The Porajmos: The Hidden Narratives of the Roma and Sinti

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L to R: Dana Asbury, Sarah Haupenthal (translator), and Iosif (tour guide) [Photo Credit: Hailey Corkery]

By Hailey Corkery

Today we learned about the Porajmos. Translated as “to swallow in” in English, it’s the name that the Sinti and Roma people use for what we know as the Holocaust, specifically regarding the persecution of Sinti and Romani people. According to Nicola Lauré al-Samarai and Sara Lennox in “Neither Foreigners Nor Aliens: The Interwoven Stories of Sinti and Roma and Black Germans,” “The ancestors of contemporary Sinti and Roma emigrated from India via Turkey and Greece to German-speaking Central Europe as early the fifteenth century” (165). We were educated about the subsequent horrific event of the genocide during a walking tour titled “Gestern mit den Augen von Heute sehen,” which means “yesterday with the eyes of today.” This tour was led by five high school students. They mostly spoke to us in German, so the information was translated by Sarah Haupenthal, an employee of the Rroma Informations Centrum.

The creation of this tour began with a theatre ensemble. The teacher of this theatre group reached out to their Roma students about a project their friend was working on: establishing a tour about the persecution of Sinti and Romani people. The students that led our tour today were part of this group and identify as Roma. They began researching this history through the internet, books, archives, and exhibitions and began giving this tour around 2015. Though some information on the subject exists, it is extremely hard to find, making the students’ research tedious. This is because the genocide of Roma and Sinti people during the Holocaust had been nearly erased by the German state, and therefore does not occupy much space in the public sphere or memory. This fact is the very reason these students give this tour; they want people to know about the harm done to their community.

The first stop we made on the tour was a home for the elderly. As we stood in the shade, we were told about a Sinti boxer named Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann. He was extremely famous and successful in Germany, and became the country’s boxing champion in 1933. The home we were standing near was the former boxing ring where he won the championship fight, and on its sidewalk sits a bronze stumbling stone in his honor. Eight days after his win, however, the title was taken from him due to his Sinti identity. Nazis pressured him with threats of harming his family to lose his next fight. He agreed to save his loved ones, but did so in a defiant way. He showed up to the fight covered head to toe in white powder as a caricature of Aryan people, making a statement—his last fight was going to be against the regime. Despite his purposeful loss, during which he did not box—only standing there in defiance, he was arrested in 1942 and died in a concentration camp. The German Boxing Federation did not give his title back to him until 2003. Johan is one of many examples of the German government’s lack of acknowledgement of the terror they caused the Sinti and Romani people to face.

After hearing Johan’s story, we traveled to the “Topographies des Terrors.” Here, we were told about the perpetrators of the genocide. One institution that assisted the Holocaust was the Racial Hygienic Research Center. This center was composed of “race researchers” who researched the “inferior races” (those who were not Aryan). Specifically regarding the Porajmos, this center sterilized Roma women so that there would not be any more Romani people in future generations to ruin the Nazi vision of “racial purity.” Another institution that was discussed was the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). Founded in 1933, it consisted of police and security from both the state and the Nazi party. Its goal was to find as many Romani people as possible in order to persecute them. They also carried out mass shootings, which was how most people were killed during the Porajmos. The way they, along with other Nazis, found these people is quite disturbing. Many Roma and Sinti people were Catholic, so the church handed their books over to the Nazis so they could locate them. The especially troubling fact: the church was not forced to do this, they did so by choice.

This information led the guides to discuss the justification of the Sinti and Roma persecution, which was also examined in our class readings. For example, in “Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma,” Michael Stewart writes, “Even today, there are still some historians whose ostensibly sympathetic accounts of the Holocaust explicitly suggest that in some way the [Romani people] provoked their own persecution” (571). This was so mostly because of the stereotypes of them; many people assumed that all Sinti and Roma people were thieves due to their nomadic nature. Along these lines, al-Samarai and Lennox write, “Sinti and Roma were immediately criminalized as a threat to social order” (171) in the postwar period, therefore validating their genocide.

