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The Roma: a Minority in Europe

Roni Stauber
Raphael Vago

The Politics of Memory Jews and Roma Commemorate Their Persecution

Roni Stauber et Raphael Vago

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  • 1 Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford, 1986), p. 32.
  • 2 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London/New York, 1991); Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nati (...)
  • 3 Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, pp. 13−16.

1In The Ethnic Origins of Nations the British historian and sociologist Anthony Smith, a leading theoretician of nationalism, defines ethnic community as “a named human population possessing a myth of common descent, common historical memories, elements of shared culture, an association with particular territory and sense of solidarity.”1 Although Smith accepts the claim espoused by ‘modernist’ theoreticians of nationalism, such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, that nationalism is a modern way of thinking,2 he argues that nationalist consciousness cannot be explained merely as a consequence of modernity but is based on primordial and perennial ethnic ties and sentiments— a pre-existent cultural unit that preceded nationalism. Ethnic heritage, he claims, is an essential background to the modern process of nation building.3

  • 4 John A. Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 3.

2Theoreticians who underline the durability of ethnic communities, such as Smith and John Armstrong, emphasize the permanent cultural attributes of ethnic identity, namely: memories, values, myths and symbols, recorded and immortalized in art, language and laws. These are the “cement that has maintained group identity over a long period of time.”4

  • 5 Ibid, p. 14.
  • 6 Gideon Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology (Brandeis University Press, 1995), p. 10.

3The ethno-symbolic hypothesis creates a synthesis between the opposing theories of the perennialists and the modernists, explaining the linkage between ethnicism and the formation of modern nation-states.5 Its significance, however, pertains to the identity of ethnic minorities, whose initial concern has been protecting their cultural identity.6

  • 7 Ibid, p. 8.

4In the case of modern Jewish history, as demonstrated by Gideon Shimoni, Smith’s theory elucidates the emergence of ‘cultural nationalism,’ which preceded the appearance of Zionism. Shimoni claims that, “the genesis of Jewish nationalism is traceable to their ethnically self-affirming sentiments… [It] rose to the defense of Jewish cultural distinctiveness.”7

5As a consequence of specific historical circumstances, Zionism succeeded in transforming cultural nationalism, or ethnic consciousness, into political nationalism, which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel. For the Roma, however, the transformation to national self-determination within a defined territory has never been a political alternative. Although the Roma refer to India as their historical homeland (see below), neither a return to the land of their ancient origins nor a struggle for the creation of a national state has ever been seriously considered. Nonetheless, like Jewish intellectuals in the past, members of the Romani intelligentsia perceive the Roma as a distinct people, basing their ethnic identity on cultural features, such as language, daily customs and rituals, kinship and clan ties, values, symbols and myths, and the ethos of wandering.

  • 8 David Mayall, Gipsy Identities (London, 2004), pp. 237−45; Yaron Matras, “The Role of Language in (...)

6Collective memory, albeit sketchy and fragmentary, is an essential foundation of ethnic identity and indispensable in the process of nation building, especially when dealing with the very complicated identity of diaspora communities. Against the striving for cohesion amongst these communities stands the local tradition of scattered enclaves. A unique culture has evolved in each part of the diaspora due to the influence of the dominant culture of the host society. Like the early Jewish nationalist intellectuals, Romani intelligentsia who lead the struggle for strengthening a distinctive Romani ethnic identity emphasize the importance of presenting a shared history—a ‘super narrative’— which will serve to consolidate the scattered communities. They are opposed by those who perceive the idea of a non-territorial collective Romani identity, a single people who share the same origins and history, as an invented narrative.8

7Discrimination and persecution, fuelled by a hostile society surrounding them, particularly in Europe, have characterized the history of both Jews and Roma. The Roma continue to suffer hardship and prejudice, while the Jews, despite the considerable improvement in their social and political position, are still subjected to bigotry and even violent attacks. The history of persecution plays a significant role in defining symbolic ethnic boundaries of both Jews and Roma, and is well integrated into Smith’s and Armstrong’s ethnosymbolic theory:

  • 9 Amstrong, Nations before Nationalism, p. 8.

Most often symbolic boundaries are words. Such words are particularly effective as traffic lights warning the group member when he is approaching a barrier separating his group from another... stressing individuals’ solidarity against the alien world.9

8Indeed both Jews and Roma have specific words for the hostile surrounding world. The Hebrew term is goy, a biblical word that has acquired a negative connotation due to the persecution of the Jews; the Romani word is gadje. The centrality of persecution in Jewish collective memory, as a definer of ethnic boundaries, is expressed succinctly in a line of the Haggadah, recited by the Jews during the annual Passover Seder: “In every generation there are people who want to destroy us, and the Lord, may his name be blessed, saves us from them.”

