Today is a significant anniversary, but chances are you won’t have heard of it.
If I told you that 3000 men, women and children were massacred on the night of 2 August within the last 100 years in Europe would it surprise you that it’s not well known?
What about if I told you that hundreds of thousands of others died alongside them within a few short years? Surely you would have heard of that right? Actually, maybe not.
In the search for my ancestral roots I am learning about a bit about Roma history and culture. There’s lots to learn. The most harrowing part of Roma history is entwined with the Holocaust story, but maybe not the one you’re familiar with.
Millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Did you also know that Romani gypsies were singled out for massacre too? What is so sad is that we will never know how many were murdered because of the high proportion of unrecorded killings. Estimates range from 220,000 to 500,000.
The Roma genocide didn’t happen overnight. It happened in a context of centuries of oppression across Europe and a gradual chipping away of civil rights under the Nazis. Institutionalised racism allowed widespread acceptance of the rounding up Roma into internment camps as early as 1936. In many ways the sterilisation, experimentation on, and mass killings of Roma paved the way for the horrific genocide of millions of Jews once the Nazis had refined their techniques.
My dad introduced me to the following poem written about the experience of people with intellectual disabilities at the hands of the Nazis. In a similar way to the Roma, they were sterilised, experimented on and killed. The poem’s title refers to how the Nazis determined whether or not you had an intellectual disability. People were asked to form a sentence with three words – dog, fox, field – and if they failed then it was likely that they had signed their death sentence.
Dog Fox Field
by Les Murray
These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.
Poems have also been written about the Roma experience, and I found the following one particularly hard-hitting:
by Santino Spinelli
For me this poem speaks not only about the silence in death, but also the silence since. I think that the way we remember historical events says a lot about the present. Activists have been working for 40 years to highlight this genocide but only a few years ago in 2012 did a memorial to Roma appear in Berlin.
Having the courage to care means remembering significant past events. But it also means remembering in order to shape the present. What is the point of Roma Holocaust Memorial Day if it doesn’t make us question the continued prejudice and marginalisation that Roma and other groups continue to face across Europe and beyond? See my recent post on Life in the rotten barrel: Romani gypsy discrimination and the police, for example.
Sadly, only this week another example has appeared. Much of the UK media’s response to asylum seekers and migrants in Calais has come under criticism. Prime Minister David Cameron referred to a “swarm of people” coming across the Mediterranean searching for a better life. This Huffington Post article draws parallels between the reporting by UK press of the current migrant situation in Europe and the situation of migrant Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and entering the UK through the ‘back door’. This was described in 1938 as “becoming an outrage”. When we start to describe people as something other than human then how do we know that we are not condoning atrocities that we may never become fully aware of?
N.B. I’m not an expert on the Roma holocaust, so I recommend reading Associate Professor Ethel Brooks’ Remembering the Dead, Documenting Resistance, Honouring the Heroes and Professor Rainer Schulze’s six-part blog on the Nazi persecution of the Roma.