Our Romani never had wagons, at least not that I remember. We had broken down shacks and cottages with patched up roofs and gaping holes for windows. We’d had it good for a while, the elders said fondly. Many had worked for the landed elite around the castles and estates such as Halič, Spiš, Svätý Anton, or Vígľaš. It was tough but decent, they told us, for a while at least. But, as with every other place we stayed, laws were passed against us – for example, fingerprint collections (1925) and a law about wandering Roma (1927) where they tore the wheels off our wagons. My family were lucky, they said. Nestled in the mountains between Slovakia and Poland, laws were slow to drift over our villages. Some of them already left, Maami said, even before the first war came. The second war brought special labor camps for us, rules forbidding travel with public transport, and admission to towns and communities only on limited days and hours. Our settlements were separated from public roads by at least 3 kilometers, and the Hlinkova Garda made sure we obeyed. Women caught after ‘curfew’ (or by a guard member having a bad day) were regularly beaten and raped and their braids cut off. Men too were beaten, sometimes maimed or shot or imprisoned.
Papu and his family travelled frequently. From Slovakia, through Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Our families were spread like stars in the sky. We had no use of “borders” and “countries”. Our family were family, regardless of the politically defined region in which they lived. Rzeszów, Lublin, Białystok, Kaunas, Panevėžys, Riga… places now that stick in our throats.
Rzeszów – World War II: Ten forced labour camps, German controlled ghetto, Szebnie concentration camp (a pipeline to Auschwitz). Barely 100 Jews (and a handful of Romani) survived.
Lublin – World War II: Nisko Plan – reservation for ‘racial segregation’, served as headquarters for Operation Reinhardt, the main German effort to exterminate all Jews in occupied Poland. Most were deported to Bełżec extermination camp. No Jews and no Romani survived.
Białystok – World War II: From the very beginning, the Nazis pursued a ruthless policy of pillage and removal of the non-German population. Large ghetto (saw an uprising during liquidation and deportations to Treblinka extermination camp). Few Romani survived.
Kaunas – World War II: Both before and after the German occupation on 25 June, the anti-Communists began to attack Jews (and Romani) blaming them for the Soviet repressions. The Lithuanian provisional government established a concentration camp at the Seventh Fortress, one of the city’s ten historic forts. At times Lithuanian Jews were murdered in their homes with unprecedented brutality – slowly sawing off heads or sawing people in two.
Panevėžys – World War II: Russian military forces took over the city, as a consequence of the forced incorporation of Lithuania. A large number of residents were exiled to Siberia or suffered other forms of persecution. After Germany attacked the USSR, Panevėžys was occupied by German forces, as it had been in the First World War. During the Nazi occupation nearly all the Jewish population of the town was killed.
Riga – World War II: Riga ghetto and concentration camp at Kaiserwald. Rumbula massacre (by Einsatzgruppe A with the help of local collaborators of the Arajs Kommando).
Bardejov, our closest small town didn’t fare any better. Jews and Romani in Bardejov were sent to work or transit camps in Nováky, Michalovce, Sered, Poprad and Spišská Nová Ves and then deported to Auschwitz via Žilina. Many were also rounded up and deported to Lublin/Majdanek. After the occupation of Slovakia by the German army, mass killing of Romani occurred in many places, including the area around Bardejov.
When they came for us, we had nowhere to run. Although we travelled for weddings, funerals, and other family gatherings, they’d tried to pin us down for generation after generation.
“They didn’t want us there,” Papu said. “But, they didn’t want us anywhere else either. They wanted us to move on, but not to another city or town or village. They wanted us to move on into the sky, to disappear. So, while they kicked us out, they also banned our movement. It never made sense. They took away our wheels and then told us to move.”
When then war came, they had nowhere to go and even if they did, they had no means to get there. Papu’s family had never truly settled, with their journeys north to find work and family. Maami’s family on the other hand, had been pinned down for generations, corralled into their settlements by this law and that one, culminating in the Hlinkova Garda’s brutality and Hitler’s Einsatzgruppe dogs.
I always wonder what would have happened if Papu had listened to his grandfather and gone with them back into Poland, instead of defying his wishes and helping Maami and her family escape? None of them survived, as far as we know. All gone in screams and smoke. They were stolen in Rzeszów, Lublin, Białystok, Riga, Bardejov. Hunted in the woods. Slaughtered where they stood, where they ran, where they screamed, holding their wives and babies.
Papu, Maami and some of her family made it out. Some how. Even without their wheels.
I remember Kako Tonju telling me that when he first met Papu, he’d been in his wagon. Papu had seen it and cried. It reminded him of the family he’d lost. Wagons in England where much different than in Poland, but a wheel is a wheel and a road is freedom.
Even so, by the time I was born, they only had one wagon left. They’d become like birds with clipped wings, afraid to fly. So we lived. Unsettled and stationary. Always being told to move but never being allowed to rest. “We don’t want your kind here,” they’d say wherever we went. “We don’t want your kind here, unless we can’t see you or hear you or know that you’re here. Give up your souls and you can stay.”
The thing people don’t realize about our Romani, is that all we wanted was a home – a home where our babies could grow and flourish and dance and sing and speak our language without harm. It didn’t matter if that home had wheels or not. It just had to be safe.
Even after all of this time, we’re still looking for that place.