The Gypsy Holocaust: Europe’s Other Wanderers Begin To Remember
SIBIU, Romania – As a member of one of Eastern Europe’s leading Gypsy families, Luminita Cioaba easily could have followed the traditional Romani path laid out by her nomadic ancestors. But that was never her way.
When her father — a man who became known as the King of the Gypsies — was planning for her teenage marriage, Cioaba was busy in the library, learning to read and write in Romanian, a threat to the “circle of Romani life,” as she put it. Later on, when her peers were having children, Cioaba ran off to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, to find a magazine that would publish her poems.
Now, Cioaba is breaking with a different kind of Romani tradition as she occupies herself with the fate of her people during the Holocaust. Some hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis and their allies during World War II, but in contrast to the Jewish preoccupation with this time period, Romani leaders in Eastern Europe — where a majority of the world’s estimated 5 million Gypsies live — have remained relatively quiet about their people’s suffering in the Holocaust.
In an effort to change that, Cioaba has spent the last two years collecting oral testimonies from elderly Romani who were deported to the Ukrainian region of Transnistria by the Nazi-aligned Romanian government. The fruits of Cioaba’s work were presented at a conference last week in Sibiu, the Romanian city where she lives along with her brother, the current holder of the title of Romani King. During the conference, which was attended by Romani activists from across Europe, Cioaba distributed a book with oral testimonies and organized the Romanian premiere of “Romani Tears,” a film she made about her people’s tragedy.
“I started doing this by myself, and even at present I’m mostly doing it alone,” Cioaba told the Forward during a break in the conference, titled “Romani Survivors Searching for the Truth.”
In the past, a handful of academic conferences have dealt with the Romani Holocaust, but Cioaba’s gathering appears to be the first one organized by Romani for Romani, and there was an evident sense of new ground being broken as the survivors in attendance spoke with Romani business leaders and activists. Sixty-five years after the Holocaust, though, the conference also highlighted that, as in so many areas of life, the Romani — Europe’s eternally stateless and degraded people — face many obstacles in attempting to reach even the first stages of memorializing their tragedy. For starters, there is the relative apathy of European governments — the Romanian government did not send any official representatives to the conference, despite being invited to do so. And then there is the fractured nature of the Romani community, as well as the lack of Romani educational institutions.
“There has been a sort of neglect on the behalf of Romani leaders,” said Dana Varga, the Romanian president’s counselor for Romani issues, who is herself Romani. “Our social problems have been so serious and urgent that this sort of history could never become a real topic for discussion.”
Given the relative lack of research, the exact details of the Romani situation during World War II are murky compared with the clarity of the histories produced on the Jewish Holocaust. Generally, historians believe that between 100,000 and 1 million Romani were killed during the Nazi era, by different methods in different parts of Europe.
The fate of Romania’s Romani was spelled out at last week’s conference by Jean Ancel, an Israeli researcher. He said that in October 1942 the Romanian regime handed down orders for sedentary Romani — those not living in nomadic caravans — to be deported to Transnistria, a region in western Ukraine to which Jews were also deported. Ancel estimates that 26,000 Romanian Romani were deported using their own horses and wagons, which were then taken from them once they crossed the Dniester River. For the next two years, the Romani were left on collective farms to starve and die, in a similar fashion to the Jews in the region.
“The main intention was to see both of them dead, in order to purify the Romanian nation,” Ancel said.
Ancel said that while the numbers of Jews killed in Transnistria were many times greater, in certain ways the conditions for the Romani were worse than for the Jews because they had no Romani organizations looking after their interests. The instances of cannibalism and routine rape that Ancel came across in the new Romani testimonies were unlike anything he ever encountered in his Jewish research.
Ancel’s presentation was itself testimony to the lack of previous engagement with this history within the Romani community. Ancel said he has never encountered a Romani historian who deals with the Romani Holocaust, and he only took the topic up as a side project to his work on the Jewish Holocaust.
“I am happy they asked me to come here, but it is their duty to do this. There has been a complete disregard of their tragedy until now,” Ancel said.
