Wiener Library Blog
Remembering Porajmos: Commemorating Absence
Posted by Matthew Hacke, Thursday 27th April, 2017
I recently graduated from the University of Exeter (MA), and am due to begin a career with Sussex Police in July. In a changing world, The Wiener Library has a important role to play in both commemorating genocide and continuing to oppose prejudice and hatred. These aims were what attracted me to volunteer with the Library. I am particularly interested in Eastern and Central European history, which drew me to researching the Roma and Sinti people.
Remembering Porajmos: Commemorating Absence
In 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck opened The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism in the Tiergarten, Berlin. Designed by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, the memorial consists of a circular pool, with a black triangle in its centre. The triangle, which echoes the mandatory badges worn by those incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps, pairs with the poem Auschwitz by Santino Spinelli, which is inscribed onto the edge of the monument. Spinelli, born to a Roma community in Italy, captures the dehumanising and horrific atmosphere of the camps aptly in his poem:
a broken heart
out of breath
Karavan’s memorial is a place to reflect on the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but it is also marked with a troubling absence. The dark, opaque waters of the pool seem to offer little insight into the particular history of the Sinti and Roma, and specifically, their systematic persecution under the Nazis. Perhaps, however, this is the point. Historian Donald Kenrick notes in his 1972 book The Destiny of Europe’s Gyspies that, “In the first years following the end of the Nazi domination of Europe, the Gypsy community was in disarray. The small educational and cultural organisations that had existed before 1939 had been destroyed. The family structure was broken with the death of the older people – the guardians of the traditions … They solved the psychological problems by not speaking about the time in the camps. Only a small number of Gypsies could read or write, so they could not tell their own story” (Kenrick, 4). The Sinti and Roma experience of the Holocaust then, was marked by the utter disintegration of a culture, founded as it was, on memory and oral tradition. Perhaps this amnesia is suggested in the opacity and nothingness of the black pool in the Tiergarten. Karavan’s work is not only poignant in its tranquility, but in its silence. It asks how we can remember and commemorate a people when much of their culture was irrevocably lost along with so many of their lives.
Roma and Sinti persecution before National Socialism
Prior to the rise of National Socialism, the Sinti and Roma people had already experienced various forms of ostracisation and alienation across Europe. Since arriving on the continent around 1100 AD, the Romani People (of which the Sinti is a subset) were consistently persecuted, and were temporarily banned from England in 1530 under the Egyptians Act. Previously, they had been expelled from principalities and territories across mainland Europe, from modern day Milan (1493) to Sweden (1520). By the 20th century, however, Roma and Sinti groups were able to live relatively undisturbed; Delia Radu in the documentary series On the Road pointed to large communities in Slavic countries, Russia and Poland, which were all far more tolerant that states in Western Europe. One such state was Germany. Ian Hancock notes in Romanies and the Holocaust that, “When the Nazis came to power in 1933, German laws against Romanies had already been in effect for hundreds of years” (Hancock, n.p).
The treatment of the Roma and Sinti under the Nazi regime
As the Nazi party advanced their genocidal policy across Germany and the occupied territories, the Roma and Sinti people continued to serve as a focus. Hancock traces this preoccupation back to the same racist academia and pseudo-biology that crystallised and underpinned much of the Nazi’s hatred of the Jews. Hancock writes, “By the nineteenth century, scholars in Germany and elsewhere in Europe were writing about Romanies and Jews as being inferior beings and ‘the excrement of humanity’; even Darwin, writing in 1871, singled out our two populations as not being ‘culturally advanced’ like other ‘territorially settled’ peoples” (Hancock, n.p). This discourse would be legalised in the Nuremberg laws of 1935 when Romanies were, along with Jews, declared as ‘enemies of the race-based state,’ deprived of basic civil rights, including the ability to marry ‘Aryan’ Germans. Following deportation and ghettoisation from 1936 to the outbreak of war in 1939, Sinti and Roma people were condemned to death in huge numbers from 1942 onwards, in what would be known as Porajmos (“cutting up” or “destruction” in Romani). It is estimated that in camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, and at the hands of Einstazgruppen killing squads, between 220,000 and 500,000 Sinti and Romani people were murdered. Hancock however, quoting the International Organisation for Migration in 2001, asserts that this number could be far higher - exceeding one million.
