“We share a commitment to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honour those who stood against it.”
-- Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust
To mark 2 August, the day of remembrance for the victims of the genocide of the Sinti and Roma, we spoke to Chair of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, Romani Rose, to discuss what the day means to the Sinti and Roma community, and what the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance can do to support these commemorative efforts.
Romani Rose is the chair of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, which was founded in 1982. It is the independent umbrella of 17 regional associations with its main office in Heidelberg, and it represents the political and civil rights interests of German Sinti and Roma. In 1997 the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma was opened in Heidelberg with the first permanent exhibition on the genocide of Sinti and Roma.
Mr Rose, could you tell us a bit about the significance of the date of 2 August?
In the night from 2 to 3 August 1944, the SS “liquidated” the so-called “gypsy family camp” sector BIIe of the concentration and extermination complex Auschwitz-Birkenau. That means, the last remaining approximately 2,900 Sinti and Roma, mostly old people, women and children, were murdered in the gas chambers. The significance of “2 August” is that this day marks the sad climax of the last phase of the genocide of our minority.
What does the commemoration of 2 August mean for the Sinti and Roma community?
For Sinti and Roma, the 2 August is a key part of the remembrance and commemoration of their relatives and the more than 500,000 Sinti and Roma murdered during the Holocaust. There is no family in Germany, nor in the European countries that were under Nazi occupation, which did not fall victim to the Nazi regime. Auschwitz is not just an important symbol, but also represents the largest cemetery of Sinti and Roma, whose names we know, but whose graves are nameless. But in Auschwitz we also remember the resistance of Sinti and Roma against their extermination: On 16 May 1944 the SS planned to murder the over 6,000 Sinti and Roma who were in the camp at that time. However, as the Sinti and Roma strongly resisted, the Nazis had to stop the action, which became known and is marked as the day of resistance of Sinti and Roma.
You will be attending the commemoration at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and so will Martina Maschke, Chair of the IHRA Committee on the Genocide of the Roma. What will happen at this commemoration ceremony and who else attends?
For many years The Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma has invited the survivors of the Holocaust and their relatives to attend the commemoration ceremonies in the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The commemoration ceremony is organized in close cooperation with the Association of Roma in Poland and with support of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, as well as in recent years under the patronage of the Polish government, who declared in a parliamentarian decree in 2011 the 2 August as a national day of remembrance for the victims of the genocide of the Sinti and Roma.
Every year many people participate in the commemoration ceremony in Auschwitz: Besides members of the Roma minority from many countries, many representatives of the Polish state, the church and other institutions, as well as ambassadors of various countries and the diplomatic corps are present. Together with TernYpe International Roma Youth Network, the Documentation and Cultural Centre also organized the educational youth remembrance event “Dikh he na Bister” (“Look and don’t forget”) this year with 350 young Roma and non-Roma from across Europe, who also attend the 2 August commemoration.
The commemoration ceremony lasts around 90 minutes and takes place at the memorial for the murdered Sinti and Roma. The memorial was built by my uncle Vinzenz Rose, who was himself imprisoned in Auschwitz and lost many relatives there, from his own financial means. At this place we have commemorated all those who did not survive the Holocaust with honorific speeches and a wreath ceremony since 1985. Traditionally, a survivor of our minority speaks.
What does commemoration have to do with strengthening the Roma identity in the present?
The question for us is, how can we develop a new identity after the history of century-long persecution, of extermination by the Nazis and of post-war racism? In order to build a new identity, which is not in opposition to the national identity, we have to remember our roots, and at the same time undertake changes and reforms. We have to leave the ghettos, and should not consider ourselves as eternal victims. We have democracy on our side. We have to conserve those things that belong to us, and that will be part of a future identity. We should not make a contradiction between our cultural identity and our national identity. We need mutual respect.
You have also stated that remembrance of the genocide of the Roma is important for the whole of society. How do you mean this?
The remembrance of the Nazi genocide of Sinti and Roma is not carried out with the aim of assigning guilt to the descendants of the perpetrators. It is about truth and about lived responsibility to uphold those democratic values which form the intellectual foundations of European integration. We should never understand remembrance and commemoration as empty rituals, but rather as a living process. They are essential contributions to our current European civil society, where there should be no space for discrimination against minorities or for the exclusion of differently-minded people.
On 12 July, an IHRA delegation had high level political meetings in Prague to discuss the need for a respectful monument on the site of the Lety u Pisku camp - a former concentration camp for Sinti and Roma where an industrial pig farm now stands. What has your role been in connection to Lety?
For many years I have supported the protests of the former prisoners and their relatives to remove the pig farm and to build a dignified memorial for the victims. Back in 2007, together with the President of the International Auschwitz Committee, Noach Flug, I submitted an appeal to the Czech Prime Minister to end this scandal. The Czech government has to decide whether it wants to take a stand for a dignified memorial or whether it wants to contribute to the continuous degradation of the victims with this pig farm.
Read more about Lety u Pisku and the IHRA visit of 12 July 2016.
For a long time the genocide of the Roma was known as the ‘forgotten genocide”, to what extent would you still consider that to be the case?
It was not a forgotten genocide – it was a genocide which was denied. With the founding of the Documentation Centre of Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg an independent institution was finally built that could raise public awareness about the genocide of our people. Especially the permanent exhibition on this topic, which was opened in 1997 in the Centre in Heidelberg and in 2001 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, made an important contribution as well as the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime which was opened in Berlin in 2012. Nevertheless, these achievements and this progress cannot take away from the fact that the genocide of the Sinti and Roma has not yet entered the national cultures of remembrance in most European countries.
One of your colleagues, Oliver von Mengersen, is a member of the IHRA Committee on the Genocide of the Roma. What are your expectations towards the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance?
The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma has followed and supported the work of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance for many years. The Central Council welcomes the development within the IHRA to put greater emphasis on the genocide of the Sinti and Roma, and we expect the IHRA and its Member Countries to officially recognize the genocide.
In May 2016, the IHRA Plenary adopted a working definition on antisemitism. The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma calls upon the IHRA to take a stand against and combat antigypsyism, which is historically deeply rooted in Europe, just as much as antisemitism. Therefore, the IHRA should not only develop a working definition on antigypsyism, but political decision-makers and responsible parties have to vocally and decidedly counter antigypsyism in the public sphere. The IHRA can contribute to ensuring that both the Nazi genocide of the Sinti and Roma and antigypsyism are adequately addressed in educational curricula, in conferences and trainings for teachers and multipliers, as well as in educational materials on the Holocaust and on human rights education.
Photo: courtesy of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma