By Michael Privot
The Porrajmos or ‘devouring’ has not become part of a shared European memory of 20th century genocides – now is the time to end the years of silence and ignorance over Roma suffering
August 2 is Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Romani language has several terms for the Roma genocide during the Second World War, the most common being Pharrajimos or Porrajmos – the ‘Devouring’. Estimates of the total number of deaths in the Porrajmos vary, but usually range between 250,000 and 500,000. Yet the Roma are rarely acknowledged as victims in media, memorials, public commemorations, and textbooks. The lack of public awareness of the genocide hampers Roma as well as European progress. Recognition of the history of Roma suffering is a prerequisite for Roma inclusion in European societies.
Last year, Hungarian MEP Lívia Járóka made a proposition in the European Parliament to declare the August 2 as a European Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Porrajmos. There are several reasons why her proposal should be accepted. First, it would encourage European Union member states and the public to more actively recognise the role the Nazis and their allies played in exterminating entire Roma families and destroying properties. States have a responsibility to honour the memory of Roma victims and to respect and preserve former extermination sites and concentration camp grounds. Despite repeated calls by the international community, the Czech government has failed to close down a pig farm that was established by the communist regime in the 1970s on the site of a former concentration camp for Roma people in Lety.
Second, more political initiatives to inform the European public of the consequences of anti-Gypsyism in the past are necessary in order to fight anti-Gypsyism in the present. Roma have been scapegoated and persecuted since their migration from India several hundred years ago, and they remain one of the most discriminated minorities in Europe. According to a survey by the European Fundamental Rights Agency, one in five Roma respondents say they have been the victim of racially motivated crime. Racist violence is exacerbated by a context of hate speech. Recently, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen called Roma “smelly” while a French lawmaker was forced to resign when he made the shocking remark that “maybe Hitler did not kill enough Gypsies”. Myths about Roma easily take root in popular imagination when politicians neglect or trivialise the cause of the myths – the history of anti-Roma rhetoric and violence.
Third, a European remembrance day would invite more serious educational efforts to address the Roma genocide and Roma history. There is a need for greater collaboration between politicians and educators to teach Roma history as a way to debunk myths, using for instance the Council of Europe/University of Graz fact sheets on Roma history. Moreover, universities and research institutions should receive more support to engage in studies which raise awareness of Roma history, and which explore the shared European heritage of Roma and non-Roma. Improving the situation for the Roma requires both more effective anti-discriminatory legislation and greater European awareness of their culture and history. There is no way to understand and tackle the current discrimination of the Roma without considering the historical context and impact of violent and exclusionary practices. Conversely, knowledge of Roma history increases the ability to expose so called ‘truths’ about the Roma as myths imparted through history.
The Porrajmos – while leaving an indelible mark in Roma memories – has not become part of a shared European memory of 20th century genocides. States must put an end to years of silence and ignorance over what is part of European history. Declaring the August 2 as a European Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Porrajmos would be an important step in that direction. It would also be an initial response to the call by former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg to establish a European truth commission on the “mass atrocities against the Roma people”.
Michael Privot is director of the European Network Against Racism