14 May 2005

We need to understand Romani history

By Jacqui McCarney

From the poignant diaries of Ann Frank, to 'Sophie's Choice', 'Schlinder's List', 'Life is Beautiful', to the seemingly endless TV documentaries and dramas we have all shared in the grieving and remembering of the Jewish deaths in Nazi concentration camps during the 2nd World War. No where had we seen such spine chilling evidence of 'Man's Inhumanity to Man'; by repeatedly reminding ourselves of this brutality, we perhaps, hope to guard against its repetition. We have become acutely sensitive to any charge of Anti-Semitism, and rightly so.

Another group targeted for complete extermination by the Nazis were Travellers particularly the Romani and Sinti tribes. Today the Romanies are the largest group of Travellers in the UK. They have a long history dating back to Northern India, 1000AD, and are not, as was assumed, Egyptians or gypsies.

They were murdered in proportions similar to the Jews, up to 80% of them were murdered in Nazi occupied areas, and in some areas even more. Only 1% survived in Croatia. It is thought that as many as 1.5 million were exterminated. They too, died in Auschwitz, in Mengel's medical experiments and where they were captured, sometimes a few at a time and sometimes by the hundreds. Their children, 250 of them were used as guinea - pigs to test the efficacy of the cyanide gas crystals later used in the gas chamber.

History had set the scene; hundreds of years of discriminatory laws and rampant racism made the Travelling community potential prey for the Nazi's, just as it had for the Jews. Like the Jews they were treated with hostility and suspicion. 'Gypsy Hunts' where they were hunted down as animals and murdered were a popular pastime. By the 19century scholars were writing about them and Jews as 'the excrement of humanity'. Ten days before the Nazi's came to power Government officials in Austria called for the withdrawal of all civil liberties.

A popular myth and one that protects the rest of us from responsibility is that Hitler, like Saddam, was uniquely evil. The reality is that they ruthlessly exploit the prejudices, greed and fears that they find. As Edmund Burke said "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing".

Unlike the Jewish people, the Romani post-war experience is unchanged by the lessons of the 2nd World War. While the main stream media regards any hint of Anti-Semitism as unacceptable, we are incited to 'Stamp out the Camps'; 'to stop the Gypsy invasion' and to tell us you're Gypsy stories. In 2003 we saw the torching of a caravan painted with a Gypsy family used as a Bonfire night effigy. This hatred is aimed at all nomadic groups including Irish Travellers and New Age Travellers. It is abhorrent enough in this context, but even more tragic when the target is the Romani people; the descendents of holocaust survivors.

This racism is so implicit that major political figures attempted to exploit this in the recent election campaign. Michael Howard wanted to repeal and amend the "so-called Human Rights" act in connection to Travellers. As Home Secretary in John Major's Government he got rid of the rules requiring local authorities to provide legal campsites for these groups. He now wants to preclude Travellers from challenging refusals of planning permission to set up on their own land. It is a frightening position of refusing to provide sites, and refusing to allow them to provide their own sites; it amounts to a refusal to their existence. This has lead to accusations such as that from, Labour MP Kevin Mc Namara who said the policies have about them "the whiff of the gas chamber".

Unlike the Jews there are no blockbuster films, books, documentaries and no public acknowledgement or shared grieving for the injustices suffered by the Romani people. Nobody was called to testify on behalf of these victims at the Nuremberg Trials and war crimes reparation has never been paid.

The trauma of the Holocaust is captured in their language; 'O Barro Porrajmos' means 'great devouring' and 'rape' as well as 'gaping'. Their suffering is forced inwards by a society that barely tolerates their very existence.

To deny the Romani people their place in the history of the Holocaust is in effect to try to deny their existence. They deserve to be given the same status as the Jews - who were given a home in Israel, They ask only for the right to travel and the right to safe permanent sites and not just the cheapest land next to motorways and public dumps.