thanks to the uncritical support of some activists. Polansky attracted attention to this subject from abroad and a topic was therefore publicly raised that had previously just been known (if we do not count the survivors and the relatives of the victims) just to a narrow circle of devotees.

In parallel, however, expert monographs and texts were also being published both in Bohemia and elsewhere in Europe describing the fates of Holocaust survivors who were Romani and the circumstances and locations connected with the Nazi persecution of the Roma. One author who has investigated the history of the Roma and indirectly the history of the Second World War is Ian Hancock, a professor who is of Romani origin and based at the University of Texas, whose monograph The Pariah Syndrome describes Romani people as victims of persecution beginning with their enslavement in Romania up through the Holocaust.

Hancock is a recognized linguist and Romani Studies scholar who, among other matters, introduced in a leading journal (and in other texts of his) the term "O Baro Porrajmos" into the Romani vocabulary as a specifically Romanes-language term for the Holocaust (Hancock: 1997). This designation, as Hancock himself reports, was one he heard expressed at a conference in 1993 in Romania by a Kalderash Romani man whose name Hancock did not record during an informal debate about what to call the Holocaust in Romanes (Hancock: 2007, p. 54).

From a linguistic perspective, the Kalderash term "porrajmos" comes from the root verb (te) porrav-e and the noun ending -imos typical of the Vlax dialects of Romanes (or also the Welsh-Romani dialect, which includes Kalderash Romanes). This verb has several meanings, such as "to open, to open up, to unravel", but also to "spread one's legs" (ROMLEX, lexical database), and in Slovak Romanes it especially means "to open wide, to pop, to bug [one's eyes], or one's mouth", metaphorically also "to marvel, to wonder" (Hübschmannová at al.: 2001).

Fulmek reports that in dialects of Lovari Romanes this concept is comprehended as meaning "revealing, uncovering the genitals" (Fulmek: 2007, p. 53). As a noun in some varieties of Romanes this term can express the meaning of "hole, rape, vagina", which is also listed as one of the meanings by Hancock himself (Hancock: 2007, p. 55).

Several years ago a discussion arose in Slovakia about the title of a project focused on memorializing the Holocaust and its Romani victims in which the authors proposed the title "Ma bisteren!" ("Never Forget!") instead of using the term Porajmos, and "Ma bisteren!" was later used. The project was initiated by Zuzana Kumanová and Arne Mann, who have many years of experience with Romani eyewitnesses to the Second World War and their testimonies, and it was unique especially because it was the first big, comprehensive project about the Holocaust and its Romani victims in Slovakia.

Those defending the public use of the term "Porajmos" were, for example, Petr Polák (who at that time was the Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for Romani Communities) and Jozef Banyák (a film director), both of whom, even though they had also long been involved with Romani topics, were more taking into account (in the discussion as to what the concert involved with the project should be called) to what extent the name of the event would be "comprehensible" to audiences, rather than reflecting the perspective of the survivors on what to call their experience. Mann, who is a leading ethnographer in Slovakia, then published an article in which he summarized the statements of the Czech, Polish, and Slovak experts objecting to that overarching term (Porajmos), which essentially does do not much -  neither linguistically, nor metaphorically, nor from the perspective of Romani people spontaneously accepting it - to convey the persecution they were subjected to during the war.

Nevertheless, some of Hancock's opponents from other countries, during the debate on what to call this phase of persecution in history, are also attempting to approximate the use of a single term and doing their best to come up with alternatives for Porajmos:  "Samudaripen" (which means "mass murder" - Dosta! 2006), "le Romengero murdaripen" ("the genocide of the Roma" - Horváthová: 2003), "Berša Bibahtale" ("the unfortunate/unhappy years" - Hancock: 2007, p. 54), "Kali Traš" ("Black Fear" - Wikipedia page on "Porajmos", 15.5.20i8), "Pharajimos" ((Bársony, Daróczi: 2007), "Parunipe", "Praxonipe" (Marushiakova, Popov: 2017, p 1) or "just" the term holokosto, holokausto. While these efforts to find a term symbolizing this Romani suffering are motivated by practical considerations, it is also important to view them through the lens of the eyewitness survivors, rather than through the lens of activist motivations.

Using "Porajmos" to demonstrate "authentic" Romani-ness

The broad extent of the use of the term "Porajmos" can be registered in the Czech environment as well - one example is the website dedicated to examples of denying the Holocaust and its Romani victims - -  the banner for which reads, in bold, PORAJMOS POPÍRÁNÍ (which means "PORAJMOS DENIAL"), or the documentary film for educational purposes "Unikli jisté smrti – přežili Porajmos" ("They Escaped a Certain Death - They Survived the Porajmos") made by students of Audiovisual Production at Slezská University under the guidance of Monika Horsáková. (Pant, o.s., 2015) This newly-introduced term in the discourse of historiography and Romani Studies has rapidly taken off, especially among those activists and researchers whose motivations have been (or are) to demonstrate the "authentically" Romani aspect of their projects or works - without having any awareness of what the actual language used by the eyewitnesses to this history is or what their testimonies involve.

