By Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International’s Regional Campaign Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia
“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”George Santayana
Yesterday, in Hungary a Budapest Court found three men guilty of carrying out a series of cold-blooded attacks on Romani houses in eight separate villages between July 2008 and August 2009, using firearms and Molotov cocktails. They killed six people, including a 4-year-old child, and injured five more. They got life sentences. Another member of the group, their driver, was jailed for 13 years.
Last Saturday, far-right supporters in Vítkov, eastern Czech Republic, held a 200-strong anti-Roma demonstration. In the same town in 2009, far-right extremists almost killed a two-year-old Romani girl, Natálka, after setting fire to her family’s home.
Such stories of racist violence and hatred have taken on a new complexion since I returned from Krakow and Auschwitz (Oswiecim) in Poland last week, where I attended events commemorating the World War II Roma Genocide.
I had read about the Holocaust, watched movies and seen photographs, but going through the grounds of Auschwitz where more than 1,100,000 people, the majority Jews, but also Roma, prisoners of war, and other groups were exterminated on an industrial scale, was truly harrowing.
An estimated 500,000 Roma and Sinti were killed in the Holocaust. About 23,000 of them were placed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy camp”), where the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele performed “medical” experiments on prisoners. Some 20,000 Roma and Sinti died or were murdered in the gas chambers there; 2,897 of them in crematorium no 5 on the evening of 2 August 1944, when the camp was liquidated.
On 2 August 2013, as part of the Remembrance Initiative organized by ternYpe International Roma Youth Network, we held a procession at Auschwitz-Birkenau and a moving commemoration ceremony. Starting at crematorium no 5, Sinto survivor Zoni Weisz, who escaped being deported with his family to Auschwitz in 1944 and was 7 years old at the end of the war, guided us to a pond where the ashes of more than 100,000 people were spread: “Today, we are standing on the very ground, where so many of our loved ones were murdered. This pond is probably where my mother, sisters and brother are buried,” he told the more than 400 participants. “I always come here. Listen how quiet and peaceful this place is. I still cannot comprehend that there is such quiet in the place where all these horrible things happened.”
The Roma Genocide, also known in Romani as Porrajmos (‘devouring’), was virtually forgotten after 1945. Knowledge and official recognition of the extermination of Roma and Sinti during the war is still very limited, especially among young Europeans, including Roma themselves. To address this, ternYpe brings together young Roma and non-Roma for the Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative. The network also campaigns to make 2 August an official remembrance day of the Roma and Sinti Genocide.
This year, the 5-day programme explored the importance of remembrance through workshops and discussions. As Polish Roma survivor Karol Parno Gierlinski put it in a workshop I attended: “We need to commemorate in order to remember the victims, but also to remember the perpetrators; we need to remember so that this does not happen again.”
Roma were persecuted and discriminated against long before the Second World War, and European governments pursued brutal practices against them well beyond it, including segregated housing and education and systemic sterilizations of Romani women. For example, the Czech Ombudsman estimates that since the 1980s, as many as 90,000 women may have been forcibly sterilized throughout the territory of the former Czechoslovakia. There hasn’t been sufficient recognition of these past injustices.
In Europe today, Roma are still subjected to racially motivated crime and discrimination in most areas of life. Hate speech against Roma and their ongoing stigmatization are disturbingly widespread and not only among supporters of far-right ideology.
For example, last July, Gilles Bourdouleix, MP and Mayor of Cholet in France, reportedly stated in relation to Roma that “maybe Hitler did not kill enough.” The statement was immediately condemned by the Ministry of Interior and his own party. In January, Zsolt Bayer, a journalist and co-founder of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, published an article calling Roma “animals”, “not fit to live among human beings”. There has only been limited denunciation from his party to this. In Rome, Italy, a recently adopted policy restricts Roma to housing in segregated camps, while last month in the eastern-Slovak city of Košice, local authorities constructed yet another wall to separate the inhabitants of Západ estate from Roma living in the Lunik IX estate. This is reportedly the 14th wall built to segregate Roma communities in Slovakia. We have recently documented in Romania the forced eviction and resettlement of hundreds of Romani families to segregated and polluted sites on the margins of cities. In Serbia, last April, following the forced eviction of Romani families from a site in the Čukarica municipality in Belgrade, the city’s website reported on the event with the headline, “Cleaning the communal mess in Čukarica”.
Thousands of Romani children in countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece are still segregated in schools and classes offering inferior education. During Amnesty’s research missions in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, several teachers and education authority representatives expressed the view that Romani children often end up in special schools because they are genetically inferior.
Prejudice against Roma is more widespread and more widely tolerated in Europe than for any other ethnic minority in the region. In case we forget: this is the very same prejudice that led to the tragic events of the Holocaust.
Find out more about ternYpe’s Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative at www.2august.eu.
For more information about Amnesty International’s work on discrimination against Roma, please visit www.amnesty.org/Roma.