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Europe: Roma Break With Tradition, Recall Their Holocaust

  • Charles Fenyvesi

New York, 13 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The massacre by the Nazis of hundreds of thousands of people known in Europe as Gypsies is a little known fact of World War II. The lack of public awareness is shared by the Gypsies, who now ask to be called Roma: They themselves are coming to realize the tragedy only now.

This month in New York, American Roma and Jewish community leaders joined in commemorating the Roma Holocaust, known in the Romany language as "Porramous" or "the Devouring."

One event was held August 5 in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where George Kaslov of the Lawyers' Committee for Roma Rights and Recognition explained that remembering the Roma Holocaust is a recent development.

"This is only the second year we hold such a gathering," he told participants at the ceremony. "But now we know that we must remember." Even though Nazis killed an estimated half a million to one million Roma, or about half of the community scattered across Europe, the Roma tradition of not dwelling on past misfortune discouraged any mention of the tragedy. Kaslov recalled that as a small child growing up in Chicago, he saw his grandmother Mary Luba, who had immigrated from Romania, often sitting alone, crying. He asked her the reason, but she would not explain. "Never ask," Mary Luba said. Every time he asked, he was rebuffed. "Do not ask," his grandmother repeated. "Never ask. Never."

"But now I know the reason," Kaslov said. "My grandmother was thinking of her brother and other family members who were killed by the Nazis or by their Romanian allies."

Kaslov's grandmother died in 1960 without ever telling him anything about the family members who perished under Nazi rule.

At the commemoration, Kaslov told the story how many years later, he learned from a friend, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, that the Nazis had also killed Roma, whom they also regarded as racially inferior.

Kaslov related that his Jewish friend had been a prisoner in Auschwitz, and next to his barracks was another, isolated by electric fence, where only Roma were held. Unlike the Jews who were separated from the beginning, with the old and the young killed right away, and able-bodied men and women held in different barracks, Roma families were allowed to stay together.

On the basis of eyewitness accounts, historians now know that up to 4,000 Roma prisoners -- from newborn infants to grandparents -- were marched into the gas chambers on the night of August 4, 1944. When their neighbors woke the next morning, there was not a sound coming from the usually noisy Gypsy camp.

"My people do not like to remember terrible things. But not remembering is not the right way. We have learned that we must remember. If we do not ask, we do not know, and if we do not know, we do not remember. We must ask, and we must remember."

Kaslov also spoke for the commemoration of the present. "Roma are still being killed in Europe," he said. He cited the tragedy of hundreds of Kosovo Roma who he said were hunted down and shot by both the Serbs and Albanians, and others were expelled from their homes.

He mentioned the rise of hate crimes, and cited the Czech Republic, where he said 40 Roma have been killed since the Velvet Revolution. He decried the resurgence of skinhead violence directed against the Roma and condemned the lack of official severity in prosecuting and punishing those guilty of hate crimes.

"But we are stronger now that we have learned to remember," Kaslov said. "The names of our dead will no longer be forgotten."