August 12th 2020 marked a historic and long awaited moment. After nearly a decade of hard work and dedication by Romani survivors, organizations and individuals, the Government of Canada finally officially recognized the Genocide of Roma and Sinti peoples that occurred during the Holocaust by unanimously adopting a Motion to make August 2nd an official day of commemoration and remembrance
This historic milestone, long hoped for and anticipated by Roma in Canada, coincidentally came on an emotional day for many, taking place on what would have been the 86th birthday of Canadian Roma activist, author, journalist, historian and respected civil rights movement leader, Dr. Ronald Lee. Dr. Lee, who had been leading these efforts since 1998 and whose wish it was to live to see this day happen, passed away earlier this year.
Until now, these vital pages of Roma and Sinti history have remained largely unknown and unrecognised; indeed, they are still being written. August 2nd commemorates the day in 1944 when the remaining 4 300 Roma and Sinti prisoners of the “Gypsy camp” in Auschwitz-Birkenau were brutally murdered by Nazis and their collaborators. While there are other important dates commemorating the plight of Romani peoples during the Holocaust, this day was chosen by organizations, individuals and survivors as the official day of commemoration of the Romani Genocide. According to recent estimates at least 500 000 Roma and Sinti were murdered during WWII.
Despite the irrefutable historical evidence and the emerging harrowing stories by survivors, Romani peoples have long had to fight for an equal place and voice in history. The struggle continues to this day. It was as late as 1982 that Germany finally recognized the Romani Genocide, but only after a hunger strike was carried out by Romani Rose, who lost 13 members of his family, murdered in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck. It was only as recently as 2015 that the European Parliament adopted a resolution officially recognizing August 2nd as an official day of commemoration.
Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term Genocide, made reference to the Genocide as one of the “Jews and Gypsies”, yet, very little made its way into the domain of public knowledge about the Genocide of Roma and Sinti during the Second World War. As Dr. Ian Hancock explains, “after the war, very few Roma were in a position to testify about what had happened. In fact, Roma stayed hidden in concentration camps as late as 1947, fearing arrest, as the pre-war anti-Romani laws were still in place. Additionally, during the Nuremberg trials, no Roma was invited to testify.”
Recognition of this day also marks a turning point for survivors like Frank Nemeth who rebuilt his life in Canada. “I vividly remember when the Nazis rounded up the remaining Romani people in my village and forced us into large horse-drawn carts headed to the trains destined to the death camps. Our history is finally recognized, after all these years.” For Lajos Molnar, a survivor who made Montreal his home more than 50 years ago and who never told his story publicly until this year, this recognition means so much. “When I think about what happened, it is still too painful to talk about. My cousin who was a few years older than me was sent to Auschwitz with her entire family and what she suffered there as a woman was beyond words. These stories must be told, our story must be known.”
For Rita Prigmore, survivor of the medical experiments carried out on Roma and Sinti twins, and now living in Germany, “this recognition was long overdue. Recognition is about bringing dignity and respect to our people. 76 years have passed since the Holocaust, and Roma and Sinti today continue to face racism, hatred and violence. I am happy to finally see our history being recognized and remembered in Canada.”
The same rhetoric and mechanisms which led to the mass murder of Roma and Sinti in the past are still present today. The normalization of cruel acts of racism and hatred against Romani populations persists, and Roma are still a target. Indeed, in 2018 Italian Minister of Interior Mateo Salvini called for a census of Roma. Across Europe, Romani populations still live in segregated areas and children are placed in segregated schools. Until 2012, Romani women were forcefully sterilized. In 2018, a violent anti-Roma attack was carried out by Neo-Nazi groups, despite clear warnings from civil society organizations. This year, amid the pandemic, 15 incidents of police violence against Roma have been documented in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, the Netherlands and North Macedonia, including against young children. Amnesty International reported militarized quarantines of Roma settlements across Bulgaria and Slovakia, with no evidence that they represented a threat to public health or security.
Preserving the memory of past atrocities and raising awareness about the dangers of systemic impunity for perpetrators constitute both a duty and a right. Normalized racism and discrimination have no legitimate voice in the quest for a more just society. In Canada, less than 2 weeks ago, Roma civil society won a class action lawsuit against the federal government for the unjust treatment of Romani asylum seekers who had been targeted as “bogus refugees”, allegedly undeserving of protection by the Canadian government under Bill-C 31. Policies such as these, which disregard the well-documented evidence of persecution and violence faced by Roma, are very reminiscent of the mistreatment of Jewish victims of the Holocaust who sought to escape to Canada but were rejected under the “None is too many” policy. Last year, the Prime Minister issued an apology for Canada’s actions. We hope that another 76 years will not pass before that apology arrives for Roma.
The momentous achievement of recognizing August 2nd is not only important symbolically; it is also critical for the collective healing process of Roma and Sinti around the world and for recognition of the existence of Romani peoples in Canada. In honour of the estimated 500 000 victims of the Romani Genocide, let us continue to collectively work together to ensure that the lessons of the past can inform the present and shape a future where the rights and dignity of Romani peoples at home and abroad are protected and respected.