I am going to tell you a story about S.S, a young boy from a Roma family, whose grandparents had emigrated from Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century and had settled in Cincinnati.
As a child, it was hard for S.S. to be Roma because he suffered prejudice and bullying and he felt embarrassed by his parents’ way of life. This feeling of shame is something he would of course regret as an adult, but it is difficult for children to be the target of prejudice and not to look for the fault in themselves.
In any way, S.S. had a dream and he always worked towards it. Since he was little, he wanted to make movies, and he made his first one about a train wreck between his toy trains when he was eight. When he was sixteen, he wrote and directed his first independent film, Firelight, and this is how it all started.
S.S. was quickly noticed and became a brilliant young director, having even to drop out of college to pursue a contract with Universal Studios – he was the youngest person ever to be signed for a long term deal in Hollywood! He created an incredible career directing many, many emblematic movies which in fact became the epitomes for blockbusters and made S.S. the highest-grossing director in history. Not bad for a Roma boy!
After years of glamour and action movies, there came a moment when S.S. decided it was time to make more socially conscious movies and to transmit a more profound view on some of the world’s issues, like war, terror, slave trade and genocide. This is when he thought about paying homage to his Roma community and the horrors it had been through.
Even though S.S. was born in the U.S. and after World War II, he knew much about the Roma and Sinti peoples of Europe that had been the victims of one of the biggest genocides of all times, the Holocaust, also known as the Porajmos in Romani. The antiziganist National Socialists in Germany had set out to exterminate all Romani people of Europe because they were a menace for the Aryan race-based state.
The Romani peoples had a long history of oppression and discrimination ever since in the 6th century they first migrated from their homeland, the regions of Rajasthan and Punjab in what is today Northern India. They were dispersed all around the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, but always lived in closed, marginalized communities with a very different lifestyle from those who surrounded them.
The Romani, which include the Roma, the Sinti, the Manoush, the Kale and many others, were always an invisible part of history and their existence was almost never documented in the dominant narrative. Europeans were so misinformed about their community that they usually called them gypsies, believing that they came from Egypt (‘gypcian). The Romani were stigmatized and persecuted throughout the history of Europe, but the Holocaust was the absolute peak of the antiziganist genocide.
After the end of WWII, the Roma and Sinti Holocaust was condemned all over the world and many books and movies depicted the concentration camps, the massacres and violations of the human rights of Romanies, such as the abhorrent medical experiments led in the camps.
The Holocaust was studied by many intellectuals who tried to find the answer to how it was possible for humans to produce such absolute evil and not realize how morally wrong it was – some claimed that the banality of evil stemmed from the fact that nobody ever questioned the ruling ideology. This is why the world believed that now that it realized the evil it had committed against the Romani people, it wouldn’t repeat it ever again.
One solution that was proposed in order to end with antiziganism once and for all and to provide the Roma with a safe area for the development of the budding Romani nationalism, was to encourage the migration of their people back to their ancestral land in India.
The migration of the Roma towards India had already begun and had intensified with the thousands of people trying to escape the Holocaust. The incipient Romani nationalism had its own flag, which represented the heavens and the earth, with a red wheel in the center to symbolize the itinerant tradition of the Romani people.
The settlement of Romanies in India started in the region of Punjab and Rajasthan, in the Thar desert. Little by little, a new state began to emerge, after the local population had been displaced, and it was called Romanisthan. Finally the Roma people could reunite after being in the diaspora for so long, could renovate the Romani language which had become so diverse, and could live without oppression.
Or at least without being the victims of oppression, but that is another story that we would tell another time.
The question here is: what happened with the young Roma film director?
Well, S.S. directed the movie about the Roma and Sinti Holocaust, and it became a blockbuster, as always. He filled up the movie salons and ignited the conscience of the public about the horrors that had happened to his people. However, he also created a controversy (which, unfortunately, had nothing to do with the $1 million he donated to Romanisthan during the wars against the Indians and Paquistanis that the Roma were leading.)
The voices which rose against S.S. blamed him in fact for appropriating the Holocaust and creating a “kitschy,” dramatic version of the events which turned the Holocaust into a consumer good, made within the Holocaust cannon and promoting a Holocaust sentimentalism.
There were even some who dared to say that the Romani were not the only victims of the Holocaust and that many Jews and Slavs were also persecuted and killed in the concentration camps. “But how?” – you would ask – “Wasn’t the Holocaust the manifestation of Nazi antiziganism?” In fact, the Nazis were not only antiziganist, but racist in general, because their credo was based on the racial supremacy of the Aryan race justified by all types of pseudo-scientific proofs.
However, the Roma somehow became the most famous victims of the Holocaust and thanks to that antiziganism became a taboo all over the world. The other ethnicities, such as the Jews, remained marginalized and are still today victims of antisemitism in their daily lives, remaining only a footnote in most narratives about the Holocaust.
Who knows whether the young film director was misinformed or just preferred to center his movie on the Roma people. Be as it is, what is important is to ask ourselves:
Will the tragedy of the Roma be forgotten if all victims are made part of the Holocaust story?
This piece is not meant to discredit or deny in any way the horrendous experience of Jews during the Holocaust but to promote a view that Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi genocide.
The dominant narrative about the Holocaust is a Judeocentric one which divides the victims in either Jewish or non-Jewish and states that the genocide was targeted only at Jews.¹ But firstly, it is advisable that we ask ourselves what really the definition of genocide is and how politics shaped it.
Nazi Germany arguably had a broadly racist biological vision that by no means was limited to antisemitism: the victims included Soviet POWs, homosexuals, disabled and mentally ill people, Slavs such as Poles, Slovenes and Serbs, Freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, Spanish republicans and others. Here I have concentrated on the Roma and Sinti because their lack of written history makes them especially invisible in historiography.
Nobody knows the total number of Roma and Sinti victims and while the US Holocaust Memorial Museum indicates 250 thousand,² the International Organization for Migration points to up to 1.5 million victims, not only murdered in gas chambers but also massacred on the spot around Europe.³ Only in 1979 the German government admitted that the persecution of the Roma and Sinti was racially motivated and made them eligible for compensation.
Antiziganism is far from disappeared and, as Ian Hancock indicates, “[o]ver the past three decades, the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest has documented dozens of murders of Roma by skinheads and other neo-Nazi gangs. Deportation, sterilisation and murder, not seventy years ago but today. For Romanies, the war is far from over.”⁴
http://www.romasinti.eu – The stories of six Roma and Sinti children
http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-02-07/news/8501080137_1_josef-mengele-israel-and-west-germany-auschwitz – Auschwitz survivors recall the horror of Nazi medical experiments
http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/holocaust/reflections.htm – Reflections on the Holocaust by survivors and intellectuals. Especially the Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész’s reflection on the representation of the Holocaust in Schindler’s list and Life is Beautiful in “Who Owns Auschwitz?”
- Niewyk, Donald L., and Francis R. Nicosia. The Columbia Guide To The Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press (2000). eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
- Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies) 1939-1945. Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005219
- Hancock, I. “True Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation and an overview.” The Historiography of the Holocaust, Palgrave Macmillan, (2005): pp. 383–396. Print
- Hancock, I. “1938 and the porrajmos: A pivotal year in romani history.” Global Dialogue (Online) 15(1) (2013): 107-117. Print. Retrieved from http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=552