As a side note:  These tendencies to include "Romani authenticity" in such projects are not just a question of the history of Romani people as a subject, but of everything involving Romani people, from educational activities to social projects, where of course not infrequently that concern and involvement remains at the level of declarations (written texts) only. Professional linguists, Romanes speakers, and Romani Studies scholars, however, are refusing to use this term in the context of the Nazi persecution of Romani people because they consider it an inappropriate metaphor, to say the least, with negative connotations, and because the concept remains unknown even to speakers of the Vlax dialects.

"As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors I refuse to use that term because I believe it is a neologism that does not in any way come from the actual lives of Romani people, not as they are lived today and not as they were lived in the immediate postwar era," Petra Gelbart, a music curator for RomArchive and music therapist, posted to an online social network discussion (Gelbart: 2018). Pavel Kubaník of the Romani Studies program at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University remarked on the debate over the title of the project in Slovakia that "[The phrase 'Ma bisteren!' appears] more appropriate than any attempt to make up for the absence of a term for the Holocaust among speakers of Romanes by creating such a one-word term." (Mann: 2014, p. 5).

An attempt to have something of our own

Hancock makes no secret of his motivation to create a term for the perverse, specific approach taken by the Nazis toward the Romani people, just as he indirectly admits that his term is analogous to the Hebrew term "Shoah", which refers to the genocide of the Jewish people. His starting argument is that what is being neglected is how the ideology of racial purity in Nazi Germany designated two ethnic groups, Jews and Roma, for the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" and "Final Solution to the Gypsy Question".

As Hancock says, "no other group was condemned to extermination and becoming the focus of a 'Final Solution'[...] This is a case where it is necessary to come out from the shadows of somebody else's history [...] and give [this horrible chapter] a name, ... for the Holocaust of the Roma the most widespread concept is Porrajmos." (Hancock: 2007, p. 53).

The fact that the term Porajmos is apparently not actually the "most widespread" way to refer to this concept among Romani people is indicated, for example, by Slawomir Kapralski, whose statements are quoted by Arne Mann:  "[Hancock] of course forgets to add that many - if not the vast majority - of those texts [in which the concept appears] have been formulated by non-Romani people who do not have much of an idea about the Romanes language and use the term because Hancock has popularized it, creating the impression that it is a 'traditional' term." (Mann: 2014, p.4). The implication that this is an original Romanes-language term used in history and captured by historiography about the Roma has neither been confirmed nor refuted by Hancock, and other linguists have criticized that fact. (Matras: 2004, p. 199-200) 

The particular tension that motivated Hancock, during his research into the history of Romani people, to promote the concept of "Porajmos" as he himself defines it (Hancock: 2007, p 53-54) is, of course, easily comprehended - the persecution of Romani people merely because of their ethnic affiliation during the Second World War is one of the the most significant milestones in the history of the Roma (and not just of them), and there is no doubt that it is also the most tragic. Moreover, it took many long decades before Roma began to be perceived as having been the victims of racial ideology, and essentially long after the war the notion has been maintained that Romani people were just the "asocials" during the Third Reich period.

A certain exception was created by the period just after the war, when Romani people were treated like any other liberated prisoners of the concentration camps. In society, however, the racial basis for the persecution of Romani people remains a neglected concept, not just by bureaucrats, but also through the lens of historians and the rest of the public (Knesebeck: 2011, p. 23-26).

This ambition to find and use a single term for the period of the Second World War as Romani people experienced it, of course, is a very narrow perspective. By essentially unifying the notion of the persecution of Romani people across Europe, this neglects the historical development in each country, where the persecution happened in different ways.

Not only is the concept of "Porajmos" incapable of reflecting the perspective of the eyewitnesses to these events (from different countries, various Romani dialect-speakers and groups) but, thanks to the perpetuation of the idée fixe about who contributed to this persecution and how, this concept aids our neglect of local actors who share the blame for the genocide. In different countries or regions this concept contributes to the depiction of Romani people as having been in the clutches of the Germans, the Nazis, and bypasses the local (non-German, non-Nazi) co-perpetrators.

Romani people labeled as "eternal victims"

Marushiakova and Popov, in the context of disseminating awareness about the Holocaust of the Roma, notice several aims that lead Hancock and other authors to mobilize themselves on this subject - some are aimed at building a common (Romani) identity, at ethnic emancipation and at political mobilization, while others aim to increase awareness about Romani people in majority societies and to combat antigypsyism. (Marushiakova, Popov: 2017, p. 1-2) These authors notice, however, in addition to these motivations, a tendency to create an image of Romani people as "eternal victims" where in the final analysis such a view of the history of Romani people (generally) creates barriers both to accurately, adequately assessing and perceiving the history of the Roma and to accurately assessing contemporary Romani social status.

