Memory needs a place
15 July 1997
by Sefedin Jonuz1
On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Buchenwald in today’s eastern Germany, the Cologne-based Roma organisation Rom e.V. organised an excursion to the camp. For Sefedin Jonuz, who survived the war as a child in Skopje, Macedonia, as well as for many other Roma quoted here, it was an occasion to both publicly remember the past and to reflect upon its meaning today. This article has been reprinted in slightly shortened form from Jekh Chib, no. 6/7, December 1996 Rom e.V., Cologne.
SKOPJE, MACEDONIA: 1942-1944: I experienced the Second World War as a small child and I remember it as if it were yesterday. In 1942, the Bulgarian and German fascists came to out city and began to round up all the Jews and the Roma. Many Germans marched behind a Bulgarian fascist, who was hanging on a drum and shouting that all Jews and all Roma should come out on the street and announce themselves to the German commander. Whoever didn’t come out of their house and have themselves registered would be shot.
So all the Jews and Roma came out on the street and were led off to the commander’s office, where they were registered. They all stood in a line and had their names inscribed in a book, and among them were my father and my uncle, the brother of my mother and all the Roma from out street. We children and out mother and grandmother shrieked and cried as they were led away: why were they taking out father away? He had never done anything to anyone. Where did they want to bring him?
My grandmother and I tan after the column of people to find out where they were taking them. My grandmother understood Bulgarian and she kept asking one soldier “Where are you taking my sons?” but he wouldn’t answer her. So she pulled three gold pieces out of the little package she carried at her breast and showed one to the soldier. His eyes became huge and then he looked quickly around to see if anyone was looking. Then he stuck his hand out and said, “Don’t worry, granny, nothing will happen to your sons. They won’t be killed. All of the Roma are going to Bulgaria to work and the Jews will be brought to another place, I don’t know where exactly.”
We tan after the column until we had reached the trucks and then everybody got into the trucks and they drove away. We watched the trucks go and we cried, because we didn’t know whether we would ever see out father and out uncle alive again.
All the men were taken away. Only children and women were left behind. German and Bulgarian fascists raped and shamed Romani women. We children were always on the street. We knew everything that happened on out street and in out neighbourhood.
One day five German soldiers came and got drunk in the pub that was across from out favourite playground. The pub was called “Iso”. Iso was a gadjo (non-Roma), but he spoke almost as good Romanes as a Rom. The bar racks where the fascists were stationed were near this pub, so the German and Bulgarian soldiers came there often to drink. On this day, these five soldiers came and drank a huge amount, and then got up and marched off in the direction of the quarter called Teneke Mahale (“The Tin Seftlement”), while singing in voices that sounded like bears growling. When they came to Teneke Mahale, they split up and each went to a house where they knew that young Romani women lived. We children watched everything, and we saw which houses they went into. A German soldier went into the house of Usnija’s mother and Usnija was sent out onto the street to play with us.
When Usnija’s mother had not been seen around the neighbourhood for three days, we children told the neighbours what had happened. The women went into Usnija’s house to look for his mother. There they found only the small children, who were all crowded into one room. Finally they found Usnija’s mother. She had hanged herself.
Last year I read something about Buchenwald. After that I wanted to see what it looked like. The most shocking thing I saw there was the room where they put men against a wall, supposedly to measure their height. While they were standing there a hole would open in the wall and they would be shot from behind. My grandfather was a partisan. With his people he attacked the city of Skopska Crna Gora, which was occupied by the Germans. But that was war. An uncle of mine was killed back then by a German machine-gunner. But Buchenwald is something else. It was a death factory. People were cattle for the slaughter there. I couldn't sleep or eat for three days after I had been to Buchenwald.
Many women were raped by German and Bulgarian fascists. Their human dignity was deeply wounded and they could not beat this humiliation. They couldn’t stay in out town any longer and many of them took their children, packed their things and left the city to go somewhere where no one knew them. It was awful and sad too that after the war many of the husbands of the raped women did not return to out city. They stayed in the places to which they had been transported.
