DAY 5: Conclusion

Everyone seems in strange spirits today. I think we’re all feeling the effects of our intense week together.

 

Some participants were thrilled with the whole conference. Some had constructive criticism. Today was a day for voicing these thoughts, first in small groups and later in the auditorium. Emotional highs and lows often took hold of tongues.

 

In my small group, one young woman recounted a story from her Auschwitz-Birkenau experience yesterday. She had been walking along, physically and mentally exhausted, as we trudged along the dirt road, en masse. Then, from somewhere behind her, she heard a young voice: “This is the first time I have been proud to be Roma.” The power of that statement gave her strength to continue.

 

This story says a lot, I think, about the power of communal experience.

 

After attending this conference, I feel the significance of August 2 as I never have before. I feel the collective energy of youth who want to make a difference in the lived realities of Roma across the globe. I have a better understanding of ternYpe’s mission, their concept of communication between Roma and non-Roma youth as a means of empowerment.

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I also feel the heavy weight of the fact that the world is a vacuum where this one collective spark could easily be snuffed out. Prejudice is emotional, and negative intergroup exchanges happen every day. How can we bring our new communal feeling to bear with clarity and impact? Will people listen to reason?  

                                                                                       

Most importantly, how can we motivate more people to care?

DAY 4: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Today was a hard day.

 

Visiting the Auschwitz Museum must never be a cheery experience, but today it seemed particularly grim. I knew most of the information that poured through the earphones I wore throughout the tour. But my visceral reaction was almost too much to bear. To see the piles of preserved human hair encased behind glass, to look at the wall where countless victims were shot, to stand in spaces used as gas chambers for killing victim after victim noiselessly – no amount of description could prepare me for this day.

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After the normal tour of the Auschwitz Museum, our guide took us to the building that contained the history of the Roma genocide victims. She was well informed and wonderful, but I could not help feeling frustrated that more information on the Roma victims wasn’t specifically integrated into the traditional tour. Learning about the Roma genocide should not be only for those who request it. Certainly, the experience of Jews and “Gypsies” during the Holocaust was slightly different; but as long as we are not systematically encouraged to recognize the similarities and shared aspects of this history, we miss an important opportunity to help reduce discrimination about the Roma.

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Our trip to Birkenau was strenuous and haunting. This is where the commemoration ceremony took place; our trip involved long walks to the site where the August 2 liquidation of the Roma family camp took place, to the pool where their ashes rest, and to the Roma memorial. Some conference members proudly carried their national flags; others wandered in silence, solemnly processing the day’s events.

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The most moving experience of all was the long walk back to the buses through a barbed wire corridor. Some Roma conference members had gone ahead, and stood lining our walkway, each wearing a white armband bearing the letter “Z” (for “zigeuner” – “gypsy” – the Nazi designation for Roma and Sinti). “Dik I Na Bistar,” the armbanded participants chanted as we passed by. “Dik I Na Bistar – Look and Don’t Forget.”

 

They are the living memory. We – Roma and gadje alike – must now bear witness. 

DAY 2: Opening and Workshops

This morning felt early to Dafina and me, despite our premature bedtime last night. It was hard to stay sleepy, though, after walking through the wall of energy filling the university auditorium where ternYpe – International Roma Youth Network Secretary General Karolina Mirga waited to open the conference. The energy in the room was palpable – 450 people, young and older, Roma and non-Roma from throughout Europe (and us two from Canada!), felt united for a common goal: to bring the memory of the estimated 500, 000 Roma killed during the Holocaust into the present.

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To me, the murmur in the room sounded at first like distracted teens chatting against the speaker. But soon I realized it was actually a cacophony of live translations, as multilinguals from every country helped their compatriots not to miss a word. This cross-cultural richness continued in our small welcome groups, where individuals were asked to stand up and introduce themselves, and state their reasons for attending the conference. In this setting, the power of Roma and non-Roma coming together became concrete for me. One non-Roma youth from Czech Republic  – a country where stereotypes run deep, and drastic human rights abuses against Roma are happening every day – said that she was at the conference to bring concrete arguments home, so that she could help convince the educated, intelligent people in her life to abandon their prejudice. “To be honest,” she said, “I have never been around this many Roma people in my life.” For many attendees, the experience has already helped erode deep-seated stereotypes.

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In the afternoon and evening, Dafina and I each attended two workshops. We split up but still had trouble deciding which way to go, with 15 topics offered. “This is why I need 20 participants instead of two!” Dafina said at one point. Despite indecisiveness, we made the most of those events we could attend, sharing our experiences with one another afterwards. One of my events was an interactive session with Polish radio journalist Anna Makówka-Kwapisiewicz, who had participants create their own identity charts to help them consider the ways in which we make assumptions about one another, and how those assumptions can be used to impose harm.

 

This evening, the entire group trudged across the city to have dinner, and to watch theatre and traditional music at the Galicia Jewish Museum. Though not identical, stereotypes against Jews and Roma in Poland are historically linked, as they were the only two specific groups targeted by the Nazis on the basis of racial/ethnic hatred. The cultural presentation was moving, but the most striking part of the evening was our later conversation with members of the Italian group, during which time Dafina and I learned that one of our wonderful new Italian Roma friends actually lives with his family in a “camp” in Italy. The Holocaust may have been uniquely horrific and destructive, but the present situation for Roma in many countries bears some eerie similarities to this horrible past.

 

DAY 1: Arrival in Krakow

After some minor flight chaos in Munich, we made it to Krakow. We settled into our beautiful little room, complete with an uncomfortably large mirror and Cold War-era radio. The evening consisted of many reunions with the leaders of ternYpe – International Roma Youth Network who first inspired Dafina to start Romanipe: Karolina Mirga, Jonathan Mack, and others. After plunging into a conversation about antigypsyism with German scholar Markus End over a potato-filled dinner, we both crashed. Jet lag and anticipation can be a dangerous combination!

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