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1 May 2017

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

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

By Stephen McGrath

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.”

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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.” 

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On