Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Signing Off

Hi everyone,

First off, thank you for following my adventures in Europe this summer. It was always lovely to log onto Blogger and see that people from all over the world had viewed my blog. This will be my last post for the summer, and I wanted it to be special. Therefore, it is now time to reveal my "secret project."

While I was in Poland for the Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with three Roma activists to discuss the current situation of the Sinti and Roma in Europe. I recorded these conversations and have spent the last three weeks compiling them into a short video, which you can now access on Youtube. Hopefully, you will find that this final project nicely sums up a lot of the topics I addressed on this blog throughout the summer. I truly hope that you will take what you have learned  from my blog and your own research on Sinti and Roma to deconstruct many of the poisonous stereotypes and prejudices that affect the daily lives of Europe's largest (and arguably most marginalized) ethnic minority.

Although many of you are not Europeans, I believe that the themes--if not the topics--I addressed this summer are universal and therefore deserving of critical reflection.

Once again, thank you for the support you have given me on my journey. Take care!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Photos from Auschwitz

At the commemoration ceremony on August the 2nd, everyone was given a rose to place inside the gypsy camp. I laid mine in the middle of a barrack at the back of the camp.

This is the entrance to the Zigeunerlager (gypsy camp). The Nazis destroyed the barracks when they abandoned the camp in early 1945; however, you can still see the foundations of the barracks as well as a few chimneys. 

The procession into the Zigeunerlager - Some people are holding the Romani flag which was adopted as the official flag of the Roma at the First World Romani Congress in 1971.

Not only did the commemoration attract Roma from all over Europe, but also foreign dignitaries, the media, and civil rights activists. The man at the podium read a letter from Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel. Also, at the ceremony some participants wore t-shirts with the phrase "Dik I Na Bistar" on the back. "Dik I Na Bistar" is Romani for "Look and don't forget."

Six survivors of the Roma Genocide joined the conference on the last day. Each had his or her own unique (and in many cases, harrowing) experience. Though, the woman sitting on the far left has the most unusual story in my opinion:

Else Baker (nee Schmidt) is only part-Roma. As a girl, she was adopted by an "Aryan" family in Hamburg. The Nazis attempted to deport her to Auschwitz twice between 1943 and '44. The first time, Else's adopted father intervened and prevented the deportation. The second time, the Nazis took her while she was at school. By the time her adoptive parents had realized what had happened, it was too late; Elsa was already in a train heading toward Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was eight years old. Because Else didn't have any guardian in the camp, she came under the care of an older Roma woman.

While Else suffered in the Auschwitz, her adoptive father was frantically trying to get her back. He began writing to top Nazi officials to persuade them to release her from the camp. He even wrote to Hitler (which was unthinkable at the time). But his tenacity paid off, and eventually Else received an authorization to return to Germany. 

One week after her return, Else was forced to re-enroll in school. She had to cover the tattoo she received in Auschwitz-Birkenau with a bandage for fear that fellow student might tease her.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Some Photos from Poland (More Coming Soon!)

 Dik I Na Bistar - Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative is put on every year by a number of Roma organizations around Europe. The Initiative was formed for two primary reasons. The first was to bring together Roma and non-Roma to discuss the current situation of Sinti and Roma in Europe as well as issues of "anti-gypsism." Secondly, the Initiative brings together young people to reflect on the Roma Genocide during World War II. For this reason, the conference is held every year to coincide with the anniversary of the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager in Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 2-3, 1944. I took this picture at the opening ceremony of the conference in Blonia Park (Krakow, Poland). There were over a 1,000 participants this year coming from virtually every European country as well as the United States. Canada, and Israel.
 After the official opening ceremony ended, several people took to the stage to sing, dance, and play instruments. The Roma have a rich, centuries-old musical tradition in Europe, and many people exhibited this during the conference. There wasn't a single night where I didn't hear a guitar or an accordion outside my window. 

For two days the conference hosted a series of workshops for the participants. Although I spent most of my time helping out at the Documentation Center's workshop on the German Roma Civil Rights Movement, I did get a chance to attend a flamenco dance workshop one morning. Flamenco proved to be extremely difficult, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The woman in black pictured in this photo was our instructor. At the end of the workshop, she gave us an impromptu performance, which was exceptional. She was originally accompanied only by a guitarist, but some participants who knew the lyrics to a number of flamenco songs eventually provided vocals.

I believe these posters were made by the No Hate Speech Movement, a pan-European organization of young people who advocate for tolerance and respect.

On the first day of the conference, I met a man who told me that visiting Auschwitz changes the way you see the world. He couldn't have been more correct. Travelling to Auschwitz on August 2nd to commemorate the liquidation of the gypsy camp was an indescribable experience that I will never forget. The bouquet in this photo was placed in the gypsy camp during the remembrance ceremony. It is reminder of the men, women, and children who died in concentration camps and unmarked killing fields during the Holocaust. 

If I didn't know better, I would have thought this article came from "the Onion."

Nearly seventy years after the end of the Second World War, Europe is still dealing with deeply-entrenched anti-Semitism.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


A week ago today, I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau for the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp).

On August 2nd and 3rd, 1944, 1,200 Sinti and Roma, mostly women, children, the sick, and the elderly, were gassed and cremated in Crematorium V. Historians still do not know why the Nazis decided to remove the Sinti and Roma from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some have argued that the Germans needed more space for the masses of Hungarian Jews arriving in the camp daily. Others attribute the decision to whim.

Although we may never know what moved the Nazis to kill the Sinti and Roma inmates at Auschwitz, we do know why the "gypsies" were there. They were criminals according to Nazi racial ideology. To be born a "gypsy" was to be born a thief, a swindler, a crook. Criminality was in their blood, a inescapable genetic fatalism.

