The Romani Holocaust -Lecture at Helsinki University – 8 April 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Before I begin my lecture on the Romani Holocaust, I would like to clear up a few points. The first point I’d like to make is that not all European Gypsies are Roma. The major tribes are Roma, Kali, Manush, Ashkali, Egyptians and Sinti. And like the Roma, all have sub castes. In Kosovo where I have lived with Roma for almost 11 years, we have many different types of Roma: Kovachi, Arlia, Vlahy, Rabagia, Gurbeti, Gabeli, etc, etc. Most do not socialize with each other, and few intermarry.
The second point I’d like to mention is that most Gypsies were never nomadic, even when they lived 1,000 years ago in old India. Many traveled in the spring and summer looking for seasonal work or to sell what they had made in their homes over the winter but the majority never considered themselves nomadic. I believe their Diaspora from India was mainly to look for work.
Today I will use the term “Roma” to include all Gypsies in Europe although in many places such as Turkey, Albania, Kosovo and Spain the Roma are actually a minority among the other Gypsy groups.
For almost 20 years I have lived with Roma. Even before I started living with them I spent almost 25 years socializing with them in Spain. Later in the early 1990s I actually moved in with them in the Czech Republic to collect their oral histories, especially from the Romani survivors of WWII.
I have lived with Roma as an anthropologist, historian, novelist, poet, and human rights activist. From the oral histories that I have collected I have been able to trace many of their customs and traditions back to their original tribes or castes in old India where I have also stayed collecting their myths and legends.
But my major effort for the past 15 years has been to film the oral histories of Romani survivors of WWII in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Each interview lasts about one hour. I did not interview them only about their experiences during WWII. Each interview was divided into four parts: their life before WWII, concentrating on their customs, traditions and legends of their ancestors; then their experiences during WWII; then what happened to them after the war, and finally what is happening to them today. To date I have collected more than 400 oral histories.
In 2008 I published 153 of their oral histories in three volumes totaling 1,553 pages called One Blood, One Flame. Each volume has a DVD showing excepts of some of the interviews.
Some people have criticized these oral histories as being too long; that I should have edited them, that I should have summarized them. I do not agree. For me every word these survivors could remember was important. I strongly believed in letting them tell their own stories in their own words without any editing, which I believe is a form of censorship.
I personally don’t think that the Roma experience of WWII has been investigated very thoroughly. If these oral histories that I have collected are anything to go by, then a lot of what the Roma experienced has been misrepresented, not only by non-Romani scholars, but by many Roma themselves who had no experience of the war but think the Romani experience was the same as all others targeted by the fascists during the war, such as Jews, homosexuals, political dissidents, etc, etc. Too many scholars, too many Romani activists, only want to write and talk about how many Roma died during WWII.
I think this is the major misrepresentation of the Romani Holocaust because the number of deaths reported by scholars, holocaust historians, and Romani organizations vary widely. One Austrian scholar swears that no more than 125,000 Roma can be documented as having died in WWII camps, while a former secretary of the Romani Union claims that 3,500,000 Roma died in Nazi camps.
Census records before the war show that the Roma population for all of Europe in 1939 was approx. 3,000,000.
According to EU agencies, the accepted population figure today for European Roma (not including Turkey) is between 10,000,000 and 12,000,000. To have a population that big today would mean at least a base figure of 2,700,000 in 1946.
Using the Hungarian Roma birth/death/and growth rates which has been followed and documented for years as a model, the demographics working backwards would show about the same population figure for European Roma in 1939/1940 as the census records, i.e. that about 3,000,000 Roma lived in Europe when WWII started. So obviously it is preposterous to say that 3,000,000 or 3,500,000 Roma died in WWII.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma died during WWII.
I don’t think we will ever know the exact figure but from the oral histories I have collected most Roma outside of Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Poland survived the war.
From their oral histories, the Roma themselves see WWII as a time of survival, not a time of death or “devouring” as one Romani scholar has termed it. I have interviewed more than 400 WWII Romani survivors. For them the Romani Holocaust was not about how many died, but about how the Roma survived and how they did it. So today I would like to read you in their own words how many Roma survived the so-called Romani Holocaust.
Although I have not collected oral histories from Roma in every country under the Swastika, I think the survivors in the 14 countries where I have worked give a pretty good indication of what happened to most European Roma during WWII.
Before WWII, at least in the Balkans, all cities and towns that had a Jewish communities also had a Roma community. Most Jewish homes had a Romani woman as a house cleaner, a maid, a cook, a nanny. Romani men also worked mainly for Jewish merchants as porters or laborers. If Roma made things such as baskets, coffee grinders, fixed umbrellas or sharpened scissors, many if not most of their clients were Jews.
Let me read you an excerpt from an oral history about how a Romani woman was hired by a Jewish couple in Nish, Serbia, where the German army built their first concentration camp in the Balkans. This story is told by Fatima Zenaulovic who was born in 1928.
“With several cousins I worked at the Nish post office for the German occupiers. We were very quiet girls and whatever the Germans told us to do, we did it. Other girls from our Romani neighborhood worked in the Jewish homes. The Jews were goldsmiths; they had their shops. They were very wealthy people.
