by Christiana García-Soberanez
The word “Holocaust” means “a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God” in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for Holocaust is “Shoah,” which means catastrophe or calamity. Both are widely known terms used to describe the persecution of Jewish people during World War II (WWII). So, when people think of the Holocaust, they most often think of the persecution and genocide of Jewish people in Europe.
However, many people do not know there were other communities targeted by Nazis, including people with disabilities, homosexual people, Black people, and the Roma and Sinti. During our walking tour, we learned almost 1.5 million Roma and Sinti were killed as a result of persecution during WWII, but this is rarely talked about or even known. The experiences of Roma and Sinti have been erased from history, but today, we remember Pořajmos (often translated in English to “to swallow in”), the word Sinti and Roma people use to describe their persecution during the Holocaust.
Roma and Sinti people were often categorized as asocial and criminal, forced to wear brown|black triangles to signify their status. The criminal label has affected the way they are viewed as not being victims of WWII, and to this day, these stereotypes follow them, allowing the justification of stigma and stereotypes to continue in Germany and throughout the world.
During our tour, led by Romani activist Estera Iordan, started at the RomaniPhen Feminist Archive and continued with three sites that are important for telling the history of Roma and Sinti people during WWII. At RomaniPhen, Romani history is preserved, serving as a united space for Romani in Germany and as a cultural center aimed at aiding Romani people and fighting oppression. For example, they donate necessities to people in need and educate youth about their identity and self-esteem building so they can be proud. For example, Estera spoke about one her own idols, a Romani women who survived the war and went on to paint her experiences of terror, which brought light to the experiences of Roma and Sinti people during the time. Counternarratives like this are important fpr combating the erasure of Roma and Sinti and the stereotypes that follow them today.
Our next stop was the Stolpersteine honoring Johann Trollmann, who was persecuted during the war. Trollmann was a very famous champion boxer in Germany. Throughout his lifetime and career, he endured discrimination for being Sinti. For example, after holding the Light Heavyweight Champion title, Trollman was stripped of his title. Also, for his final fight, he was forced by the Nazi regime to lose under the threat of deportation of his family. Soon after losing, he and his family were still deported, and he died in a concentration camp. At the memorial we also learned about how Romani people migrated to Europe. Romani people originally came from southern India and arrived in Europe as enslaved people. Since Europeans thought they were from Egypt, they were labeled with a racial slur. As I wrote earlier, there is a long history of stigma and stereotypes about Romani people that labeled them as criminals, contributing to the justification of their persecution.
Our next stop was the Topography of Terror, which was once the Racial Eugenic Research Center that contributed to the persecution of Roma and Sinti people. We learned about the unethical medical experiments conducted on Romani people, including those conducted on Otto Rosenberg, who was a child during WWII. After the war, Rosenberg worked to bring light to the medical horrors Roma and Sinti people endured at the hands of Nazis like forced sterilizations. We also learned about two of the major perpetrators, a nurse and doctor, who were able to work after the war because they were not prosecuted. These perpetrators were not punished for their crimes because documentation and proof were destroyed and Roma and Sinti people were not viewed as victims of the war. Roma and Sinti people who were experimented on suffered great health consequences that disabled many, which continues to take a toll on their communities. This history of unethical medical experiments, as well as the lack of recognition of those experiments, has contributed to medical distrust and disparities in medical care in the Roma and Sinti community to this day.
Last, we visited the Memorial to Sinti and Roma Murdered under tha National Socialist Regime. The memorial is a circular pond full of water intended to represent the tears shed by Roma and Sinti victims. The pond also reflects the sky, intended to symbolize the heavens, surrounded by stones with the names of concentration camps. In the center of the pond, there is a triangle intended to represent the patch Roma and Sinti were forced to wear where a fresh flower is placed daily (see video below). After the war, Jewish people were compensated by the German government, which was not the same for Roma and Sinti people. As Nicola Lauré al-Samarai and Sara Lennox write in “Neither Foreigners Nor Aliens: The Interwoven Stories of Sinti and Roma and Black Germans,” “The Nazi genocide not only severely affected this population; the government’s refusal to pay compensation also led to the collapse of the entire social and vocation structure of the community” (174). Pořajmos has had long lasting effects on Roma and Sinti communities, which have not been addressed due to the continuation of stigma and stereotyping. However, like other victims of the war, Roma and Sinti people often lost their sense of belonging and community.
The discrimination and stigma against Roma and Sinti people continue today. As al-Samari and Lennox point out, “Volksgemeinschaft,” a concept for German people sharing common ancestry, erases Roma and Sinti history and affects their struggle against oppression. Roma and Sinti people are continuously treated as second class citizens, and they continue to endure stigmas and stereotypes associated with their identity. For example, the “G” slur is still widely used and was even written at the memorial for Johann Trollmann and the Memorial to Sinti and Roma Murdered under tha National Socialist Regime.
Still, Romani and Sinti continue to fight oppression and stigma through activism and community-building. One example of this is the RomaniPhen Feminist Archive. By learning about Roma and Sinti stories, we are able to disrupt the dominant narrative with counternarratives.
Reflecting on my own experience participating in the tour, it was very sad to hear how long it took for many of these memorials to be established and to see the use of the “G” slur. These memorials raise awareness and educate people about the experiences of Roma and Sinti people, but they also reinforce harm. Having studied the Holocaust in college, I was aware of the persecution of Roma and Sinti people, but I was blind to the continuation of oppression and discrimination due to the mass erasure of their history and resistance. Learning about the work of activists like our tour guide Estera and the RomaniPhen Feminist archive makes me hopeful about a future in which the history of the Pořajmos and the struggles Roma and Sinti people face today are more widely known.
Video Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
Video Credit: Christiana García-Soberanez
Christiana García-Soberanez (she|her) is a proud New Mexican born and raised in Albuquerque. She is currently majoring in Sociology and minoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies at Colorado College (CC). At CC, she serves on leadership for the Native American Student Union (NASU), is involved in SOMOS (the Latinx affinity group), is a mentor for the Bridge Scholars Program, and is a leader for Outdoor Education. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, camping, rock climbing, watching movies, and spending time with friends. This is her first time visiting Europe, and she is excited to be studying in and exploring Berlin.