“I can see that the sadness has returned. And it’s not a beautiful sadness- beautiful sadness is a myth. Sadness turns our features to clay, not porcelain.” ― David Levithan,
Maami Babka was always sad, even when she was happy. Her heart had been lost along the way somewhere, perhaps in Slovakia or perhaps with the ghosts of her family. Her eyes were always distant, as if looking for the heart that was already lost. She spoke sparingly and when she sang, her gravelly voice dragged rough over our emotions.
Maami never told me much about the War. It was just too much for her. But, once she did tell me about fleeing the Einsatzgruppen, hunger, and war. How villagers didn’t want to help. How they tripped fleeing Romani or threw stones or rotting food at them. She told me that once they found a cow byre, full of shit and straw and cowered there for four days, waiting to be discovered and shot.
Sometimes she told me about their eventual arrival in England. How they stumbled from the ship (she never told me how they were able to get onto a ship from wherever they ended up. France? Belgium? Nor how they made it across the channel). She said that they met with some Romani selling flowers to sailors and asked where our family was. It took them another three weeks to find Phuro Kako Tonju. She said after fleeing all that way, she expected to feel safe. But, Kako told her stories of family members who were arrested; family who were sent via prison ship to Australia just for being “Gypsy”. I can’t imagine how terrified she must have been. None of her relatives in England knew of the extent of the Holocaust or Einsatgruppen activity.
Eventually, they left the south and the New Forest and travelled north. The War was coming to a close and the regular bombing of the south of England caused many to move northwards. For a while, they settled around the Peak District, where my father was born in about 1946. They weren’t welcomed anywhere. They were treated as animals and continually moved on. “It wasn’t as bad as where we lived before,” Maami assured me. “There we risked dying every day. Here they just set our things on fire or sent the police to kick us out”. After a while, my immediate family decided to keep heading north. There were fewer Romani up that way, they’d been told, so generally more tolerance.
Mostly, they stayed north, but spent periods of time back in the Peaks or down in New Forest. Five years after the end of the war, Maami heard of a woman asking after her. Turns out it was her sister Lemija. Bibi had been taken to Dachau and barely survived the women’s camp. She never spoke of it and always tried to hide the crawling bruise of numbers scrawled across her arm.
It wasn’t until at least fifteen years had passed that Maami and Papu travelled back to the Polish/Slovak border. I can’t even imagine how painful that was. The evidence of war must have been everywhere and so many of our relatives had simply just vanished. Gone. Whole families and villages, disappeared.
Growing up, I’ve had to put all of this together into a story myself. My grandmother and grandfather never told me much but fragments, a piece here and a piece there. But, this has heightened the sense of fear and sadness that surrounds their stories. I get angry when people insinuate (or outright state) that Roma don’t want to help themselves. Who was there for them after the war? Which countries supported their reintegration into daily life? Who helped them to rebuild their homes and lives?
They only had themselves. Sometimes, that wasn’t enough. Mostly, it was extremely difficult. Maami and Papu fled their homes, their lives, and had to start over somewhere else, with literally nothing but the clothes and small items they carried. They were lucky. They arrived in a country where they could at least try and build a life. They arrived somewhere that didn’t believe in shanties and ghettos (though some of the council estates were close). No one encouraged them to go to school. No one helped them with their trauma. They were treated the same as they had always been. Even when the War and the Holocaust were discussed, Roma (and Sinti) were left out of it.
So, people sit around and talk about the self-victimization of Roma, how none of us want to better ourselves, how if we only gave a damn, things would be better, if only we would integrate (disappear).
Maami and Papu fled the War, were beaten, starved, and lived in fear every day. When they arrived in England they were alone and unwelcome. They were evicted, burned out, moved on, refused schooling, jobs, and health care. They fought for the little they could get…
but it’s their fault?
The generational trauma passed down through our family has taken many forms – including drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and mental illness. Still, even in England, the Roma are treated poorly. When I was in school we weren’t welcome. We were expected to fail and expected to cause trouble. The minimum amount of resources and teacher-time were sent our way. If we left school, failed, or otherwise had difficulty, it was “just the culture. Can’t do anything with them gyppos”. Some shops still had signs on the doors that read, “NO GYPSY TRAVELLERS” and they’d call the police if you so much as looked in the window.
For what it’s worth, Maami blamed herself for everything. For losing her family, for the multiple miscarriages she suffered, for not learning to read, for being poor. She told me time and again to be a “good čhaj” and play the Gadže game. She told me to let them treat me badly without saying a word, she said that was our power. We were stronger than anyone.
And to me, Maami Babka was the strongest of them all. Superhuman. A colossus, despite her diminutive size.
She survived the hungry smoke. She survived the Einsaztgruppen, and she survived the world’s best attempts to erase her existence. Who cares if she couldn’t read?