9This essay discusses the role of collective memory of persecution in strengthening ethnic boundaries, as well as the process of nation building among Jews and Roma. It will relate to the benefits as well as the drawbacks of using traumatic events and the claim of victim status, in forging group identity. In addition, it will explore the impact of commemoration of the Shoah on Romani efforts to establish an official memory of their genocide, Porrajmos, and to arouse worldwide attention to their suffering.



  • 10 Ben Zion Dinur, Israel in the Diaspora (Tel Aviv, 1957; Hebrew), pp. 40−5.

10Since the rise of Jewish nationalism at the end of the 19th century, Zionist ideologists and political leaders have viewed the symbolic role of persecution in forming Jewish ethnic consciousness with ambivalence. On the one hand, memories of discrimination and persecution to which the Jews were constantly subjected while they were in exile have served to strengthen the idea of a common Jewish fate, solidarity and ethnic boundaries: Jews suffered social discrimination in both Germany and Poland and were persecuted in Russia and Yemen. Jewish nationalist leaders and thinkers perceived anti-Semitism as a continuation of historic animosity toward the Jews. It served as proof that the Jews, who were viewed as a foreign element within European society, would be unable to assimilate. The only solution, claimed the Zionists, was to strengthen Jewish ethnic identity and to strive for a national solution in the ancient Jewish homeland. Thus, Zionist leaders, authors and scholars with a nationalist outlook have tended to portray the 2000 years of Jewish history in exile as a chain of continual persecution and atrocities which, according to them, was almost a natural outcome of political powerlessness, living among other nations, and depending on their goodwill. Eminent Israeli historian Ben-Zion Dinor, who was minister of education in the 1950s, described Jewish history in exile as a cycle of continual destruction and rebuilding of Jewish centers. In this respect he saw the Holocaust as yet another khurban (catastrophe)—although unprecedented in its scope—in the destruction and killing that had always been the fate of the Jewish people.10

11Some Zionist thinkers, on the other hand, thought it was imperative to base the identity of the Jewish people on symbols and myths linked to positive elements of Jewish and Israelite life in the past, such as dignity, heroism and political independence. Overemphasis on the symbolic role of anti-Semitism and victimization could undermine efforts to create a proud new Jew, able to restore Jewish sovereignty.

12Zionist ideology tried to resolve the dichotomy inherent in the use of persecution as a symbol for defining ethnic boundaries, thus justifying the Zionist solution, and fear of its possible negative educational implications. It distinguished between the political powerlessness of the Jews in exile or in the Diaspora and the political and military strength of the Israelites and Jews before their banishment from the Land of Israel. David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, made a clear distinction between what he termed Jewish passivity in the Diaspora and Jewish sovereignty and political activism in Israel:

  • 11 David Ben-Gurion, Vision and Path, Vol. 4 (Tel Aviv, 1951; Hebrew), pp. 61−2.

In the long dark years of our wanderings, it was moral heroism that sustained us... But the Jews lost their belief that they could determine their own destiny… With his return [to Israel], the faith of the new Jew in his ability to command his own destiny and the destiny of his people was awakened.11

  • 12 Haim Hazaz, Collected Works (Tel Aviv, 1967; Hebrew), pp. 221−4.

13This distinction, however, had a far-reaching impact on those who were born or grew up in the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine and later in the new Israeli state. Many of this generation disdained the history of the Jews in the Diaspora, illustrated in the story Hadrasha (Homily), of the Israeli author Haim Hazaz, in which the hero, Youdke, demands that educators in the Jewish Yishuv stop teaching the history of the Jews in the Diaspora since it included only stories of persecution and martyrdom, and the Jew appeared as perpetually wretched and grief-stricken or begging for mercy. “We shouldn’t teach Jewish history,” he said; “we shouldn’t teach our children the disgrace of our ancestors.”12

  • 13 Roni Stauber, Lesson for This Generation, (Jerusalem, 2000; Hebrew).

14This outlook also led to ambivalence on the part of the Israeli establishment in the first decade of the State of Israel toward commemoration of the Holocaust. While some Israeli leaders saw in the Holocaust ultimate proof and a lesson for the younger generation that people without national consciousness and political sovereignty were doomed to continual persecution and eventually destruction and annihilation, the Israeli establishment in the first years of the state was very restrained in its attitude toward commemoration of the Holocaust. No prominent Israeli minister took part in the official memorial day ceremonies, and Ben-Gurion showed little interest, to say the least, in the founding and activities of Israel’s Holocaust memorial institute Yad Vashem. Life, renewal and building were the watchwords of the new state. In the formative years it was important to emphasize state-building and new hope for life over Diaspora destruction, death and martyrdom. Thus, omitting the Holocaust from the structure of symbols and national myths of Israel in the 1950s was a consequence of the view that only images connected to state building should be highlighted.13

  • 14 Michael Keren, Ben-Gurion and the Intellectuals (Beersheba, 1988; Hebrew), pp. 66−75, 102−5.

