Tag Archives: Roma

Remembering the Holocaust – and the Roma who died amongst the many victims

I have been very moved by the many wonderful contributions to Holocaust Memorial Day, all around the world.

Here’s my contribution – a short extract from my book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers, published by Oneworld Publications in 2013. It contains a passage about the lesser known history of the Roma who perished during the Holocaust, along with all the other victims. I will also be publishing an extract from my book, Scapegoat: how we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), today, which has a short section on the disabled people who were victims of the Holocaust, under the T4 killing programme.

Extract from No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld Publications, 2013)

by Katharine Quarmby

 No reproduction without permission from publishers

The hatred of the Roma people, intense enough in the UK, was magnified in mainland Europe. It was impossible to watch the treatment of the Roma on the continent without fear for what fate they might face should they ever be forced to leave the coun- try. Those who arrived in Britain from Europe as refugees – for example, in 1904 the ‘German Gypsies’ and then in 1911 and 1913 the ‘Gypsy Coppersmiths’ were treated with hostility and suspicion. The identity of English, Welsh and Scottish Gypsies, especially, was shaped by the Holocaust, or, as it is known by the Roma people themselves, the Porrajmos, or the Devouring (a phrase coined by the Romani scholar Ian Hancock).

Manfri Frederick Wood, an English Gypsy who fought in the Fifth Airborne Division (and who later became the first treasurer of the Gypsy Council), claimed to have been one of the first Allied soldiers to enter Belsen concentration camp after liberation. ‘When I saw the surviving Romanies, with young children among them, I was shaken. Then I went over to the ovens, and found on one of the steel stretchers the half-charred body of a girl, and I understood in one awful minute what had been going on there,’ he recalled. Charles Smith, an English Romani Gypsy and one-time chair of the Gypsy Council, later visited Auschwitz with a small delega- tion of Gypsies. ‘We stood there, a group of English Gypsies from England, there in the gas chambers. I felt sort of honoured to be there – all of us survivors of a Gypsy Holocaust that had been

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going on for a thousand years continuously … Auschwitz being just a peak period in Gypsy genocide.’60

That sense of a collective, centuries-long experience of perse- cution remains strong today. The emotional scars also run deep, perhaps partly because this part of the Holocaust has never received the same amount of attention as the extermination of Jewish people. Yet Roma and Sinti (the second largest nomadic group) people were also judged to be racially inferior by the German authorities. They too were interned, subjected to forced labour. Many were murdered.

Historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around twenty-five per cent of all European Roma.61 Of the slightly less than one million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, at least 220,000, and possibly as many as 500,000, are estimated to have been killed.62 According to the US Holocaust Museum, German military and SS-police units allegedly shot at least thirty thousand Roma in the Baltic states and elsewhere in the occupied Soviet Union; Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing units were targeting Roma at the same time that they were killing Jews and Communists. In occupied Serbia, German authorities are known to have killed male Roma in shooting operations during 1941 and early 1942. Women were murdered, along with children, in mobile gas vans in 1942.

In France, between three thousand and six thousand Roma are thought to have been interned and some were shipped to German concentration camps. Romanian military and police officials deported another 26,000 Roma to Transnistria, a section of south-western Ukraine placed under Romanian administration for just two years, 1941 and 1942. Thousands of those imprisoned starved or died from disease. The Ustashe, a separatist organisation that had taken charge in the power vacuum in Croatia, exhibited particularly chilling efficiency in its campaign to eradicate the Roma. Almost all of the Roma population of Croatia, around 25,000, were murdered, most at the concentration camp of Jasenovac.

Many Roma were also incarcerated by the SS at Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof,

NEIGHBOURS AND NOMADS 35

Mauthausen and Ravensbrück. In December 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of Roma from the so-called Greater German Reich. Most went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the camp authorities housed them in a special compound that was called the ‘Gypsy family camp’. Altogether, 23,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz. Conditions in the Roma compound (poor sanitation, starvation levels of rations, for example), encour- aged the swift spread of deadly diseases – typhus, smallpox and dysentery among them. Epidemics severely reduced the camp population. At least 19,000 of the 23,000 nomadic people sent to Auschwitz died there.

Perhaps the cruellest part of the Roma experience, however, was the appalling series of medical experiments carried out by the infamous SS Captain Dr Josef Mengele and others, on many young Roma children. He had received authorisation to choose human subjects for experiments from among the prisoners. Mengele chose twins and children of restricted growth, many of them drawn from the Roma population imprisoned at the camp, as his sub- jects.64 Around 3,500 adult and adolescent Roma were prisoners in other German camps, and medical researchers included some Roma for studies that exposed them to typhus and mustard gas, or gave them salt water as their only source of liquid. The Roma were also used in sterilisation experiments.

After the Second World War, discrimination against Roma continued throughout Central and Eastern Europe, beginning with the great reckoning of the horrors of the concentration camps. ‘Nobody was called to testify on behalf of the Romani victims at the Nuremberg Trials,’ Hancock noted, ‘and no war crimes reparations have ever been paid to Romanies as a people.’ There were a few mentions of the atrocities carried out against Romanies at Nuremberg, but as Grattan Puxon and Donald Kenrick point out, only six references, making up some seven sentences, in the eleven volumes of the trial transcript. For decades, the Federal Republic of Germany determined that all measures taken against Roma before 1943 were legitimate official measures against per- sons committing criminal acts, not the result of policies driven

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by racial prejudice. Only in 1979 did the government change tack, by which time many of those eligible for compensation had died. Even today, neo-Nazi activity in many parts of central and Eastern Europe is targeted on Romanies, according to Hancock.

In the aftermath of the Porrajmos, the shattered community turned further inwards. ‘While in the camps, the Gypsies had been unable to keep up their customs – the Romainia – concerning the preparation of food and the washing of clothes. They solved the psychological problems by not speaking about the time in the camps … Few were interested anyway. In the many books writ- ten describing the Nazi period and the persecution of the Jews, Gypsies usually appear as a footnote or small section,’ said histo- rians Donald Kenrick and Gillian Taylor.68 In the early post-war years, news trickled out that the Nazi regime had secretly collected lists of Gypsies to target and intern if they invaded Britain. The UK government had built camps for Gypsies fighting or working at home for the war effort; these were swiftly dismantled once the war was over.69 Many British Gypsies and Irish Travellers who had served during the Second World War were left with a firm sense of determination: never again.

As Charles Smith wrote to conclude his visit to Auschwitz: ‘The thing that haunts me most was a photograph of a little girl age about ten or eleven years, hair cropped, wearing her striped cloth, looking straight into the camera, her eyes filled with tears … a picture of her will always be in my mind. I will remember. I will be vigilant. As a Gypsy I owe that to my ancestors.’

 

Some thoughts on human rights reporting and its discontents

This is a longer version of the blog I wrote for the Oxford Human Rights Hub, which you can see here, on the hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting: 

http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/?p=5002

This followed on from my talk for Wadham College, Oxford University, on human rights journalism generally, and how it is evolving in the age of the Internet. 

http://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2014/march/an-uncertain-future-for-human-rights-reporting

Whilst I applaud so much of the human rights reporting that takes place in the world, it paints on a large canvas. We think of it being about combating the death penalty, pointing out human rights violations in combat zones and protecting the rights of asylum seekers – all noble aims that I fully support. But when human rights journalism – and human rights – inconvenience us or affect our property rights, things become a little more uncomfortable. So here’s my thoughts on that – comments please. 

Is there a hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting?

Looking back over my many years of writing and making films about human rights issues, I’m struck by which stories and groups get the most publicity and which stories are more difficult to fund, write and make. I believe that just as there is a hierarchy of rights, as discussed by human rights scholars for many decades, there is also a hierarchy of human rights reporting.

 

War reporting and the human rights violations that occur in conflict zones, are seen as what one might call ‘classic’ human rights journalism. It’s dangerous work. Last year, the International Federation of Journalists estimated that over 100 journalists and media workers were directly killed because of their work – and around half of that number were engaged in human rights reporting.

 

http://www.ifj.org/en/articles/108-journalists-killed-in-2013-to-test-un-day-to-end-impunity-francais-espanol

 

I was one of the many journalists who travelled to Rwanda after the genocide that killed at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. (It’s noteworthy that the killing of the Pygmy people, the Twa, was far less covered.) I was there in 1997, to record the aftermath, with BBC Panorama and the film we made, Valentina’s Story, produced by Mike Robinson and reported by Fergal Keane, is a classic piece of human rights reporting. It drew attention to the genocide through the eyes of one child survivor. In 1999 I went back with Fergal, as a BBC Newsnight producer, to make two more classic human rights films, gathering evidence on rights violations during the genocide that could be forwarded to the Arusha War Crimes Tribunal. This kind of journalism is done today by dedicated correspondents throughout the world – from CNN to Al Jazeera, to the BBC and to PBS, in war and conflict zones as various as the Central Africa Republic, Syria and many areas of the Middle East. It’s crucial that such journalism continues.

 

I have moved on to smaller scale, intimate human rights journalism that I also consider important, but which is far less well funded and at times controversial. I think this is because the very rights of those under fire are seen as questionable and not mainstream – even by those inside the human rights field. This means that the funding for reporting on them, and the importance ascribed to them is far less – what one might call inconvenient and unpopular human rights journalism. I think this is a pity.

 

In 2012 I looked at how human rights organisations wrote and campaigned on disability rights for Amnesty International’s magazine. I found that few saw them as central to their work – in fact, in the drop-down menu of rights on the Amnesty International’s website, disability was not mentioned as a category – unlike childrens’ rights, gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights and refugee rights. Happily, at the annual general meeting last year, it was overwhelmingly decided to remedy this. Disabled peoples’ rights are still seen as segregated from other rights – as if human rights groups mirror some of the divisions between disabled people and non-disabled people in Britain today. During the Leveson Inquiry, similarly, despite a campaign by disabled people and their organisations, none were called to give oral evidence on how they were treated in the media, something I and many others wrote and campaigned about at the time.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/may/08/leveson-willful-blindness-disabled-people

 

 Leveson did, however, take oral evidence from women’s rights organizations, transgender organizations, and refugee organisations – something I completely agreed with – but I did not agree with the lack of oral evidence from disabled peoples’ organisations. Eventually, some campaigners (I was one of them) were invited to give written evidence, but it is disappointing that this division was so evident in such a key inquiry, when the stereotyping of disabled people by certain sections of the media, especially around benefit cuts, is clearly evidenced to have caused a worsening of public attitudes towards them.

 

http://www.inclusionlondon.co.uk/bad-news-for-disabled-people-report-reveals-extent-of-media-misrepresentation

 

This lack of understanding of the discrimination faced by disabled people meant that it took many years for me and others to get the real and pressing issue of disability hate crime recognized. The key intervention of Lord Ken Macdonald, then the Director of Public Prosecutions, who called disability hate crime a ‘scar on the conscience’ of the criminal justice system was one of the reasons why that change happened – but it was a long time coming, and human rights organisations are still playing catch-up when it comes to integrating disability rights into a wider rights agenda.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7655244.stm

 

Disability rights can be seen as inconvenient to the general public (think of wheelchair spaces on buses, and how they become contested spaces with parents with pushchairs, for example) and this attitude is mirrored in journalism itself.

 

Lastly, we come on to unpopular human rights journalism – and this is where I would place the rights of Britain’s nomads, which come into conflict with another highly cherished set of British rights – property rights. Essentially the rights of Britain’s nomads to enjoy a life free from discrimination, to enjoy the right to family life, the right to education, the right to vote, the right to a decent standard of living and housing come into conflict with British planning law. This was played out in Court 76 of the High Court on October 12, 2011, as I reported for the Economist, when the Dale Farm Irish Traveller residents lost a crucial legal battle against their eviction.  I wrote at the time: “Dale Farm has become a symbol of an increasingly bitter dispute about the rights of Gypsies and Travellers, around a fifth of whom have nowhere legal to live. Basildon council argues that it is simply enforcing planning law, by which all citizens must abide. This was echoed by Mr Justice Ouseley. He said that there must be “public respect for and confidence in” planning law, and that although Basildon council had not identified alternative pitches where the travellers could live, those deemed homeless had been offered “bricks and mortar” accommodation. The decision by Dale Farm residents to decline such housing, due to their “cultural aversion” to it, he said, was their own responsibility. He pointed out that the Travellers were breaching the law by remaining on site.”

 

http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2011/10/dale-farm

 

The eviction of Dale Farm left some 86 families without a secure home, and cost Basildon Council millions of pounds. Many of the families still live roadside, in poor conditions. Basildon was right in legal terms, but who has won? Children are no longer in school, mothers are on anti-depressants, families do not have running water and local tax-payers are footing an enormous bill. There has to be a better way of honouring property rights than creating a situation in which the human rights of these particular Traveller families are so completely ignored, three years on. But such views are unpopular, and the rights of Britain’s nomads are questioned, constantly. Those who seek to defend their rights find it hard to get commissions. This is unpopular human rights journalism – but it is important, all the same.

 

I am grateful for all the journalism I’ve been able to do, over so many years – from Rwanda to Dale Farm, to small-scale human rights stories for Private Eye. That’s our job and it’s worthwhile – at all its levels: popular, unpopular, inconvenient and small scale. But the hierarchy does make me uncomfortable.

