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The Roma: a Minority in Europe

Roni Stauber
Raphael Vago

Story, history and memory: a case study of the Roma at the Komarom camp in Hungary

Katalin Katz

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1This essay presents a central chapter of the Hungarian Porrajmos (‘Holocaust,’ in Romanes, the language of the Roma, or Gypsies): the chronicle of the Komarom camp. As part of a study concluded in 2003, it also deals with the relationship of memory, story and history of the Porrajmos. The research on the Porrajmos in Hungary was carried out from a social science perspective, using a narrative methodology. It traces the construction of memory in its historic, social and political context. From this viewpoint, the memory of what happened to the Roma during World War II, particularly in Hungary, has been neglected to a certain extent and the role of the Komarom camp barely receives a mention.

2Memory includes various expressions of remembering, but also of forgetting, enforced forgetfulness and denial. Difficulties in acknowledging the Porrajmos stem from a number of reasons: because it is related to a detached community, which experienced exclusion; because of its traumatic character; and because of the struggle between the social center and the periphery for the writing of history. Hence, the tragedy of the Hungarian Roma has never been recorded in a comprehensive manner.


  • 1 R. L. Braham and N. Katzburg, The History of the Shoa, Hungary (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1992), pp. (...)

3The persecution of the Roma in Hungary neither began with the outbreak of World War II nor ceased with the end of the war. However, it reached a peak during the Nazi occupation of Hungary between 19 March 1944 and 4 April 1945. During this period, which is relatively short compared to other countries in Europe, the German Nazi persecution and extermination machine worked hand-in-hand with the Hungarian Nyilas (Arrow Cross), with its mixture of cruelty and efficiency.1

  • 2 J. Bársony, “Magyarországi cigány Holocaust” (Hungarian Gypsy Holocaust) Phralipe (Oct. 1996), pp. (...)
  • 3 The total number of lives taken is estimated at 28,000 to 50,000. D. Kenrick. and G. Puxon, The De (...)

4Moreover, Hungarian Roma were persecuted for racist reasons in an attempt to wipe them out. Their names were registered; they were confined to their homes; assigned to forced labor; led to assembly points, compelled to board trains and sent to the Komarom camp inside Hungary and to concentration camps beyond the border; they were also forced to take part in ‘death marches’ to undisclosed destinations on empty stomachs; and were massacred in their home towns.2 In the absence of precise documentation, it is impossible to know the exact number of lives taken.3 Today the survivors and their descendants are not only struggling against attempts to disavow and erase the memory of what happened to them, but also against new persecutions.


  • 4 M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago, 1992), pp. 73–4; J. K. Olick, “Collective Memory: The (...)

5The theories dealing with memory studies unite various elements that merge in the process of construction: the community—its history and central events, its organization and make-up, as well as the social powers working within it and around it; psychic factors; the ways individuals coped with the experiences they and members of their families underwent; cultural features and ‘memory techniques;’ and the current circumstances of the community and its needs.4 Memory negotiates among all these sometimes conflicting issues, in order to create a story that will serve as a basis for transmission, and to which changes can be made in the future. Constructing memory is in effect a persistent struggle over what will be recorded and what will be forgotten; over what will be erased after having been inscribed and what will be recalled after it has already been forgotten; over what will be written and what will be recounted; and no less importantly, over how it will be retold.

6Accordingly, memory includes both remembering and forgetting. These conflicting faculties battle continuously in an attempt to negotiate for space in the memory field. The areas of remembering and forgetting there are not fixed and each ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ parts of its territory during the construction process. The memory space is also constantly reformulated when it is illuminated from a different perspective, while the dark areas of forgetting conceal details that lose their power when not articulated.


7In order to understand why the Porrajmos has been forgotten or erased from memory, we must deal with two principal aspects of memory construction: the intra-cultural facet of the Roma community and the inter-cultural socialpolitical dimension (which examines the place of the Roma among European nations), and the relationship between them.

  • 5 J. Yoors, The Gypsies (Illinois, 1987), p. 5; A. Fraser, The Gypsies (Oxford, 1996).
  • 6 Fraser, The Gypsies.
  • 7 Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, p. 38.

8One of the central characteristics of Roma culture that has influenced the construction of memory in general and that of the Porrajmos in particular is the community’s lack of a historical collective memory.5 This is connected in part to the fact that the Roma are steeped in an oral culture as opposed to a written one. It is also linked to the absence of a hierarchical organization among the Roma and their dispersion throughout the world without their ever having had a defined territory of their own.6 The traumatic nature of Porrajmos memories has caused further difficulties in telling the stories. According to Halbwachs, the community constructs the collective memory and memory reflects the community’s construction; Roma fragmentation does not allow for narrative continuity.7 In the absence of a narrative, there is no structured memory or collective or communicative meta-narrative with other communities.

  • 8 Kenrick and Puxon, The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies, pp. 13–17.
  • 9 I. Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1988), pp. 16–29.
  • 10 G. Margalit, “The Other Germany” and the Gypsies (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1999), 32–3.
  • 11 N. Wachtel, “Introduction: Memory and History,” History and Anthropology 2 (1986), pp. 207-24.

9The main reason for the severed-fragmented memory of the Roma, however, is their history of continuous persecution in Europe.8 For 500 years the Roma were slaves in eastern Europe, while in western Europe they were expelled wherever they went and even persecuted to death.9 This situation continued until the end of the 19th century when their persecution assumed a more modern facade, but did not cease.10 Life in the shadow of persecution and in a position of slavery breaks the continuity of collective memory; this is also what happened to the Africans who were brought to America as slaves.11

  • 12 J. F. Loytard, “The Postmodern Condition,” in M. McQuillan (ed.), The Narrative Reader (London/New (...)

10Forgetting the Porrajmos goes hand-in-hand with the position of Roma in society in general. The “postmodern condition,” notes Loytard, associates knowledge with power through narrative means.12 Knowledge combined with power also constructs the hegemonic memory formulated by the central authority. The various narratives receive ‘status,’ that is, expression and legitimacy, based on the social standing of the storytellers. The ruling social power grants legitimacy to narratives that it endorses.

  • 13 H. K. Bhahba, Nation and Narration (London, 1990), p. 307.

11The Roma, as an excluded group in society, have not gained the legitimacy to add their unique story to the hegemonic memory of the Holocaust, which is considered largely the story of the Jews as victims, and of the Germans as persecutors. The Roma, as a community are regarded as ‘the other,’ which is struggling for recognition of its culture and rights in European society. The issue of power, which participates in the mutual establishment of memory and community, is illustrated through the postcolonial theory.13 The Roma in Europe are the eternal ‘other,’ whose exile is in their homeland and their homeland is in their exile—in the absence of a fatherland and their own territory. Hence, their attempts to establish a memory of their genocide and their demands to include the Porrajmos as part of the history of the Holocaust have had little impact.

12The struggle is complex and plagued with internal contradictions and ambivalences, emanating both from the central authority and from the peripheral communities. Society in general transmits an ambiguous message to marginal groups, requiring that they assimilate and renounce their cultural identity, while at the same time rejecting their attempts at integration and insisting that they maintain their foreignness and ‘otherness.’ These dynamics are also characteristic of the position of memory and its mode of construction. The marginal and rejected position of the Roma in society pushed the story of the Porrajmos into the margins of history far away from the center due to their status as the eternal ‘other’ in the European social context.

  • 14 Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, p. 38.
  • 15 B. Muller-Hill, Murderous Science. (Jerusalem, 1992; Hebrew version); Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome(...)
  • 16 Y. Bauer, “Gypsies and the Holocaust,” The History Teacher 24 (1991); Y. Bauer, Rethinking the Hol (...)

13Consequently, traditional Roma culture, together with the Roma’s marginal social position, has led to the memory of the Porrajmos remaining an intra-community memory. The community constructs the memory;14 in so doing, the shards of memory of a disintegrating community such as that of the Roma can revive and strengthen it. To some degree, the stories of the Porrajmos were compiled into a common narrative among the Roma communities, but it was only in the late 1980s and the 1990s that attempts were made to impart these narratives to the outside world as well.15 Most of these efforts, however, encountered indifference or a demand to distinguish between remembrance of the Jewish Shoah and Roma memory.16 The time that has elapsed since the war and the sparse documentation on the subject have impeded its penetration of public consciousness. Testimonies from the few remaining survivors are difficult to obtain, although their significance in the documentation process is great.


  • 17 Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (Tel Aviv, 1994; Hebrew edition), pp. 92–6.
  • 18 Wachtel, “Introduction: Memory and History.”

14During the construction process of traumatic memory, which has a major role in rehabilitating both the life of the individual17 and that of the collective,18 ‘memory work’ must be undertaken in order to insert the traumatic event(s) into the continuity of the personal life story or into the history of the collective. Memory work is narrative. The traumatic story or stories are recounted and edited over and over again until they crystallize into a tale of significance, which can be absorbed into the personal life story or into the historic meta-narrative of the collective, and become an integral part of the historic events of the community. Without memory work, traumatic memory is dislocated and fragmented, leaving the individual or the collective rent and wounded.

  • 19 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 92.

15Memory work requires two interdependent conditions: narrating, on the one hand, and social recognition, on the other. Without social recognition, that is, an expression of interest in the victim of the trauma and support of him or her, narration of the story is impossible. However, telling the story itself is also a condition enabling the victim to solicit sympathy in order to undergo rehabilitation. An encouraging social environment and the ability of the victim to recount the story are important components of the rehabilitation process.19

16A number of narrativity stages take place during the process of traumatic memory work:

  • During and immediately following the traumatic state, the memory has not yet formed itself into a story and leaves the individual as well as the collective shaken, with a fixed recollection of the scenes of the events. The pictures are replayed repeatedly. There is a sense of threat. One hears the voices and smells the odors. This is the first stage of non-narrativity.
  • With a change in the traumatic situation, the victims recount the event to themselves, to those close to them or to members of their community, an intimate tale that is told for their own benefit. This is the stage of intra-narrativity.
  • Providing there is a supportive environment, the story will be carried outside the inner circle. The wounded will relate what happened to them and solicit sympathy, enabling them to retell the story and thus work over their trauma. This is the stage of inter-narrativity.
  • Based on the previous stages, the traumatic story can then be formulated into a memory of meta-narrative, which is placed within the continuity of the life story and history. This story receives personal and social significance as it offers meaning and connects with the past and the future without violating identity.