15In addition, one of the central aims of the nation-building process conducted by Ben-Gurion was to emphasize the nation’s ancestral past, skipping the long history of exile. By creating a mythical connection with the First Temple period and the life of the Israelites during the biblical era, he tried to forge a common historical background for the people of Israel, once scattered, and now gathered in the land. The period preceding the destruction of the First Temple could thus serve as a model for renewing the Jewish people’s national existence.14

  • 15 Eliezer Don-Yehiya, “Statism and Holocaust,” in Abraham Rubenstein (ed.), In the Paths of Renewal, (...)

16The hesitance of the Israeli establishment toward commemoration of the Holocaust was reflected in Israel’s foreign relations as well. Since the destruction of European Jewry, in which so many Europeans took part, had created a historical and moral obligation on the part of European countries, and particularly Germany, to the existence and safety of the new Jewish state, the Holocaust became a political asset. However, Zionism sought to turn the Jews into a normal nation and to develop new relationships, particularly with European countries, which would be based on the immediate interests of the State of Israel rather than on bitter memories of the past—“the eternal hatred of the eternal people.” There was a clear reluctance to assume the role of victim in international relations.15

  • 16 Stauber, Lesson for This Generation, pp. 135−53.

17Even before the establishment of the State of Israel and particularly during World War II, well-known figures and educators condemned this contempt for the history of the Jews in exile, claiming that it was causing indifference on the part of the younger generation to the fate of their relations who were being persecuted and annihilated by the Nazis. Criticism increased toward the end of the 1950s because of a general sense that the younger generation was detached from Jewish tradition and from Jews living in the Diaspora and was indifferent to or even lacked understanding of the historical linkage between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. At the same time historians and teachers disapproved of the whole concept of Leidensgesichte (history of suffering) and the perception of the Jews in the Diaspora as a powerless entity—a historiography which employs only external frames of reference: that of the persecutors. Thus, the new education program developed at the end of the 1950s rejected the passive image of the Jew and tried instead to emphasize achievements and resistance and the ability of the Jews to control their own lives even in the Diaspora. A new concept began to dominate research of the Holocaust in Israel: describing events through the eyes of the victims and highlighting daily resistance during the Holocaust.16


  • 17 See for example: Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon, The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies (London, 1972), (...)

18The ambivalent stance of Jewish national thinkers and Zionist leaders toward the history of persecution can be observed today among Romani intellectuals. The history of discrimination, and particularly, persecution and annihilation during the Nazi era, has helped to define the ethnic boundaries and self-identity of a victimized people. Romani leaders, scholars and intellectuals emphasize that like the Jews the Roma were persecuted and murdered on racial grounds; that is, because they belonged to a defined group of people.17

  • 18 Slawomir Kapralski, “Ritual of Memory in Constructing the Modern Identity of Eastern European Roma (...)

19While Zionism, like the European national movements, was based on various annals, particularly in regard to ancient Jewish sovereignty, the Roma have no written history or even a clear historical consciousness. Thus, historical records of persecution allow the Roma, as the Polish researcher Slawomir Kapralski explained, to create a narrative that describes events chronologically, hence contributing to the development of a historical consciousness.18

  • 19 Katalin Katz, “Holocaust Stories of Gypsies from Hungary: Practice of Memory and Interpretation,” (...)

20Moreover, unlike the Jews, whose situation today is clearly distinct from the tradition of persecution, the Roma have continued to be victims of discrimination and atrocities. By emphasizing continual persecution, Romani intellectuals strive not only to explain the recent situation of the Roma in this context, but also to delegitimize current discrimination against them. Thus, they try to use their tragedy during the war as the Jewish establishment did, as a political asset, emphasizing European, and particularly German, moral obligation, which means among other things, compensation as well as support in their struggle for civil rights.19

21The Porrajmos has become the central component of Romani national identity. It is important to note that most Romani intellectuals and activists use the word Holocaust for the mass murder of Roma and other Gypsy ethnic groups during the war. Thus, they seek to create a parallel between Nazi policy toward extermination of the Jews and destruction of the Roma, namely, the notion of annihilating a people.20

22However, it appears that like Jewish national writers and political leaders, Romani leaders and intellectuals well understand that national identity cannot be based entirely on symbols of persecution. Overemphasis on the victim syndrome might be counterproductive to efforts to strengthen Romani self-esteem and to establish new relationships with the surrounding nations. Thus, alongside the tradition of persecution, the unique Romani culture and lifestyle is presented as the epitome of freedom and non-conformism, and the antithesis of violence, oppression and chauvinism.21