One day in the summer of 1943, the German and Bulgarian fascists came to all of the Roma settlements — to Tophane (“The Cannon Settlement”), to Baruthi (“The Gunpowder Settlement”), and to Teneke Mahale. They forced all the children, women and old people together and they brought them to the seftle ment called Vair, where there was a public bath. Sefedin Jonuz is a Romani activist and poet working with the Cologne-based Roma NGO Rom e.V. They said we were dirty and we had lice and they forced us to take off our clothes.
Children, young people and women had to take off their clothing in the hall. They were ashamed, but there was no way out. The fascists beat us and screamed that we should hurry. Our clothes were thrown into piles to be washed in a steam-machine, while we were all forced into showers. But no water came out of the pipes. We all cried, because we had to stand naked there for a long time. Finally we heard somebody bellowing “Schnell Raus!”, get dressed and go home. Our clothes were pulled out of the machine and thrown still wet into a pile in front of us. But we didn’t care about that — we all dressed as quickly as we could and ran home. When we came home we heard from the Bulgarian fascists that we should be glad that we were still alive and we should be grateful to them for it. They told us they still needed us for work.
I went to Buchenwald because I was hoping to learn something about my grandfather. He was transported to Germany in 1941 from the city of Senta in Voivodina. There was a Roma seftlement there called Gezeli Telep. He was one of ten men that they took away for forced labour. We never heard from him again. I found nothing about my grandfather in Buchenwald. But I saw what they did to our people. I saw how they performed medical experiments before they burned them. And then the regular torture — the thing called "muster" where they stood outside half-naked in the cold and rain. They did that here or somewhere else to my grandfather as well. Many more Roma should know about these things, but most have no interest and so it could all happen again to them: at that time, they were deported into the Reich. Now they want to deport us all out of the Reich.
Some time after our return from the baths, the Bulgarian fascists forced us — even the children and old people — to dig a mass grave on the site where the old French cemetery was located. To this day, the grave remains open as a reminder of the fascists, that they should never come again to kill Roma.
Tito’s partisans liberated Skopje and drove out the fascists. Among the leaders of the partisans was a Rom — Abdullah Kopilj. By the end of 1944, the partisans had managed to liberate all of Macedonia. The Roma who had been taken for forced labour in Bulgaria were also liberated, and they came home from the cities of Simitli, Kyustendil and Dupnitsa. My father and uncle also came home. My father was so starved that we could count his ribs. He weighed only 40 kilograms and my uncle had to carry him back from Bulgaria. My uncle’s legs were so swollen from this that after he returned home, he could not walk for a long time.
At six in the morning on April 9, 1995, we boarded a tour bus in Cologne to travel to Buchenwald to take part in the celebrations and commemorations of the fifty year anniversary of the liberation from fascism. As we got on the bus we laughed and greeted each other. The young people were excited, and none of them quite knew what they should expect from such an excursion. Not many of them had yet heard of the killing factories in Europe during the Second World War. As we came near the old border with East Germany, the bus driver announced that we could already see Buchenwald.
One of the people with us began to tell us the history of Buchenwald. They told us how the Roma and Sinti were murdered there, and how they suffered there, together with the Russians and the communists and the Jews. When our Roma heard what was being told to them, a hush felt over the bus and everyone became quiet and serious. Some women began to cry and the men became uneasy. We arrived in Buchenwald with our heads bowed.
By the time we left the bus, the cold of the camp had already entered our bodies, as if it were the middle of winter. Everybody asked why it was so cold here in April, or was it like that only for us, because we were so frozen from what we had heard. As we entered the gates of the camp, we were shown first the cells for the prisoners of the Gestapo. These were narrow spaces with a board on two concrete blocks, where the prisoners had to sleep. But that was not the worst. The worst was that they were tortured to death here: only a few people came out of these cells alive. Most were brought dead from these cells to a crematorium, where their corpses were burnt.
From there we were brought to barracks where the Roma and Sinti had to live. There is a monument there to the Roma and Sinti who were murdered by the German Nazis. We laid our flowers there, where the bones of our ancestors and relatives lay.
