Day 1: May 10th 2023
The symposium opened with a first panel on Microhistory, with a presentation by Grégoire Cousin, titled ‘The fate of the Roma deported to Suha-Balca farm: writing a collective history of the victims.’ His project uses digital humanities and spatiality tools to investigate the spatial logic of internment. Grégoire reconstructed the deportation routes of the 1643 individual Roma interned in Suha-Balca from their place of residence in Romania to the farm, and showed how families were distributed throughout different buildings in the farm. He argued that this analysis showed how the administration of Suha-Balca tried to break bonds of Romani solidarity. Grégoire also discussed notions of Romani hierarchy within the farm and conceptions of collaboration.
Anna Míšková’s presentation, “The Return Unwanted’, the story of one family against the background of Nazi persecution in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, focused on the testimony and family history of one Roma woman, Božena Pflegerová, who was imprisoned in the ‘Gypsy camp’ Lety u Písku. Anna discussed how this story gives a unique insight into the effort to bear witness, the quest for recognition and justice and the continuing struggle with trauma of Roma communities affected by persecution in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. She also discussed issues around the treatment of sensitive family testimonies and pictures in the context of publications and exhibits.
Paula Simon concluded this panel with her presentation, ‘A Mosaic of Sources: Writing a Microhistory of the Samudaripen in Niš, Serbia’. Paula’s work investigates the fate of Muslim Roma in Southeast Serbia, an under-researched area in the history of the Roma genocide, combining perpetrator sources with sources such as testimonies that highlight Roma agency. Paula discussed a case study of one Romani family from Niš, highlighting the challenges of working with local archives, the benefits of using contemporary testimonies, and the importance of looking at gendered aspects of persecution. She finished with a discussion of how a microhistorical approach can help researchers deal with the issue of fragmented sources and the impossibility of building representative pictures, and allow for a questioning of how grand narratives can be applied to specific cases.
The second ‘Microhistory’ panel of the day began with Petre Matei’s presentation, ‘Roma women’s petitions to rescue their deported families: A case study from Romania’. Petre examined the survival strategies of one Roma family in Transnistria, and especially those used by the women in the family to try to save the men who had been deported. He argued that looking at the petition files submitted by these women to the authorities reveals the vagueness of discriminatory criteria used by Romanian authorities, notably with the concept of ‘undesirable Gypsies’, to discriminate against Roma in Transnistria, but also highlights Roma women’s agency in the process of survival. Petre also discussed more broadly methods of survival, and the different fates of those who chose to go the legal way and petition authorities for the repatriation of their families, and those who decided to flee the region despite this being illegal.
Michala Lônčíková then presented her project, “Detention Camp for Gypsies’ in Dubnica nad Váhom in the Romani testimonies from the compensation files of Slovakia’, in which she examines the unique source body of compensation files from wartime Slovakia and how these can be used to map Romani voices. Michala discussed the files of individuals who had been interned in the detention camp for Gypsies at Dubnica and Vahom, and showed how applicants had to describe their personal history in order to claim compensation. She also addressed questions of differences individual and collective experiences, as well as how these experiences were shaped as well by gender and age.
This panel concluded with a presentation by Laura Stoebener titled ‘Thirteen Dossiers: Survivors of the genocide of Roma in Belgium’. Laura discussed the continuities in the persecution of Roma people in Belgium, specifically through policing and identification measures. Her project traces the path of a 13 individual survivors of the 353 Roma who were deported from Mechelen in Belgium to Auschwitz in January 1944 in the archives of the ‘Police d’Etrangers’. She showed that these archives reveal how survivors fought for recognition and attempted to obtain reparations, but also demonstrate the persistent suspicion with which their cases were treated by Belgian authorities. Laura also reflected on the challenges of working with perpetrator documents when these are often the only source available to trace the stories of survivors.
Eva Sammadar began panel 3, ‘Testimonies as objects of analysis’ with a presentation titled ‘Embodying sufferance of Roma in Serbia between 1941 and 1944 through arts and oral testimonies.’ Eva’s work uses ‘the body’ as an analytical category that allows for an investigation of the history of persecution against Roma in Serbia, the broader history of racism against Roma in Serbian society, and the history of memory and commemoration. She discussed references in testimonies to violence suffered by Roma individuals and their bodies, as well as the physical suffering visible in interviews carried out by Paul Polanksy, in addition to a smaller new sample of testimonies of Roma families from the Marinkova Bara suburb of Belgrade. She also outlined how continuities in racism against Roma in Serbian society are brought up in testimonies, and how memory and commemoration is represented in works of art such as songs, films and paintings by Serb and Roma artists.
