Stephen McGrath
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A decades-old paper war: how the Roma are fighting bureaucracy

Romania still hasn’t come to terms with its role in the Holocaust.

Less than a mile from the trendy bars of central Bucharest, Florica Stuparu is gently ushering out the four small children who have gathered around her bed. This is where the 78-year-old sits now, day in, day out, since she had a stroke. “I have nothing to give to the children, they are starving and I have nothing for them,” she says. “I am a lost human.”

In 1942, under the military dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, roughly 25,000 Romanian Roma – about half of whom were children – were deported to camps in Romanian-controlled territory that is now part of Ukraine. Approximately 12,000 are thought to have died. Stuparu’s memories of the Holocaust are thin. She was only two years old when her family was forced to travel hundreds of miles in train wagons designed for cattle. She spent the next two years in the camps. However, her memories of the struggles to get justice since then are anything but thin.

Stuparu is one of only two hundred Roma Holocaust survivors left in Romania. Half of them are still fighting for their rights over 75 years later.

By law, survivors are entitled to the equivalent of a £75 monthly pension, a free burial plot, and fast-tracked health care. However, campaigners say that a combination of widespread anti-Roma sentiment in the country, stifling bureaucracy, and unreasonable official demands – such as needing two witnesses to testify to both your deportation and return – are denying them their rights.

“Victims are old, vulnerable and in need,” says Petre Matei, a project manager for the Roma Survivors of Deportations to Transnistria group. “They are dying without getting their rights, even though they are legally entitled to them.”

Roma Holocaust survivors are an extremely vulnerable group: all are elderly, and they are often illiterate, poor and severely ill. The £75 monthly pension – in a country where a full-time salary can be as low as £250 a month – could help lift many out of abject poverty.

“We were treated like animals, with no toilets or source of water,” says Ioan Constantin, an 80-year-old survivor and distant relative of Stuparu’s perched on the bed next to her, holding a handful of time-yellowed documents. “My whole family died in Transnistria, except for my father and father’s mother. I can’t even begin to explain the filth we lived in.”

Like many Roma Constantin is suspicious of most forms of officialdom. He was deported to Transnistria on the same train as Stuparu. He succeeded in securing his pension, and now spends his time trying to help others.

Details of the “forgotten holocaust” are disturbing: some pregnant women were killed because they were unable to walk fast enough while being deported and many female Roma victims suffered horrific sexual abuse.

For centuries, Romania’s Roma minority has been serially persecuted by the state. There is little trust remaining. Long-standing and systemic failings in the process of identifying victims and handling archival documents have also hampered the restitution process.

“Some local authorities have investigated less than 1 per cent of the archival documents in 75 years, which would help verify victims,” Matei says. “On the one hand, state officials admit a sort of guilt, but on the other hand – besides official speeches and promises – little is done to solve the problems.”

Some state agencies request documents that have not yet been processed; others expect witnesses to have been at least ten years old at the time of their deportation (most survivors were babies or small children in 1942). Furthermore, the police did not record the names of everyone deported.

And according to Matei, the situation isn’t helped by the Romanian authorities’ refusal to accept documents produced by international bodies tasked with supporting Holocaust survivors.

Romania has long struggled to face up to its role in the Holocaust. For much of the Second World War Romania was allied with Nazi Germany. Between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were killed in the Nazi genocide in Romania. The government rarely raised the topic during the four decades of harsh communist rule that followed. It wasn’t until 2009 that Romania even had an official Holocaust memorial.

In recent weeks, campaigners have set up an online petition addressed to the ministry of labour and social justice, hoping to provoke the government into action and remove the “abusive measures” blocking justice. The petition has some heavyweight signatories: the award-winning Romanian film director Radu Jude, Vintila Mihailescu, a leading anthropologist, and several prominent historians of the Holocaust.

Those who are part of a younger Roma generation also feel the issue weighs heavily on their people.

“For all of us this is a shameful stain,” says Alina Serban, a 29-year-old Roma actress, playwright and director. “I do not want to celebrate the International Day of Roma, or any other national day as a Romanian citizen, until we respect our past by telling the painful stories of slavery and the Holocaust in the history books.”

In her cramped house, Stuparu rocks back and forth, breathing heavily and occasionally sipping water from a tiny, yellowed milk carton. In not granting her what she needs for a more dignified life, the Romanian state ensures that the Holocaust continues to blight her life.

“My brothers were taken, my mother, my father and my five siblings . . . I am better off dead.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon