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.

A Permanent Home for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s History: The FHXB Museum

 

FHXB II (Zlevor)

Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor

By Annie Zlevor

As part of our continued exploration of Berlin’s hidden spaces and narratives, today the FemGeniuses toured the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum. Before entering the courtyard leading to the museum, you’ll find yourself on Adalbertsraße, a bustling street nestled in the Kreuzberg district. Crowded with a diverse array of restaurants, shops, and businesses, it is easy to see that Kreuzberg is full of life and has an eventful history. Once outside of the FHXB Museum, our guide, Stephanie Kuhn, met us to begin the tour.

While I was aware of the district’s status as the multicultural hub of Berlin, Stephanie pointed out that Kreuzberg developed into this multicultural hub only after an extensive sequence of urban development, gentrification, and political subcultural movements. Kreuzeberg’s transformation began in 1945, after World War II destroyed much of the district. Air strikes left an estimated 42% of the district’s political and industrial buildings destroyed. Most of the area had to be completely rebuilt, but some housing complexes remained. However, once the district’s reconstruction began in the mid-1950s, the government sought to tear down the outdated, densely-packed infrastructure and replace it with a modern development.

In 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall began, closing off Kreuzberg from West Berlin. Within days, more than 60,000 workers living east of the wall were cut off from their work in the west. To end the labor shortage, workers from southern and southeastern Europe were recruited to Berlin. One such immigrant, Junge Menschen, was highlighted in the museum. Like many other guest workers, Junge hoped to earn higher wages than she would at home in Turkey and save money before returning to her country. In response to the influx of migrant workers, the government built temporary housing facilities for guest workers like Junge. During this time, it was common for well-educated, secular Turks to make this trip with the intention of only staying a year, thus the temporary housing was suitable. But once guest workers chose to extend their stay in Berlin, permanent housing became problematic.

In 1963, the Berlin government approved an extensive plan for urban renewal and development. They intended to demolish 90% of the structures built around the turn of the 20th century. The city began buying houses from owners and in turn, Kreuzberg’s people moved away. Surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, many were eager to sell as the value of their homes decreased. As a temporary fix to the housing crisis, the government permitted guest workers to live in these homes until they were torn down. However, as more housing complexes were destroyed, developers began to force guest workers out of their homes.

FHXB I (Zlevor)

Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor

Eventually, the development of excessive commercial housing led to the Renters’ Rights Movement in the 1970s with the hopes of putting an end to investor interest. Distrust and anger with the governance of the city led to the development of the Squatting Movement in 1979. In response to the poor conditions of homes and the high number of empty properties, citizens occupied abandoned apartment buildings. They believed that the people who lived in the city should be the ones that owned it, not the investors who financed the buildings. As a result of persistent protesting, a law safeguarding residents’ interests was enacted in Berlin.

When the wall came down in 1989, Kreuzberg became the center of Berlin once again. With a newfound ability to travel, many Kreuzberg residents left for the neighboring district of Friedrichshain. But in an effort to continue their fight for affordable and livable housing, protestors from the Squatter Movement again took up their demonstrations, this time in Friedrichshain. Unfortunately, this micro-migration produced detrimental effects on Kreuzberg’s economy. In response, an administrative reform in 2001 merged the districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. Since then however, gentrification has stripped the district of nearly all available and affordable housing. As Wolfgang Kil and Hilary Silver describe in their historical description of Kreuzberg in “From Kreuzberg to Marzahn: New Migrant Communities in Berlin,” “The neighborhood remains a zone of concentrated ethnic poverty” (100). Rent is nearly twice as high as it was in 2007, and the 1 million tourists who visit the district annually rent out the few available apartments. By using trendy websites like AirBNB, owners can easily rent their home out for days at a time. Consequently, the 40,000 Syrian refugees welcomed to Berlin in 2015 were forced to live in airports and gymnasiums without access to a permanent or even temporary home. To this day, the housing market in Berlin has been nearly impossible to navigate.

