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15 July 1997

One 42-year-old Rom who participated in an organised commemoration trip to Buchenwald said, “At that time, Roma were deported into the Reich. Now they want to deport us all out of the Reich.” “What do you mean?”, we want to ask, “What Reich these days?” Still, a piece of truth is buried alive in this simple statement.

The memory of the Romani Holocaust – i.e. the man-made end of the world for hundreds of thousands of European Gypsies - is being brought back to life in the Roma rights movement. The Romani Holocaust is the central theme of this issue. We present the official complaint filed by a group of Czech Romani and non-Romani citizens and demanding prosecution of a person who they believe shared the responsibility for the Romani genocide in 1942-1943. We also publish testimony by Roma people whose memories, however intimate, should inhabit a public space.

For those who suffered and died, as well as perhaps for those who survived – if survival is the right word to describe those who crawled out of the death camps with their hearts still ticking - there is no remedy, no meaning and no lessons. I cannot imagine a justice, and not even a metaphysical frame work, that can make any sense to them; nothing can be extended back through time to reverse or to delete the suffering of the small children in the death camp Lety in the winter of 1942-43, dying of typhus, pneumonia, angina, influenza.

This century is unacceptable. The only way I want to keep looking at it is from the far away seasons to which my hope emigrated not song ago.

The Holocaust has been compared to a huge blast of fire. Burning particles of that hatred which was its fuel followed their absurd trajectories through space and time and are hitting back on old cynical Europe. If you happened to travel through the Polish town of Świebodzice one evening just before Christmas, on December 23, 1996, you might have seen a five-year-old Romani boy in burning pyjamas, being hurriedly rubbed into the fresh snow of the courtyard by his panicked father. The father is trying to put out the flames. I have no doubt that these flames were caused by the same racist hatred, this time materialised in a Molotov cocktail bottle which the hand of a Polish youth, just one hand among the hundred-handed crowd in the street, threw at one of the Romani houses.

You could have heard the youths cry slogans meaning that Poland is for the Poles, and that the Gypsies should leave. The burning boy and his family were born Roma, a part of the human race which was treated as subhuman almost incessantly between the 14th and 20th century, and even long after the adoption of the Human Rights ideology by the “great powers”.

The time traveller in Europe of the late 20th century might note some further intriguing ways of waking up children born Roma. For example, you may come across a crowd surrounding a Romani house, with men trying to kick in the door, chanting: “We want the children! We’ll put them in the fire! We’ll roast your children!” There is a high probability that you have landed in the Czech Republic in the period 1993-97. This could be a town named Klatovy and the hour could be 11:30 p.m. on a scented mid-May night in 1997. But you may have landed in one of many other Czech towns of that time period. Or you may be in neighbouring Slovakia.

It is easy to be confused. But the experienced time traveller will note certain differences. If a Romani boy is woken up at 2 am by police officers who invade the caravan, search all belongings of the family and take away his mother, it could still be the end of the century, or it could be that you jumped back to 1939.

If, for example, you hear that the mother is accused of speculation in the sale of fabric or anything else and is being deported to a forced labour camp beyond the Urals, you will know that you are probably in Russia or Ukraine, witnessing the first expressions of Soviet persecution of the travelling Gypsies. During the repressive Stalinist regime, thousands of Gypsies were exiled to Siberia. Gypsy-run co-operatives and collective farms were closed down. Gypsies of all ages were shot on site.

If it is 5 am and the children are sleeping not in a caravan but in something similar to a poor slum house, and uniformed police search, beat everybody and shout loud curses at the “dirty Gypsies”, chances are that you are in Bulgaria of 1992-93, or in Romania of 1995-96. In any case, the mistake will not exceed plus or minus three years. But if curses come from a drunk German soldier breaking into the house to rape a young Romani in front of those small children, then this may not be Bulgaria any more but probably neighbouring Macedonia, and the year is 1943, and you must to be prepared to see the mother hanging herself afterwards.

The above episodes are taken from this issue of Roma Rights. This is a difficult issue to read, at least for me. The trouble for me is not so much the concentrated suffering that comes undiluted from the reality of Roma lives, past and present. It is difficult to read because it is monotonous. It is banal. It reflects what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. We may soon become numb and not want to hear more.

Please keep in mind: it is not the horror, it is the banality. Banality is more difficult to resist, and whether we choose this kind of resistance is entirely up to us. Refusing to get used to habitual racism is probably what it takes in order to end deportations, whether into or out of the Reich.

Dimitrina Petrova

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ERRC submission to UN HRC on Hungary (February 2018)

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