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Ukraine: Roma Claim Money From Swiss Holocaust Fund

Kyiv, 10 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Valentin Roshkov's passport says he is Russian. He doesn't look much different than any other 70-year-old Slav. But he is a Gypsy or Roma, and he tells the story of his experiences during World War II in Ukraine in his own Gypsy language rather than in Russian.

Before the war, Roshkov had 11 brothers and sisters. Afterwards, he was left with only one. "There's nothing interesting in this story. It's just a simple tragedy," he says. "I can well remember how it was - terrible memories that have stayed with me all my life."

Now recalling the distressing events of 50 years ago may bring Roshkov some material aid. Last week Ukrainian media announced that any Gypsy born and living on Nazi-occupied territory before 1944 can claim $1000 from a Swiss fund for Holocaust victims.

The Gypsy Association of Ukraine in Kyiv is coordinating applications, and has received around 30 so far, according to its head, Volodymyr Zolotarenko.

The Uzhgorod Gypsy Association has said it expects up to 500 applicants. Official figures put the number of Gypsies in Ukraine at 60, 000. But Zolotarenko says the number is closer to 300,000. Estimates put the number of gypsies killed in the former USSR at about 30,000. In Ukraine, hundreds died at Babi Yar in Kyiv, about 800 in Simferopol and 4,000 in Volhynia. Many died in Nazi concentration camps, others were forcibly sterilized.

Yet since the war, Zolotarenko said, Gypsies have received less sympathy and less compensation than Jews who suffered and they are still discriminated against by Ukrainians. "Historical truth should take its proper place. Gypsies along with the Jews suffered more than anyone in the war," he said.

The Swiss Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust/Shoah was set up at the end of 1996. Switzerland was the recipient of much of the gold looted by the Nazis; banks also hold savings deposited by Jews before the war which have been earning interest ever since. Swiss banks and industry have contributed 273 million Swiss francs to the Fund, to go to Jewish and other survivors of the holocaust.

This money is not compensation, said the fund's spokesman Lorenz Wolssers. "Compensation means there was a fault before. As far as we can figure out, Switzerland has never done any harm to Gypsies in Ukraine. So we don't speak of compensation or restitution. We call it a humanitarian initiative."

The amount, which Ukrainian media put at $1,000, is considered significant by the association because it legitimizes Gypsies' claims of suffering during the war. It isn't dear to us because it's money but because it is showing help and support. It means our suffering is not forgotten," said Zolotarenko's wife Valentina.

Wolssers could not confirm the amount, but said the fund is more likely to give 1000 Swiss francs; around $700, to individuals.

According to Ukrainian media reports, all that Gypsies need to claim the money is proof that they lived on occupied territory up to 1944.

Wolssers said that all applicants must prove both that they suffered persecution during the war and that they are in need today. The latter is not hard. Roshkov, like most elderly Ukrainian citizens, survives on a meager pension of Hryvna 35 a month. His wife, also a war survivor, died last year, and he talks regretfully of how $2,000 could have changed their old age if the Fund's payment had come earlier.

"Of course it's a bit late now," said Zolotarenko. "These people are old and many have died. They will probably use this money for their funerals."

Proof of persecution may be official records of time spent in a concentration camp or eye-witness accounts of hiding in the woods, Wolssers said. He added that more conditions might be introduced if too many people applied and the fund ran out of money.

The Ukrainian gypsies who have come forward believe that living in Ukraine during the occupation is proof enough of suffering. They say it is a historical fact that the Nazis persecuted anyone with dark skin on suspicion of being Gypsies. "Each Gypsy who was alive in the time of the occupation was living in risk. What's the need for proof?" said Zolotarenko.

Roshkov has no birth certificate and his passport says he is of Russian nationality because he was taken in by a Russian woman after the war. Many Gypsies, including Zolotarenko himself, are not registered as Gypsies because they feared prejudice or objected to the term Gypsy, while older Gypsies also do not have birth certificates because before a law in 1956 they followed a nomadic lifestyle.

In place of these documents, the Gypsy Association can give an official paper certifying Gypsy origin, which Zolotarenko says can easily be proved through the close network of Gypsy communities.

Wolssers could not say whether applicants without registration as Gypsies would be accepted because the fund has only just started working in Ukraine. Following a scandal last year when compensation paid by Germany to Ukrainian forced war laborers disappeared from a Ukrainian bank, close tabs will be kept on payment of the money, Zolotarenko said. A preliminary amount will be paid out to applicants from bank accounts around the country, to be followed by the rest if no hitches occur.