This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
Before World War II, Romania was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. The group was ravaged during the Holocaust and tens of thousands of survivors emigrated to Israel in the postwar years when the country became a communist state, leaving the Romanian Jewish population vastly reduced in size. Another minority persecuted during the Holocaust – the Roma - today represents about 8.3 percent of the Romanian population, numbering some 1.85 million people.
The Roma are thought to be descendants of populations who migrated to Europe from India via Iran and Turkey during the Middle Ages. They have been discriminated against for centuries and were made to work as slaves in the countryside of Romania and other countries until the 19th century.
In 1940 Ion Antonescu took power, installing a fascist regime and becoming a key ally of Hitler’s, especially during Operation Barbarossa - the Nazi invasion of Russia - in 1941. A year later, Antonescu’s regime started deporting Jews and Roma people to concentration camps abroad and forcing hundreds of thousands on a death march to Transnistria - a region administered by Romania since its capture from the Soviets early in Operation Barbarossa. Those who didn’t die on the way were made to live in ghettos and starved for two years. It’s estimated that 410,000 people died in Transnistria. In total, about 25,000 Roma people were deported in those years and only half of them survived.
Last year, on the 2nd of August, 2020, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis established a national day to commemorate the Roma genocide. The date is symbolic – as documents show, on the night of the 2nd of August, 1944, over 2,800 Roma people were killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to make room for incoming trains filled with Jews deported from Hungary.
Declaring a national day of commemoration is an important step toward Romania accepting its long-standing history of discrimination against the group, which is still ostracised and segregated in every sector of society. Today, many of the Roma survivors of the Holocaust are prevented from accessing the rights granted to others persecuted during that period.
Vlad-Andrei Roșianu, 18, and Alexia Șerban, 16, have grown up in Romania in a period when the memories of the Holocaust are slowly fading. They spoke with Petre Matei, a historian at the National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust who has spoken with Roma Holocaust survivors for an oral history project.
VICE: The 2nd of August commemorates the Roma Holocaust. How well-known is this historical event in Romania?
Petre Matei: If you had asked me this ten years ago, I would have said that it’s not. But things have changed for the better lately, and I think this is because we’re commemorating it more.
At the Institute, we periodically ask Romanians to define what happened during the Holocaust. In 2007, only two percent of Romanians answered that it also included the extermination of the Roma, in November 2010 that number increased to five percent, in 2013 to 13 percent, in 2017 to 36 percent, and in November 2019, to 49 percent.
It's a good sign. The problem is that even after their return, the Roma suffered persecution, discrimination and contempt from the authorities and society.
Who is to blame for the genocide?
The Romanian authorities – both from a legal and from a moral standpoint.
In 1942, when the Roma were deported, Romania was not occupied by Nazi Germany. Thus, legally, Romania was – and still is – responsible for the deportation of the Jews and the Roma. There is no documentation suggesting Germany pressured Antonescu to deport the Roma, for example.
In the winter of 1942 and into early 1943, a few months after the Roma were deported, the Germans even intervened to stop their deportation. These people had been transported in such bad conditions that a lot of them had died, usually of typhus, and the Germans were afraid they would infect their armed forces.
What did the average Romanian think of the Roma deportations back then?
Some people said, "Good thing we’re getting rid of [them]", but they were a minority in comparison to the numerous Romanians who wrote petitions and demanded that the authorities stop deporting Roma people or bring them back from Transnistria.
The contents of these petitions usually went something like, “We don't want Vasilache Popescu to be deported. He is hardworking, he's a soldier, he has his own land” and so on, all kinds of arguments. They were usually initiated by the mayor, by teachers or the priests and signed by the whole village.
Despite what Antonescu said or what many Romanian nationalists imagine now, the deportations were not a popular measure.
What criteria were used to pick the people who were later deported?
All nomadic Roma people were to be deported, plus those who did not have a clear income or who had a criminal record.
You have interviewed many Holocaust survivors. Whose stories touched you the most?
There was an old man who died in 2014, at the age of 109. The man was deported at the age of 37, together with his wife and their three daughters. He returned from Transnistria alone and mutilated, but he managed to rebuild his life.
Some children told me about their mothers’ rapes, there were cases of cannibalism, parents who fed their kids the flesh of dead prisoners to help them survive. All kinds of powerful and troubling images. I also heard some horror stories which continued after the prisoners came home.
These interviews touch you deeply, because you’re in front of a person who has been through unbearable suffering. And then you accompany that person, who you have so much respect and admiration for, to some office clerk and you discover that he’s still seen by the authorities as "a stinking Gypsy".
For example, we found some survivors near Galați [a city in eastern Romania]. According to the law, if you want to receive the pension [allocated to Holocaust survivors by a Romanian law adopted in 2000], you have to provide proof you’ve been deported through archival documents or using witness statements. I talked to the notary and we decided to go for statements. Everything was paid for. But once at their office, the notary said, “What, do you want to help the Gypsies? I say too many of them came back." And he kicked them out.
It was a shock to me.
Did you witness other examples of this treatment?
There was a lady who died in February 2017, Maria Costea. For her, I had documents attesting when she was deported, with whom, and what time the train had left the station. She was about seven or eight years old when she was taken to Transnistria. She was deported from Pitești and, after returning, she moved to Bacău [two small cities]. She couldn't read or write, but she worked in factories and had some support from her family.
The Romanian authorities refused to grant her a survivor pension which wasn’t much to begin with, about 150-170 lei per month [€30] . Back in 2014, they told her the law did not apply to Roma people, which was a lie. The law is for the victims of deportations, for the Jews and the Roma people, as well as for all victims of ethnic persecutions between '40 and '45.
The grandma was sent home, even though she had archival documents as proof. They went so far as to say that she hadn’t been deported to Transnistria, that she had left voluntarily. The same argument was used by the police in '42. In 2015, although they had a file stocked with evidence, the officials said that the documents were not good. A year later, they agreed she had been deported, but she still didn't receive a pension on the grounds that they could not calculate how long she was deported for. It was incredible.
She had managed to escape in February or March 1944 with the help of an aunt. This aunt bribed a soldier who smuggled people out of Transnistria with a huge sum of money. She managed to survive. Obviously there were no archival documents to prove when she returned, because if she was caught by the authorities, she’d be deported again.
I helped her apply for another pension scheme granted by the German state to the victims of the Holocaust, since the prisoners in Transnistria were under their jurisdiction. The pensions were much higher and they were paid retroactively, for the last eight to ten years. In less than three months, this lady received a pension from a state that was ultimately not responsible for the fate of the deported Roma.
What is your message for those who deny or ignore the Roma Holocaust?
To read more, to be more open, to be more curious.
Note: ‘Gypsy’ is a word that is now widely considered offensive to Romani people, and many are attempting to phase it out of everyday usage.