On August 2nd we commemorate the Roma & Sinti lives lost during the holocaust. The numbers on this are unreliable compared to many of the other groups. This is due to a lot of factors; partly registration of Roma & Sinti throughout Europe was poor beforehand so any statistics on general population pre war hold little water, also because many Roma & Sinti died at the hands of Einsatzgruppen during mass shootings and so were never recorded.
August 2nd is chosen because it was the night the Zigeunerfamilienlager (“Gypsy Family Camp”) was liquidated in 1944- every remaining Roma & Sinti prisoner was killed to make room.
This year it feels particularly poignant. Covid-19 means we cannot go to the memorial at Auschwitz. But that doesn’t mean it must go un-marked. For the last ten years Dikh He Na Bister (Romanes for “Look and don’t forget”) has run a youth event of workshops and lessons about the Roma & Sinti lost in the holocaust. I attended for the previous two. It’s a life-changing experience in many ways. Obviously, going to the death camps, standing in the same land where such dreadful history happened, is enormous and changes you (I felt like there was knot in my stomach the entire time I was there) but other things about the experience make an impact too. Seeing Roma & Travellers from throughout Europe come together and meet and make friends and enjoy themselves.
There is always the question of “Should we be having fun here? Is it right that we dance at night together after what we see or talk about?”. I understand those sensitivities but I feel that there is a need for catharsis after examining something so ugly. And if we didn’t celebrate, if we didn’t get close, we’d just sit bleakly in our rooms instead. You could argue that it’s no great surprise a group that has undergone such outcasting and trauma is also one associated with music, colour and dance.
One of the biggest learning points though comes from the chance to meet survivors. The pictures and text you’ve studied and debated become much more tangible when you hear Krystyna Gil talk about escaping from the SS but seeing her family murdered. One figure that personified Dikh He Na Bister was Raymond Gureme. Raymond survived the holocaust by escaping from camps using the techniques he learned as an acrobat in a Manouche circus and later joined the resistance. He came to Dikh He Na Bister and told his story but he also entertained, sang songs, got involved in the dancing, spoke to everyone. He inspired me and countless others through his story and through the person he was. He died earlier this year and on August 2nd I’ll think of him amongst the other names I think of.
There are digital ways of commemorating. Or you can read some of the poetry. Or just hold them in mind. These stories are important. Holocaust denial is unfortunately as real as the holocaust. Our job is to carry these truths, no matter how heavy, and to pass them on.
Look and don’t forget.