While the FHXB Museum tells the determined and resilient history of Kreuzberg- Friedrichshain, most incredible to me was the way they told their story. When you first enter the museum, a three-dimensional map illustrates what the district of Kreuzberg looked like in the 1981. However instead of relying on a group of historians to produce the map, the museum invited local residents to create the exhibition with them. This is one the first exhibits of its kind, unlike any other in Germany because of its collective participation. It forced me to question the difference collaboration might bring about as we look to remember our past. It seems disturbingly common that the history of a group of people is often told by everyone but the people themselves. As Michael Stewart notes in “Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma,” when historians and other academics write about a people’s past, it “entirely bypasses the relationship of the victims to their own history” (561). I feel this project represents the power and unity of a collaborative community. The museum provides a safe space for the neighborhood to remember and commemorate the district’s past on its own terms.

Additionally, in conjunction with the neighborhood, the FHXB Museum has also created an interactive map of East Berlin. Over the course of four years, the museum collected hundreds of stories about specific places in Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain. You can actively walk on the map and listen to these stories told by the people themselves. By participating in the exhibit, the community demonstrates its support and emotional investment in the district’s history. It was exciting for me to experience this exhibit knowing of all the people who came together in order to create it. The map’s construction tells the history of a community just how the community wants it to be told. In Berlin, it is so common to see Germany deciding how to remember and commemorate the long histories of other people. For example, sites honoring murdered Jews in the Holocaust are often built without consulting the Jewish community first. As Sabine Offe describes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” Jewish museums have “been established for a largely non-Jewish public, mostly lacking in knowledge and experience of Jewish history, culture, and religion” (78). However, much unlike this example, it was refreshing to see the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district representing itself.

FHXB III (Zlevor)

Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor

The FHXB Museum has been a staple location for our class on this trip. Thus far, it has served as the site of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel, the building for temporary classroom abroad, and the location of our tour today. After learning more about the museum’s purpose in the community, it seemed fitting to me that we had taken advantage of the space for our academic learning purposes. Just as we have spent time in this building to uncover the truth about Berlin’s past, the local community has done the same. The museum actively collaborates with activists in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district by offering support for their cause and by providing a space for these organizations to meet. Even the simple offering of a room to hold speeches, discussions, and exhibitions can be instrumental to a nonprofit’s success. It felt empowering to be in a place that actively enables the community to take action and strive to create change.

Our tour ended with an open conversation about current gentrification in the United States and Germany. During our discussion, it became evident why this museum was a relevant experience for us. The stories told by each exhibit showed the capacity and effectiveness of continued dedication to a cause. Unlike Germany, political movements such as the Renters’ Rights Movement focusing on housing and gentrification are not happening as broadly in the United States. In some cases, it can feel as if capitalism is more powerful than demonstrations. There are hardly any known squatters actively protesting this capitalistic initiative. However, the people of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain have shown that the housing market is not invincible. We should look to this community as an example of ways to initiate change at home. Although their fight lasted many years and still continues to this day, we should not be scared of its difficulty, but instead be inspired by it.


Annie Zlevor Blog PhotoAnnie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.

The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

By Talia Silverstein

Today our adventures in Berlin took us through some of the city’s most famous historical sites. Our tour guide, Kathinka Minthe, walked us through many parts of the city, teaching us about the history, social discourse, and controversy that each place held. We started at the Reichstag Building, home to the German Parliament and finished at Museum Island where we saw Angela Merkel’s home. We visited the Brandenburg Gate, walked through Tiergarten, and explored The Memorial for the Murdered Jews. We walked along Hannah Arendt Straße to get to the site of Hitler’s old bunker, now a parking lot, and later saw Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, a section of the old Berlin wall. Around the corner was the Topographie of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie,  the site of a historic standoff. We wrapped up at the site of the infamous book burning, across the street from the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. The focus of our tour was to examine the ways in which these historical landmarks allowed us to discuss some of the “hidden” women of Berlin’s intricate history.