23At the same time, as in the genesis of nationalism in general and in the history of Zionism in particular, efforts to strengthen national identity and Romani self-esteem have created legends and myths that highlight the notion of bravery. The son of the Jewish merchant who joined one of the Zionist youth movements or a Maccabi sport club could imagine that he was continuing the legend of Maccabaeus, while this national and educational role is fulfilled by the current theory claiming that the Roma are the descendents of warriors known as Rajputs, who fought against the Muslim invaders of India and whose language was Romani (or Romanes). According to Ian Hancock:

Because Islam was not only making inroads into India to the east, but was also being spread westwards into Europe, this conflict carried the Indian troops—the early Roma—further and further in that direction, until they eventually crossed over into southeastern Europe about the year 1300.22

  • 23 Donald Kenrick, The Gypsies: From the Ganges to the Thames (Univ. of Hertfordshire, 2004).

24This relatively new theory is being added to several others regarding the origins of the Roma, and accounting for their possible exile from India.23 Common to all these ideas, which are not the province of this article, is the vague evidence that supports them. However, when dealing with the function of ethnic and national symbols, their credibility is of minor importance. Even if most theories are mere speculation, they reveal the considerable interest of Romani intellectuals and scholars in the genesis of their people. They fulfill the same traditional role of European historians, as well as Jewish Zionist historians, in the nation-building process. The Roma, it is claimed, felt compelled, or were even forced, to leave their homeland. Thus, like the story of Jewish deportation or exile, or that of other ethnic groups such as Afro- Americans, who were driven out of their homeland, exploring life in the ancient country, as well as the creation of myths and legends, is essential to the self-identity and self-esteem of a people. They serve as a necessary counterbalance to the long history of expulsion and persecution.

  • 24 Thomas Acton, “Modernity, Culture and ‘Gypsies’: Is There a Meta-Scientific Method for Understandi (...)

25In addition, the ambivalence regarding the history of the persecution and the various theories and speculation about Romani origins reflect the fierce debate among intellectuals and scholars, Romani and others, over the definition of Gypsy and Romani identity. One school makes a distinction between the Romani people, whose language is a form of Romani, and who are descendents of peripatetic groups who left or were expelled from India, and other groups of ‘travelers,’ indigenous Europeans who adopted nomadism as a way of life. An opposing school questions the value of descent to the ethnic definition of Gypsies. Some scholars of this approach, such as Judith Okely and Wim Willems, deny the historic credibility of theories on the Indian origins of the ‘Gypsies.’ They regard Romani ethnic identity as social constructionism, while the alleged Indian origins are ‘an invented tradition,’ —to use Eric Hobsbawm’s term. Gypsies are viewed as a social cultural entity, a mosaic of different ethnic groups whose common denominator is the culture of nomadism.24

  • 25 Thomas Acton, Gypsy Politics and Social Change (London/Boston, 1974), pp. 60−1.

26Both Romani speakers and other ‘Gypsies’ were persecuted in Europe and murdered by the Nazis. The legendary years in India and the exodus, however, are solely the province of Romani speakers. Thus, creating a balance between the history of persecution and ancient Indian roots helps to strength the boundaries of the Roma as a distinct ethnic minority. The word Gypsy, or Zigeuner, was given by the host societies; the term gadjo was coined in the Middle Ages. In other words, a distinct identity was formed as a result of negative attitudes toward a group of people who were considered pariahs by European society.25 The word ‘Roma,’ on the other hand, represents the legendary years of freedom as well as bravery, and the desire to create a nation as an equal constituent of the new Europe.

27The balance between the Indian era of freedom and the years of persecution creates a unique fabric of ethnic symbols. The Europeans are asked to compensate the Roma, economically and politically, for the years of abuse, but at the same time to treat them with dignity, as a nation whose history dates back hundreds of years.


28The Porrajmos has become the focus of an emerging discourse, especially in the former communist countries but in Germany and Austria, too. The treatment of the Porrajmos by Roma and Roma-oriented media, local and Western media and educational-academic forums and publications, has become a means not only to mold and build historical memory but also to be used—if not manipulated—for tasks beyond commemoration. Besides rallying the Roma around their past suffering, it serves to present a set of demands from European society for recognition of the magnitude of their suffering, from commemoration to compensation.