Such enumerations of persecution frequently lead (paradoxically) to an inverse perspective, i.e., to "blaming the victims", where for some people the suspicion arises that if Romani people have been persecuted everywhere over the centuries, those societies may have had grounds for doing so at different times. (Marushiakova, Popov: 2017, p. 2-3) In the attempt to depict Romani people as persecuted, we encounter not just a specific interpretation of history and a "game with the numbers of victims" that leads to disputes between historians and Romani activists, but also to absurd cases of misinterpretation and the creation of folkloric stories that are then uncritically accepted by the public as historical facts.

All of this contributes to making the project of historiography itself one that is banal and profane. (Marushiakova, Popov: 2017, p. 3) An example from the Czech environment is the above-mentioned Polansky, who, while he immediately avoids taking the position of an historian in his introduction (2014), uses his journalistic style and self-declared status as a genealogist to very convincingly manipulate his claim about the number of prisoners interned at the camp at Lety, for example.

During his meeting with Nečas, who Polansky describes as having been startled by the number of prisoners (2 035) reported by Polansky, which is more than double that of previous numbers published, Polansky says his answer was that his number included some people who had been counted twice and that non-Romani prisoners from the labor camp had also been included in it .(Polansky: 2014, p. 298) In another part of that same book, Polansky still states that: "in the computer we stored [...] data on more than 2 000 Romani prisoners of the camp." (Polansky: 2014, p. 487)

From among the critical responses to that publication we can mention here the review by Jana Horváthová (Horváthová: 2015), who reflects on the entire media scandal that is ongoing between Polansky (and his advocates) and experts. Despite great efforts to refute some of Polansky's allegations by reporting the facts and the testimonies of eyewitnesses, his stories of "thousands" of prisoners, or of gas chambers being located at the camp, survive among many people here.

Who are the actors of the Holocaust of the Roma? 

This constant focus on the (passive) Romani victims of the Nazis in an attempt to awaken the conscience of the majority society so that its members will take responsibility for the past, however, can have the negative effect of victimizing those who were subjected to persecution and failing to register opportunities to actually alter the depiction of Romani people in society. Not infrequently, in the context of the history of Romani people during the Second World War, what is neglected are the active participants in the antifascist resistance who were, as partisans or soldiers in armies fighting Hitler, taken as part of the societies in which their ancestors had lived for centuries. (Marushiakova, Popov: 2017, p. 5).

Such Romani people, however, as authors of historical source materials - written ones - comprise a crucial, integral part of the constantly-growing mosaic of the history of the Roma. Others who have not been researched are local non-Romani residents who lived symbiotically with Romani people during the interwar period, who stood up for "their" Romani people, and who attempted to protect them. (Nečas, Holý: 1993)

Of course, this balancing that takes into consideration all the actors in the history of the Roma should not remain in the bubble of those focused on such history. In order for us to achieve actual integration of this history, for society to not perceive the history of the Roma as a fringe subject in the margins of "its own" history, it is necessary to adjust the overall perspectives on this history.

This should not be done separately, but as a component of historical research in any given region. To support such a concept of Romani history, a platform has been created, for example, at the Institute of Contemporary History (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) called the Prague Forum for Romani Histories, which endeavors to emphasize the significance of the history of Romani people in the context of European history overall and of contemporary societies.

"It is important to perceive the history of the Roma as a component of broader histories. Some historians write very competently about the histories of the Roma, but describe them as a group that is somehow separate, sConclusionpecial, as if that history existed in a vacuum," explains Helena Sadílková, head of the Romani Studies Seminar at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University, who coordinates the activities of the Prague Forum. (Slačálek: 2018)


In this piece we have clarified how the concept of "Porajmos" as a term for the Holocaust of Romani people came about and was disseminated, as well as what the approaches and attitudes toward this term are - a debate which, while it may have appeared marginal, reflects very well how all of the history of the Roma is being conceptualized and, by extension, how the Holocaust of the Roma, which we continue to grasp in a black-and-white way, depending on the perspectives of different powers, is itself being conceptualized. In the interest of the actual integration of the history of the Roma (Romani subject matter, Romani people themselves), one approach, it seems, is to deconstruct our own conceptions and perceptions of these subjects.

Sources used:

About, Ilsen. Abakunova, Anna. The genocide and persecution of Roma and Sinti. Bibliography and Historiographical Review. International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. 2016. Online:

Barsóny, Daróczi. Pharajimos: The fate of the Roma during the holocaust. 2007

Fulmek Romano Ervin. Slovo porraimos / porrajmos z jazykového hľadiska. In: Nepriznaný holocaust. Rómovia v rokoch 1939-1945. (edd. Zuza Kumanová, Arne B. Mann). Bratislava, Občianske združenie In minorita, Slovenské národné múzeum, Ústav etnológie SAV, 2007, p. 53.

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Renata Berkyová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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