Roma and Sinti Memorial Acknowledges Past Injustice, Commits to a More Just Future

The Open Society Foundations supported Ethel Brooks’ participation earlier this year at the unveiling of a memorial for Sinti and Roma victims of genocide in Berlin.

The Berlin Memorial for the European Roma and Sinti Murdered under National Socialism, situated within view of the Reichstag, commemorates the genocide of Roma and Sinti committed under the Nazis. But it also is a reminder that Europe’s 10 million Roma and Sinti are still excluded from society and subject to violence.

In the face of pervasive and rising anti-Roma attitudes, and violence against Roma people across Europe, we need to make sure that European central governments focus on the current problems facing Roma. The reality is that injustices against the Roma are not part of a bygone era.

The memorial is “also a commitment to the future, and to human rights,” Berlin City Councilor Klaus Wowereit said.

Moreover, the current economic crisis in Europe has exacerbated anti-Roma sentiment. Thousands currently live in camps or slums, some illegal and others officially sanctioned by governments throughout the continent. In these camps, they face right-wing violence and everyday disdain from neighbors is ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, government action has been lacking. France, Italy, Germany and other European countries periodically have expelled or deported Roma residents. Across Europe, in Canada and elsewhere, governments deny asylum claims even in the face of overt anti-Roma violence. While Germany grants citizenship to Jews who wish to reside there as a way of atoning for its past crimes, it treats Roma differently. If Roma were given a similar guarantee, modern Germany could be held up as a model of inclusion. 

Beyond overarching policies of neglect, there are more concrete reasons for concern. During the past year in Bulgaria, mobs taking part in anti-Roma marches have called for Roma to be turned “into soap” and firebombed the headquarters of a Roma political party.

In Hungary, an ultra-right group has occupied and marched in Roma neighborhoods even as the government failed to prosecute a serial killer responsible for murdering Hungarian Roma, including a five-year-old child.

In the Czech Republic, anti-Roma marches and expulsions have been accompanied by shouts to send Roma “to the gas,” while the court-mandated desegregation of the school system has not been implemented, five years after the ruling.

The Memorial, a circular pool of water with a stone triangle in its center, stands as a reminder to the past and present. Every day, a fresh flower is placed on the triangle. A poem, “Auschwitz,” by Italian Roma writer Santino Spinelli, encircles the pool. Violin music composed for the site plays in the background. The memorial, designed by Israeli architect Dani Karavan, is a simple, fitting site of remembrance for the more than half-million Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust.

In October, I attended the Memorial’s opening ceremony. Romani Rose, a longtime advocate and civil rights pioneer for the Roma people, said that there is not a Roma or Sinti family in Europe who has not been affected by the murders of loved ones at the hands of the Nazis and their allies. Dutch Roma survivor Zoni Weisz spoke at the ceremony. He recalled feeling the softness of his sister’s blue coat for the last time as he watched his family board a train that would take them to their deaths, even though he and his aunt were spared a similar fate by the kindness of a guard standing on the platform. 

During the service, we sat listening to the music, testimonies and speeches as autumn leaves fell from the trees. There were survivors present, many approaching 90 years of age and older, and Roma and non-Roma from all over the world. Most who survived that era, however, did not live to see this long-awaited memorial. This memorial commemorates, as Dani Karavan said, the “Shoah unseen.” He designed it as a place “of memory,” but also one that shows that “the right to live will be respected, protected.” 

Europe’s commitment to democracy goes hand in hand with its treatment of its Sinti and Roma minority. A democratic Europe must protect Roma from both populist and state-sponsored violence.

The Berlin Memorial to the European Roma and Sinti Murdered under the National-Socialists marks a long-overdue recognition of the crimes against the Roma and Sinti people. But it cannot by itself rectify the problems of discrimination, violence and persecution faced by European Roma. The Memorial stands as a reminder to both the states and people of the world: We will not tolerate continued violence, exclusion, and destruction of our people. We are citizens of Europe, marked by its history and essential to its democratic future.

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