A History Revealed
Little is known about the Roma killed in the Holocaust, and Czech society shies away from the subject. But a photo exhibit offers the public a view of the victims and their culture. by Sejla Fidani and Goran Jovanovic 3 October 2007
PRAGUE, Czech Republic | Two men spent a decade traveling throughout the Czech Republic searching for a lost world of Roma and Sinti people. Jan Hauer, a chronicler of Sinti history, and Markus Pape, a German journalist, visited numerous Romani families in search of photographs of their kin who died in Nazi concentration camps. The men sifted through trunks, attics, boxes, and albums, delving into the histories of an often-forgotten people.
The culmination of the search is “A Vanished World,” a recent photographic exhibition at the Czech National Gallery’s contemporary art collection. The exhibition, which was organized by a Czech organization, the Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust, offered visitors a glimpse into the past – into the faces and lives of the Roma and Sinti communities before the Holocaust.
“Our plan was to show the vanished world of Roma and Sinti in pre-war-times to the Czech society and unveil the loss caused by the Nazi politics,” Pape says. “The rich culture of the Czech Roma and Sinti was part of the culture in Czech lands. So far almost nobody knows anything about it, however. The exhibit is a first step to make the people understand the loss of cultural identity within the Roma community living today in Czech lands.”
The number of Roma and Sinti (a subgroup of the Roma people found chiefly in Central Europe) who met violent deaths under Nazi rule in Europe has been estimated at more than 500,000. Today, Pape estimates that only a few thousand original Czech Roma and their descendents live in the Czech Republic. “The rest of the current Romani minority, comprising up to 250,000 people, according to some estimates, are Roma of Slovak origin” who moved into what is now the Czech Republic after the war, Pape explains.
Roma and Jews were targeted for extermination on racial grounds in the World War II. But while the world has honored and respected the fate of the European Jews who were killed in epic numbers, much less attention has been given to the fate of Roma and Sinti. In the Czech Republic, many people are wary to admit that native Czechs oversaw the camps where Roma and Sinti were housed or to acknowledge the Roma and Sinti who died there.
Moreover, the majority of Romani Holocaust survivors have kept silent about their imprisonment during World War II; little documentation of the pre-war Roma community exists today. As historian Ian Hancock, a professor of Romani studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in the Encyclopedia of Genocide
, Romani culture is a largely oral one that has left almost no available books, papers, or other evidence about the Roma’s past.
SHEDDING LIGHT ON HISTORY
The years of work collecting photographs, visiting the homes of Roma and Sinti, and having delicate conversations with the relatives of those died in the Holocaust have helped the creators of “A Vanished World” paint a clearer picture of the Romani community decades ago and of the fate its people suffered.
At the exhibition, about 60 black and white photographs of Roma and Sinti were presented on tall cloth panels lining one side of the exhibition space. The photographs reveal proud men, dignified women, and children regarding the camera with unfeigned innocence. The photographs show Roma in various locations: picnicking on the road, sitting in photo studios, traveling in caravans, and posing in formal family or wedding portraits.
“With the help of Jan Hauer … we managed to gain the trust of a lot of families’ survivors, who then opened for the very first time their family archives,” Pape explains. “So far, the collection counts several hundreds of photographs, drawings, and paintings.”
Pape says they found some photographs they were able to show family members who had never seen photos “of their relatives, their grandfathers and grandmothers.”
“The Holocaust had taken everything from them,” Pape says.
The curators regard as the most significant item in the exhibit a drawing by a Czech Sinto in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. On the back of a photograph of his family, he drew what appears to be a crematorium. The drawing made its way out of the camp in one of the rare postal shipments to prisoners’ families. Hauer and Pape borrowed the drawing from the prisoner’s relatives.
Drawing by a prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau apparently depicting one of the camp crematoriums.
“In general it was impossible for prisoners in Auschwitz to send letters,” Pape says. “Letters to be sent home were thoroughly studied by the camp censors, and [if] the authors would talk about persecution of prisoners in the camp, they would be immediately confiscated and certainly not delivered to the addressees.”
Hauer and Pape faced their own difficulties as they traveled the country searching for old photos. In the explanatory text beneath some of the exhibit’s pictures, the collectors explain, “Many of the families whom we discovered wouldn’t allow us to make copies of anything. One family said they had buried a whole pile of photographs in their grandmother’s grave – she had wanted them there. Those we visited continually reiterated their concern to us that we might be trying to break down their resistance to having their world revealed.”
HIDDEN HISTORY, UNCERTAIN FUTURE
In 2001, the first permanent exhibition on the Romani Holocaust was opened at Auschwitz. At Lety in the Czech Republic, however, a smelly industrial pig farm occupies a former concentration camp for Roma. Romani activists have been lobbying the Czech government to remove the farm for several years. Similarly, at Hodonin a recreation center is in operation at a former concentration camp site.
Jana Horvathova of the Museum of Roma Culture in the Czech city of Brno has estimated that about 3,000 Roma were kept in the camps. “In each camp about 300 died,” she explained at a conference about the Holocaust four years ago in Prague. “They were mainly women and children, for whom the conditions were too harsh.” Horvathova added that those who survived outside the camps did so by hiding, avoiding transports to the camps, or fleeing abroad.
“The Czech people saved only a very small number, several dozens of Roma,” she said.
Cenek Ruzicka, president of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, said both his father and six-month-old brother died at Lety.
In 1995, the Czech government erected a memorial at Lety in honor of those who died in the two camps. While unveiling the memorial, then-Czech president Vaclav Havel reminded his fellow citizens of their duty “to admit that Czechs also carried some responsibility for this horror.” Havel also said that “the camp was established on the orders of Nazis, however, it was Czech policemen who managed the camp and oversaw prisoners, and it was Czechs in the camp’s vicinity who used the labor of Roma prisoners.”
Pape notes that while Czechs may have been guards and administrators at the camps, it was the German government that bore responsibility for the horrors inflicted upon the prisoners because “there was neither a Czech state, nor a Czech government” at the time. Anita Frankova, an Auschwitz survivor who works as a Holocaust specialist at the Jewish Museum in Prague, says it is still important for people to remember the camps and who was involved in their existence and upkeep.
“It is certainly not a good thing that Czech guards worked in the Roma camps” during World War II, Frankova says. “I’m afraid that Czech society doesn’t know much about this and isn’t especially interested in it, which is connected with the general lack of knowledge of this question.”
Further evidence of Czech society’s unwillingness to address Romani history both before and during the Holocaust, Pape explains, exists in the educational system. “Czech textbooks give practically no information about the centuries of Roma history in the Czech lands,” he says. “The Roma therefore find themselves in a certain vacuum in their new homeland, with nothing to build on.”
“This exhibition is a first step towards changing this situation,” Pape adds.
Frankova believes events like “A Vanished World” are good for the Roma community’s relations with broader Czech society. “The exhibition brings a closer acquaintance with the fate of the Czech Roma in the [wartime] period,” she says. “For the Roma, it is certainly important to know what happened to their ancestors. At the same time it is important to inform the wider public.”
The exhibit organizers acknowledge that the photographs represent only a tiny move toward cultural understanding. They say many people involved in the project wish to remain anonymous and still fear society hasn’t changed enough to prevent another Holocaust, if the circumstances supporting one ever arose again.