“I worked for a Jewish family by the name of Klanti. They had a goldsmith shop before and during the war. I understood a lot of the Jewish language but I didn’t know how to speak it. I think I was eleven or twelve years old then.
“One night, the Germans arrested all the Jews and put them in trucks and drove them away. I witnessed that. I saw the Germans dragging the Jews out of their homes. I cried when I saw that. The Germans took away the men, women and their children. After they drove them away, the Germans robbed their houses and took everything that was worth something. That day I went to work for my Jewish woman. I came to the door and saw what the Germans were doing. They screamed at me in their language to get lost from there.
“How did I start to work for this Jewish family? Once a Jewish man came to the post office where I was cleaning for the Germans and saw how I was cleaning. Then he brought his wife to see me, to see if she approved of me. That is how I started to work for the Klanti family. This Jewish family really respected me a lot. They never showed that I was different from them. When it was lunchtime, I went to eat by myself by the stove, but this Jewish woman told me I should always eat with them at the table. And it was like that all the time I worked for them. They bought their meat in the Roma market. They bought only lamb and beef meat. During the war, my father made coffee grinders by hand and sold them to the Jewish families.
“When the Germans drove the Jews away in those trucks with the canvas tops, you could see who they were taking away. While loading them in the trucks, the Germans shouted at the Jews, “Vek, vek!” I remember that because I saw it.
“When I went back home, I was crying. My father asked why I was crying. I told him the Germans had taken away my Jewish family and other Jews as well.”
There is no question about it, the Nazis intended to target the Roma like the Jews. But in the end most Roma survived. And in their oral histories that is what they dwell on, how they survived. Here is one example of how they did it. This excerpt is from an oral history collected from Fadetin Amedo born 1930 in Bitola, Macedonia.
“The Bulgarians took all the Jews and put them in a camp, and then burned them there in the smelter. They should have taken us too. More than 7,000 Jews got killed in our town. The Jews were starved. They looked like skeletons. Women, children, men; they were hungry, abused, and then killed.
“Before this happened to the Jews, our Romani leader came to our houses and told our women to wear headscarves and to make ourselves look Turkish. He told us as well that if he came with any German or Bulgarian to let one woman with a scarf on her head come out and say, ‘Kimo.’ When our informer came with the Germans and knocked on the gate, the woman would come out and say, ‘Kimo.’ Then the informer would tell the Germans, ‘See, I told you only Turkish people live here.’ The informer knew which families spoke the best Turkish and he took the Germans there. That is how he saved us Roma; otherwise, we would have been finished just like the Jews.
“There was a woman by the name of Esma. She loved to play the tambourine and she was going in the street singing and playing. That informer told her to run home and not to play again because if the Bulgarians came they would see that we lied and that we were not Turkish; that we were Roma. Our informers were very nice with us. They saved us.”
Bitola before WWII was the largest Jewish community in Macedonia, making up 10% of the city’s population. Bitola was also the largest Roma community in Macedonia. After the war there was not one Jew left alive in Bitola. But according to the Roma I interview there, not one Rom lost his life in Bitola during the war. Today there is still a thriving Roma community in Bitola.
Here’s another Bitola story, told by Ramadan Tairovski born in 1930.
“The Germans didn’t abuse people, but the Bulgarians did. The Bulgarians raped our women. The Bulgarians were bad, but they didn’t come in the houses. There were women who went on purpose with the Germans and Bulgarians to protect their families. These women also went with the Germans and Bulgarians for food. Those women were respected.
“One man by the name of Sinan Hodza was here. He told the occupiers not to bother Muslims. He made sure everyone wore a headscarf and spoke only in Turkish. If the women hadn’t worn those headscarves, they would all be dead. The occupiers would have executed everybody. Our old people all knew how to speak Turkish. Hodza gave the order that nobody could kill Muslims. The Germans and Bulgarians rounded up all the Jews, because they didn’t wear the headscarf. The Germans and the Bulgarians took all their money and gold from them. The Germans and Bulgarians burned them. After the Germans took away all the Jews, the Germans burned down the Jewish neighborhood. The Jews had good houses, because they were the wealthiest people. All the Jews were rounded up, even the children. Some Jews managed to give their children to their Romani neighbors. Those children were saved.”
If most Roma survived WWII in Macedonia and Bulgaria, they certainly did not in the Czech lands. The NY Times published an article in 1939 estimating that 35,000 Roma lived in Bohemia and Moravia. Yet after the war, the Czechoslovakian government reported that only about 600 Roma survived the war in Bohemia and Moravia, probably the lowest survival rate of any community in Europe.
In next door Slovakia, where about 80,000 Roma lived, their experience was just the opposite. According to census records, government reports and church records, more than 90% of all Slovak Roma survived WWII.