17This ideal process of memory work is always more complex in reality, and especially so where memory of the Porrajmos is concerned. Firstly, the end of the traumatic event is not at all clear-cut. Persecution of the Roma continued even after the change of the Nazi regime and continues today, albeit in a less extreme manner than that of the Nazi exterminations. Secondly, the character of the traditional Roma culture also means that Roma narrativity naturally reaches the intra-narrativity stage, but has difficulty in passing to the inter-narrativity stage. The marginality of the Roma, the absence of a supportive environment, and society’s lack of recognition of them and the legitimacy of their narrative intensify this problem.

  • 20 J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (London, 1979).

18In the struggle for legitimacy of the Roma narrative, the contest with the Jewish collective, some of which claims ‘Jewish exclusivity,’ plays a role. In addition, the move by the Roma to the inter-narrativity stage, which would strengthen their power in the struggle for legitimacy of their story, is connected to processes of change in their own social structure—and hence also their culture. The conditions for this shift are narrativity and flexible crosscultural communication.20


  • 21 Ibid.

19The move to inter-narrativity is linked to the Roma’s communication with outside society. Communication includes narrating and the ability to listen and to understand. Habermas raises the need for communication in the ‘world of life,’ which requires flexibility within the dialogue and the ability of different social groups to behave openly to those unlike them.21 Flexibility in the various dialogues will lead to the formation of a pluralistic society, which recognizes multiple social identities and allows for their coexistence. This ideal encounters difficulties because of a reality consisting of “manipulative communication,” which imposes on society a dialogue fixed to serve the interests of powerful groups.

  • 22 Wachtel, “Introduction: Memory and History.”
  • 23 A. Margalit, “The Lasting Past,” Zmanim (in Hebrew) 68–69 (1999–2000), pp. 76–86.

20The reality of manipulative communication reflects the struggles of humanitarian groups. Each group fights for its interests with narrative tools22 in an attempt to canonize its own story.23

  • 24 Bhahba, Nation and Narration, p. 59.

21These confrontations are mainly power struggles associated with the community’s place on the political map, whether it be in the center or on the periphery, and the place of ‘the others’ on this map.24 With the move of the Roma to inter-narrativity, stories about the Porrajmos are being constructed, and with the re-organization of the Roma, their power is growing; nevertheless, opposition to granting legitimacy to the Roma narrative is also gaining strength. The struggle is not yet resolved; but the mere fact of its taking place has raised somewhat public awareness of the story of the Porrajmos.

22The research conducted by the author was based largely on testimonies: 57 interviews conducted with Roma survivors all over Hungary. Interviews published over the years in various journals were also used, as well as all manner of written documentation that it was possible to extract from army, police and government records and newspaper articles from the war years.

23The Komarom camp had a central role in the story of the Hungarian Porrajmos. It was the main gathering point for Roma in the final stages of the war—from November 1944 until Hungary’s liberation by the Red Army in April 1945. As such, it plays both a concrete and a symbolic role in the memory of the Porrajmos. In this unique story, young children and their mothers were released from the camp after a relatively short time. Since many of these children survived and lived to be able to testify, the Komarom camp came to be chosen for this study.


24The story of the Roma in the Komarom camp recounted here is a summary based on the above sources. Extracts from the interviews will also be presented verbatim (in translation), in order to bring the victims’ tales to life.

25The city of Komarom is on the northern border of Hungary directly facing the Slovakian city of Komarno. Both cities, which are mirror images of each other, have a fortification system, built during the second half of the 19th century in order to guard the route to Vienna, the capital of the Austro- Hungarian Empire. During the Holocaust, their purpose was reversed and the fortresses were turned into assembly points and prisons for people of whom the country wanted to rid itself.

  • 25 Braham and Katzburg, The History of the Shoa: Hungary, pp. 277–8.

26In the volume Hungary in the series The History of the Shoah, published by Yad Vashem, which recounts the history of the deportation and extermination of Hungarian Jews,25 the Star Fortress in Komarom is mentioned as having served as a ‘ghetto’ for the Jews of Komarom and the surrounding villages, and as a boarding station for the trains. It is described as a place where atrocious acts were carried out prior to the deportations. Nothing is mentioned about the Roma. However, between November 1944 and April 1945, in addition to Jews, Communists and other persecuted peoples, thousands of Roma prisoners—in fact, mainly Roma—also passed through Komarom.

  • 26 B. Puskás, “Adalékok a cigányság II. világháborús tragédiájához” (Contributions to World War II. T (...)
  • 27 Bársony, “Magyarországi cigány Holocaust.”

