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Remembrance about the extermination of Roma Commemoration status in Poland

The commemoration of the crimes committed on Roma and Sinti (in the following part shortly referred to as Roma) is for the Roma society an extremely important issue. It is essential not only because of its human aspect, not only because of the inner need to cultivate the memory about the murder that took place but also because of the nation-building character of this public history of the Roma. The memory about the Nazi crimes is an important element integrating a society scattered over many different countries, diverse in terms of culture and dialectics and therefore constitutes a critical factor influencing formation of the common national identity of the Roma. In this context it is essential to pose a question – what is the current state of the commemoration of the crimes committed against Roma?

author Roman Kwiatkowski 

I will focus mainly on the territory of Poland. Unarguably an important place is the area of the former concentration camp KL Auschwitz – Birkenau. It was the first, and in terms of infrastructure the best preserved center of mass extermination of Jews and Roma, today commonly acknowledged as the monument to the world human heritage. 23 000 people of Roma origin, of which 21 000 were murdered, has gone through the Zigeunerlager – Gypsy family camp situated in the area of Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The history of this camp is quite well documented. The registers of the incarcerated Roma were also saved.

Due to the lack of relevant statistics the estimation concerning the losses of the Roma society in result of Nazi repression shows some significant discrepancies.

Currently the number of about 500 000 murdered Roma people is commonly accepted. This number indicates the scale of genocide committed not only in KL Auschwitz – Birkenau, but also in other camps and mass extermination centers. It became a settled practice in the territory of Poland that the Roma people were moved to the Jewish ghettos, and then transported together with the Jews to the concentration camps or mass extermination centers. Mass executions at the place of arrest were a routine.

The common fate of both the nations is clear also in this aspect. In the east territory of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic countries mass execution of Jews, murdered at times together with Roma, were carried out often and would have become a rule on the eastern front. After the end of the war when the knowledge about the German Nazi crimes was disseminated, the humanity was confronted with the need of giving the name to the unparalleled scale of murder committed by unconceivable means. The term genocide was universally acknowledged. Racially persecuted nations were looking for their own expressions – Jewish people chose the name Holocaust, and later Shoah, and Roma – the rarely used term Porajmos (devouring or destruction). Nowadays the name Roma Holocaust is often used, as it puts en emphasis on the common fate of both nations and apparently does not arouse controversy among the Jewish society.

In the time after the war the knowledge about the scale of the racial murders as well as the method used had not reached the public opinion without some difficulties. The crimes against Jews were strongly emphasized in the trials of Nazi officials, and thus contributed in an essential way to spreading the information. An important task was the documentation of the crimes performed by the Jewish intellectuals.

For the Roma, it was a time of reconstruction of the destroyed family and clan structures and the return to previous lifestyle. In Eastern Europe the process of regaining and preservation of the nation’s own identity constituted an essential problem in the newly introduced social-economic system, within the framework of the assimilative actions undertaken by the respective governments.

The remembrance about the genocide was passed on within the Roma society and became an important element of its identity. The crimes committed on Sinti and Roma relatively late became the subject of scientific investigations and reached the public knowledge. The driving force behind it were two related phenomena – one of them was the gradual creation of Roma intellectual elites while the other was the establishment of Roma organizations able to gain trust and support from the majority societies.

Within this scope I shall concentrate on the activities held by the Roma and Sinti communities in cooperation with the Auchwitz-Birkenau State Museum. These activities were a joint undertaking of a couple of cooperating organizations: The Roma Association in Poland located in Oświęcim and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma located in Heidelberg.

In 1991 the Museum together with the Roma Association in Poland prepared an international conference dedicated to Sinti and Roma in KL Auschwitz – Birkenau during the years of 1943 – 1944 concentrating on their stories in the German Europe governed by III Reich. 1993 the Association of Roma in Poland together with the Museum, organized the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the deportation of Roma to KL Auschwitz – Birkenau. In the following year the ceremonies were organized on the 50th anniversary of the liquidation of  the Roma camp. Following the conference and commemoration ceremonies, temporary exhibition dedicated to the Nazi crimes as well as to the centuries of repressions against Roma was organized. The general book of the Roma camp with the registers of incarcerated people was published.

