Honoring Pain and Loss, Urging Vigilance and Change on International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day
On August 2nd, representatives and friends of the Romani and Sinti communities from Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic gathered atAuschwitz to commemorate the International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The ceremony took place at the site of the so-calledZigeunerlager, or “Gypsy” Camp, where more than 23,000 Roma were imprisoned. The date marked the 66th anniversary of the liquidation of the “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz II-Birkenau on the night of August 2, 1944 when the Nazis killed 2,897 men, women, and children in the gas chambers. International Roma Holocaust (or, in Romani,Porajamos) Remembrance Day has been observed since 1994.
“I was a child when I visited this place for the first time,” recalled Roman Kwiatkowski, Chairman of the Association of the Roma in Poland in his speech to the audience, which, aside from activists and Romani as well as majority community members, included religious figures and government officials.
“I came here with my mother,” continued Kwiatkowski, “and I can still remember two things: the crumbling monument and my mother sobbing uncontrollably. I understood very little back then, I could not comprehend the symbolism of this place and the magnitude of the tragedy and suffering connected with it. However, I subconsciously felt how important it was, and concluding from its condition, how forgotten it must have been. A sense of mission was born in me then. From the beginning of my activity as a grown-up man and an activist for the Romani community, my aim has been to refill this place with proper meaning and importance.”
The Monument of Roma and Sinti at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum wasbuilt in 1973 and renovated in 1994. The plaque on the granite obelisk reads: “Memorial place of Roma of the concentration camp in Auschwitz – Birkenau. Thousands of men, women and children imprisoned, tortured victims of German Fascism, died in this concentration camp in Birkenau – cruelly tormented, murdered and gassed. Funded by the Roma Association in Germany 1973 Rose O. Bamberger”
The exact number of Roma who perished in the Holocaust is unknown, but historians estimate it to be between half- and 1.5 million people. More than 90% of Czech Roma died at the hand of the Nazis. Over 62% of Romani prisoners at Auschwitz came from Germany and Austria, 22% were brought from the Czech Republic, and the rest came from Poland.
To this day, Romani activists have been struggling to attain recognition and redress for the crimes committed by the Nazis against their community during WWII.
“Unfortunately our organization has come to understand that the Roma are not honored equally to other victims of the Nazi era in compensation efforts,” said Čeněk Růžička, Chairman of the Committee for Compensation of Romani Holocaust in the Czech Republic. “It seems unbelievable that up to the present moment, compensations have not been completed, and, in contrast to the redress process regarding the property claims of Jews, compensation for Romani properties have not yet been started.”
Růžička’s organization is committed to continuing to advocate for Romani Holocaust victims. He says: “We will continue to ask for compensation of Romani assets and for the Roma to be present as equal partners in the dealings. The victims who remain alive have selected us to represent their rightful interests, and we want nothing more than to right this injustice.”
The community representatives and Polish government officials who spoke at the event urged everyone present to remain vigilant and to continue to support the plight of the Roma who, as Gejza Adam of the Slovak Roma Coalition Party said, “have been striving to become equal members” of societies across Europe.
“Despite the fact that sixty years have passed since the tragedy,” Adam said, “Romani communities in Europe have been suffering from the same negligence as always.”
Poverty, alarming environmental and social conditions, as well as low social status are just some of the issues the Roma face, Adam said, taking a moment to criticize the current situation: “Financial aid distributed by the European resources that is aimed at helping the Roma improve their social status hardly ever gets to its addressees, meaning the Romani people themselves.”
Drawing parallels between the importance of remembering the victims and the relevance of those memories today was a theme throughout the ceremony.
“Sixty-five years ago the Nazi ideology was conquered,” said Růžička. “But, unfortunately, not its ideas. They appear again and again. So let us be watchful and uncompromising so that we do not lose control over them.”
“It is our duty not only to inform and to spread the knowledge of these places and about the unimaginable crime committed on the Romani nation, a nation that was so categorically sentenced to death because of its race and ethnicity,” said Kwiatkowski. “It would be tragic to belittle and forget the fact that Roma and Sinti were exterminated. We cannot allow such a situation to arise, because it is only one step from the consent for the repetition of the brutal practices that marked the history of Europe and the whole world in such a painful manner.”
Adam concluded his speech with these powerful words: “I am truly sorry to dare raise your awareness (about the problems today) at this particular place, but I hope the ashes and unmarked graves of the Holocaust victims can become the sacred ground from which human hope, tolerance and moral courage will rise in order to help us–Romani people–become valid members of societies that value human rights and equality above all.”
photo by Tereza Bottman
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