27In his concluding article on the persecution of the Roma in Hungary during World War II, Puskás emphasizes the central role of Komarom,26 as does Bársony, who writes that many thousands of Gypsies were crowded there. Bársony adds that many of the women and children were released while all the others were deported to Germany.27

  • 28 L. Karsai, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon 1919–1945, Út a cigány Holocausthoz (The Gypsy Question i (...)

28Karsai’s findings on the Gypsy question in Hungary (1919–45) are based purely on written documentation, for the most part compensation claims from the Hungarian State Bank archives.28 His conclusion that the damage sustained by the Hungarian Roma during the Holocaust was negligible derived from the small number of claimants with Gypsy-sounding names. (It should be noted here that before their organization in the late 1990s most Roma did not have the social skills to claim compensation due to the demands of the paperwork). Nevertheless, as anecdotes, which in Karsai’s opinion cannot be used for research data, he quotes stories by Roma who were imprisoned at Komarom. These stories join those that I heard from former Roma inmates of Komarom whom I interviewed.

29Inter alia, Karsai writes:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 127.

There had to be some sort of central directive, if most of the victims of the Gypsy deportation acts arrived at Komarom. During this period, they deported the Gypsies on racist grounds… although the Gypsies were not transferred from the Star Prison [in Komarom] to the territory of the Third Reich, but only the men and women who were of working age.29

30He sums up the subject of Komarom thus:

  • 30 Ibid., pp. 138–39.

298 Gypsies handed in compensation claims, of which 35 contained no useful data… After processing the data in 263 cases containing assessable data, I reached the following conclusions. If I relate to all the data supplied by the claimants about the place of their deportation, those who were with them at the time of deportation and the number of their relatives who died as credible data, out of 263 cases there was a total of 219 dead [and] 208 deportees. 33 people were sent home from Komarom, generally after three weeks imprisonment [emphasis by author]…30

31Karsai’s conclusions seem odd, especially in view of the testimonies he himself cites, unless he disbelieves them and does not consider them ‘useful data.’ He noted that Komarom was exceptionally crowded with Roma prisoners, at least in November-December 1944 and that it continued to operate until April 1945. These facts contradict the figures that Karsai states. The question of his conclusion is interesting as part of the subject of memory construction. Aside from the question of the figures, his reference to “generally three weeks of imprisonment” in light of the conditions described, as if it were an insignificant and uneventful time, warrants further discussion.

  • 31 Kenrick and Puxon, Gypsies under the Swastika. (Hertfordshire, 1995), pp. 100–6.

32Writing about the Komarom camp in their second book, which documents the fate of the Roma during World War II, Kenrick and Puxon state that it also served as a concentration camp for Gypsies and Jews from the Hungarian-occupied areas of Slovakia. They add that the Roma were sent from Komarom to Dachau and only women with small children were released.31

33Based on Karsai and Kenrick and Puxon, we can conclude that in December 1944 mothers with small children were sent home from Komarom, while all others aged 14 and up were sent onwards to various concentration camps. However, besides reference to this fact, it is interesting to study the different ways each writer has of interpreting the given information.

  • 32 Karsai, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon, p. 139.

34Karsai notes that only those capable of work were sent from Komarom to the concentration camps, and even this statement is presented dubiously, since he cites witnesses who err in the pronunciation of names and emphasizes their mistakes: for example, “Tacho… instead of Dachau.”32 Women and children, he adds, were sent home.

35Kenrick, on the other hand, labels Komarom a ‘concentration camp,’ and recounts how the Roma were sent from there to concentration and extermination camps all over the Third Reich, with only women and small children being released.

36The contradictory message that each author desires to transmit is clear from the wording: the former attempts to diminish and the latter to emphasize the importance of the role of Komarom in the history of the life of the Roma. This subject will be elaborated with the aid of the interviews I conducted.

37Firstly, as far as the placing of the adjunct ‘only’ is concerned: Should it be placed next to those who were transferred to the concentration camps or to those who were released? Out of the 21 people interviewed by me personally and who mentioned Komarom, 11 were sent to concentration camps over the border and 10 were released. We know that most of those sent to concentration camps did not survive and therefore were unable to be interviewed. In other words, of the people in question, 11 were survivors of concentration camps outside Hungary, as opposed to 10 who were released from Komarom. Since in this instance there are neither statistics to speak of nor any ordered lists of names, one can assume that if survivors of the camps were a majority, the victims constituted an even larger majority.

38Secondly, the basic nature of Komarom is at issue here: Was it a transit camp, or in view of what went on there, should it be included in the list of places with very clear connotations labeled ‘concentration camps’? Even if we agree to the latter definition, might a stay of a few weeks be considered a period of separate significance and status in the narrative flow? Those interviewees who were also survivors of concentration camps outside Hungary effectively provide the answer to this question. These survivors have the authority of “those who were there,” having experienced the magnitude of events in person. Although they were not asked to compare Komarom to the camps where they were placed afterwards, we find comparisons in their accounts. They dwell at length on the subject of Komarom, emphasizing that what they underwent there was no less traumatic than their suffering in the camps at Dachau, Ravensbruck and others. This is all the more significant in light of the fact that their stay there was so short, relative to their stay in the other camps.

