There were no dates that we remembered our dead, at least not those who faded away, smothered by the hungry smoke, devoured by the Holocaust. Not even my grandmother’s lost children who lived such short and hungry lives, their names whispered in nightmares and memories too sharp to hold. The heat of summer, of August, brought fruit and vegetable picking, visits to long-distant relatives throughout Europe for weddings and last-goodbyes – France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia. I had no idea of the atrocities committed at Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Lety, Dachau, and hundreds of other Concentration Camps. I had no idea of the mass-murder of thousands of Romani on August 2 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
As I stained my hands red with the juice of August strawberries and red currants, I thought of nothing but the joy of eating the punnet or two we received in return for our labour.
The War had sewn shut the lips of my relatives. Stories they told skirted the truth, hiding their tears like jewels in the dark. The hungry smoke was as real to me as čohanja, benginji, šerdženja, or any other fairy-tale character. I saw it like a fantastical bird, all feathers, beak, and claws. I had no understanding that the hungry smoke was a very real and very frightening part of our past – no one taught me anything but their own versions of history – school and college textbooks that left out my people, our footsteps, and the thousands upon thousands of us murdered in the war.
The day my grandmother explained the horrific truth of the hungry smoke, I didn’t believe her. The more she told me of the realities of our past, the more I wanted her voice to drown in the tears that I couldn’t hold back. The names I’d heard spoken occasionally of relatives I thought were long gone became beacons of despair. Johny [Djordje] – vanished. Lena [Lenka] – vanished. Saija, Marek, Dušan… Anežka, Kazia – vanished. Name after name after family after extended family. Vanished; eaten by the hungry smoke.
The more I learned and the older I became, I started to ask why we weren’t remembered, why we didn’t have a place in our own history. Maami just shook her head. Bibi Lemija, always more outspoken said, “because they still want us to die”.
Even though I knew it to be the truth, I didn’t believe her.
How can people try to erase us from the Holocaust?
How can they argue that our humanity is worth less than theirs?
How can they deny we suffered in Auschwitz and that more than three thousand of us died in one night alone?
How can they eat the pork from the pigs that shit on the bones of our dead in Lety?
How can they walk on the ground of Auschwitz and say “only Jews”?
But, people can and they do. They can because they’re politically powerful. They can because they are economically powerful. They can because being Romani is still illegal.
And they can because we let them.
Most older Romani won’t talk about that. Many younger Romani won’t either. For me, part of my reluctance was the distinction of Holocaust and Porrajmos (the latter being a word I never heard until four years ago; also a word with multiple (difficult) meanings). I didn’t want to talk about something I didn’t feel my grandmother or other relatives belonged in. The Porrajmos was a word I didn’t know, and even though I only heard her say it three times in her life, “Holokaust” was something Maami recognized herself. I didn’t want to talk about something I didn’t understand. But, how can we understand the magnitude of death, suffering, and loss of the Holocaust? There will never be any understanding…
Only a handful of events this past Sunday commemorated those who suffered. Barely a note flickered through the media. Again I found myself thinking, “why do they ignore us?” … but, I already knew; we’re still referred to as insects, animals, subhuman, less-than… why should anyone commemorate the loss of parasites? Insects? Subhuman animals?
“Maybe,” I thought, “maybe they wanted us to die. Maybe Bibi was right. Maybe they think we deserved it…”
Even today I sit here unable to explain my feelings about the hungry smoke, about the Holokaust, about how we’re treated in the media, in politics, in schools and colleges, in cities and towns… I sit here wondering why I keep this blog, why I fight against hackers and racists who try to bury my voice time and again.
Walking to work this morning, I heard Maami’s voice on the edge of the wind. Despite her own life full of half-finished words and the silences between them, she said only one thing,
“ta mušines te vakerkeres” – you must always speak.