The Forgotten History of Romani Resistance

On the evening of May 16, 1944, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, SS guards armed with machine guns surrounded the area of the camp designated for Roma and Sinti prisoners. Their intent was to round up the nearly 6,000 prisoners there and send them to the gas chambers. But when the guards approached the area, they were met with armed resistance from the inmates.

The prisoners had learned of the planned “liquidation” and fashioned weapons from sheet metal, wood, pipes, rocks, and any other scraps of material they could get their hands on. According to the memories of survivors and witnesses to the incident, the inmates forced the guards into retreat, and though some prisoners were shot that night, the act of resistance allowed the Roma and Sinti prisoners to put off execution for several more months.

How can such an epic episode have been lost to history? Who knows about the Sonderkommandos revolt of August 1944? Who knows about Witold Pilecki, who infiltrated Auschwitz to organize its resistance network? Keeping alive the memories of these events could help prevent such crimes from happening again in the future. 

This is why La Voix des Rroms is raising awareness around May 16, the Romani Resistance Day in Europe. The Romani Resistance Day represents a change in the way Romani culture and identity appear in public space. This change comes from an understanding of this space as a political one, where a history of resistance replaces a history of oppression. We have urged Romani organizations across Europe to embrace this date: there are several events planned this year in Budapest; Lety (Czech Republic); and Paris, where we are organizing Romani Resistance Day (Fête de l’insurrection gitane) in collaboration with other stigmatized minorities like Muslims and blacks.

For too long, Roma people have been misrepresented by stereotypes: the beggar, the prostitute, the compassionate victim, the folkloric artist. Those stereotypes overshadow the nuances of Romani culture and identity, which have to be the result of political struggle. Romani cultural creation aims to challenge mainstream culture, identity, and representation, just as the African American civil rights movement in the United States changed the whole of America’s identity. 

We must do all we can to promote Romani culture and identity. For more than four decades, Europe’s Roma communities have wanted to establish an institution that would give their traditions and creations their own stage. Across Europe, institutions exist to celebrate an array of cultures, nationalities, and identities, but there is nothing of this kind for Roma.

The European Roma Institute, recently proposed by the Open Society Foundations, the Council of Europe, and leading Roma organizations and figures, is a unique way to address this imbalance and give Romani traditions and creations their own stage.

In order to be successful, the European Roma Institute will need to tackle the breadth of Romani culture and identity. A lot has been done in the past to promote Romani culture with the help of an institutional framework, but it failed, in my opinion, because the specificity of Romani culture cannot be expressed using mainstream categories. There are some very specific features of Romani identity and culture that need to be addressed, like Romani humor; among all Roma, there is a common perception of the world, a common distance from society, as is exemplified in Charlie Chaplin movies—whose grandmother was, in fact, a Roma woman from England. 

The main challenge of the European Roma Institute will be to deal with the tensions between unity (we are all “Roma”) and multiplicity (we all belong to the “landscape” or the territories we live in). That double belonging has always structured Romani identity. It needs to be fully addressed.

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I like Pierre Chopinaud’s concluding remark about the tension between unity and territorial belonging. The Jewish experience has shown how that such tension can lead to extreme choices – from assimilation and denial of Jewish heritage, on the one hand, to ideological and territorial self-segregation as promoted by the Zionist enterprise, on the other. Striking a comfortable balance between the two ends is a challenge that Romani intellectuals appear to be taking on with an admirable sense of self-confidence and candidness, and above all peacefully and by and large with little signs of aggression against the surrounding majority.
But I am alarmed by Pierre Chopinaud’s assertion that “Romani culture cannot be expressed using mainstream categories”. This captures precisely the enormous risk that accompanies the plans for a European Roma Institute: It threatens to take the study and promotion of Romani culture and history out of the mainstream, and to segregate them. This will not help people appreciate Romani culture, and it will not help break down barriers. It will, quite to the contrary, create additional barriers and separate the creative potential of Romani intellectuals from that of their non-Romani peers.
The resistance of Romani families in Auschwitz-Birkenau was a struggle against segregation as much as a fight for mere survival. And Charlie Chaplin is loved by all not because he was given a segregated space to work in, but because he did not allow his background to stop him from entering the mainstream. Artistic performance is the one aspect of Romani culture that mainstream society has always appreciated. Even Rudolf Höss, the Commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau, wrote in his memoirs: “The Gypsies were my favourite prisoners”. And the only statement about Gypsies that is directly attributed to Hitler is that “they are romantic in the bars of Budapest”. But romanticing Gypsy culture did not save the Roma from exclusion and persecution.
It follows that promoting artistic performance is hardly the way to fight prejudice and exclusion. And if this is done by creating a segregated framework and arguing the Romani culture defies mainstream categories, then there is a real risk that it will lead to more segregation rather than promote respect and tolerance.

There is no group on the planet more misunderstood, stereotyped, and reviled, as the Roma. It's time to change that!

It is time that the Roma and Sinti story is as well known as the Jewish story of the Holocaust

We have the responsibility to educate people of our societies about past exclusion,discrimination,persecution,history of slavery,holocaust , using correct name of anybody in order to understand this damiged all of us and history to not be repeated.

"The resistance of Romani families in Auschwitz-Birkenau was a struggle against segregation as much as a fight for mere survival." I beg to differ. Romani families were not fighting to end segregation, they were fighting to stay alive. To argue that they had some political anti-segregation narrative is ridiculous. As a daughter from a family of survivors, I can tell you quite honestly, that I agree that the Romani inhabit a unique space and that segregation was never the primary concern in our lives. Of course, you could argue that segregation is ultimately responsible for our position in society, but I think it's much deeper than that and segregation is not the place to focus our energies. Our history, our language, our very being is consistently denied using current political, academic, economic and other frameworks. If these frameworks have for so long been used to deny us our place in humanity, perhaps it's time to change them. We cannot become 'desegregated' when the majority population refuse to see us as human beings.

I also have read historical and sociological articles, often Roma are placed in a bag with the social lower layer, etc. This topic is hot and very topical. Human rights are primary, to begin to raise the Roma successful experience and set an example. Historical facts, demographics, politics, culture, etc. areas should be promoted simultaneously, the system, deep and mutually binding. No wonder the Roma people's ability, which has been weakened since long history, and this attitude continues, with the power endowed, human demonstrations; Roma power of the soul is always tearful, sensitivity, confusion, do not know obedience is humiliating style nowadays residues; It has set targets to identify and address these characteristics: Self-confident and human value of uniformity. Have to be psychology conception..

Yaron, have you looked at the nature of the artistic performance happening these days ? ! The political and intellectual contribution of people such as Sead Kazaxhiu and Mihaela Dragan (and Giuvlipen) are spectacular and more intellectual I would say than anything us historians and academics have come up with in the last 20 years. i was thinking just today about this powerful moment and how the work of these two alone, who are two of many, is really getting out to many people as opposed to academic work getting to a very limited few. My own work included of course! Of course some projects contain, or seek to contain, even as they say they are solving projects, but in fact artistic performance ALWAYS and inevitably exceeds its brief and creates more action in society than can even be measured :) Respect! Shannon

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