Research reveals the reasons. The Czechs were building camps for Roma even before the Germans marched in. The Slovaks weren’t. The most infamous of the Czech camps, Lety, was built for a nobleman, Prince Karel Schwarzenberg. He solicited a ‘work’ camp after 10,000 hectares of his forest were destroyed by a winter snowstorm in 1939. He would have gone bankrupt if he had not salvaged the timber. His first camp workers were local Jews that had been rounded up; but they were university professors, doctors, and merchants who didn’t know how to work with their hands. When Prince Schwarzenberg demanded real workers, the Jews were deported to Teresienstadt concentration camp. Roma were then rounded up and taken to Lety.
Although the Czech State Archive records only have documents on about 800 Romani deaths in the Lety camp, the oral histories I collected from the survivors mentioned thousands of Roma never being registered in the camps; as soon as they arrived they were murdered in the Schwarzenberg forests or drowned in the Schwarzenberg pond in front of the camp. Today a pig farm occupies this Romani Holocaust site. Although the Czech government every year promises to remove the pig farm, it has only grown in size since I first denounced it in 1995. Back then there were 5,000 pigs housed in the former camp barracks. Today there are more than 20,000 pigs on site despite the Helsinki Declaration signed by the Czech government that all Holocaust sites are supposed to be maintained in their original condition as national monuments.
The Czech experience vs. the Slovak experience for Roma (99 % extermination in one country vs. 90% survival in another) happened in many areas occupied by the Germans.
But even where there was a 90% extermination rate such as in Croatia, I collected some incredible stories from Roma about how they survived.
In Croatia the Ustashi had a death camp for Serbs, Jews and Roma called Jasenovac. Some scholars claim no Jews or Roma survived Jasenovac, that the horrors there were worse than Auschwitz since most prisoners were hacked to death by guards playing a game to see who could kill with special knives the most prisoners in a certain time period.
However, some Roma did survive Jasenovac. Let me read you excerpts from three of their stories:
Rasim Dedich: “I was born in 1932. During the war I was taken to Jasenovac. In Jasenovac we were all supposed to get executed. But the Ustashi received an order to send about 700 children to Germany. We went to Wiesbaden, and from there we were sent somewhere else. Our camp was in a village and had a wire fence around it. Germans came to that camp to choose which child they would take. They were Germans who couldn’t have children. An old couple took me. If we were good, if we worked hard to learn their language, if we obeyed them and acted like they acted, then they would not bother us.
“I don’t remember the name of my couple, but they were nice to me. They were old and I stayed with them for five or six months. Then the old man died, and after that his wife got sick. I was serving those people and working in their garden.
“There was a lot of bombing during the war between the Russians and Germans. The factories were bombed, and many people got killed. We were hiding in basements; nobody looked for us because everybody was trying to save their own heads. Nobody even thought about us.
“When the war ended in Germany we were so happy because we knew we would be sent home. After the war our parents were looking for us. The people who put us in the camps had all the information about the Germans who adopted us. So in the camps they knew which town we were from. With this information, they put us in train wagons and sent us home.
“When I returned from Germany I found my mother, father, and one sister who had escaped from Jasenovac. But none of our 300 houses was left in the village. Not even one tree was left. The Ustashi had destroyed all the houses and stolen everything from them. In the place where our garden is now, my uncle used to have his house. The Ustashi killed him in Jasenovac.”
Nadir Dedich tells a different story of survival: “I am from Gradishka in Bosnia. I was born in 1930. We are Bosnian Roma from the Kalderash tribe.
“Today many people are abusing the facts and they are telling lies and publishing them in the media. There are very few people who talk about Roma trying to survive during WWII.
“We were five kids. My sister Miza was killed in Jasenovac with her husband Salih and their four children.
“My oldest brother got married in 1940 when the war began. One month later he got an order to join the army. The captain of his unit surrendered the entire company to the Partisans, so my brother ended up serving with the Partisans. He passed to the Partisans in 1942 and was with them until the end of the war.
“In our village there were three mosques. One Rom by the name of Rama was always going to the mosque. He was a very pious man. There was an order that all Roma had to convert to the Muslim religion, and if they didn’t they would be expelled to Serbia.
“In Bosnia every man from the age of one year to fifty years had to be circumcised if you were Muslim. So Rama circumcised me and my brothers; in fact, all Romani men. After that the Muslim clerics came to all our villages where Roma were living and gave us religious instruction. We Roma were forced to learn that religious instruction otherwise we would have been expelled to Serbia.
“I was twelve years old and not fully-grown when I was taken to Jasenovac.
“One of my jobs was to make charcoal for my boss. One evening I returned to my boss for supper. Some Germans came to my boss about 10 p.m. They were Gestapo. I was sleeping in the attic. I heard my boss calling me to get up. I came down and the Gestapo started to pull my ears. They told me that my camp fire was a signal to the Partisan. My boss didn’t dare say a word to protect me. I started to cry; I was frightened. Then the Germans delivered me to the Ustashi. The Ustashi beat me in the prison at Gradishka. My back was blue from their beatings. They beat me with a rubber hose. On 17 September 1942 they transferred me to Jasenovac. When he heard I was in prison, my father went to one very respectable man who was an Ustashi soldier. My father wanted to get me out of that prison.
