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 a leading Roma intellectual Ian Hancock to share his thoughts on the topic.
For some reason, the old figure of 500,000 victims is still being pushed. I wonder whether there might be some agenda behind minimising the number.
The first Romani to be awarded a PhD in Britain and the first to teach at an American university – the University of Texas since 1972 – Ian Hancock has been actively promoting the Romani cause with his ground-breaking academic work (over 400 articles and books) as well as his outspoken- ness as a representative in many international bodies, including the UN’s economic and Social council, UNICEF and the Vienna-based International Romani Parliament. In 1998 he was appointed by President Clinton as the sole Romani member of the United States Holocaust memorial council.
Germany didn’t officially recognise the Romani genocide until 1982, and 20 years passed between the decision to erect a memorial and its actual completion. When Germany finally unveiled its first memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust, what did you think?
My first thought was that, for some reason, the old figure of 500,000 victims is still being pushed. I wonder whether there might be some agenda behind minimising the number.
So what might be a better estimate?
The number of one and a half million first proposed by the senior historian (the late Dr. Cybil Milton) of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Research Institute, and subsequently supported by the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and many other historians seems closer to the truth. But what are they going to do, redo the memorial with a different number? I imagine it’s now carved in stone and it’s going to stay there. And that ‘500,000’ will remain the conventional number for our losses, like ‘six million Jews’.
One of the most vocal opponents to the Romani case is an Israeli scholar, Yehuda Bauer. If anybody is pushing for the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust, it’s him, but he says that this figure of six million is too high: 5.4 million is more realistic. But six million has become the official number, frozen. And this figure of half a million has now become frozen. It’s certainly too low.
But what is the agenda? What could possibly be the reason for rounding down?
To make it less of an impact. By diminishing the number you diminish the significance. A Jewish scholar once said: “Numbers count. Whatever you say, you cannot compare other victims with 6 million.” True, that’s a horrible number, but we’re talking about genocide, we’re talking about whole peoples. And if we’re talking about numbers, let’s talk about numbers of survivors. The number of Jewish survivors was much, much higher than the number of Roma survivors.
So in proportional terms, the percentage of Jewish and Romani losses might be more or less similar?
If we take Nazi-controlled Europe, then the percentage of losses was about the same for Roma, while some scholars put it higher. It’s not a competition, but certainly the losses were about the same. What we have to focus on is after 1945, when no Roma and no Sinti – and both populations are the same people – were called to testify at the Nuremberg Trials. No war crime reparations were paid to the Romani survivors at that time. And I suspect very strongly that if reparations had been paid in 1945 to help them get on their feet, the terrible situation of Roma today would not be as bad as it is.
Why did it take another 37 years for Germany to recognise the Romani genocide?
We’ve had no strong voices to speak for us. No government, no army, no economy. No scholars. It was very easy to just ignore the Roma. The focus has been on the Jewish victims. Almost all of the research and publication has been by Jewish scholars. The Jewish population is an educated population. We are not educated. And only now do we have university graduates who can make the details better known. Many documents that deal with the extermination of Roma have not been accessible in the past. We just don’t know the whole picture and probably never will.
Why not? Because of the unreliable census data concerning the Roma before the war? The way exterminated Roma were often labeled as ‘other victims’? That so many were executed on the spot outside of camps?
Yes, all of that. But we’re progressing: for example, in Washington, the Holocaust Memorial Council recently received 15 boxes of Nazi documents from Germany that have not even been looked at properly, and we already know that there is a lot of material in there pertaining to Roma. The Jahad in Unum in Paris have discovered over 50 undocumented killing centres exclusively for Roma in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
You also referred to the fact that there is a reluctance among the Roma themselves to identify themselves as ‘victims’.
Yes, there are some Roma who will not talk about Porajmos (equivalent of Shoah for Romas), or the Holocaust because it is about death, it is about loss, it brings bad luck. There are Roma who will not accept war crime reparations because it is regarded as blood money.
The persecution of Romani by the Nazi regime was rooted in a very long Prussian tradition of persecution. Where does that Roma-phobia come from?
There is not one single cause for Antizigeunismus (‘anti-gypsyism’); it is a combination of causes. If we go back to the first appearance of Roma in Europe, the largest number came at the same time as the Turks. Roma came in as service providers for the Ottomans, and Europeans associated Roma with the Islamic threat to the Christian world. They weren’t Turks, but especially in northern, German-speaking Europe, people had never seen Turks, so they didn’t know. Then there was the medieval association of darkness with sin and lightness with purity. So we get a Christian interpretation of these ‘sinful’, dark-skinned outsiders, because Roma were the first people of colour to come into Europe in any large numbers. Another reason is the lack of territoriality. Especially in Europe, it is very important for ethnic populations to have physical territory… So Antizigeunismus really comes from a tradition.
And it was expressed in an incredibly violent, eugenicist way. They were called “vermin”, the “excrement of humanity”…
A significant phrase is Lebensunwertes Leben, which first appeared in print in 1863 directly referring to Roma. This notion of “unworthy life” then became applied in Nazi theory. When Hitler came to power in 1933 there were already many, many laws against Roma in Germany and no laws against Jews. That’s a big difference. Another difference was whereas Jews were blamed for many social and political evils – for creating communism, for creating capitalism – arguments for getting rid of Roma were only racial because their alleged ‘criminality’ was seen as a genetic condition. They had inherited a disease. That crops up again and again as a racial problem, a racial fault.
