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A crime buried in time and silence

24 January 2014

We must remember the Holocaust of Romany people, and its horrors, says Jake Bowers

No future: Romany children destined to die, shortly after this photograph was taken, in the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War

No future: Romany children destined to die, shortly after this photograph was taken, in the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War

THEY are just like any children, full of potential and mischief. But the story of these Sinti children from Dreihausen, near Frankfurt, ended not long after their photo (right) was taken. The country they lived in considered them to have "lives unworthy of life".

Shortly after they were captured on camera, in the summer of 1942, they were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they became just three among the 1.5 million Romany people murdered during the Nazi Holocaust. It is time that more people learnt about this forgotten crime.

Along with the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, the Romany were the only other racial group destined for complete annihilation. The Nazis' "final solution to the Gypsy question" was designed to exterminate the largest ethnic-minority community in Europe. About 70 per cent of both the Romanies and the Jews living in German lands were murdered. The activist Romani Rose (who was born in Heidelberg just after the Second World War) knows about the Holocaust, or Porrajmos as it is known in Romani, where it means "the devouring". "Thirteen members of my family were murdered during the Holocaust," he says. "My grandfather was murdered inAuschwitz, and my grandmother in the concentration camp of Ravensbruck." The diverse Romany community in Germany is collectively known as the Sinti and Roma, but the Holocaust affected them all. "It has profoundly shaped the identity of the minority, and left its indelible mark on the memories of the Sinti and Roma," Mr Rose says.

As chairman of the Central Council of Sinti and Roma, Mr Rose tours the world to campaign for equal rights for his community, and also to raise awareness of the fact that the Romany people of Europe have shared a common history with European societies for centuries.

IT HAS been a long struggle. "A hunger strike at the Dachau concentration camp memorial in 1980, organised by the Sinti and Roma civil-rights movement, first raised awareness of the Holocaust, and created an awareness of the Nazi crimes," Mr Rose says. Only the English Channel and the efforts of the Allied forces saved British Gypsies and Travellers from a similar fate.

The Revd Adrian Brook, the diocese of Salisbury's Chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers, says: "It is startling how few people in this country are aware that the Romany Holocaust happened at all. Even many British Romanies know little about the subject."

Mr Rose was instrumental in the getting the German government to unveil a memorial to this Holocaust in Berlin in October 2012, but perhaps his greatest contribution to spreading awareness has come in the form of an exhibition, "The Holocaust Against the Roma and Sinti", which has toured Europe and the United States. Its most powerful journey, however, is the one on which it takes its visitors. This contrasts the terror and organised persecution of the Nazi regime with the normality of everyday Romany life. Personal testimonies and family photographs reveal the individuals behind each victim's unique story.

The exhibition shows how everyday hatred can lead to a holocaust. The first part documents the beginning of the exclusion of the German Roma and Sinti, after the Nazis came to power. Then it covers the genocide of these peoples in Nazi-occupied Europe. A third part documents the systematic killing of Romanies from almost every European country in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. A final part considers current discrimination against Romany minorities in Central and Eastern Europe.

THIS month, much anti-immigrant hysteria focused on the impending arrival of many Romanian and Bulgarian Roma in the UK, who then failed to appear. This provides a stark reminder that anti-Romany prejudice is never far away.

Across Eastern Europe now, anti-Romany feeling is running increasingly high. In Hungary, paramilitary killings of Roma have hit the headlines, and have resulted in stiff prison sentences for the perpetrators. In the Czech Republic, neo-Nazi marches on Romany neighbourhoods have been forcibly held back by riot police. In Britain, vehement opposition to new Gypsy and Traveller sites is perceived by Britain's 500,000-strong Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities as thinly veiled racism.

The opening of the memorial to the Roma and Sinti Holocaust in Berlin just over a year ago becamea symbol of the struggle that the Romany people still face in order to have the darkest hour in their history remembered. Its construction was dogged by delays, indifference, and obstructive bureaucracy. For years, a corner of Berlin's large city-centre park, the Tiergarten, was blocked off. Barriers hid a small construction site, but little work ever seemed to be done there. It looked like a project that would never be completed.

Now, however, it stands there for all to see. Designed by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan, it consists of a circular pool of water with a triangular concrete plinth at its centre, on which a fresh flower is placed each day. The words of "Auschwitz", by the Italian Romany poet Santino Spinelli, are formed in the metal surround of the pool. They can be translated as: "Pallid face, dead eyes, cold lips. Silence.A broken heart without breath, without words, no tears."

Mr Spinelli, Mr Rose, and 12 million Romanies in Europe believe it is high time that the silence was broken.

Jake Bowers is a Romany journalist, broadcaster, and blacksmith (www.thirstybearforge.co.uk). Information about the Romany Holocaust is at www.romasinti.eu.

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