16 May: Romani Resistance Day

On 16 May, 1944, Roma imprisoned in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp rebelled against their captors. 16 May, Romani Resistance Day, commemorates this courageous revolt and also the suffering of Romani people during the period of the Nazi regime’s rule in Europe. Unfortunately, the significance or even the existence of this day and the events it recalls are scarcely recognized. We live in hard times, when the labels of being different, of being a migrant, of being a Roma are among the hardest to carry. When we organize cultural events to remember the past, we must think about the needs of our communities in the present.

Europe should, more than ever, increase its efforts on making the Roma genocide widely known and recognized, to serve as a counterforce to the increasingly violent rhetoric and action against the Roma. If Roma would be commonly seen as victims of repeated abuse at the hands of authority, it would make it much more difficult for far-right groups to get away with calls of deportation, forced sterilization or even extermination of the Romani population, calls that are now received with indifference or even silent agreement by the media or the general public. However, on this day, a different narrative emerges, one of resistance, that puts forward dignity and shows that a human being cannot be stripped of its humanity.

Romani Resistance Day

The Nazis promulgated racial laws justifying their appalling treatment of groups they deemed unworthy of co-existing with the dominant race. They worked to control all aspects of life including science which they twisted to permit their strategies of racial annihilation. There was tacit complicity in many countries and resistance was often not even dreamt of. But an uprising did occur, and where it was most unexpected, at one of the sites where the Nazis’ plans to exterminate millions of people were being carried out. On the night of 16 May, 1944, the entire Roma population of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp rose up in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The testimonies of the survivors from a neighboring camp reveal a story that is only rarely told, a story of the Pharrajimos — the Roma genocide — and its victims who fought to the end for their right to life and humanity.

The Roma During the Holocaust © Romedia Foundation

Resistance Day marks not only the commemoration of 16 May but also serves as proof that no-one can ever completely break and hammer a people into complete submission, regardless of how much fear, violence and murder is brought to bear. The Nazi concentration camps were designed to make escape impossible and to crush the mere thought of dissent. For the most part, they succeeded in keeping the prisoners who were brought in from all over the continent under check.

Seventeen months before that night, on the order of Heinrich Himmler, the man responsible for the death camps, Romani people were relocated from numerous ghettos across the Reich to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A special family camp — the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp) — was set up where men, women, children and elders lived together. Approximately 23,000 Roma were held there in total, and of them, about 20,000 died in the gas chambers, often without even being properly registered. The camp physician was SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death” and many inmates, particularly children, were used in horrifying pseudo-medical experiments. But the people were resilient. The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum notes that the “Sinti and Roma tried as best they could to cope with the misery of the camp; the fact that they remained with their loved ones surely helped. Many of them had musical instruments, and they set up an informal orchestra, which often played during visits by high-ranking officers.”[1]

On the fateful day, the inhabitants of the Zigeunerlager learned that camp authorities were planning to eliminate them all[2] to make room for another batch of prisoners who were in better shape for manual labor than those who had spent months living under the harsh conditions of the camp. The Roma lived next to the crematorium and had witnessed such exterminations. Rather than allowing themselves to be silently led to the gas chambers, they fought back. When soldiers came to the camp they were met with “stones, iron pipes, wood panels, barbed wire [and] smuggled pikes” which had been collected in the barracks. The Roma managed to repel the first attack by 100 German soldiers that came in early morning, but the attackers regrouped and launched a bloody offensive. The Romas’ weapons were no match for the German guns but there was a bloody battle and the Germans suffered casualties. The trains bringing the Romas would-be replacements arrived during the skirmish and the authorities feared the revolt would spread through the camp. The Lagerkommandant called off the attack and withdrew his men. (Source: Barsony, Janos. Personal interview. May 2014).

Over the following weeks, measures were taken to ensure that such a flagrant defiance of authority could not happen again. A thousand young, able-bodied Roma were transferred to Buchenwald, in July another thousand were moved to other camps, while women were sent to Ravensbrück, leaving only half of the original 6,000 inhabitants of the Zigeunerlager, mostly the old, the weak and children. All of these people were murdered and burned in the fires of the crematorium on August 2. Once again they resisted, but their attempts were futile and the Zigeunerlager was emptied.

Pharrajimos

In Romanes, the Holocaust is referred to as Pharrajimos, which means “devouring” indicative of the scale and violence of the extermination. The number of Roma killed in the Holocaust has been the subject of much debate. Many were not citizens, and had uncertain legal status. Estimates range from 220,000[3] to 500, 000 lives lost.[4] Even the lowest figure is staggering and stands in stark contrast to the level of recognition of the event and also knowledge of the mistreatment Roma continue to suffer today.

Gunilla Lundgren. Sofia Z-4515. Designed by Amanda Eriksson. Stockholm: Nørhaven, 2006. Print.

Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at The University of Texas at Austin, claims that the lack of more detailed information about the Pharrajimos is due in part to the low rates of literacy that existed throughout the Roma population. The kind of written first-hand accounts that helped document Jewish victims’ suffering are lacking. There is also the lack of a unified collective consciousness. Hancock points to the way Roma choose to deal with collective traumas, claiming they are “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others.”[5]

