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Commemorating the Romani Holocaust

The persecutions that the Roma faced during World War II were played down after the liberation. Many crimes were not investigated and their perpetrators went unpunished. The dominant opinion within the Roma community itself was that it was better to forget the tragedy and the suffering as quickly as possible. The only public expression of the war experience was a theatre play, “The Burning Gypsy Camp”, written by Elena Lacková, who wrote it a few years after the war. The play was first staged in her Romani hamlet with the participation of her family. As she wrote herself:

…At the same time, thoughts of our wartime experiences kept coming back to me, and composing themselves as scenes on a stage. Before the War, I used to visit the amateur theatrical group and so I knew what theater was. And so one night when the moon was full I decided that I would write a play for the theater. For our Romani theatre! And that we would show the gadže who we were, what we had been through and what we were going through, the feelings we had, and how we wanted to live.

Lacková, I.: A false dawn. My life as a Gypsy woman in Slovakia. Hatfield 1999. s.126.

For almost two years, an itinerant amateur Romani theatre group led by Elena Lacková performed across eastern Slovakia and the western part of the Czech Republic, staging a total of 106 performances. From time to time, amateur theater groups came back to this play. In 2000, the professional Romani theatre ‘Romanthan’produced the play under the title Romano lagros (The Gypsy Camp).
Elena Lacková (1921 – 2003), one of the most significant Romani personalities of 20th century Slovakia, never forgot the horrors of World War II. Amongst other things, she returned to this topic in her collection of short stories published in Czech under the title The Holocaust of the Roma in the Short Stories of Elena Lacková. She was an indefatigable discussion partner, describing her authentic experiences from the war at hundreds of meetings. She was one of few who has tried to make sure that the Romani holocaust never fades into obscurity.

roma holocaust

In the field of professional historiography, the most concerted effort to explore the Romani holocaust can be attributed to the Czech historian Ctibor Nečas. In the 1980s and 1990s, he published several books on documents , as well as comprehensive works on the situation of the Roma in former Czechoslovakia. His basic works written in Czech include Nad osudem českých a slovenkých Cikánů v letech 1939-1945 [About The Fate of the Czech and the Slovak Roma In 1939 – 1945] (Brno, 1981), Českoslovenští Romové v letech 1938-1945 [The Czechoslovak Roma in 1938 – 1945] (Brno, 1994), Nemůžeme zapomenout – našťi bisteras [We Shall Not Forget] (Olomouc, 1994).

In the past few years there has been a growing interest in the Romani Holocaust. Besides archival research, several research efforts focusing on biographical narratives have been conducted. Personal testimonies of those who survived the holocaust provide an invaluable source of learning about the past. Such works include the books Žalujíci píseň [A Mourning Song] (Brno 1993) written by Dušan Holý and Ctibor Nečas, a collection of testimonies Východoslovenskí Rómovia [The Roma of Eastern Slovakia] (Košice, 1997) edited by V. Fedič , or a book from René Lužica Keď bola vojna, nebol som doma [I Was Not at Home During the War] (Bratislava, 2004).
In 1999 – 2000 The Milan Šimečka Foundation conducted a unique project called The Fates Of Those Who Survive Holocaust, originally initiated by Yale University. The Foundation’s researchers interviewed Roma that lived through World War II, and recorded these testimonies on video. This visual material not only serves as a unique source of historical knowledge, but also forms the basis for the Foundation’s public awareness and education projects.

Remembrance plaques, monuments and commemorative rooms memorialize the suffering of the Roma during World War II. Memorials commemorating those who were killed during the war were erected in the villages of Ilija, Tisovec and Dúbravy. However, any information honouring the fact that these victims were of Roma origin is lacking. In 1995 the local municipality in Čierny Balog erected a monument remembering the Romani victims executed in the village. Other sites where similar Romani tragedies took place – places where the forced labour crews were based, the site of the Gypsy Detention Camp in Dubnica nad Váhom, towns from which trains to concentration camps were sent, and other sites of killings – are still unknown to the wider public.

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An initiative to remember the Romani Holocaust victims in Slovakia was launched at the beginning of the 1990s. The first commemoration ceremony was held in Dúbrava in 1991. Besides various Romani representatives, this ceremony was also attended by various state representatives. A few years later, within a program called Let’s Get to Know Each Other, the civic association ‘Jekhetane’ from Prešov organized another remembrance ceremony in Dúbravy.

roma holocaust

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