29The construction of historical memory has at least three aspects: rallying around the Porrajmos and its legacy in the making; strengthening the Romani historical narrative relating to their own unique lifestyle and values; and rapidly gaining recognition of the past in order to create a better future. In this respect, the Romani process differs in some ways from the construction of Holocaust memory, for while it took the Jews and Israelis two generations to forge a discourse on the ways and means to commemorate the Holocaust, the Roma act as if ‘time is running out,’ ‘it’s now or never.’ This may be compared to the way that Yishuv leaders urged the formation of a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II. Often, it seems to outside observers as if Romani activists are trying to condense a process that took the Jews years to digest and evaluate. Admiration as well as pragmatism dictates their readiness to utilize the Jewish experience.

30Due to the difficulties of deciphering the strands of Romani narrative, scholars of the Roma argue over the exact patterns of ‘memory’ among the Roma and whether they add up to some known form of ‘historical memory.’ For example, an anthropologist and a sociologist studied patterns of memory among Roma in Hungary. Michael Stewart who, in 1984 and in later years, lived among the Roma in Hungary (as well as elsewhere), wrote:

  • 26 See Michael Stewart, “Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust M (...)

I abandoned attempts to probe deeply into people’s sense of their recent history, let alone their distant past. There was no term in colloquial Romany for the events that we have come to call ‘the Holocaust’—an American Romany intellectual had coined the term Porrajmos, the ‘devouring,’ but one is still more likely to find this term on the internet than on the lips of the Roma in the lands occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. Daily life was lived with barely acknowledgement of those events.26

31Later, after analyzing fragments of memories from the wartime period, Stewart continued:

  • 27 Ibid.

These are certainly memories, but they do not seem to me to be part of a process of remembering which involves the possession and sharing of a narrative history.27

  • 28 See note 19 as well as Katalin Katz, “Story, History and Memory,” in this volume.

32Katalin Katz lived and researched historical memory among the Roma in Hungary in the post-communist period when the dynamics of memory construction and the culture of commemoration were strengthening, and researcher- activists such as Katz perhaps contributed personally to the growing mobilization and building of memory among Roma in Hungary.28 Her study was published in Hungary in 2005 as “Repressed Memory” and in an interview given to a leading Hungarian Jewish periodical she noted that one of the aims of the book was:

  • 29 Múlt es Jövő 2 (2005), p. 82.

… to get them [the Roma] recognition. To write their history [also ‘their story,’ in Hungarian] as part of the Holocaust. Because if the Roma are not in this story [of the Holocaust] then this is a fake history.29

33After a brief review of ways in which the Communists distorted and excluded the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust, she continues:

  • 30 Ibid., p. 83.

And at last the Jews entered the schoolbooks, but the Roma were forgotten. My aim is to complete the story of history of which the Roma are also part.30

34While one scholar emphasized the ‘lack’ of historical memory which would add up to something all-embracing such as the Porrajmos—in itself, as he wrote, an ‘invented’ term—the other stresses that fragments of memory exist, but were left out of the story of the Holocaust—a term which Katz uses intentionally.

35There is no doubt that the Roma are being supported and helped in reconstructing their past, and that in this reconstruction—and not ‘invention’— outside supporters, as well as a growing number of Roma activists, products of the boom in academic studies of the post-communist years, are gradually piecing together a huge puzzle, the uncharted territory of the Porrajmos of the Roma. Among some basic questions, one issue is ‘how much Porrajmos amounts, if at all, to the ‘Holocaust’?

  • 31 Lipman, “The Gypsy ‘Final Solution’”; Hancock, “Downplaying the Porrajmos”; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinki (...)

36While Roma and other Gypsy ethnic groups were persecuted and murdered, leading scholars of the Nazi extinction policy in general, and annihilation of the Roma in particular, distinguished between the selective murder of Gypsies in different part of Europe and the Nazi plan to exterminate the entire Jewish people. This distinction is not accepted by other scholars, particularly Romani researchers, and the polemic has gone beyond historical evidence to include questions of morality, hierarchy of the ‘victims’ and discrimination.31

  • 32 Dzeno Association, 3 Aug. 2005.

37The wall of the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, can serve to illustrate the essence of this debate. Two plaques of equal size were placed alongside each other, one with the Yizkor (Remember) to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and the other to the memory of victims of the ‘Romani Holocaust,’ as it appears on the plaque. Apparently, some voices behind the scenes demanded that the plaque to the Holocaust of Jewish victims be more conspicuous—perhaps bigger than the one devoted to the Roma. But then, quantity could become quality—why should the plaque to the Roma victims be smaller in size than the Jewish one? Should it be smaller in mathematical terms? If six million victims deserve a plaque of a certain size, should the Roma one be proportionally smaller? Or relative to the overall numbers of victims, or to the proportion of victims among that particular group, Jews or Roma? Or perhaps the size of the plaques should reflect the percentage of Jewish losses in Slovakia as compared to losses among the Roma? And one might also ask why the inscriptions referred to ‘Holocaust’ in both cases and not Porrajmos in the Roma one? It should be noted that the plaque unveiled in Banska Bystrica is the first among seven erected as part of a project to commemorate the persecution of the Roma in Slovakia.32

  • 33 See Michael Shafir, “Analysis: 60 Years after Central Europe’s Romany Holocaust,” RFE/RL, 2 Aug. 2 (...)

