2nd August: Roma Holocaust Memorial Day. Reflections on commemoration
The 2nd of August is the date used to commemorate the Roma who were killed in the Holocaust. As with much of Roma history, details are hard to be sure of. The Roma were infrequently registered anywhere, mobility making it hard to estimate populations. Equally the Nazis would more often kill groups of Roma they found on the spot, leaving them in mass unmarked graves throughout Europe, rather than take them to concentration camps; as such these victims were not registered in the bookkeeping of the camps. Estimates of the number of dead range from around 200,000 but some claim far higher. As above, there's not enough evidence to go on to prove numbers much higher than this, we may need to settle for never knowing.
2nd August is used because that is the date the “Gypsy Family Camp” in Auschwitz Birkenau was “liquidated”, everyone was killed, to make room for incoming prisoners from elsewhere. As dispensable as scrap. But even then, the numbers have changed in recent years, from around 2000 to around 3000. For such a well-studied period of recent history, this black hole of information is staggering.
In short, we don’t know much. A people largely illiterate at the time, largely still nomadic; hard to then get a full picture of if you're a historian. But we do know for certain that an aim of the Nazi regime was to eradicate the Roma entirely. “Lives unworthy of living” was the designation.
What is known is the simple story. A story that doesn’t end with the liberation of the camps, it doesn’t end at all. A group whose suffering in the Holocaust is largely a footnote, like an “also-ran”, and whose suffering today is so infrequently considered newsworthy. The death of Stanislav Tomas in 2021 made no splash in the papers.
What is known is that the Nazi regime wanted to eliminate the Roma, and that if they had had their way they would have.
Holocaust commemoration then has a dual purpose. For some it is purely sombre. Funereal. For others it is about celebrating that the Nazis failed and we’re still here. For others still, it’s about fighting to stop other injustices that Roma face still today. There’s not a correct response when confronting something like this. When I went to Dikh He Na Bister, a Roma Holocaust Memorial/Education event taking place for a week in Poland, I was struck by the range of reactions and emotions. No response, if authentic, is wrong.
In essence, if this piece has a call to action, it is simply to note what today is, and to mark it in whatever way you want. I could recommend you poems to read, films to watch, interviews to listen to, rituals to undertake; but they’d all be mine. Find your way of marking the Roma who were victims (including those who survived but were impacted) of the holocaust.
My only real call to action is to avoid the phrase “never again”, with each passing year as far right extremism feels closer than ever, with hate crimes and pogroms a reality in various parts of the world, it rings hollower with each repetition.