“When I arrived by truck to Jasenovac, they put me in with the healthy children because there were a lot of ill children. Jasenovac was a living hell. People were screaming all night. About ten people were brought with me from Gradiska to Jasenovac, including four women and some kids. After we arrived in Jasenovac, they separated the women and the children too.
“In Jasenovac there was a locksmith’s workshop. The Ustashi put me to work there. I didn’t see any Germans in the camp, only Ustashi.
“I was treated in Jasenovac as a Muslim. I was lucky they didn’t know I was Rom. If I had had black skin, believe me, I wouldn’t have stayed alive. I was separated from the Roma because I wasn’t black and that’s what saved me. I was white, and strong as iron. My knowledge of praying in the Muslim way saved me too. Because we had been circumcised, that saved me from certain death.
“My sister was taken to Jasenovac and killed there in 1944. I had already joined the Partisans in 1943. So that’s why I didn’t know [until after the war] that my sister was taken to Jasenovac and killed there.
“As I told you, my father’s contacts somehow got the Ustashi to release me from Jasenovac because some Muslim clerics guaranteed that I was Muslim. So that’s why they released me. As soon as I came home, I joined the Partisans.
“In my village of Mokrica there were 611 Romani families. Only twelve survived. Our joining the Partisans saved us. But my sister stayed in the village with her family and they were later taken away to Jasenovac. I have the names of all 216 children from my village that the Ustashi killed.
Koritari Roma, Serbian Roma, and Catholic Roma were all taken to Jasenovac. Roma were also brought from East Bosnia and Middle Bosnia where Roma had their settlements. All were taken to Jasenovac. Wherever Roma lived in Croatia and Bosnia, they were rounded up and taken to Jasenovac.
“Roma who had white skin sometimes found salvation, but Roma who were black couldn’t save themselves. There was no salvation for them. I think about 27,000 Roma died in Jasenovac.”
Probably the most incredible story about Roma surviving Jasenovac was told by Katica Djurdjevich, a Lovari Romni who was born in 1921. This what she said:
“The Germans came here in Pitomacha after the war broke out, but they didn’t mistreat Roma. Here in Pitomacha there was one whole street where Roma lived. It was called Romani Street.
“The Germans didn’t beat us. We were beaten by the Ustashi. They beat the old people and us kids. We ran away from them to the forests. Sometimes we ran to the peasants too. We were hiding a lot. When we hid on the peasants’s land they gave us something to eat because we didn’t have any food in our houses during the war.
“My parents begged for food from the peasants during the war. My parents paid them back with work in their fields. The peasants gave my parents bread, milk, and some poultry. The peasants gave us what they had. And I can tell you that even the peasants didn’t have much food at that time.
“In 1945 all the Roma in my village were rounded up and taken to Jasenovac. All Roma taken first were killed. We were the last they took away. I remember two men came at night to our house and called my father: “Janko! Open the door!”
“They called my father three times. Dad didn’t want to open the door. They told my father that everyone who lived on our street was there and he had to bring everything with us. Dad opened the door. These men beat mom and dad. They even beat us kids. They took us to the railroad station and beat us there too. Then they dumped us all together in a railroad car. They sealed the railroad car. There were no windows or light. They took us directly to Jasenovac. We were 50 or 60 people in that railroad car. We were all sitting on the floor without bread or water. We traveled for eight days to reach Jasenovac. It took a long time because the railroad tracks were demolished.
“When we reached Jasenovac, they took us out of the railroad cars. We saw there people with rolled up sleeves. These were the people who killed. These people were just waiting to cut our throats and kill us. But one of those people with rolled up sleeves said not to touch us because an order had come to return us back home. The man who read the dispatch said we were not nomadic Roma, and that we had to be returned to our homes in Pitomacha, that we were honest and diligent. We were very lucky that day.
“They gave us water when we arrived at the Jasenovac railroad station. They told us we could get off the train and take some water to drink. They also told us we could buy something to eat if we had money with us. So the older Roma went to buy something for us to eat.
“On our way back home the Ustashi gave us a can with some water, and the door of the railroad car remained open. We could breathe.
“When we came home we found our houses empty. There was nothing left inside, only empty walls. Everything was stolen. They took even the door and windows, our stove and bed. We had a bed made out of wood with a straw mattress. They stole that too.
“The Ustashi were digging bunkers and they took all of our stuff to those bunkers.
“We were afraid of the Ustashi after the war too. It was better when the Partisans came. The Partisans didn’t touch us. Then we could go to school and we could work.”
In the Balkans (except for Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia) the treatment of the Roma basically followed this pattern:
The old men who could no longer work were rounded up and put in local prisons or local camps, and held as hostages. If a German solider was killed by the resistance, then 100 hostages were killed in revenge. Young Roma who were healthy and could work were asked to volunteer to go to work in factories in Germany. If they agreed many were allowed home for one month during the summer to visit their families. If they did not agree, they were rounded up and used as slave labor in camps throughout the occupied territories. Most Roma communities were left without men during the war so most nights German or Bulgarian soldiers would wander into the Roma communities to rape Romani girls and women. However, in almost all Romani communities throughout the Balkans there were four or five women who volunteered to go with the German soldiers to save the rest of the girls and women. These four or five women were considered heroes by most Roma after the war.
