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Porrajmos: Remembering Dark Times

Drawing of a hand with an image of a girl on it.
Roma-Porrajmos (Genocide) Series 9 (Settela Steinbach / Fatima). © Katarzyna Pollok

At the commemoration ceremony for the Romani victims of the Holocaust in Budapest yesterday, Rita Izsák, United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, herself of Hungarian Roma origin, reminded those in attendance that it was three years ago to the day since Maria Balogh was murdered in her bed, and her 13-year-old daughter seriously wounded, in a gun attack by neo-Nazis in the village of Kisléta. Izsák called on states to do more to challenge “a rising tide of hostility and discrimination against Roma in Europe that shames societies.”

This theme was echoed in commemorations right across Europe paying tribute to victims such as Maria Settele Steinbach. The haunting image of nine-year-old Settele, as she peered out of the cattle car of a train bound for Aushwitz-Birkenau, moments before the doors were locked and bolted, was captured on film in May 1944. This became one of the most reproduced, tragic iconic images of the Holocaust. For decades, Settele was described in the literature as the unnamed Jewish girl in a headscarf.  

In a manner that was emblematic of a wider amnesia concerning the Roma victims of the Holocaust, Settele’s identity was only established some 50 years later. Settele was one of a group of 245 Dutch Sinti crammed aboard that train. She was killed, along with her mother, aunt and four siblings sometime between July 31 and August 2, 1944, when the Germans began the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager ("Gypsy camp") at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost 3,000 Roma men, women, and children were put to death in this operation.

For too long the fate of the Roma, who perished at the hands of the Nazis, their allies and collaborators, had been neglected. In too many accounts, the Baro Porrajmos (Great Devouring) of Europe's Romani people, which claimed the lives of more than 500,000 victims, was relegated to the footnotes, if indeed mentioned at all. This year’s commemorations in Budapest were attended by ambassadors and diplomats, members of government and opposition parties, religious leaders and hundreds of Roma and non-Roma citizens. All were reminded of the chaotic and brutal ferocity of the persecution carried out by the Arrow Cross and Hungarian Gendarmerie; reminded of the fate of those who perished in transit camps, in forced labour brigades, and local massacres.

Much of this detail would have been lost without the painstaking research carried out by Janos Bársony and Ágnes Daróczi who have striven to ensure the dead do not remain unnamed and unremembered. Atrocities such as the massacre in the cemetery in Doboz, a village in South-East Hungary, were painfully brought to light in the oral testimony of survivors such as Karoly Komaromi who lost his grandparents, his father and his 14-year-old sister Zsuzsanna. He recalled that as news of the Russian advance created alarm, gendarmes marched their victims on foot from the town of Kötegyán towards the village of Doboz:

“The gendarmes, they were taking them along main-street in pouring rain, so this gendarme says to my father … you will die here, fuck you! … At dawn they took them to the cemetery in Doboz and the gendarmes were already there waiting and blew them apart with a machine gun and hand grenades. As I heard from the cemetery warden’s wife, one child was trying to escape but couldn’t because the gendarmes noticed him. When they finished them off, they went down to the Gypsies of Doboz. They had them dig graves and put the bodies in there…”

Komaromi’s oral testimony to Bársony was confirmed by the trial records of the murderers by the People’s Court in 1956: “All 20 Gypsies were taken into the cemetery, ordered to lie down on the ground … the escort personnel withdrew a few paces, formed an firing line and when the order was issued, fired a volley at the 20 persons lying on the ground, then withdrew even further and lobbed an indeterminate number of hand grenades at the unfortunate victims. Those who were still alive were shot dead by the military gendarme … the dead included at least two or three children, 15 men and two women.”

The testimonies and records gathered by dedicated scholars such as Bársony and Daróczi to preserve the memory of what unfolded in dark times—times in which wisdom and goodness came fatally apart from each other—and social conditions Brecht likened to “a flood in which we have all gone under.” For the survivors of the Nazi-orchestrated Baro Porrajmos, there were to be more dark times. The condition of uprootedness, described by Hannah Arendt as one of “having no place in the world, recognised and guaranteed by others”, meant that the Roma became not only the forgotten victims of this most ferocious of historical moments, but continued to be regarded as superfluous, as not belonging to the world at all.

In 1950, German judges hearing restitution claims were advised by the Württemburg Ministry for the Interior that "Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialistic Regime not for any racial reason, but because of an asocial and criminal record." It is chilling to note that we hear similar sentiments today. We are asked to believe that Roma are not discriminated against because of their ethnicity, but because they pose a threat to “public order”, because they are criminally inclined, and refuse to assimilate and abide by societal norms. Anti-Roma racist rhetoric, previously confined to the fringes of the far-right, is increasingly seeping into mainstream populist agendas. 

The gravity of the current situation was highlighted recently in research conducted by Political Capital which placed Hungary fifth out of 33 countries on a ‘radicalism’ index, with sympathy with far-right ideas and politics among the over 15s surging from 10 percent to 21 percent: “a practically unprecedented rise by international standards.” A survey question on “Gypsy crime” found that 63 percent of Hungarians view “the Roma inclination to commit crime” as genetically pre-determined; while approximately two-thirds of respondents would not allow their children to befriend a Roma.

It is encouraging to hear György Hölvényi, Minister of State for Church, Minority and Non-governmental Relations in Hungary declare in his speech at the Holocaust Memorial Center yesterday, that the government is determined that there will be no place for hatred among Hungarian citizens. The commemoration of the Porrajmos serves as a reminder that it’s time for the righteous among this nation and those who govern it to take a forthright and unambiguous stance to counter the prejudices that fuel contemporary racism.

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