Memory savings – Otto Pankok and Ceija Stojka

In November 2012, in the frames of its program series – Requiem for Auschwitz -Romedia Foundation organized an exhibition dedicated to Otto Pankok and Ceija Stojka, at the French Institute in Budapest. The exhibition was curated by Moritz Pankok, artist, actor, and artistic director of Gallery Kai Dikhas in Berlin – the first art gallery in the world devoted entirely to Roma art.

The text below is from the opening speech held by Ágnes Daróczi, founder of Romedia Foundation. Remembering the outstanding characters of the German expressionism – Otto Pankok and the Auschwitz-survivor Ceija Stojka – was the reason behind Vienna having a square named after Ceija Stojka, in the Neubau quarter, since September 2014.

The gesture itself (naming a public place after a Roma celebrity) is joyous and very rare – not without antecedents, though. In French cities sometimes a “rue Django Reinhardt” pops up, in Bretagne there is a street carrying the name of Matéo Maximoff, the first Kalderash Roma writer and Evangelical pastor. In Germany, it is a way of remembering the Roma victims of the National Socialist regime, and most often streets wear family names or nicknames (see Familie Mechau Strasse in Oldenburg and Ede und Unku Weg in Magdeburg, for example).


In 1929, Otto Pankok visited Saintes Maries de la Mer, the traditional pilgrimage destination for Roma and Sinti. The experience made him a regular visitor of the Sinto community of Düsseldorf. He immortalized faces and movements, facial expressions and traits of children and young people. These faces, as seen on his copper and woodcuts, and on his charcoal drawings, became the symbol of humiliation and exclusion – as he always insisted on calling them.

Pankok started facing persecution together with Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, and Hans Arp, after Hitler came to power. His portraits of Sinti were exhibited at the renowned 1937 Nazi propaganda-exhibition, Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst), and a considerable part of his artwork was destroyed during the Third Reich.

He introduced his album, Gypsies, published in 1947, with the following sentences:

“Oh, friends, where has the wind blown you, where have they crushed you, where have your torturers buried you with mud, you innocent infants? You were dragged to the death camps and the butcheries of the East. Before the synagogues were set on fire, the Gypsy families were already locked behind barbed wires, to be later on condemned to share the fate of Jews in the eastern death camps.”

Otto Pankok’s artworks often represent the only trace left by the lives of many people from Düsseldorf, whose tragic destinies are testified only by his charcoal drawings. Similarly, Ceija Stojka’s works are a form of memory saving.

Ceija Stojka (right side)  photo © Galerie Kai Dikhas

Ceija Stojka (right side)
photo © Galerie Kai Dikhas

Ceija Stojka started recuperating her memories after decades of silence, from the darkness of denial and oblivion. She was only ten-eleven years old when they deported her and her family, while her father had already been taken away earlier. She was deported to Auschwitz together with her mother, sister and two brothers, and then later followed the hell of Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.

After liberation she shared her painful memories only with her family members. She did not talk. Even though the Holocaust claimed six hundred victims from the Stojka family, only. Not many know that similarly to German Roma, 90% of Austrian and Czech Roma were also murdered, and a mere 20% of the Roma of Poland survived.

After raising her children and fulfilling her traditional woman roles, Ceija started her work in public life. She published her autobiography in 1988, which suddenly made her famous. I met Ceija for the first time after the political transition – her debut as a painter was also influenced by the Roma art that had come to life in Hungary, a decade earlier. But she was not really pushing to have exhibitions, she was not managing herself. For her, the most important was to channel her painful memories into paintings. To share the pain, to relieve the sufferer from his burdens – this is what each of her paintings tell us. This is probably why she wrote a book, this is why she started painting.

Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

So that it would no longer be possible to deny that Roma and Sinti have also suffered, so that we can finally curse the past and make it part of a collective memory.

As Károly Bari writes:

“Slave to my faith,

I speak with deathless words,

Andé muro jílo kályi jag phábol,

I speak out about the night to you”