Although many Roma at the beginning of the war were rounded up like the Jews (esp. in Belgrade and in Croatia), orders from Berlin for their extermination were in the end usually ignored. Most Roma were considered good workers and since labor was in short supply, the Germans and their allies turned to the Roma for manpower.
The first German concentration camp in the Balkans was in Nish (southern Serbia). About 3,000 Jews and about 5,000 Roma lived in Nish before the war. After the war all the Jews were dead, but about 4,500 Roma were still alive. Most of the 500 Roma killed in Nish during the war were old men used as hostages. Almost all the young Romani men taken away as slave labor returned after the war.
Here is an excerpt from an oral history from Nish that was a typical Romani experience throughout the Balkans during the war. It was told by Osman Balich, born in 1933:
“When the Germans took away the Romani men from their houses during the war their wives and children were left home alone to cry. The Germans didn’t kill the women and children, but young men 17 years old were taken away to the camp. It was all done in the presence of that Romani traitor Arif. Arif wasn’t a bad man before the war, but he had to be like that because the Germans forced him. He was under a lot of pressure by the Germans. He had to work for the Germans, otherwise they would have killed him.
“I worked in the German hospital. The hospital was near the open ma
rket, and there were wounded German soldiers there. I cleaned their shoes. I took my shoeshine box with me to the hospital. The Germans soldiers gave me what was left over from their meals. There was a big hunger then. When I finished cleaning their shoes, I would ask them for ‘brot.’ The soldiers and the male nurse gave me bread to take home.
“I went to the hospital with my cousin Nedjo. His mother and my mother were sisters. The Germans killed both his parents. Their names were Refka and Fajko. Fajko was a dogcatcher, and sold meat in the Romani neighborhoods. Some Roma informed on him to the Germans because they thought he was selling dog meet. It wasn’t dog meat. He was going somewhere by the Nishava River where the Germans threw away their garbage, and he collected meat out of the garbage to sell to Roma. The Germans came in our neighborhood and arrested him and his wife. The Germans executed both of them for selling dog meat. But it was meat from sheep. I know, because we bought some from him. I remember that so well as if it happened today. When he was in jail we collected some cigarette butts and threw them to him thru his cell window. We were careful so the German soldiers didn’t see us. Later Fajko was taken to the Nish camp for about a month. After that, the Germans executed him.
“The Germans came often to our Romani neighborhood. They came drunk from the bars and raped our Romani women. They always looked for the most beautiful women. There was one woman, Maza. She got married to one of the Germans in 1941. She didn’t let him chase after other Romani women and rape them. She stopped many Germans from raping Romani women. She rescued many women from being raped. That German who fell in love with Maza was called Gaspar. He didn’t want to kill people. Dada married a German too. She was very beautiful. That German lived with her in a house near the lumberyard. She didn’t know if he killed anybody, but she wanted to be with him as protection from the other German soldiers so she wouldn’t be raped by them.”
As you have heard from these oral histories, many Roma saved themselves by either being Turkish Muslim or pretending to be Muslim. Since Muslim Turkey had declared neutrality during WWII, Germany did not want to upset the Turks and force them to join the Allies. Hence, Germany respected most Muslim during the war, even if they were Roma.
So how did Roma in the Balkans survive who were Christian? This oral history from Belgrade certainly sheds light on that subject. This excerpt is from Cvetko Markovich born in 1936.
“Before the Germans took us to the concentration camp at Sajmiste, the Serb police came everyday to check our neighborhood in Marinkova Bara. In every street, the police checked to see how the women were surviving after their husbands had been taken to the camps. Before the Germans moved us to Sajmiste, we were receiving some food aid to survive. That aid we got from the municipality, from the Serbs.
“In our neighborhood, the Germans didn’t sexually mistreat the women and the beautiful girls. This was done by the Petokolonashi. The Petokolonashi were our people who collaborated with the Germans. The Petokolonashi were very rude people. They sometimes sexually used the women. But Stana and Gina were women who went voluntarily with those people. Those women were more interested in getting something to eat.
“The Germans came with their trucks and took everything from our shop. Everything we had, they put in their trucks. My mother was present when they were doing that but she was afraid to say one word to them. She just watched them. The Germans told us they had to take our iron for the war effort.
“Then the Germans trucks came back to our neighborhood in Marinkova Bara and went house to house rounding up the people. The Germans put them in the trucks. The Germans took us to Sajmiste, to the barracks, and put three or four families in one small place. My mother hid my older brother in the ceiling in our house where we had a storeroom. Later, my aunt from Bukovik came and took my brother with her. Her name was Lepa and she was my father’s sister.
“We were not long in the Sajmiste camp. The mayor of the city declared an amnesty for us. We had to write a letter that all Roma whose last names ended in the Serbian ‘ich’ were Orthodox; that Orthodox Roma had their own houses and jobs. There was one man who was in charge of finding out where the houses were, and how many children each family had, and who had a job. Roma who had their own house were considered as old settled people, not travelers, not nomadic Chergari. I remember the Germans asked my mother where our house was, and they wrote down all the information. Those Roma who didn’t have their own homes were left to die there, while we old settled people were released and went back to our houses.
