Why Europe must remember the Roma who died in the Second World War

There is a feeling that their suffering has been airbrushed from history – and that amenesia makes them more vulnerable to discrimination and attack today.

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On 2 August, the Roma commemorate the Pharrajimos – the slaying of around a quarter of the entire population at the time – during the Second World War. In London, Roma from around the country will gather at the Holocaust Memorial Stone in Hyde Park and outside the Imperial War Museum to protest the silence of holocaust history on the suffering of the Roma people.

There is a feeling among many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people that their suffering has been airbrushed from history – and that amenesia makes them more vulnerable to discrimination and attack today. This is not an abstract concern, but their experience of living in the UK in the last few weeks. In the spike in hate crime that accompanied the UK referendum result, Roma people have described being the victims of verbal abuse and worse.

The National Alliance of Gypsy Traveller & Roma Women (NAGTRW) routinely helps deal with a host of challenges faced by Roma in the UK, from housing, and accessing education, to navigating social services. NAGTRW campaigner Shay Clipson has grappled with the temptation to stay silent and hope the trouble goes away: “Most us feel quite reluctant to go to the police either because of bad experiences in the past or because we think that they will not take our complaint seriously. Very often that is exactly what happens, which results in us going away leaving the police to ignore the problem and then nothing improves.”’

But ignoring the problem will not make it go away. It is important for them and for the world to recall the specific events that took place on 2 August 1944 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Roma were herded into a special Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy camp”), where 20,000 were killed in gas chambers while children were subjected to horrifying experiments by camp physician Joseph Mengele.

On 16 May 1944, the remaining 6,000 were scheduled for extermination to make room for a newly arrived contingent. When guards arrived to lead them to be slaughtered, the Roma, all of whom were weakened by their incarceration, were ready to fight back with whatever tools they could find to use as weapons – rocks, pipes, pieces of wood. The camp commandant called off the guards to prevent the revolt from spreading beyond the Zigeunerlager.  We remember this act of defiance as “Romani Resistance Day.” Over the next few months, the camp authorities diluted the Zigeunerlager, sending 1,000 of the younger prisoners to the Buchenwald camp and 1,000 women to Ravensbruck.

When the SS guards finally re-entered on the night of 2 August, the 3,000 remaining Roma were overcome and killed immediately in the gas chambers. With every year that passes, the need to recognise these events becomes more urgent, and the means to do so gets harder. There is now almost no one who remembers them first-hand. We must not allow 2 August 1944 to be consigned to the dry dust of historical record.

The last known eyewitness was Erzsébet Szenesné Brodt, who was deported at the age of 17 from Kaposvár in Hungary to Auschwitz with her mother and 10-year-old sister. As soon as the family stepped off the train, the Nazis sent Brodt’s mother and sister to the gas chamber. Brodt’s barracks was close to the Zigeunerlager, and she vividly recalled how the SS guards moved in on the night of 2 August, using flame throwers and attack dogs to subdue the Roma. For the rest of her life, whenever she saw a large dog, Brodt felt a shiver of remembered fear.

The commemoration of 2 August as Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day has gained some ground in recent years. It is recognised in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. But progress is painfully slow. West Germany did not acknowledge the Roma Holocaust until 1982; reunified Germany only dedicated a memorial to Roma and Sinti victims of National Socialism in Berlin in 2012.

Sixty years on, the 12 million Roma people of Europe are the continent’s largest ethnic minority and the most discriminated against. By honouring the victims, the European public would acknowledge the right of the Roma to exist as full and free citizens of Europe, demonstrating to the new generation of European neo-fascists that the human rights of the Roma will be recognized and protected.   

When she saw Roma women and children being driven to the gas chambers, Erzsébet Brodt vowed that she would survive the camp. “My duty would be to tell everybody,” she said in 2012. “All those who survive have the responsibility to fight so that such things never happen again.”

Katalin Barsony is a Roma activist, filmmaker, and executive director of the Budapest based Romedia Foundation

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