The study of the Romani Holocaust has been wracked by debates about whether the preponderance of Jewish Holocaust researchers has meant that the Romani fate has been downplayed. The tensions were evident in comments from Romani journalists after the presentations of Ancel and a Romanian historian who is not Romani.
“I know nothing about my history, and now I get to listen to it from people who are professionals, but who are not Romani people,” said Zoran Dimov, a Romani journalist from Macedonia. “My feeling is that I don’t know who I am. How are we going to write our own history?”
On the streets of Sibiu’s Romani neighborhood, Turnisor, the lack of historical consciousness emerged during interviews with young people. On the dirt roads of the neighborhood, the youths loitering outside said they knew nothing about what had happened to the Romani during World War II.
“Only the old people sit around and talk about the past,” said Dorin Mihai, a 17-year-old taking a break from a soccer game. Mihai had never learned anything about the history of the Romani during his schooling.
“I am young. I am busy,” Mihai said. “I don’t have the time to talk to the old people.”
A short distance away, at the Roman Emperor hotel, only one Romani person under the age of 30 was in attendance at the conference. That was Florin Priboi, the youth department coordinator at the Romani Center in Bucharest. The 20-year-old Priboi said that the only reason he had learned about the Romani Holocaust was because his family had chosen to live outside of Romani culture, where the social pressures are different.
“The young people have the responsibility to know about these events, but they have other priorities: to work, to marry very young, and so on,” said Priboi, a student at the University of Bucharest. “I am in discord with all of that.”
There are signs though that this is beginning to change. Aside from Cioaba’s work, the past few months have seen a flurry of activity on the Romani Holocaust. On the Wednesday before the conference in Sibiu, Germany’s leading Romani activist was in New York announcing plans for a memorial to the Romani Holocaust in the United Nations this coming January. Also, this year, Romani rights organizations in Romania have introduced legislation that would push for the inclusion of a chapter about the Romani Holocaust in school curricula.
Michelle Kelso, a University of Michigan-trained sociologist who has made a film about the Romani Holocaust, said that when she began her work a decade ago, she found no interest in it from the Romani leadership. “They were dealing with too many current violations, like police abuse,” Kelso said. But, she added, the situation has changed in recent years, and her work has been finding a more receptive audience.
At the conference, it was clear that one reason for the burgeoning interest was an obvious frustration with the billions of dollars in Holocaust restitution funds that have gone to Jewish Holocaust survivors and all but bypassed Romani survivors. An American judge has estimated that of the $60 billion designated for Holocaust restitution and reparations since World War II, only $35 million has gone to the Romani.
A film made by Kelso offered some explanation for this disparity. While Jewish families often had inventories of their property from before the war, few Romani survivors had any documentation for any aspect of their lives. Even when they did, few of the survivors could read or write in order to fill out the complicated compensation applications.
One Romani survivor who attended the conference, 79-year-old Rozalia Iacob, said she had been trying for seven years to get some compensation from the German government for the two years she spent in Transnistria, where she watched her sister being shot to death. Iacob carried with her a tattered yellow plastic bag filled with the documents she has sent and received from the German government. She says that she sold her pigs in order to pay for the paperwork, but that it has come to nothing. The German documents she carried suggested that she was rejected because her married name was different than her name when she was deported.
“I have everything in order. I have material things to prove it that I was there — that this happened to me — and I am being ignored,” said Iacob, who lives in Sibiu’s Romani neighborhood. “What am I supposed to do?”
In the final session of the conference, one journalist read out a list of resolutions for action moving forward. Among them was a call for legal efforts to achieve compensation for the survivors. But the list was dominated by more basic concerns, such as finding precise numbers of those killed and unearthing any documents that might shed light on the murder of the Romani. Even for the survivors like Iacob there remained uncertainly about exactly what had happened more than half a century ago.
“I have heard stories of the hard life other Gypsies had in other countries — but I don’t really know about them,” Iacob said. “People talked — but I don’t know what happened.”
Nathaniel Popper traveled to Romania on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The Fellowship is funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.