 

 

 

 

 

Migration Stories – From Belgrade, Brussels and Barcelona (and Tehran) – to Bungay and Beccles

I wrote this blog a couple of weeks ago for the think-tank Respublica and was pleased to see how many positive comments it got on Twitter and other social media sites. It’s essentially a slice of family history – both my mother (adoptive) and I have roots both in the UK and abroad. My mum comes from a long line of international trouble-makers. Her grandfather, Kosta Bozic, a Serbian cleric, stood trial along at Banja Luka in 1916, in an infamous trial connected to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, was sentenced to death, and eventually died of TB, a national hero. Her other grand-father was a Spanish socialist MP, Fernando Garrido, who also spent much time hopping across European borders to escape arrest (not always successfully). Such histories are one that curdle the blood of our more anti-immigration politicians, of course. They think that such people or their descendants -my mum in this case – should never be allowed to settle here. Judge for yourself. 

Immigration week: Stories, statistics and stereotyping

Katharine Quarmby calls for greater perspective in the Immigration debate

In 1946 a young, half Serbian, quarter Spanish girl arrived in the UK on a Cessna plane from Belgrade. She spoke only Serbo-Croat. She had seen her Jewish friends carted off to the concentration camps and her mother’s hair had turned white with the effort of keeping her alive during the wartime years in Yugoslavia. Her mother had left her husband behind in Yugoslavia and flown, pregnant, to the UK. Mara Bozic, as she was called then, and her mother Isabel, had but a tenuous claim on British citizenship, according to the Home Office. Isabel’s mother was English by birth, but her father had been a Spanish artist (and his father before him a well-known Spanish Republic MP). The Home Office was not convinced of their claim to reside in the UK. The resident English family offered to pay a bond, and thus Mara Bozic, age 10, became a British citizen, lost a father and her first language, gained a newborn sister and became Mary Bozic. She grew up in Cambridge. Her mother, now a lone parent with a tiny baby, somehow managed to support both her girls by teaching at the Convent School and other jobs, such as, rather improbably, typing up one of Wittgenstein’s manuscripts. Later, that older daughter attended teacher-training college and, one summer, worked at Chivers jam factory in Cambridge as an 18 year old to earn much needed money. She met a young Yorkshire man, a Cambridge student also in need of money. They fell in love over an assembly line of Christmas pudding trays. Later they got married.

They had three sons, and that young Yorkshire history graduate, the first in his family to attend university, became a promising teacher. Later, the young woman became a talented teacher too. They wanted to put something back into society, and they wanted a girl, so they decided to adopt a daughter. They didn’t care what colour the baby was, they told the adoption society, so they were offered a three-month-old ‘coloured’ child, a half Persian girl who was, at that time, ‘hard to place’. (Most adoptive parents then didn’t want a child of uncertain racial heritage. Most ended up in children’s’ homes.) The birth father, an Iranian sailor who desperately wanted to keep the child and take her back to Iran, was not allowed to do so. He was forced to relinquish her and later he experienced imprisonment and torture during the Iranian Revolution. Luckily for me – that baby –  those two young idealists became my parents, and those boys, my brothers – although I count myself very lucky to have met my birth family too.

So there are two generations with somewhat tenuous claims to citizenship, in our family, although it must seem very British to the casual observer. My parents are pillars of the local community – retired teachers now, who still volunteer at local schools and who have given selflessly of their time throughout their entire lives, to public service. My parents are churchgoers and bell-ringers – the very bedrock of rural society. My mum has even served on the planning committee of the parish council, striking fear into the heart of many a local builder with her forensic attention to their plans. Britain – by way of Belgrade and Barcelona.

And yet – in many ways my grandmother brought my mother here because she was, in the words of our tabloids, an ‘economic migrant’. My grandmother was desperate. She was pregnant. She had nowhere else to go. I, too, was a ‘half-caste’ child with just half a hand on British citizenship when I was born. Our right to be here was perhaps a little questionable – and yet I think we have served our country pretty well – as many who pitch up here do. And while our stories might seem a little strange, the story of why each family or individual ends up on these shores is probably equally extraordinary or even more so. To give but one more example, there’s my dear Ethiopian friend, a singer, who fled the civil war as a child of 14, when her parents were killed, and was brought here by another family – and then abandoned on a tube. On a tube. At fourteen. At night. When my fourteen-year-old daughter slopes off to bed, in a comfortable house, surrounded by those who love her, I remember that. My friend has done so much for other people since she arrived here, yet some people would – and do – write her off as a scrounger who has no right to be here. I disagree. I think all of us have served the community in which we live well. Many migrants and refugees do so – and will continue to do so, given half a chance.

