Romani children behind the wire at the Gypsy Camp at Auschwitz.
The Holocaust that cost more than six million Jewish lives is both well documented and widely mourned despite the persistent attempts of deniers and anti-Semites. But Nazism also aimed to erase other populations starting with Socialists and Communists and including homosexuals and the disabled. Millions of Slavs were starved or worked to death in slave camps as were many prisoners of war, especially Russians. Another ethnic minority was also targeted for annihilation—the Romani, the ancient people also known as the Gypsies.
Under Adolf Hitler, a supplementary decree to the Nuremberg Laws was issued on November 26, 1935, classifying the Romani as “enemies of the race-based state” placing them in the same category as the Jews. Historians estimate that between 220,000 to 500,000 Romani—one estimate goes as high as 1.5million—were killed by the Germans and their collaborators—25% to over 50% of the slightly fewer than 1 million in Europe at the time. Their tragic story is often neglected.
I was deeply moved to discover the poem The Gypsy Camp at Auschwitz by Raine Geohegan which makes the painful history real.
Geohegan was born in Wales the daughter of a Romani Traveler mother and a Welshman from Aberbargoed. After an early career as an actress, dancer, choreographer, and the founder of Earthworks, a women’s theatre company, she was sidelined by and accident and long recover. She turned her artistic impulses to writing and completed a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester in 2015. Her passion is poetry but she also written short prose, monologues, articles, a full length children’s play, and an experimental piece based on the life of Wangari Matthai, the Tree Woman of Kenya.
In the last few years she has turned her special attention to the Romani, inspired by her family connections. That work has been published in British journals as well as in Travellers Times, the newspaper of British and Irish Romani, Travelers, and Tinkers.
The Gypsy Camp at Auschwitz
February 1943: At Auschwitz-Birkenau, a family Gypsy camp was set up in a wooden barracks. August 2 1944: Over 4,000 Roma and Sinti men, women and children were murdered in the gas chambers. January 27 1945 at 3pm, Soviet soldiers reached the camp and found only one Rom among the survivors.
the branches on the trees bend and sway
leaves fall and settle on the ground
sunlight seeps through mottled clouds
and all is quiet
a woman with long red hair
picks a blade of grass
holds it up to the light
remembering her husband
the shape of his mouth
how he spoke her name, Narilla
men kek bissa: we will not forget
an old chal with silver hair
takes his hat off, feels the warmth of the sun
on his head
his chavo was four years old when they were imprisoned
a year later he was taken and was never seen again
he had dark curls and hazel eyes
a chavali runs into the arms of her mother
who remembers she once had twelve chavies
all had hair the colour of the darkest earth
and eyes like wolves
men kek bissa: we will not forget
winter birds mourning on the branches
the earth remembering
how it has given refuge to the dead
no longer dead leaves trampled underfoot
they have become wild breathing flowers
growing in the dust.
“Except for a few survivors, a whole people unique in its life-style, language, culture and art, was wiped off the face of the earth. The death of the Gypsy Nation was more than physical; it was total oblivion.” Azriel Eisenberg, Witness to the Holocaust, 1981 (New York) taken from Danger, Educated Gypsy, selected essays by Ian Hancock.
(Romani jib: Men kek bissa – we will not forget; Chal – man; Chavo – boy; Chavali – girl; Chavies – children).
For more information on Geohegan and her work visit her web page.