Some occupied territories and Nazi allies did not implement Sinti and Roma genocide on a total scale, however many were complicit, and in areas such as Romania (allied to Germany under Ion Victor Antonescu from 1940 onwards), Croatia (allied to Germany as Ustaša) Germany and Poland, annihilation was near absolute. For historians such as Martin Clayton, this destruction facilitated a fatal blow to a fragile, nomadic culture, which was, for the most part, insular and oral-based. He stated, “The gypsies were silenced as the war came to a close … [as] The clearest and most articulate young writers, orators, performers and dreamers that the pre-war Roma produced were buried in mass graves across central and eastern Europe” (Clayton, 10). These artists were the vessels of Roma culture, shared from generation to generation, and with little regimented social structure and therefore this loss of tradition and talisman made response and memory near impossible. When interviewing Romani survivors Ben Judah was told “there is no national consciousness and no historical memory of the Holocaust because there is no Roma elite” (Judah, n.p). Thus, languages such as Bohemian-Romani (extinct in 1970) could not be recovered, and individual testimonies were deprived of sustenance. The silence surrounding Porajmos demonstrates the ruthless decimation of a culture reliant on continually interpersonal and rhetorical forms of transmission. Paraphrasing Dordević and Balić, Nataša Basić summarises the “comprehensive destruction of group and ancestry relations [through extermination] irrevocably damaged the system of internal cultural cohesion for the Roma” (Basić, 69).
How do you remember an absence?
Returning to Karavan’s memorial, whether through reticence, trauma, absence, or a combination of all three, the experience of the Roma and Sinti people in the Holocaust is marked by nothingness. The dissolution of this experience in Europe’s memory of National Socialism is perhaps why it took so long for the genocide to be officially recognised. West Germany would only recognise the event in 1982 (having refused to pay the community reparations), whilst the then-Romanian President, Traian Basescu, made his country’s first public apology in 2007. While recognition is an important step, one worries that prejudices may still play a role. Albeit covertly, deportations of Sinti and Roma communities are still common in Europe, with Sarkozy’s repatriation of 10,000 Romani in 2009, and Germany’s deportation of 50,000 Romani to Kosovo in 2005 serving as some the most significant recent examples. According to John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International, speaking on International Roma Day (9 April) in 2014: “There has been a marked rise in the frequency of anti-Roma violence in Europe in the last few years. The response to this alarming phenomenon has been woefully inadequate.”
In remembering the tragic history of the Sinti and Roma, one is often confronted with silence. But by properly commemorating and understanding this pronounced absence, we can hope to support, preserve and collaborate with a unique but threatened culture.
Amnesty International. “Roma in Europe: Demanding justice and protection in the face of violence.” 2014.
Basić, Natasa. “The Representation of Ethnic-Cultural ‘Otherness’.” Social Inequality & the Politics of Representation, edited by Celine-Marie Pascale, Sage, 2013, pp. 66-80.
Clayton, Martin. Roma: A People on the Edge. Braiswick, 2002.
Hancock, Ian. “Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation and Overview” The Historiography of the Holocaust, edited by Dan Stone, Palsgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 383-396.
Judah, Ben. “Invisible Roma.” Moment Magazine, July 2011.
Kenrick, Donald. The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies. Heinemann Educational Books, 1972.
Radu, Delia. “On the Road: Centuries of Roma History.” BBC, 8 July 2009.
Suggested Further Reading:
The Wiener Library holds material on the persecution of the Sinti and Roma, their struggle for recognition and restitution, and their treatment in Europe before the Second World War. Some of this material is listed below:
- Nazis and the Greek Roma: A Personal Testimonial by Ioannis Vrissakis
- A Contemporary History of Exclusion: the Roma Issue in Hungary from 1945 to 2015 by Balazs Majtenyi
- The Roma Struggle for Compensation in Post-War Germany by Julia von dem Knesebeck
- Jews and Gypsies: Myths and Reality by Ruth Barnett
Unable to find a book in our Collections? We welcome suggestions for book titles via our online form or suggestion box in our Reading Room. For more on our collection development statement and the types of books we collect, please click here.
Image credit: Memorial pool at the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Socialism in Berlin © Filip Maljković via Wikimedia Commons
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