A People Uncounted
The Untold Story of the Roma
Our recent Screening the Issues event honored Holocaust Remembrance Day with a presentation of the film A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED, which illuminated the story of the Romani people, exploring their rich culture as well as their suffering at the hands of others throughout history. Victims of varying degrees of racism on the one hand, and stilted romanticized images in popular culture on the other, the real-life intolerance and persecution of the Roma has historically been largely ignored. Commonly referred to as Gypsies, their tragic experience reached an extreme when an estimated 500,000 of the Roma were murdered during the Holocaust.
Linking their present state to the tragedies of their past, director Aaron Yeger interviewed dozens of the Roma, among them historians, activists, musicians and Holocaust survivors, in order to bring the history of this neglected people to life and inspire those seeing the film to "stop and think before they make judgments about others."
Although the film mainly surveys their Holocaust experiences, its first third investigates details of Romani history, allowing us to see how stereotyping and social conditions made it necessary for Roma to undertake migration, panhandling, and to become public performers of their cultural heritage. Called "gypsies" as they were thought to come from Egypt, scholars posit India as a more likely origin. Their dark skin cast them as the "noble savages" of Europe, while laws preventing them from owning property enforced their nomadic lifestyle.
Until recently, there was relatively little research on the Roma. In the past the most detailed studies were the work of Robert Ritter and Eva Justin, who identified and catalogued "gypsies" for the Nazis, as part of an integral step of their genocidal program. Indeed, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 identified two groups, Jews and Gypsies, as "non-Aryan" subjects.
Through interviews with Holocaust survivors as well as academics, a painful and traumatic narrative emerges of what the Romani suffered, comparing all too familiarly with the Jewish experience, as the film delineates the basic steps enabling the genocide: identify, marginalize, execute. Already under long-standing discrimination, the Romani were effectively regarded as mostly expendable.
Yet their catastrophe was little recognized after the war, and no Roma were called to testify at the subsequent trials. Consistently disenfranchised, this ensured their reputation as "travelling beggars, thieves and whores" would prevail — at least until more recent times when welcome developments have sought to change their dismal trajectory.
Our guest speaker this evening was David Marshall, a human rights expert and lawyer in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), who recently returned from South Sudan where he conducted legal interventions in local human rights cases.
"What struck me, after watching this film, is that although we have seen victims coming into a more prominent focus in the international community's attention, at least since World War II, we still seem to be stumbling over accountability," he said. "There has been a little, somewhat according to the machinations of the so-called Great Powers, but often none, as in Rwanda... or, a little with Cambodia, but no accountability in Burma or Darfur, and certainly not in Sudan.
"We have a long way to go, but I think there is a growing search for truth, a historical consensus about what happened, why it happened, and who is accountable. Also, we've moved beyond persons and are looking at institutions. As can be seen, institutions are often responsible, whether it's the ministry of housing, education or the security apparatus... Over the years the conversation around the consensus of truth has been growing."
While current difficulties around addressing the Roma condition have been seen at a time when right-leaning and neo-Nazi movements are growing more prominent in Europe, there have been some important developments toward meeting the urgent needs of the Roma population, and underlining a protection of fundamental rights.
One major example is the Decade of Roma Inclusion, an initiative of twelve European countries to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of the Romani minority across the region. The initiative, running from 2005 to 2015, represents the first multinational project in Europe of its kind.
Additionally, in 2011 the European Commission adopted an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020. In the same year the European Council also endorsed the strategy, committing Member States to paving the way towards a more socially cohesive Europe by preparing and implementing their national Roma integration policies.
At the local level, pilot projects seek improved Romani access to education and health services, and financial provisions for Roma entrepreneurs, while raising awareness outside the Roma community, as they aid research and provide policy makers with views of the situation on the ground.
There is even an International Romani Film Festival, now in its fourth year, highlighting the realities of Roma life. Other encouraging signs include a Roma Holocaust center, planned to open in southern Hungary by the end of 2014, a joint effort of the local municipality and the Hungarian Roma minority.
Mr. Marshall's invocation of accountability registers strongly with respect to the situation of the Roma, and raises demanding questions for today's European society, where the bias against Romani integration in matters of housing, education and employment has been well-documented, and where hate crimes and negative media depictions all bespeak an ongoing pervasive racism and a continued liability to condemnation.
Yet issues of accountability may well track right alongside issues of culpability: one could readily ask how might certain attitudes in non-Roma society, which undoubtedly played into their destruction — not only during the war, but in many other instances of genocidally-inclined activity throughout history — still be operating unchecked, even today? What will it take to finally effect an ethical and social acceptance of the Romani as another part of the widely variegated global human family? If these kinds of questions do not become real in everyone's mind, then even this represents an ongoing lack of accountability, enabling injustice to continue.
As suggested by a scholar in the film, in order to combat the negative developments which take place at the local level of our societies, and which lead to tragic circumstances of exclusion, persecution and worse, there needs to be an active vigilance on the part of conscientious individuals everywhere — to bear witness, to vocalize their dissent and to denounce these kinds of negative conditions.
In the end, accountability is nothing less than an on-going mandate which implicates all of us in our daily human life.
reportage: Peter Muller
GYPSIES AND THE HOLOCAUST by Sybil Milton (USHMM)
I MET LUCKY PEOPLE: THE STORY OF THE ROMANI GYPSIES by Yaron Matras
GYPSIES UNDER THE SWASTIKA by Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon
WE ARE THE ROMANI PEOPLE by Ian Hancock