Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day
2 August is celebrated in Poland as the Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day. 70 years ago, on the night of 2 to 3 August 1944, the Nazis liquidated the so-called family camp for the Roma (Zigeunerfamilienlager) in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. It involved killing in gas chambers almost 3 thousand children, women and men, the last Roma prisoners of the camp. The ceremonies, which took place on the site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, were attended by over 1 000 people.
The participants included: former prisoners, representatives of Roma organisations, members of the Polish government, diplomatic corps officials, the Jewish community representatives, directors and staff members of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, regional and local authorities. The participants laid wreaths under the monument commemorating the Roma victims and paid tribute to the murdered.
Krystyna Gil, who survived the Roma massacre in Szczurowa in July 1943, spoke of the role of passing on the memory to future generations: “Every year, my grandmother took me to Szczurowa, to the place where almost all our family was murdered. She said: I will die, you will stay. You can’t forget. Many years have passed and I still remember. That is why I am here today, with you, sharing my story. I am glad that so many young people have come. It is on you what the world will be like in the future. So I’m telling you: never forget about this.”
President Bronisław Komorowski, who assumed honorary patronage over the ceremonies, issued a special letter to the participants, reading: “Today, on the International Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day, the world, including Poland, remembers Roma victims of the German Nazi terror. We think back to every person tortured to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other places of torment, of the Roma women and men, of the children.” The President emphasised: “Memory is not our only duty towards the victims of Porajmos. We are also obliged to oppose any form of hostility against the Roma and other ethnic minorities, to defy any manifestations of racism or xenophobia.”
A letter for the 70th anniversary of the liquidation was issued also by the President-Elect of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who evoked the tragic history of the Sinti and the Roma, as well as the Jews, and reminded us of the crucial role of memory in assuring that those atrocious events are never repeated in our times. “Today, 70 years later, we still struggle with such hideous phenomena as hate, violence and xenophobia; we still witness anti-Semitism in Europe; we still see discrimination against the Roma and the Sinti. We must fight those phenomena. We cannot accept them,” he wrote in his letter.
Roman Kwiatkowski, head of the Association of Roma in Poland, emphasised in his speech the contemporary symbolic meaning of the Memorial Site for the Roma community: “This place, secured and rigorously protected, is and will be a reminder of the crime committed. We also need to remember that this place is symbolic, as it evokes the whole ordeal suffered by our nation under the Nazi rule. It symbolises the death of the Roma and the Sinti at sites of mass annihilation, in concentration camps, during mass executions carried out in many other places,” he said. “This place is what unites the Roma and the Sinti from all over the world. By our presence here, by mourning together and remembering the murders and those who passed away, we become united as a nation. Not only with respect to the past, but also the present,” he emphasised.
Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, stressed the historical importance of the Roma camp liquidation for the last few months of the camp’s existence. “For some time, the fate of the Roma and the Sinti was under debate in Germany. In Auschwitz, they were isolated from the society as dangerous for racial purity. However, they were usually not directed to work in work squads due to stereotypes, which were rather widespread. At one point, though, Berlin made a decision to exterminate the Roma and the Sinti. The liquidation of Zigeunerfamilienlager Birkenau took place after transports of Hungarian Jews had stopped; half a year later, Auschwitz was liberated,” said Cywiński.
For the Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day, a new online lesson entitled “Roma in KL Auschwitz” was made available on the Museum’s website. The lesson was prepared by Teresa Wontor-Cichy, a historian from the Research Center of the Museum. The lesson is available in Polish, English translation will be published soon.
Apart from the ceremony organised by the Association of Roma in Poland, a special educational programme and ceremonies commemorating the annihilation of the Roma during World War II were prepared by the International Roma Youth Network (TernYpe). Those events were attended by over 1 000 people from over 20 countries.
It is estimated that the Germans imprisoned in Auschwitz about 23 thousand Roma: men, women and children. Approximately 20 thousands of them died or were killed in the camp. On the premises of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Block 13, there is an exhibition commemorating the Roma extermination and presenting the particular nature of the Nazi genocide against the Roma in the Nazi-occupied Europe.