One only needs to look at the statistics to see that Roma today face formidable challenges. Eighty percent of Roma citizens risk falling below the poverty line. Half of Roma under 24 are not enrolled in school.
So why do we, Roma activists and scholars, put so much emphasis on commemorations of the Holocaust, when there are much more pressing issues affecting our communities today?
It is true that studies, surveys, and reports are useful. They help us assess the general state of a community—an exceptionally bleak one, in the case of Roma. However, I believe figures like these can distort the reality of Roma lives and experiences. Racism, segregation, and inequality are not intrinsic to Roma populations. They are born of a history, and we must become aware of this history in order to advocate for change.
This is why it’s important, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, to take the memory of the Holocaust as a starting point for our advocacy.
It is estimated that 500,000 European Roma were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. In Poland, where I am from, in the decades after the war, we privately shared our horror stories about the killings and camps with our families, friends, and neighbors. But these memories of the killings were not discussed in the public sphere—in communist Poland, there was no space to talk about the experience of the genocide.
That changed in 1991 after Poland’s democratic transition. Mobilized by the activist Romani Rose, the struggle of Sinti and Roma to make the Roma Holocaust a public matter in Western Germany inspired us to start our own efforts at home. We established the first Polish Roma Association in Oswiecim, where the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum are located.
The move was a clear sign that we had decided to put our history—and hence, our identity—at the heart of our activism. It was a sea change in our approach to improving the lives of Roma.
To us, acknowledging the suffering endured by the generation of Roma—our parents—who lived through the genocide was a quest for justice. Efforts of Holocaust survivors and activists culminated in 1993, when the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum published The Memorial Book: Gypsies of Auschwitz-Birkenau, bearing some 21,000 names of Sinti and Roma deported to the death camp from across Europe—19,000 perished there.
A year later, this book was handed to Pope John Paul II by a delegation of activists. Further efforts led to the Polish parliament recognizing August 2 as Roma Genocide Commemoration Day in 2011, and to the unveiling of the monument to honor the Roma victims of the Nazi persecutions in Berlin in October 2012.
Today, it is rewarding to see a new generation of Roma activists who use history to propel their advocacy. In 2014, 1,000 young Roma from 25 countries in Europe mobilized by the ternYpe International Roma Youth Network visited Krakow and Auschwitz to listen to stories of Holocaust survivors and to meet the generation of postwar activists. The new generation of Roma activists uses Holocaust commemorations as a moral tool to protect their communities from far-right groups that promote Nazi-type ideologies, a rising phenomenon in Europe.
I am conscious that we—activists, intellectuals, and academics—are a minority in the Roma community, but I am hopeful that things will improve for Roma when a critical mass of Roma citizens know their history.
At the Roma Education Fund, we are encouraging students to learn about their history, and to forge their own sense of who they are as Roma in European societies. With the current board, we are working to make educated Roma a resource for their communities. Ideally, we would like scholarship recipients to volunteer in community centers, schools, and associations during and after their studies. It is important that educated Roma contribute to the advancement of the community as a whole.
The year 2016 proved that identity politics is here to stay, sometimes for the worse, contributing to a rise in chauvinism, nationalism, and xenophobia in countries across the world. For Roma, I believe in a positive sense of identity, which helps individuals define who they are in society and show solidarity towards other members of their communities. We are a people without a state to protect, without a territory to conquer and honor. But we have a history, which is a weapon against racism, and a source of pride.