Hidden Sorrows: Meeting Gypsy (Roma) Survivors of the Holocaust in Romania
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I first heard about the deportation of Romanian Gypsies (Roma) population during WWII in 1994, while in Romania on a Fulbright scholarship collecting life histories of Romani women. I came to Romania prepared to talk with women about their roles as wives and mothers, and as keepers of Romani language and custom. Instead, they shared a virtually unknown history with me, one which was replete with emotional and physical scars. Their testimonies shook me to my very core, and I pursued an entirely different course of study than initially planned.
As Roma welcomed me into their homes, their trust in me deepened and so did my knowledge of their lives. I began recording their oral histories and found myself in the privileged position of listener to their hidden sorrows. Roma rarely speak with outsiders of their sufferings, but the women, dressed in brightly colored floral skirts and headscarves, told me of deportations to a place they called in Romani language, ando Bugo, meaning at the Bug River. Later, I learned that they were in concentration camps in occupied Soviet territory, which Romania controlled during the war.
Before meeting survivors, I knew little about the Nazi persecution of Roma. Although an estimated 500,000 Roma perished in the Holocaust, research on the genocide of the Roma is paltry. Concerning Romania’s role in the destruction of Roma, almost nothing was available then in English or Romanian. That’s when I decided to concentrate my research on the tragedy of the Roma during the Holocaust.
From archival sources, the logistical aspects of the deportation emerged. Under the leadership of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the Romanian government deported over 25,000 Roma to camps in Transnistria, a region in the Soviet Union occupied by Romanian and German forces during 1942–44. Allied with Nazi Germany, Antonescu’s military regime was encouraged to rid Romania of “undesirable populations,” namely Jews and Roma. Transnistria seemed ideal for Antonescu, as it was a temporarily annexed territory, given to Romania by Hitler as a war prize for victories in the East. The deportation of Jews began in 1941. The following year, Roma were targeted.
The Romanian government selected two categories of Roma for deportation: nomads and settled populations deemed “dangerous” by the regime. For weeks, rural police escorted nomads in caravans until they crossed the border. Crowded cargo trains transported settled Roma, who were rounded up from cities. In Transnistria, authorities converted Soviet-style collective farms into makeshift camps. Roma were used as forced laborers to help further the war effort. The dispersion of deportees was chaotic. Food was rarely distributed, housing consisted primarily of overcrowded pigpens and horse stalls, and medical care was absent. Cruelty of guards and roaming German troops terrorized the deportees. By 1944, when the Eastern front fell and camps were liberated, only 11,000 Roma had survived. The rest succumbed to starvation, disease, and brutality.
While the documents gave me an overall image of the destruction, the survivors taught me about the horrendous suffering of the Roma. Even though over 60 years have passed since the tragic events occurred, the wounds appear to be still unhealed as survivors evoke the horror of the experience. Dashu, 14-years-old upon deportation, witnessed his father gunned down by a guard while trying to sneak out of the camp to procure food. Aristita, then eight, watched guards cut off her mother’s toe for not yielding the last of their gold. Another woman, Enuta, twelve at the time, recounted soldiers “playing” by butting her head together with her sister’s until her sister slipped into a coma from which she never awoke.
Several researchers report that customs prohibit Roma from speaking about the dead, thereby implying that internal reasons prevent them from telling their stories of the genocide, which would partially explain the lack of scholarship on the Romani Holocaust. While plausible, I have not found this among Romanian Roma. Rather I have found that Roma fear of new persecutions, institutional barriers such as limited access to archives, and widespread racism have kept Roma from sharing their story with a larger public.
In addition to focusing my doctoral dissertation on the collective memory of Romanian Roma, I have launched several educational projects to promote awareness about Roma and the Holocaust. In 2005, I finished a one-hour documentary entitled Hidden Sorrows: The Persecution of Romanian Gypsies during WWII. The idea for a documentary came to me while transcribing my first interviews. When Roma tell stories, their entire bodies become instruments of communication. Arm gestures replace action words and facial expressions convey emotion. Also, I wanted my students to see what I saw, so that they could transform the facts and figures of the Holocaust into faces and names.
Survivors’ accounts carry the film. Mirica tells of eating grass to survive. Juberina recounts witnessing her father being shot by guards because he was too sick to work. Crai remembers waking up each morning to find that family and friends had died during the night, and those with a little strength left had to bury them. So many died that during harsh winters, and when the ground froze over, burials were no longer possible. Berbec recalls with pain that his mother’s corpse was devoured by a dog. Even though liberation came in 1944, death had yet to retreat. Anuta, orphaned, cries while remembering having to leave her older sister, ill with typhus, on the side of road because she could no longer be carried.
The film has been shown at cultural institutions and in several high schools across Romania and in the United States. It will be duplicated and sent to every Romanian high school to serve as an educational tool for teaching about the Holocaust and for discussion in civic education classes on topics such as xenophobia, racism, and discrimination. My hope for both my academic work and the film is to start a much-needed dialogue about the place of Roma in both Romanian and Holocaust history.
Michelle Kelso is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan.