The tragedy of the Sinti and Roma

I have been reflecting over the last few months over the persecution and murders of defenceless Yazidis and Christians in ISIS-controlled territory; over the rising intolerance towards minorities in India; Islamophobic political commentary being delivered by far right segments of the political spectrum, be they in Europe or in North America. The age of immediate transmission of wanton murders, genocide and hateful rhetoric has a multiplier effect in terms of how the news is consumed and acted upon.

I was in Berlin last week and as I made my way towards the Reichstag (or the German Parliament) from the Brandenburg Gate, I walked past an unassuming little garden with a small plaque that read, “Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under the National Socialist (Nazi) regime.”

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Entrance to the Memorial to the Sinta and Roma of Europe at Tiergarten, Berlin.

Against the backdrop of a haunting violin music played by Romeo Franz, a German Sinti, I learnt about the fate of the Sinti and the Roma people, who were part of the “gypsy” community that was systematically murdered by the Nazis.

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A reflection of the German Reichstag upon the Memorial pool.

A brief history of the Sinta and Roma.

The Sinti and Roma people have lived in Europe for over six hundred years and are believed to have travelled from India through Iran. Their languages are rooted in Sanskrit but have lived a nomadic lifestyle in Europe and were commonly referred to as gypsies. They also generally had slightly darker coloured skin, hair and eyes.

The gypsies identified themselves by the various groups they belonged to, including the Sinti, Roma, Lallere, Lovari or Manouche. The Sinti and Roma were the largest groups and numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

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Roma boys in the Warsaw ghetto (1941)

The Sinta and Roma people were indeed persecuted even before the National Socialists took over. They were singled out and discriminated by not only the Germans, but indeed across Europe for centuries.

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The triangular stone in the centre of the pool symbolises the badges that were work by the concentration camp prisoners. The stone is retractable and fresh flowers are placed upon it daily.

 

 The Nazi atrocities

The Nazis however took the persecution to a horrific level and it was a very steep descent into hell for the Sinti and the Roma.

As part of their racist and puritan ideologies, they sought the active annihilation of these minorities as they were considered racially inferior. These poor and defenceless people were first subject to internment, then forced sterilisation and were all subject to forced labour. Men, women and children were seized and taken away or murdered in their hometowns, ghettos or concentration camps or killing centres.

A decree was issued in 1936, as part of the Nuremberg laws on race and citizenship, where the gypsies and Jewish people were formally defined as “Alien Races” and were forbidden to marry, have children and excluded from most professions and jobs.

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Senta and Sonja Birkenfelder, deported from Ludwigshafen to Poland in 1940 with other Sinta and Roma children (Photo probably taken in the Radom Ghetto in 1941)

Two years later, over 2000 Sinti and Roma people were taken away to various concentration camps across the country as the Chief of the German Police, Heinrich Himmler, sought the “final solution to the Gypsy question.”  In 1940, entire families were deported from Germany to occupied Poland and to various other concentration camps. In the camps, they were all required to wear an armband bearing the letter, ‘Z’ which stood for ‘Zigeuner’ or ‘gypsy’ in German.

 

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Lodz Ghetto 1941/42: Assembly point at Krawiecka Street. Waiting for transport, probably to the Chelmno (Kulmhof) extermination camp. (Photo from the Jewish Memorial in Berlin)

The systematic mass murder of the Roma started in occupied Soviet Union in 1942 by a mobile killing unit (or ‘Einsatzgruppe’of the Security Police and Security Services of the SS). More were gassed to death in specially equipped vans at the Kulmhof killing centres.

More forced mass deportations of the gypsies from across Europe to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Thousands died due to hunger, disease or horrific cruelty by the Nazis.

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Warsaw Ghetto, August 1941 (Photo from the Jewish Memorial, Berlin)

It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people identified as ‘gypsies’ were murdered under the Nazi regime. There is no way of ever determining the final number.

Reflections

The memorial site was a source of immense pain, solitude and remembrance.

As I reflected on the atrocities meted out to these poor people, whose only crimes were that they were born into a different creed and caste, I thought about the people of our times going through the same horrors. A truly strong society looks after its most vulnerable and helpless, not oppress them further.

Particularly over the last couple of years, I have been getting increasingly worried about the rise of far-right extremism across the spectrum. The savagery exhibited by terrorist death cults such as the IS is well-known. However, to see politicians such as Donald Trump voice out hateful ideology is frightening. In Singapore, an ex-nominated member of parliament, Calvin Cheng, suggested all children of terrorists ought to be killed along with their parents, as a preventative measure.

It is already terrible that there has always remained within the fringes of society, a segment that feeds off hate and rancour. These groups of lunatics have either been outlawed or are regularly derided. To see this same hate and extremism enter its ugly head into the mainstream is tragic and has the potential to rupture the very delicate fabric of our society.

Humanity as a whole cannot afford to let this state of affairs continue. Lest we think that it is improbable that the world will witness another genocidal event, it is worth remembering the words of Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor:

Each and every one of us, whether we be Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Hindus Buddhist, Bahais or atheists, has a responsibility for the safety, fair-treatment and dignity y our fellow women, men and children, regardless of their beliefs, customs or creed.

I pray that the light of our collective humanity overcomes the darkness of hate that some attempt to it hit on us all.

Below is a poem by an Italian Roma, Santino Spinelli at this most poignant of memorials which conveys more eloquently than I ever could, the sentiments I felt at the memorial.

 

 

Sunken in face

extinguished eyes

cold lips

silence

a torn heart

without breath

without words

no tears