38Another question refers to the commemoration of events as signified by dates. Second of August marks the extermination of Roma and Sinti in the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1944 (on 2−3 August 1944, 2,897 Sinti and Romani men, women, and children were killed in the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau). Romani intellectuals and associations have followed Jewish and Israeli ways of commemoration by instituting an annual memorial day for the Porrajmos on 2 August. Like Jews and Israelis, Romani groups have turned Auschwitz into a pilgrimage site.33 There is no doubt that the choice of 2 August is meant to emphasize the most significant and well-known atrocity committed against the Roma and Sinti, and that it implies, as in the Jewish case, that the event was part of a ‘final solution,’ of which the gassing in Auschwitz became a symbol.

  • 34 See, for example, AP’s coverage of the ceremony, in Dzeno Association, 3 Aug. 2005.

39The outcome of Romani activism regarding commemoration, supported by a variety of NGOs as well as the liberal media in Europe, was much in evidence in 2005 in the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. It was even more visible and audible in later events, especially in August, marking the 61st anniversary of the gassings in Auschwitz, notably in the speeches of dignitaries.34

40Some countries have instituted other dates, including or without 2 August. The case of Romania is characteristic. The International Commission of Historians on the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Elie Wiesel, included a Romani member, as well as an expert on the fate of the Roma during the Antonescu regime. The chapter of the Commission’s report devoted to the Roma notes that some 25,000 Roma were deported to Transnistria, out of which half died or were killed. Romania declared the establishment of Holocaust Day on 11 October when the first deportations of Jews to Transnistria took place in 1941, but no special day was set for commemorating the Roma; yet, the Roma are mentioned on the October Holocaust Day. It may well be that the fate of the Roma in Romania will be marked in the future on another date, but will continue to be noted on Holocaust Day, which is more specifically linked to the Jewish commemoration.

41As one Romani activist, Sefedin Joniz from Germany, remarked: “memory needs a place,” and one might add, not only a date. Since the early 1990s there has been a widespread attempt to link Romani memory and territory, not only a ‘Romani space’ in the broad context, but a more localized history of persecutions—in contrast to the stereotype of the ‘nomad Gypsy.’ The modern, post-1989 narrative in the former communist countries seeks to establish places—of concentration, of known atrocities and cruelties, of campsites. These places have become the focal points for commemoration, public events, educational activities, and monuments and plaques. Since the ‘Romani Holocaust’ did not take place in the wide spaces of nomadic movements of people, but in specific locations, with a name and an address, from where the Roma were taken with their families, degraded and humiliated, Romani activists realized that the romantic image of the nomad traveler was counterproductive to a narrative of martyrdom, suffering, and that of the ultimate experience, the Porrajmos. Central and East European localities, often the peripheries of towns and villages where they dwelt in the pre-war period, became sites with monuments dedicated to the Romani Porrajmos, gradually creating a ‘road map’ of the Romani past, their presence and their suffering. At the same time, these sites bear other, positive, messages: of current rebirth and of Romani resistance and heroism in the face of the Nazis. In a major event held in the Hungarian city of Nagykanizsa, attended by the prime minister, the chief Romani spokesman told of “attempts to resist” by Romani people when they realized that they were being led to the gas chambers. This deed “indicated that human dignity was maintained, even when the resistance was seen as useless”:35

  • 36 MTI, 2 Aug 2002.

We are keeping the legacy [of resistance] for the future, to be ready always to defend our freedom, our lives. Our mourning turns not only to the past, but also to the present and the future, so that racism and hatred will not raise its head again.36

  • 37 See, for example, Radio Prague, 29 April 2005.

42In the Czech Republic the struggle for memory tied to the physical memory of a place went beyond symbolism with a public debate over a pig farm at Lety. The pig farm—whose imagery is much utilized by the Roma and liberal press—is on the site of what the Roma consider ‘a mass graveyard’ and a ‘World War II concentration camp.’37 Some 1,256 Roma were interned in the Lety camp, and over three hundred died because of the terrible conditions, including a typhus epidemic. Those who survived were sent to Treblinka, Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Since the camp was staffed by Czech guards and set up by the Czech puppet government in 1945, this sparked a debate on the issue of Czech collaboration with the Nazis, or even of local initiatives. This discourse in itself is important for Romani memory building since it tackles the sensitive issue of wartime policies and attitudes of local populations and regimes toward the Roma.