After learning about who executed the persecution, we were taken to one of the few memorials to the Porajmos, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime. The guides gave us a few minutes to walk around and explore it ourselves. Created to remind the public of the grief the Sinti Romani people endured, the memorial consists of a timeline of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma and a large pool, symbolizing the tears of the people. In the middle of the pool is a triangle, representing the brown triangles the Romani people were forced to wear during Porajmos. Around the edges of the pool is a poem written by Santino Spinelli, a Roma poet:

Eingefallenes Gesicht (Sunken in face)
erloschene Augen (extinguished eyes)
kalte Lippen (cold lips)
stille (silence)
ein zerissenes Herz (a torn heart)
ohne Atem (without breath)
ohne Worte (without words)
keine Tränen (no tears).

Not only does the memorial recognize the tragedy of the Porajmos, but it also celebrates the Roma people’s love of music; if you are silent, you can hear a faint song playing for this reason.

After we took some time with the memorial, the guides talked to us about the reparations the Sinti and Roma received, or rather, did not receive, after the war ended. Some of the survivors were given small sums of money, which the state thought was appropriate for compensation. This small amount, however, did not even begin to cover their losses. Many survivors lost all of their belongings and loved ones. In addition to these unsatisfactory “reparations,” the state did not formally recognize their harm to these people and the perpetrators were not punished. While this was going on, Jewish survivors were receiving both more money and more recognition for the harm done to them. Due to these injustices, many Romani people refer to their reparations as the “second persecution.”

At the very end of the tour, we asked the student tour guides about Roma and Sinti experience today. First, they talked about how little their family speaks about their past. They told us that their parents and grandparents rarely discuss the Porajmos out of fear for their safety and to avoid saddening their descendants. This lack of conversation causes a rift in the Romani people’s collective memory; the people as a whole, due to the younger generations’ lack of knowledge, don’t know much about what happened to them, which also impacts their lives today. Still, they told us that their families are very proud of them for creating and giving this tour.

We also discussed the derogatory nature of the word “gypsy.” I had never thought of this word as belittling before. I grew up with this word being tossed around as if it were nothing; there is even a restaurant near my house called “Gypsy Soul.” However, these young Roma people talked about how this term implies thievery and dirtiness, and therefore is an insult. Another reason this news shocked me was that a film we watched, Michelle Kelso‘s Hidden Sorrows: Persecution of Romanian Gypsies during the Holocaust, contained the slur. The word was used both throughout the film and in its title, causing me to question its use. Kelso is not of Sinti or Romani descent, so a lack of knowledge about the harm caused by the word could be why it is used.

Spending the afternoon hearing about these buried histories was eye-opening; I had never learned about the Porajmos before, and gaining this information completely changed my perspective on the Holocaust. What made this experience especially extraordinary was getting to hear these narratives directly from Roma youth living in Berlin. The fact that very few people know these stories, however, is disappointing. Both in American and German schools, students are left uneducated about the genocide of Sinti and Romani people. The first memorial to the Porajmos that we visited today wasn’t even built until 2012. Still, even with the memorial in place, many people are still oblivious to the erasure of this group. Some visitors of the memorial do not even read the signs and throw pennies into the pool for luck. This lack of recognition is tragic, but initiatives such as this tour are working to educate the public, both in Germany and around the world, about the tragedy of the Porajmos.

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L to R: Dana Asbury, Talia Silverstein, Olivia Calvi, Nikki Mills, Samson (tour guide), Elisei (tour guide), Iosif (tour guide), Professor Heidi R. Lewis, Estera (tour guide), Iosif (tour guide), Annie Zlevor, Liza Bering, Hailey Corkery, Nora Holmes, Ryan Garcia, and Jannet Gutierrez [Photo Credit: Sarah Haupenthal]


CorkeryHailey is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from the Washington, D.C. area. She plans to major in Sociology and minor in Feminist and Gender Studies. At CC, she is part of Students Against Sexual Assault (SASS) and Ellement, an all-women acapella group. This is her first course with Heidi and first time in Berlin, and she is extremely excited for all the learning and exploring to come with this experience.

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