“In the camp, we stayed about a month or a month and a half. The camp was guarded and surrounded by a wire fence. The Germans were the guards. While we were in the camp, we weren’t allowed to speak. It was summer and in the camp yard my mother cooked the potato peelings the Germans threw away and we kids collected. That camp was about a kilometer long and a kilometer wide.
“And let me tell you, Roma from Marinkova Bara were not the only Roma there, but also Roma from all of Belgrade city and the surrounding places. All were brought to Sajmiste. We received very little food, so we were always very hungry. That is why our mother had to boil the potato peelings for us to eat.
“In the camp was one Serb who brought us blankets to cover ourselves when we went to bed. Depending on how many children you had, you got so many blankets. For example, my mother received two blankets and slept on the straw. Another woman who had five children got two or three blankets. But never more than that.
“The Germans didn’t abuse the people in Sajmiste. They didn’t beat us up or torture us. I don’t know if my father was tortured. My father and the other Roma who were taken to the camp were held as hostages for the Germans. Bora told my father that the men being rounded up were to be held as hostages and either executed or released later.
“The Roma from here were not in the Partisans, but from Arandjelovac. There were Roma in the Partisans. My cousin, my aunt’s son, was a Partisan. The Chetniks executed him. His name was Ziva, and he was very handsome. He played the guitar.
“When we returned home from the camp, we found everything had been stolen from our house. Our lawyer told my mother to leave Marinkova Bara. We had a godfather, a Fifth Columnist by the name of Kokan. He took us and another thirty or forty women and their families out of Belgrade. We paid him good money. He didn’t want to do anything without money. He took us out of the center of Belgrade where the Germans were. We then went to my father’s village. There, we got some certificates, which said we were Orthodox Roma. We went there by horse and wagon. That man Kokan organized everything with his people and they took us to my father’s hometown where we stayed until the war was over.”
Throughout the Balkans there were also some nomadic Roma. This is an excerpt from one of their oral histories. I think it is important to show you how they also survived the war. This excerpt is from the oral history of Fazlija Adzovic born in 1933 in Montenegro.
“The Germans and the Italians tortured Roma in Serbia and Croatia the most. Many Roma died in Jasenovac. For example, if the Germans arrested one Serb, then the Serbs gave the Germans 100 Roma to replace the Serb who was arrested. After this Serb was released, the Germans killed the 100 Roma.
“Many Roma and Jews were killed. The Germans burned them. The Germans were looking to destroy our [Romani] nation so it wouldn’t exist anymore. That was not good. Everybody has a right to live. It was not right that 100 Roma got killed for one Serb who was later released.
“Here in Montenegro the Germans and Italians did not kill Roma. The Chetniks killed three Roma in Zagorica. The Roma were wearing Partisan stars on their coats. The Chetniks found them along the road. They forced those Roma to dig their own graves. When they finished digging, the Chetniks killed them and threw them in those graves. That place still exists today where they got killed. They were Chergari Roma and they had their occupations like us. But the Chetniks didn’t do anything to us.
“We were mainly with the Partisans. Chetniks were people with long beards. Not all of them were rude. Sometimes it happened that even if the Chetniks found some of our Roma on the road, they didn’t kill them. There were some good Chetniks. And when they saw we weren’t involved in politics, that we were just poor people, they left us alone.
“If it were necessary to join the army to defend our country, we would go. Even at this old age, I would go to defend my country. I too love my country. When my mother and I went to see where my brothers were working in Bane, I drove us by horse and wagon. I was a child then.
“Blazo Jovanovich (who later became president) was a big man for us because he gave us everything, even jobs. Milo Djukanovich was the best president for Montenegro after Blaza Jovanovich.
“The occupation was very difficult for us. There were many diseases, especially typhus; from typhus, many people got crazy. Many suffered and most died. We didn’t have soap or any other hygiene products. We had lots of lice. The women in those times didn’t have any detergent to wash their clothes. They did it with ash boiled together with their clothes in one big pot. That ash destroyed the dirt.
“Life was difficult in those times. I didn’t even know what jeans were. Now, I wear jeans but in those times I could not imagine what jeans looked like. It was very difficult to get any kind of clothing. Today, some Roma are still going through the garbage containers looking for clothes, and wearing them.
“My mother boiled her clothes in the pots we made. Since we are Chergari Roma, we always liked to stop somewhere by a river or by a spring in the mountains. Water was necessary for us. In Lukavici, there is a lake that has 366 springs. I knew Montenegro very well. I have been everywhere with our Chergari in Montenegro.
“You asked me about illnesses. The illnesses that existed were not as bad as somewhere else because we were always by water so we could wash our clothes and take a bath more often. But typhus was all over, and that is why our old people were escaping to the water. We also escaped to the mountains to get away from the illnesses that were killing people. But Roma who lived in communities were dying. In our clan people who had illnesses were not dying from them. But we had difficulties with hygiene.