First time, on the 2nd of August 1994, in the former Zigeunerlager in the KL Auschwitz – Birkenau a yearly commemoration ceremonies were initiated by the Association of the Roma in Poland in cooperation with the Central Council of the German Sinti and Roma. This commemoration had an international character and attracted a lot of media attention. This incentive has contributed to announcing the 2nd of August as the international Roma Genocide Remembrance Day which has been lately acknowledged also by the Polish parliament. The monument that was founded beforehand in the former Zigeunerlager thanks to an initiative of the German Sinti and has initially had a semi-private character, nowadays serves a central point of the commemoration ceremonies and an acknowledged symbol of the crimes committed against the Roma. The aim of these celebrations is to pay homage to the victims of the repressions, but at the same time they constitute a vital element bonding the international Roma society as a whole.  It is also a great opportunity to promote the knowledge about the Roma Holocaust.

Such activities, as well as the promotion of research in this matter, along with the documentary activities are of great importance for the Roma Association in Poland. It is one of the most important task of the Roma Historical Institute embedded in the Association structure since the 90s. From the very beginning the Institute was focused on the documentation activities, resulting in a significant number of records of testimonies of the Roma victims of Nazi repressions. In the course of time education activities were also developed aiming mainly to attract young peoples’ attention. The project “Meeting the witnesses” carried out throughout several years in cooperation with the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future.

This kind of activities have been continued until now. The issues of the Roma Holocaust was permanently present also in the journal „Dialog – Pheniben” edited by the Association. An unquestionable editorial achievement of the Association together with the Roma Historical Institute was publishing in 2007 testimonies and diaries related to the persecution and extermination of Roma people during the II World War. These issues were also recognized by the International Center for Education about Auschwitz at the Auschwitz Museum – which is also a very positive sign.

Another important result of the efforts aimed at the commemoration of the Roma and Sinti genocide was opening of an exhibition dedicated to the extermination of the European Roma in the block 13th of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 2001. It was created as a continuation and extension of the exhibition started in 1997 in Heidelberg, in the Center for Documentation and Culture, at the Central Council of the German Sinti and Roma. The exhibition was accompanied in 1999 by the publication of a comprehensive exhibition catalogue. The Auschwitz exhibition was carried out in collaboration with the Center for Documentation of Sinti and Roma and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the Roma Association in Poland. It was also accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition catalogue, available in a few language versions.

In reference to the question posed at the beginning, a significant progress in both, the investigation on the Roma Holocaust, and in the promotion of the gained knowledge obtained, is noticeable. This knowledge is gradually reaching the consciousness of majority societies. The Auschwitz – Birkenau State Museum plays, and should continue to do so in the future, an important role in the commemoration of the crimes against Roma and Sinti. What is to be remembered, is that the need for commemoration of these crimes does not solely concern the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

In Poland there are many of such places of remembrance. Just to point a few – the area of the former Zigeunerlager in the Łódź ghetto, with a commemorative plate placed on a building wall by the local authorities; the cemetery in Szczurowo in Voivodship Małopolskie; the place of burial of the Roma killed in mass execution; the monument in Nowodór, in the municipality Ułęż in the Lubelskie Voidvodship commemorating mass executions carried out at the local airport. If this huge number of mass executions of Roma in the territory of Poland is taken into account – bearing in mind that according to the estimations, more Polish Roma were killed in this way than in the camps and mass extermination centers – the number of commemoration sites is hardly satisfying.

All the more so, many of these crimes were subject to investigations led by local agencies of the Commission for the Prosecution of Hitler’s Crimes in Poland, and their record files are still kept in the Institute of National Remembrance. Some of these places have been preserved in the institutional records of the sites of commemoration, however this issue requires undertaking archive investigations as well as relevant remembrance activities. Some criticism can be formulated also at the way of the commemoration of the Roma murdered in the mass extermination centers (i.e. in Bełżec).

A separate problem that needs addressing is the broader perspective of the Roma Holocaust in the school education, including school books. It is to be hoped, that the growing activity of the Roma organizations along with the fair wind given to their actions by the government agencies on various levels, those responsible for the policy towards ethnic and national minorities in this number, the overall situation will be improving.

Translation: Katarzyna Dawid