Solving the Nazi question
“Compared with the massive record of murder, theft, kidnapping and other crimes by non-Gypsies against Gypsies throughout history, Gypsy crime against non-Gypsies pales almost into insignificance, so that to prioritize the study of the latter over the former shows a twisted sense of values.”
Thomas Acton, Professor of Romani Studies,
University of Greenwich, London, England
by Damian Le Bas
Crimes against Gypsies outweigh crimes committed by Gypsies. This is a statement that will not only shock most European readers, but probably enrage them, and be rejected at once as absurd. It’s so absurd we don’t even need to interrogate it. Do we? People feel they understand the “Gypsy menace”: they might have experienced a genuine grievance at some point in their life, and feel they therefore have a sense of “Gypsy crime”. They might find the arguments of the new, post-multicultural political right convincing. Plenty of people do. After all, when the German chancellor- under the unique pressure to steer clear of anything resembling xenophobia that a German chancellor must feel- is prepared to declare that “multiculturalism has utterly failed”, then surely she must be correct? And this was four years ago, lest we forget: we’re in an even braver new world now, in which the National Front represents France in the European Parliament and being openly xenophobic is fast becoming a badge of honour for politicians, including in my native UK.
Earlier this year I was in Sweden, a country which has only recently been doing some soul searching of its own, following news that a police force in the south of the country was keeping a database of Roma families, regardless of whether they had committed any crimes. Children were among those on the list. In Gothenburg I met the filmmaker Eszter Hajdù and her producer, the musician Sándor Mester. Hajdù was in town for a screening of her recent film Judgment in Hungary. The film was shot during the 167-day long murder trial of the brothers Árpád and István Kiss, their accomplice Pető Zsolt, and a fourth suspect, István Csontos, for a series of attacks on Roma people in 2008 and 2009. The attacks were carried out in north-eastern Hungary and resulted in six deaths and 55 injuries: among the dead were Robert “Robika” Csorba, four years old, and his father Robert, 27.
Hajdù and Mester told of how they had recently moved to Portugal because of an increasingly hostile attitude towards ethnic minorities in Hungary, even among “liberal intellectuals”. It was not just Romani people who were the target of this. As it has tended to throughout history, anti-Semitism was following suit, and not far behind it there crept another disturbing tendency, the desire to blame the victims for their own murder. “People ask, “Why do you have a Roma problem in Hungary?” ”, said Mester. “They don’t ask, “Why do you have a neo-Nazi problem”. It’s crazy.” In many quarters, the assumption remains that when Romani people are killed, they must have done something to deserve it. Even, apparently, when a four-year old child is machine gunned by fascists on the steps of his own home. Judgment in Hungary contains graphic images of the body of Robika Csorba- images I will never forget, and that in some respects I wish I had never seen. Yet the Csorba family insisted they be included in the final cut of the film, in order that people might know what they had actually been through. A police forensics team had inserted metal arrows through the wounds in Robika’s body to show the direction of the bullets that killed him. Before the film was completed, Robika’s grandfather Csaba Csorba died himself, after giving tearful testimony at the trial. It is hard not to believe that he died of a broken heart.
“We try to explain that it’s the neo-Nazis who have the problem, they are the ones who are committing these crimes”, Hajdù added. She had been present during every single day of the trial of Pető, Csontos and the Kiss brothers, during which none seemed to show a hint of remorse before they were eventually sentenced. All received life sentences, except Csontos, who was sentenced to 13 years after co-operating with police to some extent. Throughout the trial, the judge remained more or less inscrutable. Most of those who spoke were accused at some point of behaving in contempt of court, including Csaba Csorba, who was fined for speaking out of turn. These men had ruined his life, he retorted: how could he care about another fine?
From a human perspective, it was shocking to watch the grief-stricken members of the Csorba family standing in court just yards from those who had brutally murdered their relatives in a series of attacks that lasted 14 months before they were finally apprehended. More shocking still were the moments when the defendants sat and smugly questioned those whose lives they had ruined, in between exchanging knowing glances with their police handlers, some of whom seemed to share the same taste in nationalist tattoos. Such may be the nature of a particular approach to criminal justice, but it seemed emblematic of the situation of most of Europe’s Romani people. To be despised for your wrongs is one thing, even if they are imagined; to be despised for the wrongs that others have done to you is something else.
Critics of the murder trial noted that more attention was given to the details of police mishandlings than to the nature of the murderers’ motives. A tattooist was questioned by the judge as to why he had done nationalist tattoos on one of the suspects. What did these symbols mean to him? Fumbling for answers, he pulled confused faces and squirmed away from discussing the details. There was no accession to the idea that fascism might be serious, deadly, or simply bad.
After the trial, Robika Csorba’s mother Renata Jakab, widow of Robert Csorba, told the press how she felt. “First I felt relief that the verdict has finally come, and it is a little easier… I am satisfied with the judgment, but the fact is that no verdict can bring back my son and my husband. The pain remains.”