On January 27, 1945, a detachment of the Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division entered what appeared to be a hastily abandoned labor camp. “Arbeit Macht Frei” was cast into the gates, “work sets you free.” The Soviet troops were about to confront the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the Nazis had made genocide a national industry.
On January 6, 2021, Arbeit Macht Frei was seen in the US Capitol. The slogan was on a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt worn by an insurrectionist who mugged for cameras with other pro-Trump rioters as they desecrated the halls of American democracy with Nazi-inspired flags and insignia. Just the month before, members of the Proud Boys had taken to the streets of DC for Trump in “6MWE” shirts (6 million wasn’t enough).
That anti-Semitic, anti-Roma bile is below contempt or comment, other than to say that now is not the moment for the rest of us to stand back and stand by. It’s time to acknowledge and remember.
“The forgotten Holocaust,” is how Professor Eve Rosenhaft, a German historian, describes the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis on the Roma, which by the time the Russians liberated Auschwitz had already claimed 25% of the Roma population in Europe. No Nazi war criminals stood trial at Nuremberg for atrocities committed against the Roma. Germany refused to recognize the Nazi persecution of the Roma until 1982. It took France until 2016 to acknowledge the role of its collaborators in the mass murder of the Roma, and for decades the US Government has demonstrated ambivalence toward Roma representation on the US Holocaust Memorial Council.
Initially, it was estimated that “only” 250,000 Roma had been murdered in the Holocaust, but by 1995, US Holocaust Memorial Research Institute senior historian, Dr. Sybil Milton, stated it was closer to “a million-and-a-half” victims. A combination of the SS destroying concentration camp records as the allies closed-in and roving Nazi death squads such as the Einsatzgruppen which massacred thousands of Roma in occupied Europe before Himmler’s “final solution” decree, have hindered historians’ ability to calculate the magnitude of the “forgotten Holocaust.”
Still, there is much we know, like how Auschwitz’s SS “Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele, preyed upon Roma children – particularly twins – for many of his hideous “medical” experiments. The depravity and inhumanity of Mengele and his ilk should never be diminished by the passage of time. Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember. The tomorrow cannot come when we forget.
Now, the International Romani Union (IRU), which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, is lobbying the Biden-Harris Administration to consult with it on appointing a Roma spokesperson to fill the vacant seat on the US Holocaust Memorial Council.
For the first time in its history, IRU endorsed a US presidential candidate in 2020, and urged eligible voters among the approximately one-million Roma in the US to support the Biden-Harris ticket. In the endorsement letter, IRU president, Zoran Dimov, expressed the hope that a Biden-Harris Administration would give “full recognition to the Roma as a distinct ethnic group. As one of the most ancient tribal societies in world history, such recognition is long overdue,” he wrote.
Having endured four years of silence from the Trump Administration that emboldened authoritarians and dictators in Europe to further entrench the apartheid the Roma endure, IRU is also seeking a return to Obama-Biden era norms. Then, the Obama Administration at least recognized International Romani Day (April 8), and the State Department didn’t consider the abject human misery of Roma being herded into landfills to be acceptable so long as the despots orchestrating it stroked the president’s ego.
In common with other tribal people, minority, and marginalized communities the world over, COVID-19 has devastated the Roma. In Europe, Amnesty International has highlighted human rights abuses by far-right regimes that have used the pandemic to further stigmatize the Roma, among them Steve Bannon’s “Trump before Trump,” Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
For my own people, the Blackfeet, and our relatives throughout Indian Country, many of our elders have succumbed to COVID-19. The virus has removed those wisdom keepers who were the embodiment of our cultures from our communities and future generations. The Roma tribes are experiencing the same. “This pandemic is taking our Roma elders who survived the Holocaust. Who will tell the story when they are gone?” Tashi Mathuin, an IRU youth ambassador, asks. Her generation deserves an answer.
In 2014, during speeches in Romania and the Ukraine, then-Vice President Biden insisted that “the fundamental human rights” of the Roma must be protected. IRU is appealing for the same stance from now President Biden. It doesn’t seem much to ask from the people who were first brought to the Americas by Columbus as slaves, and later toiled in fields as the property of plantation owners from Virginia to the Caribbean with the enslaved from Africa. If we’re going to have a reckoning on race in America, let’s make it complete. And it’s Roma, not Gypsy.