A ceremony will be held at the Montreal Holocaust Museum on Thursday, giving communities a chance to commemorate and come together in solidarity.
The guards finally came for the Roma on Aug. 2, 1944. On that dark day, 75 years ago, the remaining 2,897 men, women and children in the Zigeunerlager — “Gypsy camp” — at Auschwitz-Birkenau were put to death in the gas chambers.
Three months earlier, on May 16, 1944, the Roma people imprisoned in the largest concentration camp of the Second World War had fought back against their Nazi captors, a resistance that spared their lives for three more months. Those who were murdered three-quarters of a century ago Friday were among an estimated 500,000 Roma and Sinti killed during the Holocaust alongside 6 million Jews.
On Thursday, the eve of this sombre anniversary, the victims of the Romani genocide, will be remembered with a ceremony at the Montreal Holocaust Museum. This is the fourth year the event has taken place, said Sarah Fogg, the head of marketing, communications and public relations. It’s an acknowledgement of shared suffering during past atrocities and an act of solidarity in an era of rising xenophobia.
“It’s a parallel experience to what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust,” Fogg explained. “When we do educational work, we’re never just speaking about the Holocaust as this isolated incident. It’s important to draw parallels, it’s important to make those links. It’s never just one minority that’s attacked.”
Known as the Porrajmos, the Romani genocide is often referred to as the forgotten Holocaust. Whereas the systematic extermination of the Jewish population has been documented, condemned and commemorated in official reports, museums and monuments to ensure the world never forgets, the evils committed against the Roma are infrequently mentioned.
“This year it’s going to be 75 years since Aug. 2 and it’s shocking that there’s still so much we don’t know,” said Dafina Savic, founder of the Montreal-based human rights group Romanipe and an organizer of the event. “The history of Roma during the genocide is still being written.”
War crimes against the Roma were not tried at Nuremberg and few scholars took interest in their plight, Savic said. On top of that, the Roma — long either romanticized as free-spirited wanderers or criminalized as thieves — were blamed for their own demise during the Holocaust.
Even the death toll is still debated, with some sources counting as few as 200,000 Romani victims and others more than a million.
Today, ongoing stigma, persecution and hatred have made many Roma reluctant to speak out.
As such, there will be no known local Roma on hand Thursday to bear witness. Archived testimonies gathered in Europe will be read. The Romani activist and Harvard scholar Margareta Matache will talk. And there will be a chance for those in the audience to ask questions or make comments. (Fogg said that one year, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz recounted how he witnessed the liquidation of the Roma from his barracks.)
There are survivors of the Romani genocide living in Canada, said Savic, but many have hidden their heritage and kept their trauma secret. Official census data counts about 5,000 Roma in Canada, the first having arrived in the early 1900s, but Savic said the number is more like 80,000 to 100,000 because people are afraid to identify themselves.
After one of the previous memorials, Savic was contacted by a woman who had survived the Porrajmos.
“She called me and she was crying on the phone. She said: ‘This is the first time I’ve ever said that I’m a survivor.’ She’d never told her story,” Savic recalled. “She asked me not even to tell her name. … She was telling me she has friends of hers she knows are survivors as well, but she asked them if they would even be willing to come to the commemoration and they’re still scared to do that.”
Unfortunately, Savic never managed to collect the woman’s testimony. And she probably never will. The survivor was very old and sick and found talking about the past too traumatic. Savic has not been able to reach her in some time.
But she hopes growing awareness of the Romani genocide — internationally and in Canada — might encourage the dwindling number of remaining survivors to come forward and contribute to the understanding of the tragedy. A request to have the Romani genocide officially recognized was rejected by the former Conservative government in 2013. But there have been positive signs after a renewed effort by Romanipe, including a statement honouring the victims of the Porrajmos issued last Aug. 2.
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