On October 24, 2012, following 20 years of political controversy and logistical cock-ups, the Memorial for the Murdered Sinti and Roma was finally unveiled in the Tiergarten across the street from the Reichstag. The audience comprised octogenarian survivors, Romani representatives and government members including chancellor Merkel herself. The end of ignorance, prejudice and ostracism?
As 58 percent of 21st century Germans still reject the idea of having “gypsies” as neighbours – and Germany is currently engaged in the deportation of some 10,000 Sinti and Roma (including their German-born and bred children) to the Kosovo they left over two decades ago – the fate of Europe’s most persecuted people doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the country which, 70 years ago, attempted to exterminate them.
Furthermore, gruesome debates over numbers and semantics persist as the Romani still struggle to be heard as the ‘other’ victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
We asked the memorial designer Dani Karavan to share his thoughts on the topic.
(Check back in a couple of days for part two of the story, where we talk to preeminent Romani scholar Ian Hancock.)
I told them, if it were Jews, you would move the bus stop in one week. I can say that because I am a Jew. But they don’t care about the Sinti and Roma.
The Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan was commissioned to design the memorial in 1992, on the personal suggestion of the head of Germany’s central council for Roma and Sinti, Romani Rose. The world-renowned artist is responsible for many site-specific monuments and memorials across the globe – from Israel to Japan to France. Most of them are concerned with human rights and blend into their surrounding elements in a unique reflection of the cross-section between nature, history and space. At 82, the busy jet-setting artist hasn’t lost any of his bite.
You worked on this memorial for a pretty long time…
I’m used to this. You have political problems, elections… But, yes, this time it took a long time because first there was an eight-year discussion between the administration and the central council of Sinti and Roma. One issue was that they wanted to use the word Zigeuner (gypsy), but the council thought it was insulting.
They really wanted to use that word?
This was the concept of the ministry of culture. They said that all the Nazis’ historical documents about killing these people never mention the Sinti and Roma, only the Zigeuner. So that was one discussion. The other discussion was about how many Sinti and Roma were killed. The government wanted to put 100,000 while the Sinti and Roma said at least 500,000.
But isn’t 500,000 already a low estimate?
There are people who believe this is a high estimate, for political reasons. The committee for the rights of Sinti and Roma in the European Parliament told me it was closer to one million. So I supported the idea that the memorial should definitely mention at least half a million. And I was criticized by a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel who said it was much less! In all of the discussions with the German administration, I took the side of the Sinti and Roma.
How was your relationship with the administration?
I was forced to work with people from the Senat of Berlin, from the city planning department, people who were not professional. When you see what happened with the airport, with the Topography of Terror… these things were poorly done. With my project they treated it in such a way that I came close to believing it was some kind of racism. They didn’t care about what was being done, which materials were to be used, which firm would do the work. They acted as if I was nothing, in an unpleasant, aggressive way.
How do you explain such a lack of professionalism?
I cannot explain it. I did a lot of work in my life. I never had these problems with any of them. These years of my life were hell, and I am not a young man. I started on it when I was 68; now I am 82. It was impossible to accept what they did. When I tell people the whole story, nobody believes that this happened in Germany. Germans should ask: who spent this money, how, why did it take so long? In my opinion these people should get taken to court.
You had a pretty limited budget of €2.8 million, right?
It was even less, but then they had to spend more because they couldn’t do the work correctly. They changed the concept. Th e entrance was supposed to be from the side of the Reichstag, but there is a bus stop. Which is why we changed the location of the entrance. Can you imagine, you can’t move a bus stop for the main entrance to a memorial for the Sinti and Roma?! I told them, if it were Jews, you would move the bus stop in one week. I can say that because I am a Jew. But they don’t care about the Sinti and Roma.
Until the federal government stepped in?
Yes… even Wim Wenders said that if this wasn’t changed it would be a big international scandal. They finally switched the responsibility from the Berlin Senat to the Federal Ministry of Construction, with very serious people, who had respect for the project and respect for the Sinti and Roma. And they respected me and commissioned the project to an architectural office in Berlin. We should thank the minister of culture Bernd Naumann. The moment he understood, it changed everything. If not, this memorial would never have been finished.
As an Israeli Jew, how did it feel for you to work on a memorial for the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?
I believe there should have only been one Holocaust memorial for all. Not divided.
The Jewish community opposed it…
I don’t care. This is my opinion. As a Jew I have every right to tell them that it has to be for everyone. They killed all of them together. Therefore I feel that they are my brother and sisters. At the inauguration I said in Hebrew that I feel like my family was killed and burned with the Sinti and Roma in the same gas chambers and their ashes went with the wind to the fields. So we are together. It is our destiny.
Personally, how happy were you with the result of all these years of hellish work?
I was moved by the way people reacted. The inauguration was really great, thanks to the chancellor and to the minister of culture. Historically, this event was so important. I am still getting comments from people about how they were touched by it. So, that was worth my suffering!
In her speech, Chancellor Merkel said she was dedicated to pursuing the well being of the Sinti and Roma. At the same time, Germany is deporting Romani who have lived in Germany for 20 years. Isn’t that hypocritical? Could you imagine that Germany would deport Jews nowadays?
I think you are right. In a way the Jews are privileged, because the Holocaust entered their culture after the war. It is even used in the wrong way sometimes, by some Jews, in my opinion. Their influence and position are very strong. So it was very important for me, as an Israeli Jew, to do this work for the Sinti and Roma as best as I could.
The memorial in the words of its creator
“I had the idea that the memorial should be only one flower, but to protect the flower I could have water. The water became an integral part of this memorial. The dark reflection on the water makes it look like a hole in the earth. It reflects the trees and the Reichstag, and anyone who comes close to the water becomes part of this memorial. This is very important for me. Everyone who comes is not only observing, but part of it. The flower is also very important, because the Sinti and Roma are buried in huge cemeteries without graves, without signs, only flowers. We don’t know where. Maybe only the roots of the flowers know. The flower is on a triangle, representing the triangle they had to carry on their body. The moment they carried this sign, they lost all of their rights as human beings. So this is the concept.” Dani Karavan