39The Roma’s stories about Komarom in the interviews I collected shed light on the way they themselves remember and interpret what happened to them then and there. From a study of all the interviews that mentioned Komarom, a common narrative can be composed about the history of this group:

  • 33 From Amaro Drom, interview by Zsuzsa Bódi, Aug. 1995.

40At the beginning of November 1944, usually before dawn, the gendarmes knocked on the doors of the Roma in those parts of Hungary that had not yet been conquered by the Red Army, which was advancing from the east. At that time most of the males had been drafted into the ‘Labor Service.’ According to József Balogh:33

Suddenly at night there were knockings on the window… We were taken through the village as if we were murderers or robbers, on each side a gendarme, gendarme, gendarmerie! There were… at least three hundred, all of them Gypsies. We have got worn out shoes, but completely worn out, and they put a red ribbon on our arm… on it was written ‘Labor Service’… What did they do? There came a command to shave everybody!… against lice. Every one of us—on every place of the body that had a little hair—out! These old Gypsies—they had these big moustaches—they cried for their moustache… We walked and walked… The hunger bothered us so much, that we hardly walked, we supported each other.

41Those who had been taken far away from their homes with the labor divisions were spared in the arrests for Komarom. Those who were at home were assembled with everyone else.

  • 34 From Ondód, interview by K. Z., in Vas Népe, 13 Aug. 1990. It should be noted that by October 1944 (...)

Lajos Sárközi: Before dawn on 4 November they surrounded us… We were in the Star Prison in Komárom. About 8,000 to 10,000 people were gathered there, the large majority of whom were Gypsies. They came from all over the country, even from the districts of Szolnok and Csongrád [in Eastern Hungary].34

42The Roma from the various towns and villages were taken first to a central assembly point serving a number of villages in the surrounding area. Usually it was a brick factory, which had also been used as an assembly point for the Jews.

  • 35 From Zámoly, interview by Katalin Katz, 25 June 1996.

Friderika Krasznai: On the night of 3 November, at dawn, the gendarmes surprised us… They placed us together… They led us to Bak. They herded us like sheep into a yard. The gendarmes guarded us… In the afternoon we had to line up… in a brick factory in Zalaegerszeg. There were Jews there before us. It was full of lice and ticks… There were lots and lots of us.35

43From the brick factory or other assembly points the Roma were taken to the nearby railway station. They were told that they were being taken to work on farms to pick carrots. They were crowded into cattle wagons, locked up and then taken on a journey of up to two weeks to Komarom. On the way the train stopped at various stations where more and more carriages were added. The journey itself entailed much suffering. There was a shortage of water and lack of air and many people collapsed on the way. Friderika Krasznai continued:

They took us to a station where the border guard or something like that took over… They put us onto carriages… no food, no water. My sister was already in such a state in the train that we thought we wouldn’t arrive with her, that she would die in the train… We arrived at Komárom.

44When the Roma arrived at Komarom, they found themselves in the freezing cold, crowded into a sort of bunker—huge hollow tunnels dug underground— or out in the open, or in the rooms of the fortress which ran off the long corridors. The guards stood above them armed with rifles, machine guns and whips. For the first day or two, members of a family were left together. Later they were sorted into groups: males over 14, women over 14 without babies, and children under 14 and mothers with young children. When they were separated, they had no way of knowing that most of them would never see each other again. The Hungarian and German guards exercised extreme cruelty toward them, whipping them, often indiscriminately.

Friderika Krasznai: There we were met once more by Hungarian soldiers, Nyilas. They had a club in one hand. Long… from cherry wood. They beat the people. It made no difference whether it was a boy or a woman or a man. It wasn’t important… They led us there to Komarom into the bunkers. In the evening the soldiers came. They were already German soldiers. Then they… removed the men. We, the children, were left alone with my mother. I was 12. The youngest was 6 months old.

  • 36 From Sorokpalany, interview by Ágnes Daróczi, 1995.

Erzsébet Kolompár: The gendarmes came at dawn. They assembled us. They told us we would never be coming home again… They took the young men, took everyone. We never saw them again. We also never saw my father… There were Roma in the camp that weren’t allowed in the whole area. There were so many of them that they swarmed like ants… There was a Gypsy woman… She had a crooked stick and she even hit us with it! They turned her into a kapo. If someone caused a row or made trouble, she would hit us. And she really did hit. May God punish her! She was evil. The guards were evil, but she was as bad as they were… We were in the bunker all day. They guarded us with weapons. Anyone who got caught, the soldiers hit… if you were noisy, they shot… All the time we were there in the mud…36

45The guards shot at those who tried to escape and at those who tried to sneak up to any source of food they could find, including piles of garbage.

