Maami Babka never spoke about the traumas that haunted her dreams, except in abstracts and fairy tales about the hungry smoke, the time of the dogs, the ashes in the wind. Words like “Holocaust” and “genocide” were not present in her lexicon – whether by choice or by omission in our family’s cultural narrative.
Bibi Lemija, too, referred to things in the abstract – never addressing her pain head on. Her husband’s death was only ever mentioned in a few words as “the day he went lonely down the road.” She never spoke about the War, her experiences in death camps, or her escape and subsequent survival. She only ever said, “it was a long way to walk.”
Academics have long argued that cultural trauma “must be classified by the collective as a master narrative, one which constructs the core of its collective identity.” Not only that, but “for an event to be considered a cultural trauma, the memory of the event must be culturally and publicly represented as obliterating, damaging, and as a threat, both to the existence of the culture with which the individual identifies and to one’s own identity and self.” [Lazar & Litvak-Hirsch, 2009]
For Romani, the trauma of the Holocaust has long been denied. Our perceived silence does not mean that it is not at the core of our identity, it simply means that in the perspective of colonialist academic studies, Romani orality has been dismissed as inconsequential. For my family, our trauma was unspeakable; our trauma was so complete and unending that we had no words adequate to its magnitude. When surviving members of my family staggered home after the end of the war, no one cared for their well-being. No one listened to their voices. Our way of life was still considered illegal and was highly regulated. For us, little changed.
The devastating memories became a symbolic (and permanent) cultural boundary. Such a boundary guided our behaviour and relationships with our elders and their immediate relatives. It became a source of shared identity, albeit unspoken, and a symbol of our common struggle for survival. Unlike similar Jewish narratives, which rely on an unwillingness to put the traumatic events of the Holocaust behind them, for Romani it became an unspoken counter-narrative, always placed in a “time before”, along with all other historical events. This positioning places our memories in direct tension with other historical narratives, and provides resistance to their historical (and cultural) dominance.
For example, Jewish survivors had a new homeland, they had many vocal, prominent leaders who had money, time, and legality to constantly demand reparations and remembrance. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Romani survivors began to write about the horrors they witnessed and they did so from a place of disadvantage. In a breach of Romani culture and tradition, Ceija Stojka became one of the mosted noted of these authors. As a Romani woman, drawing attention to oneself, particularly from a non-Romani audience, is deeply frowned upon unless expressly asked to do so. Her writing started a movement and caused a stir in German-speaking countries. For the first time, people became aware of our cultural trauma – and our continued life in hiding, under oppression and discrimination.
Despite the radical nature of Ceija’s writing, it did little to improve the situation for Romani in Austria, or throughout the rest of Europe. Remembrance isn’t merely an act of “telling”, cultural narratives can often redirect the course of political action, however for Romani, our silences and indirect language are misrepresented as a lack of action, a lack of presence, a lack of knowledge.
Maami Babka wasn’t just silent. Her unwillingness to speak about trauma was a performative action, patterned after cultural gender norms, remembrance practices, and place-based rituals. It allowed us, as young girls, to clearly see our place in the larger narrative of our culture. These abstract references and periods of emptiness were performative, gendered, and non-threatening. There were no accusatory statements, oppositional or defiant activities, or aggressive political actions. The undercurrent of these subversive, quiet narratives slowly eroded away the counter-narratives of white, colonial European history layered above our voices and gradually more and more are speaking up about the Romani Holocaust and surrounding traumas.
Although it has become known as the Porrajmos or Samudripen, these are recently coined terms and were also not present in my family’s narrative. Their references were even more abstract – referring to hungry smoke (the crematoriums), time of the dogs (SS Einsatzgruppen as they roamed the woods and lanes trapping and killing Romani families), and the ashes in the wind (the least obscure of the references and pretty self-explanatory). This cultural challenge has been met with varying degrees of acceptance. Although we are a diaspora population, most European Romani share some kind of silent narrative about the Holocaust – whether couched in vague terms or (as with Ceija Stojka) more openly expressed. The acceptance of “Porrajmos/Samudripen/Holocaust/Romani genocide” have been widely and vocally debated, and we still have not reached any consensus.
However, the issue still stands – our collective sorrow has never been addressed because our conflicting traditions of silence and orality are misrepresented as being without historical knowledge or interest. The symbolic boundaries surrounding acknowledgement of our trauma (within and without our culture) are becoming more delineated with each passing year. As we become more vocal, some Romani aim to exclude others who are perceived to erode the memory of past trauma. There are also some Romani who believe that only those living in the most historically affected European countries are fully aware of the implications and meanings of our history, unlike those living in the wider diaspora. The further from these regions Romani live, the less we are viewed as sharing sociocultural codes and are perceived as different and “outside” the collective. Yet, still other Romani believe that simply being Romani, regardless of nationality, is the crucial aspect and erodes any potential differences. As Romani, we all share the same fate. This idea is rooted in the framing of the Holocaust as a meta-narrative, which does not necessarily need to be spoken and which creates a cohesive Romani identity transcending time and space.
It is becoming clear that as we move away from our past, as we become more educated, more vocal, and more confident in expressing our cultural heritage, we begin to be able to relate to the actions of outsiders who aim to support the expression of our cultural memories. However, Romani are still viewed by many as the social parasites that Hitler sought to destroy. We have never been able to move beyond the criminal and asocial archetype that was tattooed on our bones as we lay dying in gas chambers. Because of our unwillingness or inability to express our cultural narratives in an acceptable (and Western) fashion, we have been denied our humanity and dignity.
My grandmother’s stories about her relatives being devoured by hungry smoke and carried by blackbirds into the night are just as critical and legitimate as any Jewish survivor’s tale of Nazis and gas chambers. My aunt’s silences, filled only with the clanking of bottle on cup as she poured another vodka, are just as poetic and moving as any non-Romani verse. The way our language, culture, and history are viewed needs to change. We need to step away from colonial narratives that keep us hidden. We don’t have to compete to be remembered. We don’t have to speak in words that are foreign to our mouths and our hearts.
We just need to remember and to speak.