  • 38 Dzeno Association, 16 May 2005.

43Following much debate and complaints, the European Parliament passed a resolution in April 2005 urging rapid removal of the pig farm at Lety. The issue became a divisive one in Czech politics after President Vaclav Klaus expressed the view that “the camp in Lety was a labor camp for those who refused to work, and was not just for Roma. It was not a concentration camp in that sense of the word which each of us subconsciously compares with Auschwitz and Buchenwald.”38 Romani sources conducted a well-organized campaign to prove that Lety was a concentration camp. The case of the Lety pig farm in the Czech Republic has become the center of a conflict that has all the elements of a clash between memory construction, politics and the EU.

44The process of Romani memory building is closely linked to that of the search for identity. Numerous bodies have attempted to place the Romani Porrajmos in a clear framework. Thus, the main organization of the Roma in the Czech Republic published a report on ‘Compensation to Roma Victims of the Holocaust,’ which clearly states:

  • 39 Ibid., 12 Sept. 2005.

It is unacceptable to lump Romani Holocaust victims together with Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals or disabled persons because Roma constitute a nation as well as Jews.39

45A further equation with Jews was made by Scott Thayer, deputy chief of mission in Bratislava, who represented the US at the annual memorial ceremony for the Porrajmos in Slovakia in 2003. He wrote:

  • 40 Pravda (Bratislava), 2 Aug. 2003.

Slovak Roma suffered from oppression similar to that directed against the Jewish community in the inter-war period and during World War II. They were forcibly deported to concentration camps and subjected to atrocious medical experiments. There were several programs that specifically targeted Roma children.40

46Thus, as is evident from the public discourse during the commemorations, which reached a peak during the 60th anniversary of the end of the Porrajmos, the building of collective memory and the culture of commemoration were strongly enhanced both in the Romani and the non-Romani media. The Romani search for identity—a long and difficult journey of selfdiscovery— entails an assertive stand on the uniqueness of their people, on the one hand, and emphasis on their suffering, especially compared with that of the Jews—conveyed through commemoration of the martyrdom of the ‘Romani Holocaust,’ or Porrajimos, the principal axis of memory—on the other.


47The discourse on the Roma as a ‘nation’ and their fate—like that of the Jews—as targets of extermination and a ‘final solution,’ has been placed, literally, on firm ground. The proliferation of commemoration sites, as well as monuments at concentration and other camps, both in their native lands and in Germany and Poland, has created a dense network of locations, where the culture if not the cult of collective memory is practiced. The sites of the past have become the shrines of the present plight of the Roma—of the need for recognition, restitution, retribution and revival. No respectable politician, from heads of state down to local officials, can ignore the public events around these sites. The media covers them, and perhaps, as in the Jewish case, each country has been compelled to recognize its mea culpa in mistreating the Roma, as well as the murderous results of racism, xenophobia, historical stereotyping, and long-term discrimination. The outcasts have thus been transformed into the focus of research and empathy, and their narratives have become an integral part of European collective memory. They have entered not only ‘history’ but increasingly, the textbooks of history. Programs, based on the experience of researching and teaching the Holocaust of the Jews, are aimed not only at recreating the past, but, as emphasized at every memorial event, remembering the Porrajmos for the future. The line running from the search for identity through a definition of origins and historical destiny to forms of modern political activism, whether at a pig farm in Bohemia or at the European Parliament, constitutes not a theoretical discussion about an ‘imagined community’ but a discourse about a living one, which has combined this journey of discovery with a quest for its past, in order to reach—through present day grievances over social and economic issues—their rightful place as equals among the community of fellow Europeans.


1 Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford, 1986), p. 32.

2 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London/New York, 1991); Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, p. 11.

3 Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, pp. 13−16.

4 John A. Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 3.

5 Ibid, p. 14.

6 Gideon Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology (Brandeis University Press, 1995), p. 10.

7 Ibid, p. 8.

8 David Mayall, Gipsy Identities (London, 2004), pp. 237−45; Yaron Matras, “The Role of Language in Mystifying and Demystifying Gypsy Identity,” in: N. Saul and S. Tebbutt (eds.), The Role of the Romanies (Liverpool University Press, 2004), pp. 53−84.