Helena Sadilkova and Lada Vikova then presented their project titled ‘Experiences difficult to communicate’: Post-war testimonies by Jan Ištvan, a Romani Holocaust survivor, and the history of his family in the Czech lands’. Helena and Lada’s project focuses on the Holocaust testimonies and family history of Jan Ištvan, and a discussion of how the act of testifying can be shaped by different pressures. They showed that how survivors decided to narrate their experiences was both shaped by the way the Romani Holocaust was explained and discussed outside the private sphere, but also in turn shaped this discussion of the genocide. Helena and Lada also discussed the role of different archival institutions, notably the USHMM, in preserving testimonies, and in terms of who survivors are willing to share their experiences with.
Finally, Maria Bogdan’s presentation ‘Self-representation: survivor interviews as trauma texts and as part of the deconstructive shift of the Romani movements’ outlined how Romani movements across Europe have become increasingly focused on researching European Roma history, with a focus on resistance, belonging and resilience. She argued that analysing survivor testimonies, such as the testimonies of a Sinti woman named Rita Prigmore, as trauma texts allows for a better understanding of identity constructs of Romani communities since the Second World War, and especially in terms of how trauma is passed down generationally.
After the panel, Fabian Heindl gave a short presentation on a project titled ‘Interactive biographies – A viable approach in educating young people about Romani issues?’. Fabian presented an online tool he has been developing at the LMU Munich of ‘interactive biographies’ of eleven representatives of German speaking Romani community, including two survivors of Romani genocide. The project aims to create digital interactive testimonies intended for classroom use that students could pose questions to, in order to learn more about Romani culture and the Romani genocide. The presentation led to discussion with the other symposium participants on the positives and negatives of using digital tools and AI in testimony and research on Romani genocide and the Holocaust more broadly.
The first day of the conference concluded with a keynote lecture by Ari Joskowicz, titled ‘Roma, Jews and the Holocaust’, in light of the recent publication of his book Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews and the Holocaust (Princeton, 2023). Ari presented a discussion of the unequal relationship between the history of the genocide of the Roma and the Jews. He focused especially on the asymmetry in the knowledge production on both genocides, showing how in many cases sources on the Roma genocide are held by Jewish archival institutions. Ari argued that a relational history is a more useful way to approach these two genocides, rather than a comparative approach that reproduces injustices of the past. He showed that this entanglement is less clear in the persecution of Roma and Jews, as in most cases both groups suffered side by side, but is much more apparent in the quest for justice after the war. Romani survivors were able to draw on networks of Jewish survivors to put forward restitution claims, and obtain documentation on their experiences. Ari argued that he saw his book to be a hopeful one, with an arc between two groups who understood each other very little, to more profound dialogue, and potentially increasing solidarity and reciprocity between both groups. He finally concluded with a call for Jewish institutions to reflect on how the histories of other groups are woven into their history, and a broader encouragement to rethink unequal alliances, ‘when really there are no other alliances to be had.’
Day 2: May 11th 2023
The second day of the symposium opened with a keynote lecture by Volha Bartash titled: ‘On agency and resistance, Roma in the Soviet partisan movement’. Volha presented a case study of several Roma individuals who were involved in the Soviet partisans, drawing on family history as well as extensive oral history research and memoirs written by partisans. She began by stating that in this context there was no clear opposition between victimhood and resistance, posing the question, ‘was survival in extreme circumstances resistance in itself?’ She emphasised the importance of partisan memories for many Roma in the Soviet Union, even if their involvement was not necessarily obvious from the Soviet archives. She showed how the threat of genocidal violence led many Roma to join partisan units, but that many did so also out of a sense of revenge for violence perpetrated against their families. Volha argued that memories of Romani participation in Soviet partisan movement are predominantly heroic, and this conceals the experiences of everyday life in partisan groups, and especially the role of women and children. Though Roma women did not tend to be involved in violent partisan actions, and were never fully accepted in the partisan movement, they played crucial roles in scouting and providing food for entire partisan units. Though these experiences are challenging to uncover, she emphasised the need for community-based approaches to Roma history, as well as gendered approaches to construct a fuller picture of Roma in the Soviet partisan movement.
Alexander Korb then started the fourth panel of the symposium, ‘State perspectives and transitional justice’ with a presentation titled ‘Genozide ante Portas? Bavarian anti-traveller legislation and practice in the 1920s’. This was one of the only presentations to focus on the pre-war period. Alex outlined that there is little research on the fate of the Sinti and Roma in Germany before 1933, but that there was much continuity in the persecutory practices towards the Sinti and Roma carried out by the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior from the 1920s to the 1930s-40s. He argued that the intensity of the racist and hostile language in the archival paper trail of the Ministry’s indicated the potential for future genocidal measures against the Sinti and Roma.
