Holocaust commemoration in Romania: Roma and the contested politics of memory and memorialization
Michelle Kelso and Daina S. Eglitis
Abstract: In 2009, the Romanian government unveiled a $7.4 million Holocaust memorial to commemorate over 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma who died as victims of the Ion Antonescu regime. Located in central Bucharest, the monument is part of a national agenda, outlined by an international commission, to study the crimes of the Holocaust in Romania and to help the country come to terms with historical atrocities. Under communism and in the early post-communist period, the Romanian state denied its role in the Holocaust. In this article, we explore the representation of the Holocaust and, in particular, Roma victims in the dominant historical narrative and the Holocaust memorial. We delve into discourses around this monument, which feed into a larger dialogue of victim recognition and contested national narratives about the Holocaust. We highlight the construction and contestation of the Holocaust memorial, considering in particular the paradox of Roma victims and suggesting that Roma are simultaneously represented, unrepresented and misrepresented in the historical story and memorial of the Holocaust in Romania.
The Roma camps in France are not great places to live, but being summarily deported from them is even worse. Dozens of media sources around the world reported on the deportation. I am proud that my colleague, Michelle Kelso, assistant professor of sociology and international affairs at the George Washington University, was quoted in the reports as pointing out that: “Almost every family here is the family of a Holocaust survivor…Their grandparents were deported to camps in World War II.” Kelso translated interviews at Roma camps around Paris for The Associated Press.” See article.
Recently, I was helping Faton, a Roma friend of mine, fill out his college application. He had arrived at the question of ‘Father’s Occupation,’ when he looked up and asked me, “Can I write social assistance for father’s occupation.” All I could do was to shake my head and reply, “How about unemployed?”
In the community in which Faton grew up, unemployment has been at about 98 percent since the War in 1999. As Serbian speaking Roma, few in his town have found employment in the new country of Kosovo. Unemployment was high even before the War. Additionally, the town suffers from a problem of 95 percent adult illiteracy. If he is accepted to the university, Faton will be the first in his family to attend any form of higher education.
The question of literacy and poor academics in the community is one which has troubled me since my arrival in Kosovo. I currently manage a series of education support centers for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian youth across Kosovo.
Faton’s hometown of Plemetina hosts one of the longest running centers. However, the importance of education continues to be a problem within the community. Despite their inability to provide academic support for their children, parents are still reluctant to send their children to our educational center. Some parents cite the lack of proper footwear and warm cloths in winter months for their children. Others invoke historic family feuds. Last year, when a lack of funding caused us to cut the “hot meal” program, our numbers dropped significantly.
The most frustrating reason parents cite for not sending their kids is a simple: “What is the point? They will not get a job anyhow.”
Throughout the past year, I have seen so many kids grow and develop because of attending our centers. I have watched children, who had been forcibly returned from Germany, learn the Serbian language and move on to attend school successfully.
I have seen the magic of children learning to count, to read and to do the simple task of spelling their names.
But the cards are stacked against these children. As Roma, many students report discrimination in the schools both in terms of classroom learning, segregated classrooms and school grades. Kosovar Roma children overwhelmingly attend schools taught in the Serbian language while at least 80 percent of the new country of Kosovo speaks Albanian.
Thus, not only are Roma discriminated against in terms of their skin color and culture, but also the language that comes out of their mouths. Few speak Albanian and even fewer speak enough to hold a job in the language. Despite having both a Serbian and Kosovar school in Plemetina, overwhelmingly the Roma there attend the Serbian school.
How does a student like Faton grow up and make the decision to go to college? How does he become part of the 2 percent of the town population able to hold a job and then to give that up to attend university? Remember, even attending high school is a rarity.
Joanna Laursen Brucker has been working in Kosovo for the last year and a half as Educational Coordinator managing a series of 4 educational centers for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian youth. Previously, Joanna worked as a public high school teacher in the Czech Republic. Joanna holds an Ed.M. from Harvard Graduate School of Education in International Educational Policy and a B.A. from the George Washington University in Anthropology.
The European Union must be held accountable if European states continue to expel Roma from member countries. The expulsions are taking place because Roma have created settlements not only in designated campgrounds but also within urban boundaries. This is not new. However, the scale and density of such settlements disturbs the sensibilities of Europeans. This is not only a West European phenomenon. Events of intolerable discrimination are also taking place in East Central Europe and the Balkans from which many of these Roma originate. The history of anti-Roma sentiments in both East and West Europe is torturous and long-standing.
A rather unusual situation emerged in Romania where Roma have lived for hundreds of years, where to this day they appear in abundant variation, from people who have resumed migratory lives to people who have been settled at the margins of villages, towns, and cities for as long as anyone can remember. In Romania, Roma were enslaved and indentured for centuries. They played important roles as musicians, miners, and in producing objects necessary for an agrarian society, crafting metals and wood objects. Today, those that we call Roma, were involved in all sorts of labor, agricultural workers and house servants.
Some may no longer speak their Sanskrit based language, or if they do they speak it with lexical-items borrowed from Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Russian, and so on. In Romania, many no longer speak Romani. In Romania, Roma may identify themselves with this “national” identity, or they may identify as “tsigani,” how others have named them. This is a term of derision. Some Roma have integrated themselves into the mainstream of Romanian society and melted into the Romanian ethnic identity. Some Roma sustain their identity and have experienced upward mobility in many different fields.
Roma were persecuted in the Nazi era, large numbers of whom lost their lives; their population decimated in great proportions to their total numbers, referred to as Prajmos. Oddly enough, when mentioned at all as a persecuted population in Germany’s ethnic cleansing effort they are lumped in with Jews, rather than being mentioned outright as a population. No museums exist for them and if there are memorials for them, I do not know of them. They have no homeland with which they can identify. There is no Israel that was created for them as it was for Jews. Their identities are claimed as citizens of their countries of origin.