One of the topics discussed was remembering history without memorializing all of it. When you visit Germany, the first thing many American visitors think about are the sites where World War II, Nazis, and Hitler stood not so long ago. This horrific history is something every German citizen acknowledges and learns about, but many of the actual sites that had been part of the war are now new or renovated. The historical relevance of the war is not lost on people today. As Michael Stewart writes in Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma, “I came to feel that for many people, the memory of the entire war was condensed into a few images that were normally kept deep in the shadows of the cave, illuminated occasionally and incandescently before being enveloped gain in the penumbra of the past.” While this is a history that Berlin wants to make sure to remember, when it comes to memorializing an atrocity it is hard to find “positive” ways to do this. It seems to me that the people of Berlin are in a constant struggle between remembering and acknowledging atrocities without glorifying those who committed them. We cannot forget the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, but at the same time, Berlin must be able to grow and develop. The people of Berlin have made the conscious decision to memorialize some and destroy others. The sites most often destroyed were those with ties to the Nazi party to deter neo-Nazis from using the places as a pilgrimage sites.

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

A surreal moment during our tour was when we visited Checkpoint Charlie. None of the historical or original buildings are there at all. What remains are tourist-oriented museums designed to attract. The streets are full of stereotypical USSR and fake communist propaganda for sale. It was a space flooded with tourists hoping to see a piece of history. In the middle of the street a fake USSR checkpoint hut stands for people to take pictures with, of course only if they are willing to pay a fee. The line to take pictures by the hut stretched over a block and almost every tourist held in hand some piece of fake propaganda or were adorned in Cold War uniform replicas. It seemed like a cheesy a commodification not only of a difficult history, but also of the German/Soviet. Watching people capitalize on the hardships of millions left a pit in my stomach.

Further, the little proof we saw of accomplished women was hard to find and are usually newer and smaller. For example, during our tour on Tuesday, Carolyn Gammon showed us that the women’s wing in Humboldt University was only a tiny hallway. To build on this today, we learned about Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist. Her art depicts poverty, hunger, and working-class struggles. She was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, and had a small museum in her honor. We would’ve visited but, like a lot of Berlin, it was unfortunately closed for renovations. Another famous Berliner, Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher, has a street named after her. The last woman we saw at the Topographie of Terror was Stella Kubler, a Jewish convert to Christianity turned catcher, who went underground rounding up hidden Jews for the Gestapo. She was an open anti-Semite and was eventually charged with war crimes.

Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Reflecting on the absence of women’s history, they truly are hidden. With a critical eye, you can begin to uncover the stories of these powerful and notable women. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti write in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom, “Internal contradictions, incompleteness, and obstinacy characterize the work of Rosa Luxemburg as well as that of Hannah Arendt […] Due to their respective Jewish and Jewish-Polish origins, their gender (which they hardly ever mentioned and when they did, only in private) and the prevailing historical-political situation, both women were strangers in a world whose imposing list of identifications they flatly refused.” As a Jewish woman who has grown up in a predominantly Jewish community, I can’t help but to recognize the importance of remembering this history.  As Stewart writes, “Rather than focus on the means of ‘forgetting’, ‘obliterating’, and ‘downplaying’ the past’ I focus on the ways in which, despite Gypsy ‘presentist’ rhetoric, the past is ‘remembered’ among Gypsy populations.” Until now, I have never understood the struggle for those who it so closely surrounds to be able to escape this history in order to be recognized as more than it.


Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Talia Silverstein is a rising sophomore from Port Washington, NY. She is planning on majoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and double minoring in Political Science and Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She is passionate about her photography, drawing, and poetry. During her time at CC, she hopes to have more opportunities like this class that allow her to travel, explore, and participate in hands on learning. While in Berlin, she plans on getting lost as much as possible unless it makes her late to class.