The number of people left who remember the war is getting smaller and smaller. They are leaving us, taking their memories, sometimes without having managed to share them. Moreover, not everything is known about the suffering that befell the gypsy people during those years. Yes, we know that the Nazis liquidated the gypsies, as they did the Jews, solely because they belonged to a particular nationality, but historians do not know precisely the numbers involved, nor the names of all those who were killed. All the more valuable, then are eye-witness accounts from those who survived the war years.
Since 2003 Memorial, in collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration, has been running a project providing medical care to elderly gypsies. In looking for senior gypsies who might participate in the project, we have met many interesting people. One of them is Aleksandr Stepanovich Stepanov, who lives in Berngardovka. He is the head of a large family, and a person of respect. During the war, Aleksandr Stepanovich was an adolescent, and he and his family found themselves in occupied territory. He shared with our correspondent his recollections of how he and his family managed to save themselves from being shot:
‘It happened in Pskov oblast. We all lived together -all my relatives: Mother, Father, Grandmother Avdotya, Grandfather Aleksandr, Uncle Grigory and his children Taisiya and Ivan, Uncle Vasily and his daughters Valya and Anna. And we received notice that we were to put together provisions for three days, and that if we had, say, a cow, we were not to bring it with us. Though my father was illiterate, the man was far-sighted. They’ve assembled loads of gypsies; everyone’s asking: ‘Where are you taking us?’ And the Germans say: ‘We’re sending you to Bessarabia; you’re gypsies, after all.’ Well, the gypsies believe it, saying: ‘Let’s go to Bessarabia.’ But my father says: What Bessarabia? Where are they going to drive us to if there’s bombing everywhere, there are no roads and the trains aren’t running? You’ll end up eating soil, and they’ll shoot everyone, as if they were dogs! I have a horse; get the children saddled and let’s go and hide in the woods. It makes no difference whether they shoot us in the back or the front of the head.’ But gypsies are ingenuous; they believe everyone. They say: ‘Everyone’s going to Bessarabia. Are we, what, cleverer than everyone else?’
My father struggled for two weeks trying to convince the gypsies. But they answered him: ‘You see, we go about freely, and no one touches us. Let’s not go into the woods, and you come back and go with us.’ But they were going about freely because the Germans were awaiting a convoy. Well, my Dad called my mother and us children together, and said: ‘If anything happens, we’ll die together.’
And only family stayed alive -ours; the Germans took all the others away in a convoy, with dogs. They shot everyone. Not far from Novorzhev, there’s a small wood, and pits were dug there. They threw everyone into these pits, and the blood seeped up through the earth to the surface. A lot of people were buried alive. They left an entire gypsy village there. Of my relatives alone, nine people died there. Another half of my relatives were shot in Pushkinsky Gory. There’s a precipice there, and everyone went down there -Jews, Russians and gypsies were there -around 150 people.’
The head of the Stepanov family showed decisiveness and common sense, and thus saved his children. Many other gypsy families were saved in a similar way, and each history is in its own way unique and interesting. We wish Aleksandr Stepanovich Stepanov good health and a long life, appeal to those who wish to share their memories. We would be glad to publish them in our bulletin.