August 2 is the International Day of Remembrance of the Romani Holocaust. On the night of August 2-3, 1944 2897 prisoners Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy Camp”) in Auschwitz were killed in gas chambers. Prior to that, on May 16, 1944, an earlier attempt to “liquidate” gypsies was met with fierce resistance, and this became another memorable date – the Day of the Roma resistance. These dates only very recently became part of the official calendar of the world, but they are almost never celebrated in Russia, and in general the topic of Roma people in the Second World War is explored by history enthusiasts only in our country.
As for the name of Romani people and the history of racially motivated extermination of Romani by the Nazis there continues to be some terminological controversy. In Russian it is still appropriate to call Romani people “Gypsies” (tsygane) while in other countries it is no longer acceptable, as the term “Gypsies” is considered derogatory and was replaced by “Roma” (self-designation, with emphasis as in the Roma language on “a”, although not all the translators know this) . In the OSCE documents translated into Russian an ambiguous term “Roma and Sinti” was adopted (Sinti being one of the subgroups of the inhomogeneous Romani ethnic group), while in the Council of Europe this is being translated into Russian as “Roma gypsies” and the UN prefers to translate the term as “Roma” or “Roma ethnic group”. In languages, which have cases for nouns, the name “Roma” is usually fully adapted and inclined (as, for example, is the case in Ukrainian), and corresponding adjectives are used, as well as nouns for male and female Romani persons (“Rom” and “Romka” or “Romni”). But in Russian language these words still look rather unusual, although they are beginning to appear in different publications. However, some Roma people in Russia object to the use of the word “Roma” and their derivatives, insisting that they call themselves “Gypsies” (tsygane).
Regarding the term “Romani Holocaust” there is also a continuing debate as not all Romani people and researchers of this topic accept the proposed Romani terms, which were rather artificially created by historians and linguists, such as samudaripen (literally “murder of all”), poraimos / porraimos (“violence”, probably the most unacceptable term) and pharraimos (“splitting” or “separation”). In living Romani dialects these words are not used, but there is also no corresponding term for the “Romani Holocaust”.
Destruction of the Romani people by the Nazis has been studied to a much lesser extent than the catastrophe of the Jewish people and this topic is still underrepresented in the public debate. There are many reasons for this, including the objective difficulties of study (the number of Romani people killed by the Nazis is still not precisely known, according to some estimates – up to half a million people, or even as much as 700,000 people) and a rather long absence of educated professionals among Romani people themselves, who had the opportunity and understood the importance of preserving and documenting people’s memory of the war period. But the main reason for this, of course, is discrimination and marginalization of the Romani people, who for a long time could not establish themselves on the international level.
It is only in recent times that the problem of Romani integration has become part of the international and European agenda, as active Romani associations came into existence, international campaigns such as the Decade of Roma Inclusion have been declared, and the study of the Romani Holocaust has become more systematic. In 2015, the European Parliament proposed to officially mark August 2 as the day of Romani Holocaust, and in many countries commemorative events are being held involving not only Romani people and activists, but also representatives of government bodies and political parties. Official documents of the OSCE and the Council of Europe prescribe to include the study of history of extermination of Romani people by the Nazis into educational programs. This, obviously, applies to Russia as a member of these international institutions.
It should be said that all this didn’t happen by itself: Romani people had to fight even for the recognition of racial motivation behind the extermination of their ethnic group by the Nazis. It would seem that after the publication of the truthful reports about the Nazi concentration camps and mass murders as part of Nazi anti-Romani policy, such policies should become a thing of the past (however, prejudice and daily anti-Roma sentiments is a more difficult thing to get rid of). One could assume that the situation of Romani people after the war was to change dramatically for the better, but this, alas, did not happen. Romani remain not only a discriminated ethnic group, but until recently the crimes committed against them were rather reminiscent of the “dark past” (such as the forced sterilization of women in the Czech Republic and some other countries).