Lara Raabe’s presentation, ‘Between bureaucracy and agency: Romani voices in West Berlin restitution proceedings’ examined property claims made by Sinti and Roma in West Berlin restitution proceedings. She argued that though these files were shaped by a formal bureaucratized procedure, they can still be used as sources that include the voices of Sinti and Roma individuals, through examining letters and affidavits submitted. Through case studies of the restitution files of three individuals, Lara showed how these sources allow for a clearer picture of Romani agency and self-assertion, as well as how Romani individuals perceived the continuities in their persecution.
Verena Meier concluded this panel with a discussion of her project, ‘New perpetrator research and voices of the oppressed: The NS genocide against Sinti and Roma in Magdeburg and Transitional Justice after 1945’. Her research examines the 600 personal files of the criminal police in Magdeburg, and Verena argued that these files allow her to trace the persecution measures against individual victims, but also the roles of specific perpetrators within the criminal police. She also discussed what role survivors played in ‘transitional justice’ in prosecuting perpetrators in the post-war period in the Soviet Zone of Occupation and the GDR.
Maëlle Lepitre began panel 5, ‘Commemoration’ with a presentation titled ‘Remembering the Roma genocide: The case of the Buchenwald memorial after 1989/1990’. Maëlle discussed how the fall of the Berlin wall led to a reorientation in memorialisation at Buchenwald that began to pay increasing attention to ‘forgotten’ inmates, and not only communist resistance fighters. She showed how the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma played a crucial role in petitioning the Buchenwald survivors’ associations, the Buchenwald memorial team and German government for the creation of a memorial to the murdered Sinti and Roma, which was eventually inaugurated in 1995.
In her presentation ‘Searching for ways to remember the Holocaust of Czech Roma and Sinti in the 1960s and Early 1970s’, Renata Berkyova showed that though the memory narratives of the Second World War took on a new form in the 1960s and 1970s, shifting away from focusing on national heroes to victims of Nazi persecution, Czech Sinti and Roma were only allowed a very small opportunity to negotiate the recognition of the genocide of the Roma and commemorate victims of persecution. Renata used a case study of the 1960 documentary film ‘Don’t Forget About That Little Girl’ about the fate of Roma in the camp of Lety u Písku, to discuss issues around using Holocaust imagery and photography as sources, and the extent to which the activities of Czech Roma and Sinti survivors that led to the commemoration of survivors were shaped by narratives of long term trauma and a new communist society.
Aisling Shalvey began the sixth and final panel of the symposium, ‘Roma children and the Holocaust’ with her presentation, ‘Identification of victims and uncovering injustice in the Noma experiment on Roma children at Auschwitz’. This research examines Josef Mengele’s experiments on Roma children with the rare disease noma. Aisling discussed issues around the ethics of retaining and researching medical collections. She also outlined the difficulties in uncovering the identities of the Roma victims due to the lack of sources remaining on this experiment, but the importance in finding and remembering their names in order to humanise them as individuals.
Justyna Matkowska’s presentation, ‘Roma orphans in the south-eastern area of Occupied Poland during WWII’ examined the fate of children of the Carpathian Roma community whose parents were transported to Auschwitz. Through a study of individuals and her personal family history, Justyna outlined the consequences of Nazi actions against Carpathian Roma in Poland, especially in terms of the challenges in maintaining Roma culture and identity, and preserving the Romani language, for these children whose families had been murdered.
The symposium concluded with a roundtable with Ari Joskowicz, Volha Bartash and Karola Fings, on the topic of ‘New directions in the study of the Roma genocide.’ The panellists began their discussion by signalling the need for the creation of stable institutions dedicated to the study of Roma history and the genocide of the Roma, in order to index and catalogue sources but also provide continuity in the field. They called for the need for more professorships, and discussed the issue of many young scholars not pursuing their projects on the topic. The speakers discussed the centrality of Germany in the field of research on the Roma genocide, but also the need to go beyond national borders in order for research to progress. They outlined how local memory of the Roma genocide is being erased by national memory, with the centrality of Auschwitz in narratives of the Roma Holocaust drawing focus away from smaller lesser known sites of violence and killing. The panellists commented that what seems to be missing is a field of academic Roma history, that is different to Romani studies or studies limited to the Roma genocide, and also that studies of the Romani genocide need to be included more often in broader Holocaust research conferences, questioning whether there needs to be a broadening focus on writing the history of Nazi racial persecution. Ari, Volha and Karola then reflected on the terminology used by historians when writing about the Roma genocide, questioning why the term ‘Zigeneurlager’ is still so widespread despite being terminology used by perpetrators. This led to a conversation with other speakers from the symposium regarding national variations in what Roma and Sinti communities consider as acceptable terminology, with the point made that in France the term ‘Tsiganes’ is much more widely accepted by different communities than the term ‘Rom’. The roundtable concluded with a group reflection on the lack of any real guidance on what it means to be an ethical historian, and a call for all historians in the room and beyond to reflect more on this question.
This symposium was generously supported by the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, the George Macaulay Trevelyan Fund through the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, and the Past & Present Society.