Sounds familiar? Roma & Memory

Nov 24, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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"There are lies more believable than the truth."
"The caravan is our family, and the world is our family."
- Roma sayings

One of the standards by which we recognize a civil society is the degree to which minorities are respected and protected from persecution, both by custom and law. For that reason, we oppose discriminatory policies and reject hate speech. In short, the degree to which we condemn advocates of intolerance based on ethnicity, race, religion, sexual preference (and so on) is a measure of civilized values.

Those values are compromised in the case of the Roma: a people defined by those who mistrust, fear or hate them. The common name “gypsy” is, for example, based on the entirely mistaken notion that they originated from Egypt. The confusion of Romanians and Roma further demonstrates ill-informed perceptions. “Gypsy” denies the distinctive histories, customs and beliefs of communities spread throughout most parts of the world. In short, their history and identity has been distorted. Constructed identities, clustered around notions of rootlessness and clannish cohesion, create the necessary pre-condition for persecution: a reductive classification in which irrational fears of alien values can be located. This cluster of characteristics is also associated, in Nazi ideology, with Jews. Negative stereotypes reduce individuals to a simplified set of imagined behaviours. Primitive prejudices find points of focus and permit a perverse rationale for dehumanisation.

Image: Roma flag

The Roma are subject to current myopia and historical amnesia. They inhabit a special place in our collective unconsciousness of present and past. In contrast, we might argue, the holocaust permeates the fabric of contemporary memory. Millions visit the bleak site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Museums and memorials in Washington D.C., Berlin, Israel, and throughout the cities in which we live, ensure that, at some level, the holocaust remains a presence in historical consciousness. We commemorate in events and concrete constructions a European nightmare.

The Nazi holocaust is, however, in danger of becoming a bad dream, a dark myth in which malign, barely human, figures inflict atrocities on faceless millions. The warning of Primo Levi should continue to resonate: “If we fail to bear witness, in a not too distant future we could well see the deeds of Nazi bestiality relegated by their very enormity to the status of legend.” The slaughtered and persecuted victims of Nazi bestiality belong to a history that is, we believe, far from the world we now inhabit, certainly beyond anything that, thankfully, belongs to our students’ reality.

The Roma are on the margins of that historical memory despite the fact that an estimated half a million Roma were victims of the holocaust in what is known as the Great Devouring (Baro Porrajmos). This represented something near to 25% of the entire Romani population of Europe. August 2nd is an important, terrible date in that history and is commemorated annually within that community, although almost nowhere else. In 1944, on the night of August, some 3,000 Roma were put to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau when the Germans liquidated the occupants of what was called the Gypsy Camp (Zigeunerlager). This was only one of a sequence of atrocities inflicted upon Roma. Romani Holocaust Memorial Day did not make the mainstream press.

Video: Roma Holocaust Memorial Day in London, 2013

In broad terms, a consequence of holocaust awareness is, in many circumstances, a heightened sensitivity to questions of unjust discrimination. There is, however, a constant trickle of disturbing news that has not penetrated our consciousness. It certainly has not entered the customary discourse of diversity and is rarely part of the agenda of study abroad; it is easy to avoid. Actually, you have to make an effort to find this news by subscribing to some rather obscure information lists. If you can find these, and if you subscribe, regular messages will appear that seem to belong to another history, an alternative Europe:

             “Authorities close shelter making Roma homeless” (Milan, September 30, 2016).

            “Roma denied electricity...collective punishment” (Serbia, October 14, 2016).

             “No arrests after Romani man beaten to death” (Czech Republic, October 21, 2016).

            “Families pushed out into the streets as winter begins to bite” (Rome, October 28, 2016).

Nb. These and many more verified  accounts can be found on the European Roma Rights Centre website:

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the time and place of this selection of news stories. They do not derive from some distant past nor do they refer to far away places outside of our knowledge or experience. They are happening in Europe, in places we visit, where students go to study, but, nevertheless, they are outside of our normal line of vision. The plight of the Roma in Europe rarely enters into what we teach students. We do not associate these events with what we know of contemporary Europe. The phrase “collective punishment” recalls distant history, a Europe built on the slaughter of the innocent.

The holocaust informs our just and profound unease at the re-emergence of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Europe. That legacy has, in many contexts, created a sensitivity towards prejudice that has not, however, impacted the ways in which the Roma are customarily described or frequently treated. We are largely unaware of the on-going harassment of the Roma throughout Europe. Roma history is a footnote in our collective memory. The prejudice to which they are subject does not make headlines. The thoughts of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who marched with Martin Luther King and was serving in Berlin when Hitler came to power, are disturbingly relevant: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems—the most urgent problem is silence.” That sentiment informs the remarks made by Dorde Jovanovic, President of the European Roma Rights Centre, on August 5th, 2016 in relation to Roma Genocide Remembrance Week: “Today seeing the rise of anti-Roma rhetoric, it is easy to be fearful. I see a Europe that sometimes fails to recognise and learn from its past.” Ceija Stojka, a Romani writer, painter and musician, who survived the Holocaust, offers a similar perspective that combines personal pain with an intimate understanding of the destructive power of prejudice:

If the world does not change now, if the world does not open its doors and windows, if
it does not build peace -- true peace -- so that my great-grandchildren have a chance to
live in this world, then I cannot explain why I survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and

Our concern for the rights and dignity of minority communities is selective. It does not, for further example, include U.S. Appalachia (constructed as either menacingly feral or comically ignorant: “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Beverly Hillbillies”, by way of illustration). The forced expulsion of the Chagos Islanders between 1968 and 1973 by the British government at the behest of the United States to make room for a US military base was an act of shameful community destruction. Except for the efforts of a limited number of activists, this action has disappeared from mainstream history, slipped into complicit silence.

Photo: Chagos, Diego Garcia Island - An unnamed Diego Garcian at the time of the US encampment, 1971 (public domain)

The Roma are paradoxically both invisible and vilified. They do not occupy a central place in the liberal consciousness and, simultaneously, are subject to vicious demonization. In January, 2013, Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of the Fidesz Party, Hungary, articulated an agenda for something much like genocide:  

A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.

Our civilization faces a choice that will determine the future. There is the potential to create an open world in which we will allow the voices of the past to enrich our conscience and consciousness. Then we will choose to open our minds to the ineffable significance of all humanity. We may alternatively choose hate, allow fear to drive cruelty and prejudice, embrace darkness.

Sounds familiar?

It does if you are a Jew.

Thanks Mike!

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Topics: International Education, Civil Rights