“I remember when our women and Montenegrin women were going through the mountains picking green leaves that looked like lettuce. They divided that among themselves and we ate it. There were no problems among ourselves. It was like a brotherhood.
“I remember going with kids in the village of Gorise. We went in the mountains to collect beech wood. When we arrived in Katune the villagers gave us meat and cheese. If they had not given us food we would have starved to death during the war.
“We would stay in one place for one or two days until it became dangerous. Sometimes, we spent four or five days in one place. Then we would leave to find a safer place.
“The Partisans helped us a lot. My older people also helped the Partisans. I remember the fight in Mojkovac. That was a chest-to-chest fight among Germans and Partisans.
“One Rom by the surname of Selimovich from Ivangrad got his nickname ‘Orlova Bukva’ because he waited for the Germans by a Bukva tree. He killed a lot of them. Orle was his name so they just added the name of the tree. He defended his people from the enemy, and not only Roma but Montenegrins and everybody who lived in the country. He was a big fighter and hero. He died about twenty-five years ago in Mojkovac. He was a fighter for four years.
“He wasn’t the only Romani fighter. My father and brothers were in an association of fighters and they were awarded medals. I was young and I didn’t know anything about guns, but my people helped the Partisans in their fights.
“During the bombing, we were afraid. We hid in the mountains, forest, and mines. Airplanes were flying over and dropping their bombs. We could not stay in an open field. In Babin Zub Mountain by the deep Capetan Lake there are a lot of caves where an entire army could hide. We were hiding there with the Partisans for two or three days until the danger passed.
“We were on the mountains and could see how the Germans and the Italians were shooting at the Partisans. There was a big fight by Krnovo. The Germans and the Italians lost the fight against the Partisans. There were so many dead you could not pass. The Adjovichi family participated in that fight. They were four-year fighters and there is a document about them. Paso Ametovich was a fighter as well.
“I watched the Germans and the Italians. I could see all their ammunition, guns and tanks. I was scared just looking at them. They had Mazda cars, which were six meters long, and they were pulling the tanks with them.
“In our clan we had a man who advised us. My father was the main adviser. He was the man you asked which road and which mountain to take. He knew all the roads. Not only my father, but my uncles were councilors as well.
“My father and my uncles were important people during the war. That is why Blazo Jovanovich gave them land and houses here. Blazo Jovanovich escaped from the Albanians and came across our clan. My father and my uncles hid Blazo in our tents. He was a short guy with a moustache. If I saw him now, I would recognize him right away. He was dark skinned and looked like a Rom. Chetniks, Germans, Italians and others when they saw him with us thought he was a Rom so they didn’t touch him. Whenever we went into the villages, he came with us.
“Blazo was in a concentration camp in Albania and he escaped from there. Blazo went with my people to the village to fix their caldrons. He was doing that too to make some money for food. When some village people asked him something, my father would say he doesn’t know how to talk.
“The Germans arrested Blazo Jovanovich and took him to the concentration camp in Albania. One of our men, Tai Mamut was in the camp too and one woman, Zorka. They made some scissors and gave them to Blazo to cut the wire around the concentration camp to escape. Everybody who was locked up with him escaped from Albania to Montenegro.”
The next oral history excerpt I would like to read to you comes from Ahmet Mehmeti who was born in 1930 in Kosovo. This is what he said:
“I was twelve years old when the Germans came. I remember that war. I remember when airplanes were bombing and I remember when the Partisans came. The Germans came at 5:40 in the morning. We were in Priluzje. The Germans were here for four years. When the Partisans came, we ran away to the forest.
“We ran away to a watermill that was in the forest. It was near the village of Benchuk. Then there was a battle between our Chetnik army and the German army. After that battle finished, we returned to our homes. There was nothing broken or missing in the houses, although the battle had taken place all around our homes.
“We were in the forest for almost one month. Sometimes we had bread to eat and sometimes we suffered hunger. Sometimes the Albanians gave us something to eat. They didn’t mistreat us. Roma from all twelve houses were in the Benchuk forest and nobody from the Albanians touched Roma there.
“There was one Albanian who wanted to receive us in his house, but he didn’t have enough rooms for us. So, because of that, he told us to go to the forest. That Albanian helped us a lot, but I can’t remember his name.
“I have to tell you, the Germans bombarded our village. Three Roma perished during that bombing. The Germans came into our village and forced Roma to do unpaid forced labour. We had in the village one capo; he was an Albanian. He was the president of the village. He told us Roma that the next morning 35 Roma had to do unpaid forced labour. He ordered Roma to go to the fields to hoe there. Roma who worked were eating corn bread and soup beans. They worked all day from early morning till night in the fields for Albanians. The Albanians were given free rein to do what they wanted with Roma.
“There were Roma from all the surrounding villages. The Albs forced women to work too. They forced women to clean the stables in the village. We had to go to work, and everybody was mistreating us Roma. They were doing with us as they wished. They beat us and they tormented us. We had to suffer all of that.