Erzsébet Kolompár: And if we went outside to the garbage pile where they threw the leftovers, anyone who was caught, they killed. There was one poor girl who was buried alive. The poor girl saved herself and escaped to our bunker. She had a smell. She stank. ‘Where were you?’ I asked. ‘They buried me in the garbage.’ I felt sorry for the poor thing. She was a blonde girl, fat. She was always running away. They caught her and buried her again in the garbage. Afterwards I didn’t see her again. What happened to her? She may have died. I don’t know.

46The conditions were deplorable. There were no toilets and no possible means of improvising any. The situation became worse still when various diseases broke out, including typhoid. They stood, sat and lay down in the mud, filth and excrement. The cold froze their wet clothes to their bodies. The food was thrown at them roughly and it was not uncommon for the prisoners to fight and shove among themselves to grab it. The daily menu did not vary: a slice of hard black bread, and boiled cabbage or carrots.

47Consequently, large numbers of Gypsies died shortly after their arrival. Nearly all the babies died, as did the elderly. They froze to death. They died from sickness, hunger and from the beatings. Every day carts or wheelbarrows passed by to collect the corpses that had piled up. They were placed onto the wagons with pitchforks and thrown into the Danube or into a huge plaster pit.

Erzsébet Kovács: Many adults died in the camp. The children fell down. They died like flies. Mother said that if we had stayed there another week, we might have all died. There was some sort of structure there from plaster where they collected the corpses.

48Every day they took them in a cart… We lay down there many times next to the corpses. In this desperate state, hope suddenly flickered among the Komarom prisoners when a British war plane lowered its flight path above the camp and distributed leaflets beginning with the words: “Dear brothers!” The leaflet promised that their suffering would soon end, and that the Allies were very close to victory and to liberating the Nazi victims of persecution.

Friderika Krasznai: We were there for two weeks… We lay down in the mud, in the wet, and suffered… One day lots of airplanes came, American or English. May God bless them and every step they take. The airplane flew like that and threw down leaflets. I ran outside. My mother says: ‘Don’t run, my child, because they’ll kill you.’ I went outside. I lifted up a leaflet. I came back. There were some among us who knew how to read. I will never forget. It said: “Dear brothers! Do not be afraid. You won’t be here much longer.” Everybody was delighted…

49After a number of weeks in the fortress, the Roma were taken away. Some of them were herded onto goods trains and taken to concentration camps: first to Dachau and from there to other concentration camps of the Third Reich. These stories are well known. As of December 1944, women with small children who had managed to survive until then were taken from the bunkers or collected from the yard and released.

Erzsébet Kolompár: They also placed me in another group. My mother looked out from the bunker. She signaled with her eyes: “Run, my little girl, come back!” I ran to her. They came after me. They searched, but didn’t find me. My mother tied a scarf around my head and there was a little baby. She pushed the baby into my hands. That way the Germans didn’t take me…

50The majority of people who had been separated from their families and sent to other places after Komarom never returned. All the interviewees who were liberated from Komarom lost family members who had been moved to concentration camps outside Hungary.

  • 37 Puskás, “Adalékok a cigányság II.”

51Almost half of the Roma survivors interviewed for this research in Hungary specifically mentioned Komarom. Other interviewees, who made their way on foot to a destination unknown to them, appear to have been led toward Komarom with further groups of Roma, accompanied by gendarmes or policemen, before they were liberated by the Red Army on the way.37 For some of the people, Komarom was one station among several on their winding journey; for others it was the center of their experience, which classified them thereafter as survivors.

  • 38 . Karsai, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon, pp. 124–5.

52A Hungarian woman who lived in the city of Komarom and witnessed the events is quoted as saying:38

They even took the poor musicians. The women and children running after them. They also took them. It made us laugh to see the poor fellows bringing their double bass and clarinets with them. As if the community was marching to the Star to the sounds of music. They were all respected musicians. Their wives wrapped in fur coats. In November it was already freezing cold. There was no place left in the prison cells. A large part of the detainees were left out in the open. Dozens of small children froze to death. They threw them into the cesspool… The poor deportees… were packed tightly together by the thousands with their belongings. But in such huge numbers that they couldn’t move. They relieved themselves on themselves. Women, men, next to each other. Children in their mothers’ laps. Afterwards when they went on their way, excretion dripped from their clothes, their pants. By the time they came to the railway station it had frozen on them.

53The story of the Roma’s stay in the bunkers and out in the open, amidst the filth, in the rain, snow and winter frost, is a unique one. Komarom was not an extermination camp, even though so many people lost their lives there. It was neither a labor camp nor a formal, recognized concentration camp, with registration, inmates standing daily for lengthy periods in the cold yard for a head-count, and numbered and orderly barracks. It was a place where the Roma lived and died under extreme conditions, even by the standards of the Holocaust. And afterwards they were bullied yet again.


54There is a striking similarity between the stories of the journey home by people released from Komarom and by other concentration camp survivors. This strongly supports the theory that the state of Komarom survivors was comparable to that of concentration camp survivors throughout the Third Reich. For these Roma women and small children, the relatively short stay in Komarom was a horrific experience, which influenced their lives from a physical, family, social, financial and spiritual point of view, as if they had been detained for many months in a well-known concentration camp.