I intended to write a long post about Auschwitz. I experienced so much last Saturday that it's hard not to, but I can't seem to find the words to describe my time in the camp. It is a place that must be felt.

I do, however, have one story.

The commemoration lasted for two hours last Saturday. It was hot that day, and few clouds gave little relief from the blazing sun. Because space was limited in the shaded areas of the compound, we, the younger delegates at the ceremony, had to sit in an open field, where the sun beat down on us mercilessly. After the official ceremony had ended, the majority of us were herded to the site of Crematorium V where a short vigil was held for the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A small cluster of trees hides Crematorium V from the rest of the camp. The trees are tall and their branches wide forming a canopy. Beneath this leafed roof, we, those reddened by the sun, finally had a respite from its rays. Some students even slouched against the trees in the forest. The day had taken an emotional and physical toll, and the shade of the trees had offered needed relief.

I later learned that the victims of Crematorium V would wait in the same clump of trees prior to being slaughtered. In that moment, it crossed my mind that on a hot summer's day in 1944, Jewish men, women, and children, wary from their travels in cramped cattle cars, must have enjoyed the shade, too.

One hopes that Auschwitz would feel uncanny--that the barracks and the crematoria would be unsettling and strange. It's easier to digest evil when it's doesn't feel so... human. A forest isn't unusual. Neither is a barbed wire fence. Even the gas chambers are just piles of brick now. There is very little in Auschwitz-Birkenau today that I haven't seen before.

And it is this, the presence of the everyday in a place as horrible as Auschwitz, which is so haunting.

I found this photo on another blog today. These are the woods around Crematorium V. In the picture you can also see another photo of Jewish arrivals standing in the same woods in May 1944.They all perished in the gas chambers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Really, Who Are the Roma?

There isn't a single word (or group of words, for that matter) which can accurately capture what it means to be Roma. Like any large group of people, the Roma are diverse, teeming with academics and athletes, musicians and artists, Holocaust survivors, civil rights activists, and even a reality TV star (yes, Snooki from the Jersey Shore is genetically part-Romani--although I doubt she identifies as such).

As a co-worker of mine once explained, the only common characteristics that unite all Roma are their common language and their Verfolgungsschicksal.

Historically, all Roma spoke a common language, Romanes, which had origins in early Sanskrit. This language eventually included elements of other languages as the Roma migrated from northern India to Europe over the past thousand years. Once in Europe, the language underwent another series of changes in which the local vernacular was incorporated into Romanes. This final metamorphosis produced a bounty of different Romani dialects. (Even today, many Roma from different parts of Europe cannot understand each other because their native tongue has been so intertwined with other European languages.)

Given the multiplicity of Romani dialects, it is the Verfolgungsschicksal of the Roma which truly unites them. Verfolgungschicksal has no direct translation in English. Roughly, it describes the "fate of persecution" of a individual or group. The term is quite popular amongst German-speaking Holocaust scholars, and I have come across it a lot while interning at the Center. As most of you know by now, the Roma--whether in France, the occupied Soviet Union, Croatia, or elsewhere in Europe--were persecuted by the Nazis and their allies in the Second World War. It is for this reason that Sinti and Roma have gathered in Auschwitz-Birkenau every August 2nd to commemorate the liquidation of the "Gypsy camp" for the past twenty years. It is also the continuation of anti-gypsyism in most European countries that still unites the varied Roma groups spread across Europe and the world.

The discrimination and persecution of Roma in Europe will become clearer as I share more about my experience in Poland this past week, but for now I want to leave you with a short story which, I think, best describes "the Roma" today:

On the first day of the conference, we had to form small groups and give introductions. My group of about eight people consisted of Roma and non-Roma from Spain, Bulgaria, Austria, and Romania. Some participants could speak Romanes, other could not. Some were studying at university, while others were still in high school. (None were beggars or charlatans as the stereotype might lead you to believe!)

After our introductions, I struck up a conversation with the group of students from Bulgaria. We exchanged questions about each others' countries and had a great time getting to know one another. At one point, I asked one of the girls, Antoniya, what she studied. She answered, "medicine", to which I replied, "Oh, so you want to be a doctor." She paused for just a moment and responded--despite a shallow language barrier--"No, I will be a doctor." (Mea culpa.)

Although Antoniya may not have realized it, there was a lot of power behind her response. She emanated a determination that I had never felt before from a university student. I later discussed Antoniya's plans for the future with her some more, and it became clear just how intent she was to not only be a doctor but also a role model for young Roma living in Bulgaria. (I have no doubts that she will be both.)

I suppose Antoniya's aspirations aren't what the Nazis would have expected from a "gypsy."

I'm back! (And I have a surprise...)

Hi, everyone! Sorry I have been gone for so long. I had unreliable WiFi connection in Poland, so I wasn't able to update you on my goings-on in Krakow.

I got back to Heidelberg on Monday but was invited by Silas, a new friend and executive board member of the German Sinti and Roma organization Amaro Drom, to travel to Luxembourg yesterday. So after exploring the tiny, yet endearing, country of Luxembourg and spending a night in the Saarland, I am finally back in Heidelberg and eager to share my experiences with you all.

Every experience I had in Poland was interrelated; therefore, rather than sharing individual stories or documenting my trip chronologically, I will share them thematically. I will post my first experience, entitled "Really, Who Are the Roma?", tonight, so please stay tuned.

On a related note, I also have a surprise. My final post on this blog will be a special project I have been working on over the past few weeks. I've kept this project a secret for awhile now because I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to complete it, but fortunately, luck has been on my side. You will not want to miss this...

Procession in the so-called "Gypsy camp" (Zigeunerlager) in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the seventieth anniversary commemoration of the liquidation of the camp on August 2nd. The man is holding the flag of the Romani people.