Today marks the ninth annual United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Memorial at the General Assembly in New York and the 69th remembrance of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet forces in 1945. In 2005, the UN marked the 60th anniversary of the ‘end of the Holocaust’ and proclaimed this day the International Day of Remembrance, with events hosted at UN Center headed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and across Europe. In the years since its founding, the UN has only invited two speakers of Sinti or Romani heritage to be a part of their remembrance. Last year was only the second time we had representation and the lovely Dr. Ethel Brooks’ speech can be seen here.
However, there were more than 23,000 Romani and Sinti recorded (given a z-number) in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Countless thousands of others never received a number and were killed as soon as they arrived. Most Roma and Sinte never made it to a concentration camp, they were hunted like dogs by the SS Einsatzgruppen and killed where they stood, often being forced to dig their own mass graves. Before the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the “Zigeunerlager” were largely liquidated. Very few Roma and Sinti ever left. Out of the thousands recorded in the ‘Gypsy Memorial books’ only about 2,500 to 3,000 survived.
I am the daughter of survivors; the daughter of memory. Our family tree vanishes like smoke in the years between 1942-1945. Like many other families, mine closed around itself, drinking itself into a stupor in order to forget. Names were never spoken; histories skimmed over like a pot of boiling milk. Sometimes, at night, when Maami was drunk she’d call out to her brothers and sisters and her own children. I never understood the importance of what happened – history books failed to note the trauma of the Roma and Sinti, except as a small footnote, as if our lives were barely touched by the horrific events.
I know their names now. I know the numbers that marked them for death. I know where and when they died. I know the horrendous reality of the Porrajmos (the devouring). The Zigeunerlager was harsh and inhospitable – mostly vacant tracts of land, with a few barracks, where Roma were forced to eke out some kind of survival until their deaths – either from starvation, disease, torture, or murder.
Although most certainly victimized during the Holocaust, the Roma were also criminalized, since according to the Nazis we were not only racially impure but also “asocial criminals”. As such, it was the the criminal police (‘Kripo’) who were responsible for the Roma and not the Gestapo. In fact, even after the war the persecution of Roma and even the mass slaughters were often explained in the very terms the Nazis had used, as a necessarily firm repressive, security-driven policy for dealing with the wayward (and nationally non-affiliated) poor (e.g. Döring 1964). Indeed, even today, there are still some historians whose ostensibly sympathetic accounts of the Holocaust explicitly suggest that in some way the Roma provoked their own persecution (Lewy 2000: 11). Roma who survived relied on silence to rebuild their lives. Those who had not directly experienced the camps could not be made fully aware of the horrors that lay within them; likewise, those who barely escaped the mass-killings, rapes, or forced labour, found solace in their own silence. The continued criminalization of the Roma has led, in no uncertain terms, to our repeated erasure from commemoration and remembrance ceremonies and to an externally enforced silence that has bound our elders’ lips shut.
Today, I light a candle and raise a glass to my relatives and reaffirm the oath I made years ago. Although I cannot be at the UN ceremony, today I remember ALL victims of the Holocaust and assure them that we have not forgotten.
I ask for God’s forgiveness and for his grace and hope that Steven Spielberg understands the gravity of his position and his words as he delivers his keynote address.
We, as a people will never forget.
We, as a people deserve remembrance and respect.