“The Germans didn’t rape our women, but the Germans wanted to kill all Roma. And not only Roma, but Jews too. Thirty-eight railroad cars came from Kosovo Polje and the Germans threw many Roma in those railroad cars together with the Jews. One Albanian whose name was Djafer Deva saved us from the Germans so we wouldn’t be taken away. Djafer Deva told the Germans that we Roma were diligent and good people, and that we were working in their fields and on their properties. So, that’s how he saved us. Otherwise, eighteen railroad cars were for Roma and the rest for Jews. The Germans took the Jews to Belgrade. I suppose they took them to some camps. Those people never came back to their homes.
“I was there when they threw Roma and Jews in the railroad cars. One of the Jews asked me to get him some water. I tried, but one German saw me and shouted at me to stop. He took the water dish from me and broke it. I saw many people in those railroad cars. There was only one small window, only big enough so the people inside wouldn’t choke. As a kid I was always going to the railroad station and because of that I saw those things. I have to tell you, that German who saw me slapped me so hard I fell down.
“Roma and Jews had to wear armbands. We were saved from the Germans by that Djafer Deva. As I told you, he said we were their labourers, and that without us their fields would be empty. There was no one else to work the Albanians’s fields. So that’s how the Germans let us stay. That’s how we were saved. Those railroad cars never came back for us.”
Although many scholars have written that WWII was the worst time ever for Roma in Europe, this is not the consensus of most Romani survivors that I have interviewed.
Almost without exception most Romani Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe claim that since the fall of communism, they have experienced more hardship, more suffering than during WWII.
Many of you may think this is an exaggeration, but after living with Roma for 15 years in Eastern Europe I understand their feelings, esp. those who experienced WWII and see today how their children and grandchildren are suffering.
Most Roma lost their jobs and their apartments after the fall of communism, after all the state factories were either shut down or the workforce reduced to make the plants more profitable so they could be sold to private enterprise.
But it is not only the lack of jobs that is causing great suffering among the Roma today, but how they are treated by society and by governmental and UN agencies that are supposed to be protecting their human rights.
This is a poem I wrote based on the oral history of a survivor of the Lety death camp in the Czech Republic. I think this woman sums up in her own words what is happening to most Romani Holocaust survivors today. It is called:
I THOUGHT I HAD SURVIVED
I survived Hitler’s youth gangs
By escaping to Prague.
After they put me in Lety
In the rain barrel.
After the war
I wanted a better life
So I married a white man.
Only one of my eight children
Inherited my dark Roma skin.
He’s now in hospital
Recuperating from two operations
After the skinheads
Impaled him on a metal pole.
I don’t know if I’m living
In 1939 or 1995.
I thought I had survived
But I guess I’ve only been
Staggering around in circles.
But even worse than attacks by skinheads that are happening in every country in Eastern Europe today, is how Roma are perceived by the governments and international agencies.
A case in point is the Roma refugees from the 1999 Kosovo war that the UN placed in temporary camps on toxic wasteland promising they would only be there for 45 days.
Eleven years later the Romani refugees are still there, suffering the highest lead poisoning blood levels in medical literature. Not only have 87 Roma died in these UN camps, but medical doctors since November 2000 claim that every child conceived in the camps is born with irreversible brain damage.
Since Nov 2000 W.H.O. (the World Health Organization) has been demanding that these Roma (mainly Ashkali) be immediately evacuated from the source of poisoning and medically treated. The UN administrators in Kosovo continue to refuse medical evacuation, as does the Kosovo government which is now in charge of the camps.
If these Roma were Jews, or Americans or Germans or British or whatever, they would have been evacuated and medically treated within 24 hours. In all European countries this lead poisoning of children would be considered a serious crime.
But the bottom line is that the UN acts as if these children are not worth saving because they are Roma.
Despite filmed news programs made by the BBC, Australian TV, Aljezeera TV, Norwegian TV, ARTE TV, and ZDF TV, about these two UN Kosovo death camps the United Nations refuses to save these 400 children.
So when you study the Romani Holocaust, can you really say it is over?
Can you really say that the Roma suffered more then than now?
About 3,000,000 Roma suffered during WWII, but today more than 10,000,000 are not doing much better.
Thomas Hammarberg, the EC commissioner for Human Rights has called the Romani tragedy in Kosovo today the worst violation of human rights in Europe for the past ten years.
The World Health Organization has called the plight of the Kosovo Roma in the UN camps the worst medical tragedy in Europe in the past decade.
Unfortunately, it is not only in Kosovo that Roma today are forced to live on toxic wasteland. In many towns and cities in Eastern Europe, Roma were chased out of their homes in city centers so the locals could obtain valuable property that the Roma had lived on for centuries. The only place most Roma could find to live on, where they would not be chased away again, was in abandoned mines, or on the toxic tailing stands of those mines.
Today in countries like the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, Romani children are sent to special schools for the mentally retarded because their teachers say Romani children are slow learners. The first symptom of heavy metal poisoning is loss of memory.
Toxic waste land. Irreversible brain damage. Lead poisoning that will prevent these children from fathering another generation. Death Camps in Europe.
Has anything changed for the Roma from 1939 to 2010?
Today in many countries it is a crime to deny that the Holocaust ever too place. But it is not a crime to continue the Holocaust for Roma.