Romani Holocaust update

Reuters reported that on March 18, more than half a century after their wartime ordeal, Roma and Sinti who survived Nazi slaughter during World War II began receiving payments from Switzerland’s Holocaust memorial fund. At a ceremony in southern Germany, officials from the 280 million Swiss franc humanitarian fund presented symbolic payments of 2,420 German marks each to three Roma who had been in concentration camps in their youth.  Thousands of Roma and Sinti have filed claims to the fund, set up by Swiss banks and businesses last year in response to accusations that the Swiss coolly profited from the war. It distributes funds to needy Holocaust victims. Most recipients have been Jews in Eastern and Central Europe.

During its first year of existence, the fund distributed 15 million Swiss francs in aid. According to its own sources, more than 20,000 people in Eastern Europe have received payments from the fund. Approximately 88 percent of the fund, created last year, is intended to aid destitute Jewish survivors of the Nazis, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe who were denied Western assistance during decades of communist rule.  The remaining 12 percent is to help non-Jewish survivors, including homo-sexuals, political opponents of the Nazis, and Roma and Sinti.

One of the Romani recipients was MrJosef Lehmann, 61, who said he spent much of the war in Poland running from the German authorities. He eventually reached Switzerland, but was expelled and had to hide in the woods from his oppressors.  “It is nice of Switzerland to do this,’’ he said, but added, “Money cannot make right what happened then, even if it were a lot more. Gypsies are still persecuted and are not recognised anywhere.’’ Lehmann lives in the town of Singen, Germany, near the Swiss border. Reasonable estimates of how many Roma and Sinti died at the hands of Germans and their allies during World War II range from 250,000 to half a million. Following the war, few Roma and Sinti received compensation for their suffering or for forced labour.

In Hungary, according to an article in the Hungarian daily Magyar Hírlap, on April 24, approximately forty applications for compensation have been lodged, but reportedly only a fraction of those applying are eligible for compensation; only victims themselves may receive compensation under the plan, not their families, and many individuals claiming to be victims have been unable to provide adequate documentation for their claims. All over Europe after the Holocaust, many Roma changed their names.

Other news concerning assets confis-cated during World War II was reported on March 8, when Sweden released a list of holders of 649 bank accounts untouched since World War II, containing monetary holdings worth around 1,500,000 German marks, jewelry and other articles. Jewish representatives said that some of the unclaimed assets belonged to Jews murdered by Nazi Germany, recalling a scandal that embarrassed Swiss banks last year. The assets in the listed accounts included the contents, mostly jewelry, of safety deposit boxes. The list can be viewed on the Internet at http://www.ud.se. People who believe they are rightful owners of the assets are asked to contact banks such as Swedbank, Handelsbanken, Nordbanken, S-E-Banken, Ostgota Enskilda Bank and the central bank, the Riksbank.

In other Holocaust-related develop-ments, Romnews reported that British lawmakers investigating Nazi looting of gold and other assets told reporters on March 2 that they had received permission to study documents in the Vatican’s World War II archives. “We have taken the first firm steps toward tracing the truth,” said Lord Janner, a member of the House of Lords, who has been a leader in the search for assets plundered by the Nazis during the war. He said that legislators hope to discover what dealings the Vatican may have had with Nazi banks and whether there is any truth in allegations that plundered Romani assets are still in Vatican vaults. Lord Janner said Archbishop Tauran, under-secretary of state for the Holy See, promised him twelve volumes of documents and told him he could possibly receive more afterwards. He said that the Vatican had also agreed to help the legislators trace other financial documents from banks and institutions not directly under its jurisdiction.

The Czech Press Service (ÈTK) reported on April 10 that Mr Pavel Bret of the Office for the Investigation of Communist Crimes (UVZK), the authority also charged with investigating crimes related to the Holocaust in the Czech Republic, had announced that his office had not yet been able to prove that genocide had been committed against Roma deported to the concentration camp in Lety near Písek, southern Bohemia, during World War II. The UVZK opened investigation following submission, in April 1997, of a complaint by 20 Romani and non-Romani signatories -  including the chairman of the Czech Senate - against the staff of the camp and the officials of the Protectorate. Mr Josef Hejduk is mentioned in the complaint as one of the suspects who is still alive. He was the deputy commandant and a guard at the camp and is one of the last surviving persons who took part in the operation of the camp during the war (see Roma Rights, Summer 1997).

Mr Bret told ÈTK, “We questioned about fifty Romani survivors who were deported there as children. Unfortunately, on the basis of their testimony it cannot be clearly stated that the crime of genocide was committed.” The history of the Lety camp is the subject of a recent book by Markus Pape, And No One Will Believe You (A nikdo Vám nebude vìøit). A pig farm currently stands on the site of the former “punitive work camp”.

In an interview with the ERRC in March, Mr Bret inquired whether the camp commander was still alive revealing evident ignorance on issues with which he is supposed to be competent. He also stated that it was not clear whether the survivors were in the camp for longer than three months. The basis for this statement is unclear, since most of the survivors have retained official documents proving that they were imprisoned in the camp for more than eight months. The puzzling statements of Mr Bret, together with the more than one year duration of the investigation to date, cause concerns regarding the determination of the UVZK to see that justice is done.

Finally, on April 21, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that the Croatian state attorney’s office had indicted former Jasenovac camp commander Dinko Šakiæ for war crimes and repeated a call for his extradition from Argentina. Šakiæ is wanted for his part in the deaths of many tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Muslims, and Roma at Jasenovac during World War II. The Yugoslav weekly Vreme reported on May 8 that Šakiæ had met with Croatian president Franjo Tudjman during a visit to Argentina in 1994 reflecting concerns that judicial proceedings against Šakiæ have been blocked at a high governmental level. Šakiæ’s indictment has come as a result of international pressure.

(Associated Press, ÈTK, Magyar Hírlap, Reuters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,  Romnews, Vreme)

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