Is this right?

J.P. Stern

How poignant newspaper headlines can be! Like this one: ‘Rabbi Julia Neuberger shares a feeling of permanent exile with the refugee poet’ (Observer, 11 March). And yet I find this a strange bit of information, because last time I saw the Rabbi on the box, laying down the law on some matter of profound moral concern – well, frankly, it wasn’t a permanent feeling of exile she conveyed to me, but a permanent feeling of having a jolly good time, and of being so much at home in the TV studio, you could hardly tell where the Rabbi ended and the studio began. ‘As German unification becomes a certainty, there is a growing disquiet among Jews,’ the Rabbi’s article begins; and it goes on: ‘Perhaps most strongly affected are those who are refugees, such as my mother, and children of refugees, who have seen the problems of rootlessness and question their own “identity” as a result of early memories.’ Well I’m sure that’s true of many people, but Rabbi Neuberger’s mother’s daughter doesn’t seem to me to suffer from ‘problems of rootlessness’, and if she questions her own ‘identity’, I daresay she will take good care to do it at peak viewing time. Could it be that, like many professional agonisers, Rabbi Neuberger is a bit of a humbug?

I have been wondering about the people who have never heard of problems of ‘identity’, who live a life of ‘rootlessness’ without having the nous, the time or the education to fasten onto that word, or indeed onto any other words, who have never heard of PR or ‘personality problems’ or the ‘guilt of survival’ – the people who were murdered, in the same way as were the Jews, in their tens and hundreds of thousands, the people whose deaths are not recorded in any memorials or statistics, who have no names, almost nothing written about them; who were gassed, killed with phenol injections, tortured to death, experimented on, sterilised and castrated. What is this monstrous competition of suffering that makes a serious historian write: ‘It was the Jews alone who were marked out to be destroyed in their entirety’?

There were others. Two of their kind stood by the gate, with a little silent girl behind the younger one. They were graceful, their brown crinkly hair just like the Jews’ but with strands of different colours, bleached by the sun. Would the lady like to buy some lace, the elder one asked, proffering a wicker basket full of coarse cotton edging lace. Then, in a gentle voice, she added: Were they going the right way into town? They’d come on the train, from Lincolnshire, had walked from the station, and had lost their way. But now they were on the edge of the town, having almost gone past it.

They came in for a cup of coffee, the silent little girl drank a glass of lemonade. ‘Is this your home, lady?’ they asked. And: ‘Oh, doesn’t it smell lovely!’ They had left their husbands in the caravans. She couldn’t bring the boy, said the younger one, he had burned his foot, her husband was looking after him while they were away. Had they taken the boy to the doctor, the lady asked. No, they could not do that, the younger one replied: you had to be registered, you had to have a home address to do that, and they hadn’t got a home address. They had their herbs, though. They did a lot of travelling about, she said, but they’d never been in this town. Oh yes, they’d heard about it. As they were leaving, they enquired once more the way into town. You turn right, said the lady, and at the next corner you take the first on the left. Then the elder one stretched out an arm and said: ‘Is this the right, lady?’

Around the time this happened – in the mid-1980s – the Government of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was sterilising some of the Gypsies who were living on its territory, and removing children from their families. This practice seems still to be going on in parts of Europe (though not in President Havel’s Czechoslovakia). In 1980 the Government of the People’s Republic of Poland forcibly deported groups of Gypsies by boat, after having confiscated documents which would have allowed them to return. Nobody seems to be much interested in what is happening further east.

For the Gypsies, the war did not end in 1945. In 1950 the Ministry of the Interior of Land Württemberg issued a circular in which West German judges were quoted as saying that ‘Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for racial reasons but because of [their] asocial and criminal record’; this ruling excluded ‘almost the entire Gypsy population [of Germany] from compensation’. Subsequently West German officials rejected the citizenship applications of several thousand Gypsy survivors of the war, in spite of the fact that their families had lived in Germany for several generations. In the Seventies a West German government spokesman called Gypsy demands for war crimes reparations ‘unreasonable and slanderous’. In 1985 the Mayor of Darmstadt told the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma that they had ‘insulted the honour’ of the memory of the Jewish genocide by wishing to be associated with it. Two years later a Jewish Nobel Prize laureate defended the claim that ‘the Jews were the only group singled out for total systematic annihilation by the Nazis.’ In that year, too, the US Holocaust Memorial Council organised a conference on ‘The Other Victims’, explaining that it had done so ‘without wishing to diminish the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy.’ And in 1988 a rabbi in Pennsylvania wrote, ‘Please keep the Holocaust Memorial just that, a memorial to the unique Shoah which consumed six million Jews,’ for otherwise ‘the US Holocaust Memorial Council will be lobbied by Gypsies and Armenians, Native Americans and Palestinians, ad infinitum. Surely that is not what we want.’ However, it’s not only American zealots and Central European racists whose pronouncements continue the war on the Gypsies: in 1984 a Bradford councillor is reported to have called for their extermination.

Most of these facts come from an article by Ian Hancock, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also teaches Romani and Yiddish.[*] His article contains abundant acknowledgment of the work of several scholars, among them Jews, whose researches have kept alive the memory of the Gypsies who were victims of Hitler’s Germany, alongside the memory of the Jews who perished. On the other hand, Hancock also quotes a Jewish writer who refers to ‘a certain paradoxical envy on the part of non-Jewish groups directed at the Jewish experience of the Holocaust’ – an envy which ‘would seem to be an unconscious reflection of anti-semitic attitudes’. Someone else calls it ‘stealing the Holocaust’.

Why the Jewish claim to uniqueness? Why the misprision – the monstrous catachresis – of ‘the holocaust’? In what conceivable way was this a ‘sacrifice of burnt offering’? By what believers and to what god? Where, above all, was the freedom which is entailed in every meaningful notion of sacrifice? There were the tens of thousands of Germans diagnosed as incurable or congenially insane, tens of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, of homosexuals, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of ordinary criminals – why were their deaths less monstrous? ‘No cry of torment can be greater than the cry of one human being,’ Wittgenstein wrote; and ‘no torment can be greater than that which a single human being can suffer.’ There is something indecent and inhuman about trying to account for the murders by way of a competition to decide who suffered the most, and something indecent, too, about politicising the suffering.

The Gypsies, of course, have nothing to politicise. They cannot compete. They have no lobbies, hardly any records, no libraries of books listing those killed. We don’t even know whether their dead were numbered in hundreds of thousands or in millions; some of them don’t even know their left hand from their right. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It was Heidegger’s Jewish colleague, the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who wrote that ‘the Gypsies don’t belong to Europe ... they are for ever travelling around in Europe’ – die dauernd in Europa herumvagabundieren. So now there are fewer of them travelling.

[*] ‘ “Uniqueness” of the Victims: Gypsies, Jews and the Holocaust’, in Without Prejudice: International Review of Racial Discrimination, Vol. I, No 1 (1988).