Whatever the reasons, the Roma Holocaust has remained under-recognized. Germany never included the Roma in their reparations scheme as they did Jewish survivors. In 1950, the Ministry of the Interior of Württemburg claimed during a hearing on restitution payments that “the Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of their criminal and antisocial record.”[6] West Germany finally made official acknowledgement in 1982. In 1992 the German federal state proposed to erect a monument for the victims of the genocide. On October 24, 2012, almost twenty years later, the Memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of National Socialism, situated in the Tiergarten near the Reichstag in Berlin, was finally unveiled by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Most European nations make little or no mention of Roma and Sinti in their official statement on the Holocaust. In Hungary, Parliament designated August 2 “Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day,” in 2005. This important milestone in recognition and public awareness came about thanks to the intense cooperation of Roma civil society organizations among which the Romedia Foundation being one of the most vocal advocates. The result was the inauguration on August 2, 2006 of the Roma Holocaust Memorial in Nehru Park, in Budapest, on the banks of the Danube, to commemorate all Roma victims of the Holocaust. Efforts are being made to increase awareness of the Pharrajimos amongst the general population. In 2012, a legal draft was forwarded to the European Parliament which would enshrine recognition of the Roma genocide in European law. On April 15, 2015 the European Parliament voted with an overwhelming majority to finally adopt a resolution which recognizes the genocide of Roma during World War II. In addition, the important aspect of this resolution is that it “underlines the need to combat anti-Gypsyism at every level and by every means, and stresses that this phenomenon is an especially persistent, violent, recurrent and commonplace form of racism.”[7] It is also important for NGOs and other organizations to make grassroots efforts to raise awareness and reverse the pervading indifference with which it is treated.

Through the project, the Requiem for Auschwitz, Romedia Foundation has contributed to making the genocide committed against the Roma by the Nazis and their allies a part of collective memory. Our initiative solicited eyewitnesses and survivors of the Nazi terror to come out of the dark and for the first time talk about what they saw, heard, or know about the fate of the Roma in Auschwitz. This is how our collection of oral histories started, and continues to research the most unknown historical episode of the XXth century, the Pharrajimos, bringing to the surface new data and facts in continuation. Romedia’s filmmakers and cameramen have recorded confessions which are outstanding and unique, both for their topic and for their touching honesty.

Jacques Altmann, born in 1923 in Elberfeld, Germany of a Polish father and a German mother who immigrated to France after World War II,[8] tells about the night of 16 May, 1944 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, when the entire Roma population of the camp revolted against their aggressors, in a desperate attempt to defend themselves from sure death. Altmann’s testimony reveals a story that was only rarely told, a story of the Pharrajimos and its victims who fought, until the last moment, for their right to life and humanity.

Video by © Romedia Foundation

Erzsébet Szenesné Brodt, who passed away last year, was the last eyewitness of the extermination of Auschwitz’s Gypsy Camp. She was there, watching from the window of her barrack as an extermination squad chased Roma families into the gas chambers, armed with flamethrowers and dogs.

Erzsike offered herself to tell the story of her deportation and survival, as well as to give an account on what happened to the Roma on the night of the 2nd of August 1944. We had thus the chance to make an amazingly deep and detailed interview with her. The interview was made by Ágnes Daróczi, in the occasion of the anniversary of 1944 November the 4th, the day on which razzias started, followed by the deportation of Hungarian Roma.

Video by © Romedia Foundation

Éva Fahidi, born in Debrecen, Hungary in 1925,[9] was interviewed about the destruction of the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp) in Auschwitz on 2nd of August 1944. In her confession given to Romedia, she emphasizes the importance of speaking about Auschwitz-Birkenau, “he who survived Auschwitz has two lives: A life before Auschwitz and a life after Auschwitz. And between the two there is Auschwitz-Birkenau. And if he never speaks a word of it his entire life or if he does nothing else his whole life, but speak of it incessantly, he can never be free of it.”

Video by © Romedia Foundation

Zoni Weisz, a Sinto Holocaust survivor from the Netherlands, born in 1937, shares his memories with the Romedia Foundation talking about what it means to live with the trauma and loss. He also discusses what we need to do so that history does not repeat itself: “It’s unbelievable that people can do that. It’s unbelievable that you can create the system, where people are being killed like in a factory. We have to be very very careful that history does not repeat itself….that 500 000 Sinti and Roma were murdered, nobody knows. And it looks like nobody cares. So we have to work on that. And that’s why I am fighting, spending my life fighting racism.”

Video by © Romedia Foundation

[1] “History.” Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Web. <http://en.auschwitz.org/h/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11&Itemid=3 >

[2] Roberto Malini. “We are All Roma Citizens: Let Us Take Up the Legacy of the Gypsy Heroes of May 16th 1944.” EveryOne. Web, May 16, 2012 <http://www.everyonegroup.com/EveryOne/MainPage/Entries/2012/5/16_We_are_all_Roma_citizens._Let_us_take_up_the_legacy_of_the_gypsy_heroes_of_May_16th_1944.html&gt;

[3] “GENOCIDE OF EUROPEAN ROMA (GYPSIES), 1939–1945.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Web. <https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005219>

[4] “The Fate of European Roma and Sinti During the Holocaust.” romasintigenocide. Web. <http://www.romasintigenocide.eu/en/home&gt;

[5] “Roma in the Holocaust.” Moment Magazine. July-August 2011. Web. <http://www.momentmag.com/roma-in-the-holocaust/&gt;

[6] Ian Hancock. “ROMANIES AND THE HOLOCAUST: A REEVALUATION AND AN OVERVIEW.“ RADOC. Web. The Historiography of the Holocaust. Ed. by Dan Stone. Palgrave-Macmillan, New York 2004, pp. 383-396 <http://www.radoc.net/radoc.php?doc=art_e_holocaust_porrajmos&lang=en&gt;

[7] “European Parliament Recognizes 2 August as the European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day.” ternYpe. Web. April 20, 2015. <http://2august.eu/ep-recognition/&gt;

[8] “Jacques Altmann, un adolescent hors du commun.” Mémoires de la Shoah. Web. <http://memoiredelashoah.weebly.com/jacques-altmann-un-adolescent-hors-du-commun.html&gt;

[9] “Biographies of Buchenwald Inmates.” Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora memorials Foundation. Web. <http://www.buchenwald.de/en/1244/&gt;