Sunday, 28 January 2018
An Uncounted People, a film for Holocaust Day
Yesterday morning I went along to the Surrey History Centre in Woking, Surrey, to a rare showing of an award-winning Canadian film, A People Uncounted for Holocaust Memorial Day. Filmed in 11 countries, it focuses on the 500,000 Roma who were murdered. The title suggests that the number is an underestimation, as they went unrecognised until relatively recently – not until 1982 in Germany. In the Nuremberg trials no Roma Gypsies were called to testify.
The word Porrajmos means ‘devouring’ or ‘rape' and is the word for the Romani holocaust. It is not just the numbers that make this film so powerful, but the dark, harrowing detail from first-hand accounts by survivors who are inevitably diminishing, since they tend to be over 90 or even 100 years old.
The Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe – and the diaspora of Gypsies is the largest in Surrey today. Along with Jews, disabled people, resisters to the regime, and homosexuals, they were systematically oppressed, persecuted, and finally gassed and cremated.
You may not have heard of this documentary. Despite it being five years old, it might not have attracted a wide audience yet I would guess that anyone who has seen it would feel impelled to recommend it to others. It is important for, as Dr Ian Hancock, highly respected author of We Are the Romani People and Director of the Romani Archives at the University of Texas, chillingly says in the film ‘It could happen again’. He would not say this lightly.
The film reminds us of other genocides around the world, both current and recent, and of the appalling racism and hate that still exists between different peoples. As many news bulletins confirm, hate crime is on the increase rather than something the human race has resolved and consigned to history.
It shows shocking images and reminders of events of which we are perhaps aware but have become dangerously complacent. I make no apology for recalling here some horrendous facts from the film. Branded like animals with a Z for Gypsy, denied basic rights, the Roma were referred to as vermin. Nazi eugenics is well known but the Institute for Race Hygiene in 1939 worked on the premise that the Roma were born to criminality, lazy and so on. Their facial features were measured and children who did not measure up, literally, were deported to Auschwitz. A respected child psychologist, who died in just 1966, carried out this work.
Before the 1939 Olympics, the Gypsies, Sinti, Roma, were moved to live next to a garbage dump with nothing. How often have Gypsies and Travellers been tucked away on unhealthy, toxic and poorly drained land?
A survivor from 2,800 people in Vienna herded onto trains tells how a blacksmith stayed behind because he was deemed useful. Local ‘social services’ deported people to avoid paying for their upkeep. Death was caused by forced labour. Massed killings by poisonous gas followed later. Auschwitz had what was called a ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ and about 60 metres away from the buildings into which they were crammed, were the crematoriums. They arrived daily, to be gassed in 8 – 10 minutes, and burned. When the crematoriums were overflowing, the people still alive would be driven into forest or field to pits where rubbish was burned and forced to simply jump in.
A 105 year-old survivor tells of how 5,000 mostly old people, robbed of their possessions, were transported to Transnistria. They had nothing, no water and drank from puddles. Another survivor tells of how Roma were loaded onto cardboard boats. They were shot, the bodies eaten by crows and dogs. A man was made to rape his own mother. There was nowhere to sleep or to eat and they lived for two years in that misery. These are all fragments of what the survivors tell us in the film. The Final Solution was signed by Himmler in March 1938 but the suffering that preceded this is largely undocumented which is what makes this film so very significant. Moreover, after the war, by which time 90% had perished, the remainder had nowhere to live, no papers, nothing and stayed in the concentration camps. Thereafter, with children unable to read or write, they were at a continual disadvantage as they struggled to merely survive. What we must remember is that, even today Roma in Europe and Gypsies in the UK live in the shadow of this dark history.
A man describes what it was like to be herded onto the cattle trucks, upright like pencils stacked in a box. They could not move. An exhausted woman could no longer hold her child and had to let the child slide down to the floor, then could not bend enough to pick up the child and they were both eventually trampled to death.
Then there was the medical experimentation in Dr Mengele’s laboratory, for which Roma children were used. One survivor tells of how the eyes were removed from a living 12 year-old, without anaesthetic.
Surrey has one of the largest Romany Gypsy and Traveller populations in the UK, still suffering from inequalities that racism brings – in education, employment, health, and above all, homelessness, which underpins everything else and is becoming a massive problem for the Gypsy and Traveller community.
I began exploring this very problem over ten years ago and then wrote Gypsies Stop tHere. I am uncertain as to whether certain issues have improved but I do know of great work that is going on and will write about this another time.
The Surrey Gypsy Traveller Communities Forum has bought the rights to show this film. As Jeremy Harte, of Bourne Hall Museum in Epsom, puts it, ‘As ethnic intolerance flares up in Europe, this film sheds light on this unique culture while presenting the Roma tale as emblematic of the world’s legacy of racism and genocide. Closer to home, this film presents a powerful and thought-provoking challenge to what the Commission for Racial Equality has described as ‘the last acceptable form of racism’ in our own country.’
To end, I quote from a talk given by one of two survivors who spoke movingly in a Memorial Service that took place just before the film yesterday. He quoted from Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish politician, who said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.’
If I ever hear of another showing of this film, I will let you know.