But meanwhile some Nazis, famously Himmler, saw Aryan blood in them… how did the Nazis deal with the ‘Aryan’ back-ground of the Roma?
Himmler wanted to keep some families who were Roma on both sides, so-called ‘pure’, alive in a compound under the Law for the Protection of Historic Monuments. But it was made fun of and quickly brushed away… German scholarship in the 19th century already determined that Roma were not Aryan, but from the “pre-Aryan”, Dravidian Indian population. What does ‘Aryan’ mean anyway? Some European Ashkenazi Jews are converts who come from an ‘Aryan’ background themselves… The whole notion of race is not scientific. Interestingly, the Nazis were more afraid of Mischlinge (mixed-race people). So they came up with the term “gypsy-like”. The criteria for determining who counted as Roma were actually twice as strict as they were for Jews: two Romani great-grandparents would make you a Zigeuner. To be counted as a Jew, one of your grandparents had to be a Jew. If the same Nuremberg Laws had been applied to Roma as to Jews, nearly 20,000 lives would have been spared in Germany, which is about the number of Roma who were in Germany in 1939 – about 18,000.
Roma had to wear triangles, Jews stars; were they treated any differently in the concentration camps?
Some of the Kapos were extremely cruel. The Roma were used for experiments, they were starved.
Apparently Mengele was especially fond of young Romani children.
Mengele was fascinated by twins and by eye colour. He would perform the most horrible experiments on Romani kids. He tried to stitch a pair of twins back to back to see if they could share one set of organs in their body. Of course they died in agony. He would also inject their eyeballs to see if he could make brown eyes blue. It’s just horrible.
I am still startled by the fact that the Roma were unable to get any reparations.
Well, there is a common phrase in a lot of languages: “They’re only gypsies.” Why bother? They don’t get lawyers; they don’t boycott companies or governments. We don’t have to worry, because if we do, then we’ll have to give them money. Nobody wants to give money.
But doesn’t the recognition of the genocide of the Roma in 1982 open the way to compensation?
It should. There is a proverb we have, “You cannot hide a cat in a sack because the claws will show through.” In other words, eventually the truth will come out. The more facts about the Porajmos come out, the more the people who are trying to hide those facts look bad.
Are there still people who are trying to hide those facts?!
Absolutely. I have been dropped from various organisations, because I speak too loudly about these things, but nobody denies them. They can ignore them, but they can’t call them lies, because they are not lies.
Well, there are lots of arguments about who qualifies as a victim of the Holocaust. This begins to get very sensitive because it comes down to a Roma-Jewish issue. I wrote an article a number of years ago about those arguments on why our fate in Nazi Germany “cannot be compared to the fate of the Jewish victims”. I found about 16 arguments and responded to all of them with documentation, with the exception of one: that Jews were uniquely targeted because it was God’s punishment for straying from their faith. You can’t really argue with that, but most Jewish scholars reject it. Another argument to keep the Holocaust uniquely Jewish is that it justifies the existence of Israel… but if you share the Holocaust, it does not take away the right for Jews to have a homeland. I am speaking as someone who has no homeland, so I know how precious a homeland is. So the argument against sharing the Holocaust is a cruel argument.
Ultimately, do you think Roma and Jews should have shared the same memorial, potentially Eisenman’s forests of concrete slabs dedicated solely to Jews and commonly referred to as the ‘Holocaust memorial’?
This is another bone of contention for me, because those targeted in the Holocaust have been usually classified as more or less Jewish and usually worded as “Jews and other victims”, with us in the category of ‘other’. But if we talk about genocide, only the Jews and the Roma – and maybe the handicapped – were singled out for what they were born as. If you were a Jehovah’s Witness, that is socially acquired.
To this day, people seem quite confused on the difference between ‘Holocaust victims’ and other victims of the Nazi regime…
The Holocaust was the implementation of the Final Solution, a genocide to eradicate what was regarded as contamination in the Aryan gene pool. It was a massive programme of ethnic cleansing, to use the modern term, and it targeted the Jews and the Roma. Die Endlösung der Zigeunerfrage (“the Final Solution to the gypsy question”) first appeared in a document in 1936 and was first issued publicly over Himmler’s name in 1938. There was only the Endlösung der Zigeunerfrage and Endlösung der Judenfrage. There were no other Final Solutions. The man who invented the term “genocide” (Raphael Lemkin) referred to both Jews and Roma.
At the inaugural ceremony, Angela Merkel gave a speech in which she committed to support Roma population. In the meantime, Germany signed a treaty with Kosovo and is currently deporting Roma and their German-born and bred children back to the region. What do you think about this?
It is hypocrisy. In Germany I visited Roma who were put on barges in rivers. There were cases of people being put on planes in handcuffs. The treatment of Roma in Germany in the 20th and 21st centuries is a continuation of this idea of expulsion: we just don’t want you, go away. And nobody is there to speak out on behalf of the Roma. We really don’t have any support. Jews have Israel. Israel is a member of the United Nations. It can speak out, it can have trade embargoes. It has clout. We don’t have anything to fight with.
Do you have any hope for the future?
I do, but it’s going to be very, very slow. Fundamentally, I believe in education, but not simply educating non-Roma. We have to educate ourselves. Most Roma don’t know where we come from, or who we really are. Most are not well-educated or educated at all. That has to change before we can be unified and have a voice at the proper level in the EU.