Authorities used to talk to Romani communities using the language of repression, even if they publicly stated that they were acting for the good. We can recall, for example, the “laws on sedentism” in the socialist countries (adopted on the example of the Soviet Union’s “Decree on sedentism”, 1956), which provided criminal penalties for continuing nomadic lifestyle. One of the witnesses of the implementation of this decree recalled that Roma people were forcibly moved out with their families from Leningrad to Novgorod region and, as they were put onto trucks without any explanations, they were saying goodbye to each other for ever, as they feared that they could be later shot.
While working for the defense of Roma rights in Russia, we met with hundreds of people and it was not just once that Roma people described the attitude towards them from the police or the authorities by saying “as it was under the Nazis…” Such comparisons are not at all out of place when one recalls special operations with names like “Tabor” (Roma settlement) or “Gypsies”, which took place across the country. Roma people were indiscriminately arrested, photographed and fingerprinted (as was the case in Smolensk in 2010, in Bryansk in 2012 and earlier in many other regions of Russia). We were also given descriptions of the excesses by the police (for example, in Ryazan in 2011, police officers extorted money from arbitrarily detained Roma women, beat them up, cut off their hair, videotaping the process, because they were well aware that for Roma people hair cutting is a terrible shame).
The memories of persecution of the Roma by the Nazis also come to mind of elderly people during the forced evictions of residents of Roma settlements. One of such “deportations” was sanctioned back in 2001 by Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev: more than a hundred Roma people were loaded into buses at gunpoint and taken away from Krasnodar to Voronezh region. During the years of our human rights work we have seen how many governors and heads of local administrations dreamed that Roma people would be gone somewhere outside of their regions (and some, like the then mayor of Arkhangelsk Mr. Donskoy, even succeeded in achieving this). So it is appropriate to remember how Zigeunerlager in Auschwitz once became Zigeunerfrei, “free from gypsies”…
Historians often regret that Roma people have “short historical memory”, that they do not preserve the history of their own people and that this has led, among other things, to very fragmented information on the Romani Holocaust. But I can testify that the historical memory of the Nazi persecution of Roma people is alive. A few years ago I witnessed instant mobilization of Roma in Pskov, as soon as there circulated a rumor that their settlement was about to be attacked by a gang of skinheads. The rumor was not confirmed later, but the Roma people armed themselves with whatever means they could, as the children and elderly people were hiding in basements, describing it with the words “as it was during the war”… Teachers working in schools where there are Roma children are often surprised by the sharp, exaggerated reaction of Roma people during some trivial daily conflicts: groups of Roma parents immediately arrive to “sort things out” and Roma children are withdrawn from schools en masse as the slightest danger arises. But we should wonder not at this, but at the fact that more than 70 years after the war had finished, Roma people still feel the hostility towards them and have to be always on the alert, at any moment ready to face an attack…
Both the researchers of the Romani Holocaust and Romani activists believe it is important to point out that Romani people were not only the victims of the Nazis, but also resisted them actively by taking part in the partisan movement, fighting in active army units and even making an uprising in Auschwitz, which lead to partial disbanding of Zigeunerlager (some of the prisoners were then transferred to other concentration camps and the remaining prisoners were being starved).
During a recent so-called “Roma riot” in Plekhanov (Tula region), Russia’s largest compact settlement Kelderari Roma, TV crews and photojournalists filmed women with sticks confronting heavily armed and well-equipped riot police, as well as confused children watching bulldozers demolishing their homes. It is commonplace to say that history has a lot to learn from, that “without the knowledge of the past there is no future” or that the knowledge of historical truth should warn us against repeating terrible mistakes. Yet, remembering on August 2 “elimination” of the Romani camp at Auschwitz, looking at the photos of children – victims of heinous experiments of “racial biologists”, reading the testimonies of survivors, it is necessary to remind once again where it all started: with the announcement of an entire ethnic group “antisocial” and “criminal”, with raids and evictions, with aggressive prejudice and ignorance, which, unfortunately, still survives among us.
Photos by Konstantin Nosov
This article was first published on the website of Radio Liberty