We went on from there to a museum, to see the killing tools and the pictures of sadistic horrors of the German fascists. The first picture we saw showed a German fascist who was taking the eyes out of the head of a Romani woman and man. A small child stood next to them and had to watch this disgusting act. A woman fascist stood next to this child. As I read the caption of this picture, I was so shocked that I couldn’t say a word and my tears began to flow and all the Roma, the whole group, gathered around me and asked what I saw in the picture and what was wrong with me. When I told them what was written there, they all cried deep from the soul, quietly, and they could only see their own tears.
That was the first time I ever saw D cry. He is tough and he isn’t afraid of anyone. In Buchenwald I saw that he has a big mouth, but also a tender Roma heart.
With tearful eyes we went to other displays where they showed torture methods and displays where they showed how the gold teeth were removed from corpses before they were burnt. From there we went to the chamber where they shot prisoners in the back of the head. The last place we saw was the crematorium, where people were burnt in a smith’s oven. When enough bodies had gathered, the oven was turned on.
That was the last place of horror that we saw. After that we went out to a large yard. That was where the commemorative celebrations of the surviving prisoners of Buchenwald took place. Each person told what they had experienced in Buchenwald. We went to a Polish man who had been a prisoner and we asked him if he could tell us something about the Roma in Buchenwald. He told us that he had only been a prisoner there for three months, but that he could tell us something. He said the Russians and the Roma were treated the worst — that they had to do the hardest work and were beaten most by the other prisoners. The Roma who could no longer work were brought to the shooting chambers and killed.
The old Polish man saw that we all were crying, and that we had come to the end of our nerves and couldn’t bear to hear more. Just as we wanted to leave though, we heard that a group of former prisoners were speaking about their experiences in the Yugoslavian language. A young girl was translating. We went to this group and asked what they knew about Roma prisoners in Buchenwald. D. was always the strongest one of us. He started straight in and asked the first question.
I came to Buchenwald because I wanted to see the grave of our forefathers who were murdered by the Germans. But I saw here that they had no grave — they were burnt here. We saw the crematorium. That was a shock: nobody knows where their ashes are. Now there is a plaque commemorating our people. That is good, but that is something different. An old Yugoslav communist who was also at the memorial service told us how it was back then and what they did with the prisoners. They pulled the teeth out of the mouths of the dead. I've never been in such a camp before.
An old man from the group of Yugoslavs was happy when he heard that Roma had also come to the commemoration ceremony in Buchenwald, and he began to tell us how he owed his life to the Roma. At the age of sixteen, he had been deported from Split to Buchenwald. He had been arrested because he was a member of the Federation of Communists of Yugoslavia, Bent to Italy and from there deported to Buchenwald. He was assigned to forced labour with a group of Russians. He was large and strong for his six teen years. The Roma in the camp warned him that he should try to keep calm, since they had noticed that he was wild and intense and was afraid of no one. They explained to him that if he protested to the fascists he would be immediately killed, and they made him swear to try to keep his temper and hold his tongue.
I am the son of a partisan. My father was fifteen when he went into the mountains and he fought with the partisans until the end, until 1945. At the beginning he was in the Nišavska division. Their first battle was in Sicevacka. He joined the partisans because the Germans had taken away his grandfather and his grandfather's brother. Later my father fought in Bosnia and he was there when Užice was liberated from the fascists. Užice was the first city in Yugoslavia to be liberated. There was no discrimination against Roma among the partisans. Everybody was the same; everybody was a fighter. It was different with the Croats — the Ustašas — and with the Serbian Četniks. They not only persecuted the Roma, they killed thousands of them in camps like Jasenovac. Buchenwald was a horror trip for me, because so many people from my family had been deported and killed and in Buchenwald you can see exactly how it was done. Gypsies who went in there did not come out.
The things I heard and saw in Buchenwald I had heard once before, in 1950, when I was a child in Yugoslavia and the school organised a trip for the Roma children to visit Jasenovac, the Croatian concentration camp, to learn how the Roma had been killed there during World War II. The fascists destroyed our lives, so that even today we are unable to forget. Today we wander through the whole of Europe, searching for what the fascists took from us. Among us there are children who have Romani mothers and German fathers — children whose mothers were raped and came into the world that way children like J.S. and A. who wander with us as Roma and not as Germans. They also are seeking a place where they can stay and lead meaningful, dignified lives.