55Their release from Komarom did not liberate them from further suffering. Friderika Krasznai recounts her story in detail:

When they liberated us from Komárom, we went on our way… One boy lay dead here next to the ditch, a second there, and a third in another place. The people were already so weak that they were unable to keep walking. My sister was already in such a state that she couldn’t fasten her clothes… Then I told my mother: “Mummy! Anyone of us who dies, or you see cannot keep on going, we won’t leave him here. Even dead. We will take him home.” My poor mother naturally burst out crying. She said: “No, my dear, you don’t have to worry. We won’t abandon each other. If we have to die, we will die together in one place.”… We got to Ács where the gendarmes assembled us again… A military train arrived and there was an empty carriage. They placed us there… The children died in the train. A one-year-old boy, a six-month-old girl, and I don’t know who else…

  • 39 From Szekszárd, interview by Katalin Katz, 10 Aug. 1995.

Erzsébet Kovács: On the way home, my mother found some biscuits in an abandoned army car. We ate them. We might have died without them. We walked all the way home.39

56Some of the Komarom survivors boarded trains for their villages. Others made their way home on foot, during which they encountered many difficulties. The Hungarians who met them in the trains or on the roads reacted to them with a mixture of pity, disgust, repulsion, fear and hate. Some gave them food. This sometimes did more harm than good. Many died as a result of uncontrolled and excessive eating after a period of extreme hunger. Others came down with digestive and intestinal diseases. There were those who hid themselves on the way and did not dare return home for fear of persecution.

  • 40 From Nagykanizsa, interview by Katalin Katz, 16 July, 1996.

Ferenc Horváth: We didn’t need tickets. Nothing. There were also conductors who had food and who gave it to us. Then we went home and then whoever ate too much died. Who would have thought that it was forbidden to eat so much? And it was forbidden, because that’s the way the stomach was. It wasn’t wide enough. We came home with narrow stomachs.40

57When the Komarom survivors came to their villages, even those who had been away only a few weeks found their houses looted. Some of the houses or huts were simply razed to the ground. Other houses had been emptied of all their contents and even the doors and windows were gone. The lucky ones—mothers with a number of young, sick, weak and hungry children— who found four walls standing, went on to live in a house without doors or windows and without men or older relatives who would share the job of running their lives and raising their children. The looters and wreckers of their houses were their neighbors.

Friderika Krasznai: Finally we reached home on foot. Can you imagine, mud up to our knees, barefoot, in December. The rain was pouring down, but we did not find anything there. Not one bed, not a window, or a teaspoon. Nothing in the world. Only the four walls. Even the attic had disappeared. Nothing… A year later, in November, my brother came back. We couldn’t believe that he was still alive. He came inside. We began to cry. All of us. We cried, and then my mother asked: ‘So! Your father and your brother and the others. Where are they? Where did they go?’ He didn’t know because he had been separated from them because he was 14 then. And he came back alone.

58A folk poem sums up the Roma experience in the Komarom camp:

The ghetto room in Komarom, oh,
Every Roma knows it
And relates it in tears to his family
Oh, how the ghetto rooms stink.

I am a prisoner rotting in the ghetto,
Everyone knows that that’s where I live,
Just as all my limbs are torn.

Oh, God, wonder of wonders,
Change Hitler into a farmer’s beast
Tie a rope around his neck
And we’ll lead the ox through the main street.

I am in the ghetto
My hair has been shorn
Oh, God, where am I going?
To flee or to remain?
If I run – they’ll shoot me to death,
If I stay – they’ll beat me to death.


59As can be seen, memory construction is complicated and takes place on various levels, both individual and social. It is also connected to complex struggles, both open and concealed, on each level concomitantly. The participants in these struggles are the victims, the attackers, the witnesses of what happened and the audience of listeners who pass the story on—each person and each group according to his or her interpretation. Disregard and silence also play an important role in memory construction since they extend the area of forgetting and enforced forgetting of the events.

  • 41 S. Felman, “The Silence of the Witness, the Betrayal of History,” Zmanim (in Hebrew) 45 (1993), pp (...)
  • 42 Ibid.

60Shoshana Felman approaches this subject from the viewpoint of responsibility toward one’s fellow men.41 In distinguishing the silent witness from the witness who speaks up, she obligates reaction and speech. According to her, the witness’s silence deprives society not only of the knowledge of what happened to the victim but also acknowledgement of his or her existence. The responsibility of the victim is to cry out. The responsibility of the witness is to make sure the cry is heard and to pass on this voice. The responsibility of the listener is not to be deaf to the outcry but to acknowledge what has been heard. This responsibility, which Felman terms response-ability, effectively means preclusion of the right to silence and enforced silence, “prompt[ing] historical responsibility.” There is an obligation not to pursue “a strategy of deafness,” which has prevented, even today, the right of the Hungarian Roma to be heard and to commemorate those events, as if their voices were perceived “as voices of no one, which come from nowhere.”42


1 R. L. Braham and N. Katzburg, The History of the Shoa, Hungary (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1992), pp. 267, 389.

