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.
Photo Credit: Christiana García-Soberanez
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.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
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.
Photo Credit: Christiana García-Soberanez
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.
Photo Credit: Christiana García-Soberanez
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.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
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.
I have to start by saying that the five-year anniversary of the course started out with a bang for a few reasons:
It’s the first time the course has been full. In fact, we exceeded the maximum enrollment limit of 16 by one student;
two of my students were able to secure funding to come conduct research—Judy Fisher, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20, 2019-2020 TriotaPresident, 2018-2019 Shannon McGee Prize winner, and Fall 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum came to conduct transnational studies of American Indigeneity; and Mekael Daniel, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20 and 2019-2020 Triota Vice President came to conduct transnational studies of Blackness;
and we were joined by my niece-cousin-boo from Memphis, TN, Kelsey Nichole Mattox, who turned 18 and graduated from high school recently. So, her presence was especially meaningful. In fact, she had never gotten on an airplane until she traveled here, excitedly letting us know, “I decided to go all the way!”
Judy and Mekael arrived the same day I did, and we trekked to Radebeul (near Dresden) to attend the Karl May Festival so Judy could observe, think about, and examine Native American participation in predominantly white festival culture in Germany, as well as white Native American hobbyism. Imagine the raised-eyebrows of every single one of my friends and comrades in Berlin when I told the about this—haha. Judy and Mekael also went to the Great Indian Meeting at the El Dorado theme park in Templin the following weekend to continue Judy’s work. Shoutout to my colleague, Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra (Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College), for introducing Judy to the significance of hobbyism in Germany, illustrating the collective efforts necessary for critical theory work.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that it’s been a while since the #FemGeniusesinBerlin were so full of #BlackGirlMagic (2015was the last time, to be exact), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. One adorable and powerful manifestation of that was Avi(a) leading several rounds of “Deep Truth, Truth,” a game that allowed her to bond with her classmates, especially her roommates, but also with Dana and I one day during lunch. “Deep Truth, Truth” starts with someone asking another person if they’d like to share a deep truth or what one might refer to as a “regular” truth. A “regular truth” could be anything from sharing your favorite color to a song that you hate; however, a “deep truth” is usually something that one might not share in a group like this, because lots of us don’t know each other well enough to be comfortable with that kind of vulnerability. Then, once the person being questioned decides what kind of truth they want to share, the questioner asks a question. After the question is answered, the person being questioned then gets to ask another person in the group a question. I got to ask and answer twice (one truth and one deep truth), and learned a lot about the students that day. Neat stuff.
In “short,” the2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin were such a great bunch even though we most certainly hit a few snags along the way. Here are some (definitely not all) of the most memorable moments:
The weather hitting 90F degrees, something I’m pretty sure never happened in years past, and doing so several days each week.
Bella’s cube bear.
Mekael, Judy, and I being photographed by a stranger (with consent) at the Karl May Festival and finding the very poorly-filtered but very cute photograph on social media (posted with consent).
Lauren’s RBF and fierce modeling skills.
Avia’s phone fan and ridiculous pranks.
Zander playing Captain Save ‘Em, and gettin’ hollered at all along the way.
Nicole being almost entirely silent then shakin’ up the space with the loudest, most hilarious laugh you ever did hear.
Vang asking to sit on our roof (which would most certainly result in his untimely death), asking about transporting beer back to the U.S., telling us he got “hemmed up by 12” (which turned out to mean he was approached by some ticket-checkers on the subway and allowed to continue his trip with a mere warning…side eye), telling folks about sex stores, and gettin’ hollered at for almost every single thing all along the entire way.
Discussing the advantages and risks of comparative analysis.
Dr. W. Christopher Johnson, Assistant Professor of History and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and husband of our Course Associate Dana Asbury, coming for a visit and joining us for a few sessions.
I could go on and on and on. I will never forget this group. Such a great summer through it all, which led to my new phrases: Must be June. Must be Berlin.
2019 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index: Click hereto view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos!
It’s been a while since I contributed to “Some Final Thoughts.” So, bear with me, please, as I shake some of the rust off.
Despite earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this spring, this year had its rough spots—some worse than others, especially the death of one of my closest aunts. Because of that, a few people—some who I thought were close to me and others who I knew weren’t—recommended that I cancel this course. In some strange way, I’m glad they did, because it reminded me of two very important things:
A lot of people who compliment me on this course have no idea what it is, what it does, and/or what it means—not just to me but to my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
This course means a lot to me and my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
My faith in the course was rewarded by a great group of students. They were thoughtful, kind, patient, interested, curious, and outright hilarious. I had so much fun with them, and I miss them already even though it’s only been one week since the course concluded. I could fill this page with memories:
Charles declaring, “Those two left at the same time.”
Me and Charles, singing, “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Laila’s hilarious faces and hand gestures—I wish I could type the sound she made to complement her monster face and hands.
Dana’s and my “cheese fight.”
Our first long-distance trip in the course.
The constant references to John’s future run for Senate.
Sarah’s broad-shouldered dinner jacket.
The search for mom jeans and the finding of a pair “in pristine condition.”
Dereka’s new nose ring.
And as always, we had such a great time with and learned so much from everyone in Berlin who gave their time and energy to the course. Best of all, I think everyone knew just how much we appreciated them, because these students made every effort to ensure that from start to finish. If you haven’t yet, please check out the student podcasts (index below) and share them with anyone you know who may be interested in what we study here.
2018 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
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This podcast—led and produced by Kai Mesman-Hallman—provides some final reflections on the Block 4 2017 section of Hidden Spaces, Hidden Narratives: Intersectionality Studies in Berlinwith Professor Heidi R. Lewis. Throughout the block, the #FemGeniusesinBerlin have taken walking tours, visited museums and cultural centers, and met with activists and artists in the city to conduct situated examinations of how the identities of marginalized people and communities in Germany (especially in Berlin)—such as Black Germans, Turkish Germans, migrants, refugees, victims of Neo-Nazi terrorism and police brutality, and LGBTQI communities—are constructed, particularly how these constructions are dependent on racism, heterosexism, colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Additionally, we examined how these communities resist, reject, revise, and reproduce these narratives as they construct their own subjectivities.
Kai is a junior at Colorado College majoring in Psychology, and is originally from San Diego, CA. She is especially interested in consciousness and the ways our brains’ processing and collecting information can shape our beliefs and thoughts. She spends her free time with her dog and watching conspiracy theory videos.
Joining Kai in her discussion are Uma Scharf—a Baltimore, MD native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Neuroscience, and Drew Ceglinski—a Bath, ME native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Geology.
Block 4 2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click hereto view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!