THE ROMAS: FORGOTTEN NAZI GENOCIDE
BY DANIEL NOLAN
FROM THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR
PHOTO- KAREN POLAK, BY GARY YOKOYAMA/THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR
A historian on the Roma tragedy during the Second World War says Europe and the world is slowly recognizing what happened to them at the hands of the Nazis, but said it still remains the Forgotten Genocide.
Karen Polak, who works at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, noted in an address Monday night that a monument to the Roma genocide was unveiled in Berlin on Oct. 24 — German chancellor Angela Merkel attended — and Poland has designated Aug. 2 a national commemoration day to recognize the gassing of 2,000 Romas on Aug. 2, 1944, at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
There are also educational websites detailing the genocide, including testimony from six young survivors.
But Polak said it remains a “work in progress” and she only learned in recent times about a camp in Austria that held Romas — formerly known as Gypsies — called “Gypsy Camp Lackenbach” in the late 1930s. It held 2,000 Romas.
Polak was the guest speaker at a symposium held in the auditorium of The Hamilton Spectator and sponsored by the Hamilton Jewish Federation Holocaust Education Committee, the United Roma of Hamilton and Hamilton police.
The symposium, attended by more than 100 people, is part of local events recognizing International Holocaust Education Week. It was entitled The Forgotten Genocide: The Process of Exclusion and Persecution of Roma and Sinti (another member of the Gypsy nation) in Past and Present.
The symposium was opened by Micheal Butch and Shelly Coopersmith of the Toronto band Gypsy Rebels. They played the Roma national anthem Jelem Jelem (I went, I went).
Polak is a member of the Dutch delegation to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Research and Remembrance and chairs a subcommittee on the Roma genocide. She has worked at the Anne Frank House for two decades.
Polak said the exact number of Romas killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 is not known, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says historians estimate Germans and their allies killed about 25 per cent of the European Roma. It is estimated there were about 1 million Roma living across Europe before the war, meaning about 250,000 were murdered.
Polak said one reason the genocide might have been forgotten is that the vast majority of Romas killed by the Nazis were children and the survivors were young and uneducated who, after the war, “were not able to speak out.”
She noted that, in some parts of Europe today, Romas still face persecution and hatred. She cited a TV commercial by a far-right party in Hungary in 2010 featured someone complaining about the Romas and then a man swatting a fly on his hand.
Polak said Romas were designated by the Nazis as “born criminals” because of their wandering ways in caravans and jobs such as artisans, tinkers, grinders and blacksmiths. She said, however, many lived in towns and cities and had done so for decades.
She said the Romas were the first racial group to be rounded up by the Nazis and placed in concentration camps. They were not registered in Germany or the countries that Germany occupied during the war, and that played a role in the tragedy.
“Certainly, when people are out there committing genocide, they are not looking to register (anyone),” she said.