2 J. Bársony, “Magyarországi cigány Holocaust” (Hungarian Gypsy Holocaust) Phralipe (Oct. 1996), pp. 11–15; D. M. Crowe, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia (London/New York, 1995), pp. 89–91; B. Mezey, L. Pomogyi and I. Tauber, A magyarországi cigánykérdés dokumentumokban, 1422– 1985 (The Hungarian Gypsy Question in Documents, 1422–1985) (Budapest, 1986), p. 31.

3 The total number of lives taken is estimated at 28,000 to 50,000. D. Kenrick. and G. Puxon, The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies (London, 1972), p. 183; M. Lakatos, A cigányok sorsa 1944-ben (The Fate of the Gypsies in 1944) (Budapest, 1984).

4 M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago, 1992), pp. 73–4; J. K. Olick, “Collective Memory: The Two Cultures,” Sociological Theory 17 (1999), pp. 333–48.

5 J. Yoors, The Gypsies (Illinois, 1987), p. 5; A. Fraser, The Gypsies (Oxford, 1996).

6 Fraser, The Gypsies.

7 Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, p. 38.

8 Kenrick and Puxon, The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies, pp. 13–17.

9 I. Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1988), pp. 16–29.

10 G. Margalit, “The Other Germany” and the Gypsies (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1999), 32–3.

11 N. Wachtel, “Introduction: Memory and History,” History and Anthropology 2 (1986), pp. 207-24.

12 J. F. Loytard, “The Postmodern Condition,” in M. McQuillan (ed.), The Narrative Reader (London/New York, 2000), pp. 157–61.

13 H. K. Bhahba, Nation and Narration (London, 1990), p. 307.

14 Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, p. 38.

15 B. Muller-Hill, Murderous Science. (Jerusalem, 1992; Hebrew version); Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome; H. R. Huttenbach, “The Romani Porrajmos: The Nazi Genocide of Europe’s Gypsies,” Nationalities Papers 19 (1991), pp. 373– 94.

16 Y. Bauer, “Gypsies and the Holocaust,” The History Teacher 24 (1991); Y. Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, 2001); S. Katz, “The Uniqueness of the Holocaust: The Historical Dimension,” in: A. S. Rosenbaum (ed.), Is the Holocaust Unique? 2nd ed. (Colorado/Oxford, 2001), pp. 49–68.

17 Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (Tel Aviv, 1994; Hebrew edition), pp. 92–6.

18 Wachtel, “Introduction: Memory and History.”

19 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 92.

20 J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (London, 1979).

21 Ibid.

22 Wachtel, “Introduction: Memory and History.”

23 A. Margalit, “The Lasting Past,” Zmanim (in Hebrew) 68–69 (1999–2000), pp. 76–86.

24 Bhahba, Nation and Narration, p. 59.

25 Braham and Katzburg, The History of the Shoa: Hungary, pp. 277–8.

26 B. Puskás, “Adalékok a cigányság II. világháborús tragédiájához” (Contributions to World War II. Tragedy of the Gypsy People), Somogyi Kultúra (in Hungarian) 6 (1995), pp. 47–52.

27 Bársony, “Magyarországi cigány Holocaust.”

28 L. Karsai, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon 1919–1945, Út a cigány Holocausthoz (The Gypsy Question in Hungary 1919–1945: The Way to the Gypsy Holocaust) (Budapest, 1992), p. 136.

29 Ibid., p. 127.

30 Ibid., pp. 138–39.

31 Kenrick and Puxon, Gypsies under the Swastika. (Hertfordshire, 1995), pp. 100–6.

32 Karsai, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon, p. 139.

33 From Amaro Drom, interview by Zsuzsa Bódi, Aug. 1995.

34 From Ondód, interview by K. Z., in Vas Népe, 13 Aug. 1990. It should be noted that by October 1944 battles were taking place near the Danube-Tisza line and the Arrow Cross were fleeing; therefore it is unlikely that Roma from Csongrád and Szolnok arrived directly from these places.

35 From Zámoly, interview by Katalin Katz, 25 June 1996.

36 From Sorokpalany, interview by Ágnes Daróczi, 1995.

37 Puskás, “Adalékok a cigányság II.”

38 . Karsai, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon, pp. 124–5.

39 From Szekszárd, interview by Katalin Katz, 10 Aug. 1995.

40 From Nagykanizsa, interview by Katalin Katz, 16 July, 1996.

41 S. Felman, “The Silence of the Witness, the Betrayal of History,” Zmanim (in Hebrew) 45 (1993), pp. 50–75.

42 Ibid.


KATALIN KATZ is a Lecturer at the School of Social Work, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Head of the Field Work Training Department. Her academic interests include individual and collective memory; practice, theory and training in social work; minorities-majorities, center-periphery and intercultural relations; and researching the Holocaust memories of the Roma (Gypsies). She works with and for the Roma people in Hungary. Her work “The Porrajmos in Hungary,” in K. Fings (ed.), The Gypsies during the Second World War, Vol. 3, is forthcoming.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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