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At the Wiener Holocaust Library

Daniel Trilling

For the past few months, Margarete Kraus’s face has been looking out at passengers in the lifts at Russell Square tube station. Photographed in the 1960s, she is leaning from the window of her caravan, smiling. Her Auschwitz prisoner number is tattooed on her left forearm.

Kraus, who came from Czechoslovakia, was one of the hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people targeted by the Nazis for extermination in the 1940s. Her story is told, alongside those of others, by an exhibition at the Wiener Holocaust Library (until 11 March). The exhibition carefully explains that meanings of the term Holocaust vary: ‘The genocide against the Roma can be defined as a part of the Holocaust. Sometimes, however, the term Holocaust is used only to mean the systematic murder of six million European Jews between 1941 and 1945.’ A Romani word for the genocide is porajmos, or ‘the devouring’.

What isn’t in dispute is that between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis, on explicitly racist grounds. Many, including survivors such as Kraus, were subjected to forced medical experiments. As the exhibition makes clear, part of the problem with recognising what Germany did is the fact that so many of the victims were already marginalised. There were few accurate records of Roma and Sinti populations before the Second World War, and many of the massacres by the Nazis and their collaborators went unrecorded. Prejudice and discrimination against the Roma has existed in Europe for centuries, and governments were using modern techniques to control and subjugate them before Hitler gained power. The Weimar Republic launched measures to target ‘Gypsies, vagabonds and the work-shy’, passing a law in 1929 that required all Roma and Sinti to register with the police.

Discrimination of this sort is about more than simple bigotry; it is intimately linked with the way in which states try to count and to categorise people. When many of Europe’s modern nation-states were being formed, the Roma were excluded from citizenship, either legally or in practice. The EU has been a mixed blessing: in some respects it has allowed Roma people to escape persecution by moving to countries where they are safer; in others it has made discrimination worse, since governments tend to treat them as interlopers, even if their passports give them the right to be there.

Hostility to Roma, Sinti and other Traveller groups remains prevalent. France has been pushing thousands of Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania for the last decade. Two years ago, fascist groups carried out a series of violent attacks on Roma living in Ukraine. And buried in the UK Conservative Party’s election manifesto last month was a promise to give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property of ‘trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments’.

Official recognition of the Roma genocide has been relatively recent. West Germany issued an apology in 1982; Angela Merkel unveiled the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism in Berlin in 2012. France apologised for its role in helping the Nazis round up and deport Roma and Sinti in 2016.

But people have other ways of making themselves visible. Theresia Reinhardt, a former dancer at the Würzburg State Opera whose children were taken away from her and experimented on, ran a Sinti organisation in West Germany that campaigned for recognition of the genocide after the war. Researchers collected evidence of forced sterilisations and used it to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Survivors of the concentration camps gave testimony to historical researchers, some of which is displayed in the Wiener Library.

In one corner of the room, visitors are invited to leave their comments. ‘I am really glad of this exhibition,’ reads one. ‘As a Jew I feel it is incredibly important [that] I, other Jews and non-Jews learn more of the ‘”forgotten Holocaust”.’ Another, from a 10-year-old visitor, says it’s helped with his homework. Nearby is a picture of the Roma flag, adopted by the World Romani Congress in 1971: blue symbolises the sky, green symbolises the land, and a red wheel symbolises movement and progress. ‘It seems to me that the Roma flag is one that all nations could do well to adopt,’ a visitor has written.


Comments


  • 19 January 2020 at 4:25pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    Important to know: Germans were/are not the only ones to commit genocidal deeds.

  • 23 January 2020 at 1:21pm
    ianbrowne says:
    The mass killing of Gypsies during the war is not as well known as it should be. Romania, where I live, was responsible for the deaths of around 250,000 Jews and around 25,000 Gypsies. They died largely in Transnistria which was administered by Romania for just under 3 years from 1941-1944. Most of the victims died of disease and starvation. The Romanian military alongside German army units, ethnic Ukranians and ethnic Germans recruited from the local population were the main groups involved. Many of those who died were held in what were intended to be temporary transit camps, although the pogron in Iasi and the massacre in Odessa should also be born in mind. I doubt whether one person in a thousand knows about this terrible part of the Second World War.

    What I want to draw attention to is the attempt by the Romanian film maker Radu Jude to discuss these events and to relate them to contemporary attitydes in Romania. In "I don't care if we go down in history as barbarians" he uses the context of a historial re-enactent of the Odessa massace to look at contemporary Romania, as well as the past. In one telling scene, the paripants

    • 25 January 2020 at 10:21am
      ianbrowne says: @ ianbrowne
      Sorry for the abrupt end to the post. It shows that I shouldn’t try to write on a mobile phone while on the Bucharest metrou.

      In one very telling scene, two of the re-enactment actors approach the director to complain about the presence of Gypsies in the re-enactment team. The re- enactment team is, of course, trying to stage a re-enactment of the massacre of Jews in Odessa. Some categories of victims, suggests Radu Jude, are privileged over others. And some categories of victims are remembered whilst others aren’t. Indeed it is a small step from that thought to the idea that some categories of victims deserve to be remembered whilst other victims don’t really deserve to be remembered. The holocaust memorial in Bucharest, a largely ignored concrete structure whose function as a memorial is far from apparent until you are within 10 feet of it, has a vey small mention of the Gypsies killed by the Antonescu regime of 1940-44, and it appears almost to be an afterthought.

      Radu Jude’s film is well worth seeing, and is as much about contemporary Romanian attitudes to its own history as about the Odessa massacre. Odd as this may sound, there are some very funny moments in the dialogue, but these aren’t always caught by the English subtitles, and a knowledge of the role of Romania in the holocaust of both Jews and Gypsies helps the viewer to appreciate the subtlety of the film.

      The title, Imi este indiferent daca intram in istorie ca barbarii (I don’t care if we go down in history as barbarians) is a quote from Mihai Antonescu, the deputy leader of Romanian between 1940-44, in which he describes his policy of racial purification by the mass killing of Jews and Gypsies.

    • 25 January 2020 at 10:35am
      ianbrowne says: @ ianbrowne
      One final point about Romanian responsibility. The fact that greater part of the mass killings of Jews and Gypsies occurred outside Romania, that many or even most of the victims died of disease rather than shooting or gassing, that the people who did actual killing with guns and bayonets comprised not just Romanian soldiers but also German soldiers, ethnic Germans conscripted into paramilitary units and ethnic Ukrainian police and paramilitary groups, has enabled the Romanian state to distance itself from the historical responsibility for the murders in Transnistria.

      However, the orders to deport, kill or consign Jews and Gypsies to camps came directly from Bucharets or from the Romanian administration in Transnistria.

      After the war, Marshall Ion Antonescu, his deputy Mihai Antonescu, the Romanian of Odessa and the Romanian Governor of Transnistria were executed. Marshall Ion Antonescu is regarded by many as a national hero and as a victim of the communist regime. His body lies in one of the many churches in Bucharest, near Piata Muncii.

    • 25 January 2020 at 10:44am
      ianbrowne says: @ ianbrowne
      This really will be the last addition to this post!

      Anyone who wants to find out more about the holocaust in Transnistria may care to read Diana Dumitru’s recent book The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union.

      It isn’t all disheartening. There are many stories of the local population in Transnistria helping, often at great personal risk, the Jews and Gypsies who were kept in camps.