Invisible Roma

This is a guest post by Ben Judah

The backstreets of Bucharest belong to the Roma. We turn off the car engine in a dingy alley and walk past a pile of oil cans into a Dickensian slum tenement. The survivor is sitting there cross-legged on a yellowing mattress watching Indian dancing on television.

“I like the Indian dancers,” she mutters. She is 77 years-old.

“I was deported when I was around ten,” she says. “The police came to our house.” She digs her thumb into a pillowcase. The dancing Indians are on mute.

“We were then taken on a train north that went to Russia. There were many gypsies there…crowding…people falling, wetting themselves. When we got to a camp there were Germans there and Ukrainians running it. There were so many people cramped into the space. We were given only rotten milk and stale bread and made to live in barns. Anyone who didn’t work was beaten. People were dropping, dying.”

Some 11,000 of the 25,000 deportees from Romania died in the camps where she was taken, in what is today Ukraine. “My parents were terrified and I saw people having their heads chopped off.”

“Do you talk about this often?”

“No, only when asked.” I pass her the money. The drive back to Fortuna’s Soviet-era apartment block is long because of traffic. “There is no national consciousness and no historical memory of the Holocaust because there is no Roma elite,” Nicu says. Nor are there books, or a homeland.

I ask if the Roma have anything at all to remember what happened. “Yes, the song Gelem Gelem,” he says. “It is a song selected in 1971 to be the anthem of the Roma. It is about what happened.” Gelem Gelem was sung by the gypsies of Auschwitz, whispers Nicu. The song originates in what the Roma call the Porajmos, or “devouring”—their word for the Shoah. Written by Žarko Jovanovic, the song was adopted by delegates of the first World Romani Congress in 1971.

That night, I listened over and over to the song. The melody is instantly recognizable as Roma and it soars in anguish.

went, I went on long roads
I met happy Roma
O Roma where do you come from,
With tents on happy roads?
O Roma, O brothers
I once had a great family,
The Black Legions murdered them
Come with me Roma from all the world
For the Roma roads have opened
Now is the time, rise up Roma now,
We will rise high if we act
O Roma, O brothers

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