9 Amstrong, Nations before Nationalism, p. 8.

10 Ben Zion Dinur, Israel in the Diaspora (Tel Aviv, 1957; Hebrew), pp. 40−5.

11 David Ben-Gurion, Vision and Path, Vol. 4 (Tel Aviv, 1951; Hebrew), pp. 61−2.

12 Haim Hazaz, Collected Works (Tel Aviv, 1967; Hebrew), pp. 221−4.

13 Roni Stauber, Lesson for This Generation, (Jerusalem, 2000; Hebrew).

14 Michael Keren, Ben-Gurion and the Intellectuals (Beersheba, 1988; Hebrew), pp. 66−75, 102−5.

15 Eliezer Don-Yehiya, “Statism and Holocaust,” in Abraham Rubenstein (ed.), In the Paths of Renewal, Vol. 1 (Ramat Gan, 1983; Hebrew), pp. 177−81; Roni Stauber, “Between Real Politik and the Burden of the Past: Israel’s Diplomats and the ‘Other Germany,’” Israel Studies 3 (Fall 2003), pp. 100−23.

16 Stauber, Lesson for This Generation, pp. 135−53.

17 See for example: Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon, The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies (London, 1972), p. 60; Ian Hancock, “Genocide of the Roma in the Holocaust,”

18 Slawomir Kapralski, “Ritual of Memory in Constructing the Modern Identity of Eastern European Romanies,” in Saul and Tebbutt, The Role of the Romanies, pp. 210−11; see also Harold Tanner, “The Roma Persecution,” http://www.geocities. com/Paris/5121/porraimos.htm

19 Katalin Katz, “Holocaust Stories of Gypsies from Hungary: Practice of Memory and Interpretation,” (Ph.D, diss., Jerusalem, 2002), pp. 320−3.

20 Steve Lipman, “The Gypsy ‘Final Solution,’” othervictims2.htm; Ian Hancock, “Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend To Minimize the Romani Holocaust,”

21 Cara Feys, “Towards a New Paradigm of the Nation: The Case of the Roma,”

22 Ian Hancock, “Origins of the Romani People,” 5121/history.htm

23 Donald Kenrick, The Gypsies: From the Ganges to the Thames (Univ. of Hertfordshire, 2004).

24 Thomas Acton, “Modernity, Culture and ‘Gypsies’: Is There a Meta-Scientific Method for Understanding the Representation of Gypsies? And Do the Dutch Really Exist?,” in Saul and Tebbutt The Role of the Romanies, pp. 99–115; Matras, “The Role of Language”; Mayall, Gipsy Identities, pp. 237–51; Wim Willems, “Ethnicity as a Death-Trap: The History of Gypsy Studies,” in L. Lucassen, W. Willens and A. Cottaar, Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups (London, 1998), pp. 17–34; Judith Okely, The Traveller Gypsies (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 1–28.

25 Thomas Acton, Gypsy Politics and Social Change (London/Boston, 1974), pp. 60−1.

26 See Michael Stewart, “Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Sept. 2004), pp. 561−81.

27 Ibid.

28 See note 19 as well as Katalin Katz, “Story, History and Memory,” in this volume.

29 Múlt es Jövő 2 (2005), p. 82.

30 Ibid., p. 83.

31 Lipman, “The Gypsy ‘Final Solution’”; Hancock, “Downplaying the Porrajmos”; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 39−67; Steven T. Katz, Historicism, the Holocaust and Zionism (New York/ London, 1992), pp. 126−32, 162−92; see also Michael Zimmermann, “Jews, Gypsies and Soviet Prisoners of War: Comparing Nazi Persecutions,” in this volume.

32 Dzeno Association, 3 Aug. 2005.

33 See Michael Shafir, “Analysis: 60 Years after Central Europe’s Romany Holocaust,” RFE/RL, 2 Aug. 2004.

34 See, for example, AP’s coverage of the ceremony, in Dzeno Association, 3 Aug. 2005.

35 See, and MTI (Hungarian News Agency), 2 Aug. 2002.

36 MTI, 2 Aug 2002.

37 See, for example, Radio Prague, 29 April 2005.

38 Dzeno Association, 16 May 2005.

39 Ibid., 12 Sept. 2005.

40 Pravda (Bratislava), 2 Aug. 2003.


RONI STAUBER is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stephen Roth Institute and the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University. His main areas of teaching and research include modern anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust and its impact on Israeli society and on Israeli–German relations. He is the author of Lesson for This Generation—Holocaust and Heroism in Israeli Public Discourse in the 1950s (2000; won the 2002 Eish Shalom Prize), and Ideology and Memory (forthcoming). He is co-editor of the annual survey Antisemitism Worldwide, as well as of the volume Antisemitism and Terror (2003).

RAPHAEL VAGO is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, and Senior Research Fellow at the Stephen Roth Institute and the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies, at Tel Aviv University. His main areas of teaching and research include modern history of central and Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism, Holocaust and Holocaust denial, nationalism, minorities and ethnicity, post-communist systems and European integration. He was a member of the International Commission of Historians on the Holocaust in Romania and general editor of the four-volume English edition of The History of Jews in Romania.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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