Trudeau government acknowledges nazi genocide against roma – the bullet

“On Romani Genocide Remembrance Day, we honour the memory of over 500,000 Romani who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in Europe. This genocide and the unspeakable violence inflicted on the Romani people are not widely known by the public, making them the ignored victims of WWII.” A group of Romani prisoners in the Belzec concentration camp.

The statement is “the result of three years of work by the Roma (Gypsies) and their friends” according to Michael Butch, president of the Toronto Roma Community Centre and founder of the Gypsy Rebels band. It is a welcome shift, even if only implicit, from the pattern of discriminatory and defamatory actions by the federal government over the last two decades, particularly under the government of Stephen Harper (2006-15).

On May 16, 1944, heavily armed guards assaulted the Roma camp under orders to deliver the 6,000 Roma prisoners to the gas chambers. Forewarned, the Roma put up a fierce resistance with improvised weapons. At the cost of many casualties, the Roma beat off the attack and lived to fight another day – a triumph with few parallels in the history of Nazi death camps.

On the morning of August 2, the Nazis tried again. First, they removed able-bodied men and dispersed them to other camps, where some survived. That evening, emboldened by this cowardly move, the guards attacked the 3,000 who remained – women, children, and the sick. “The inmates fought a fierce battle with sticks and rocks” before ultimately being herded to the gas chambers, recounts Lizzie Isaacs. “Witness accounts say that the Romanies fought to the very end…. That night over 3,000 were murdered and the bodies burnt in the pits.”

About 400 years later, they moved into and across Europe, where they often faced persecution. Ronald Lee, a co-founder of the Toronto Romani Community Centre and historian, explains that the Roma’s strategy for survival was to “become part of the feudal system in Central/Eastern Europe and to become totally nomadic in Western Europe, able to move from one country to another as persecution waxed and waned.” 2

Lee tracks the relentless mass killings ( samudaripen) of Roma dating back to 15th century Europe. “The Christian Popes and their clergy accused the Roma of having made the nails for the cross of Christ…. Because the majority of their people are dark-skinned, they were also accused of devil worship as ‘imps of Satan’…. The Protestant religions were equally hostile to the Roma and condemned them as work-shy parasites and immoral hedonists, the antithesis of Martin Luther’s hymn-singing, hard-working, joy-denying, witch-burning Puritans…” 3

The documentary A People Uncounted explains that in Austria, during the depression of the 1930s, mass unemployment hit the Roma the hardest, forcing them out of their traditional trades and onto the municipal social assistance rolls. Many local communities petitioned the Nazi government to ease their burden by removing the Roma, sometimes even paying for this service. But this did not happen in every case. “If a local community does not permit persecution,” the film tells us repeatedly, “it does not happen.”

After the overthrow of Nazi rule, the surviving Roma in Eastern Europe came under Communist rule, which freed them from organized racism and discrimination while providing employment and economic security. Lee notes that Roma in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union enjoyed a measure of cultural autonomy, but government policies across Eastern Europe as a whole aimed at assimilation of the Roma, which they strongly resented. Communist rule “was a two-edged sword,” Lee says. Restored Capitalism Brings Racist Revival

Ronald Lee told the Toronto meeting of a June 23 attack on a Roma camp near Lviv, Ukraine, by a gang of masked attackers suspected of membership in a far-right nationalist gang. David Popp, 23, was stabbed to death in his sleep, and several other Roma were wounded. Eight attackers were arrested. Three days later, a pro-Roma solidarity action in Lviv chanted, “Nazis are around and the state is protecting them.” 4

“There are now elected official, parties and civic movements for whom “problems with the Gypsies” lie at the heart of their grievances. This is something wholly new on the European political scene. Traditional European anti-Gypsy politics talked of Roma as nuisance, as a “public scandal,” even as a plague descended on the hardworking citizens. But never, not even in the 1930s, as a fundamental source of national woe. Parties have now emerged in Bulgaria and Hungaria with significant public support [which] place “the Gypsy menace” at the absolute centre of their politics.” 5

Between 1998 and 2015, Canada received roughly 20,000 refugee claims from Roma in Europe. The Roma made up only about 5% of the total refugee claimants – a barely perceptible bump in the flow of applicants that has was generally declining in those years. (Source: Nonetheless, this flow was sufficient to elicit the Canadian government’s first-ever response to Roma immigration. It was unfavourable. Ottawa erected legislative and policy barriers to Roma settlement.

As part of this program, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney took exceptional measures to deter Roma from seeking safety in Canada. During a diplomatic visit to Hungary on October 9, 2012, in an unmistakable reference to the Roma, Kenney declared that he would stop “the abuse of our system and generosity by bogus asylum claimants.” The minister backed up this gross insult with a $13,000 billboard and media campaign to let to Roma know that Canada’s refugee determination system had changed and was now unfriendly to Roma refugee claims. 7

• “[My children] they’re so happy, because the whole class loves them, they love them. But it’s not love, it’s just a normal treatment…. When I go outside, for walking and they [are] always asking … It’s like normal fashion. ‘Where is your baby ? How is your kid? How is your life?’ … Those kind of questions normal here in Canada.” (Katalin, arrived 2011), “Determined Nation,” p. 58.

In their own words, the refugees explain that it is hard to leave their past behind, and they are still wary of people who hated, abused, and physically hurt them. In Toronto, they learn that they “don’t have to be ready to fight” to defend themselves against the skinheads; there are no guards, no police, no harassment.” They begin to feel that they are “living in a free country.” ( Writing the Roma, p. 155.)

We have much to learn from the Roma and other immigrants that make up patches in the quilt of Canadian life today. They help us decide whether we are going to do the humane thing for people who seek refuge. We will soon be facing many more needing a helping hand. Even within our own borders, the fires and floods of climate change will disrupt the lives of thousands.