Behind every phrase that belittles every migrant and every refugee is a family and a history that seeks to be told. Often, as in my case, there are links with the UK. Sometimes there are not, but there is often a wish to forge links, or to work hard to make them. When my Spanish great-grandfather first came to the UK as an artist, he painted with the Staines group of artists. We still have the letters of condolence to his wife, when he died of TB in Switzerland, from British artists who had met him here and recognized his talent. There is nothing wrong with having a generous and international view of the world, of travelling beyond the shores where one is born. Is there? I sometimes think that this insularity that is gaining ground here is a hangover from the war, and that we have never recovered from winning that conflict. One of the prizes of victory has been a most unfortunate one – a rupture with continental European culture that has been profound and that has left us unable to understand and appreciate what we gain from mixing with other cultures, and that we have become increasingly xenophobic as a result. This is not why we went to war – to fear and dislike other cultures. This is not why my mother lost her Yugoslavian uncle, the Jewish friends she used to dance ballet with, or indeed the family lands in what was Yugoslavia. This is not why millions of people were murdered or gave their lives fighting for freedom and human rights for all – to safeguard the rights of disabled people, the Roma, Jewish people and gay people to live alongside other citizens as equals in a new Europe. But it seems to be an unintended and negative consequence of that victory.

We seem to have forgotten, in our latest moral panic, that we are one of the richest nations in the world, and that the migrants who do arrive on our shores are far more likely to want to work hard for their living than draw benefits – far more, in fact, than many British citizens. Many employers bear witness to this. There is nothing wrong with wiping bottoms, laying out the dead, cleaning toilets, collecting scrap and working in the fields. But if some British workers don’t want to do it, you cannot blame British employers for looking elsewhere for an eager workforce (although you can blame them if they then exploit that workforce).

In January visa restrictions will be lifted for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to come here. Cue the rising moral panic about chaos in our schools, rocketing crime, baby-stealing and general anti-Roma rhetoric – both by journalists and politicians. The Roma and the way that they are talked about is the litmus paper for how all immigration is talked about (although it’s worth noting, by the by, that C4’s Homeland, now openly stirs up dislike of Iranians). I will be watching how politicians and the media report on the Roma very carefully over the next few months and will be doing what I can to redress the balance, as will the Romani journalists I’ve worked with over the last seven years, as I researched my latest book, No Place to Call Home. Suffice it to say that a nation of several million people can’t be lazily stereotyped, as it has been so far, here in the UK, without distorting reality. The truth about the Roma people is far more interesting, more layered – and full of rich, individual stories – than we’ve heard so far. We would do well, for a start, to remember the Roma history – which includes slavery in Eastern Europe, the gas ovens during the Holocaust, hangings, floggings and deportations here in the UK, enforced adoption here and in Scotland and enforced sterilization in Eastern Europe.

My suggestion, therefore, in the coming months, for politicians and journalists would be two-fold: use statistics wisely and not mendaciously. Thus far many statistics about immigration are hotly argued. Surely it’s possible to agree on numbers, prevalence, data, and move on from there. And, secondly, if you are going to make generalisations about people, please go and talk to them. It is the height of incivility to stereotype a whole nation, as both journalists and politicians have done about the Roma people, for instance, without actually meeting them and spending time with them. In conclusion, therefore, get both your stories and your statistics straight. Then we can have the debate we should have about immigration. At the moment we’re not having a debate; too many in this arena are indulging in dirty propaganda wars. That’s not the same thing at all. And it belittles our reputation for honesty, integrity and generosity as a nation – and our place in Europe – if we don’t mend our ways.

– See more at: http://www.respublica.org.uk/item/A-week-of-Immigration-Stories-statistics-and-stereotyping#sthash.ab6Gl0B6.dpuf

No Place to Call Home – book reviews

A round-up of reviews here. 

Ian Birrell, who also reviewed my last book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, posted a very thoughtful review in the Observer. He concluded that it was “An important book by an impressive journalist” although he did feel there was a bit too much reporting from Dale Farm which does form the spine of the narrative. But he did feel it painted a rightfully bleak picture of the bleak social exclusion in which so many Romanies and Travellers lives – although there’s lots of fun to be had as well in the communities! Read the full review here: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/26/no-place-home-quarmby-review

In the Guardian, Rose George said that the book was “forcefully written” and concludes: “As an exposure of the modern troubles of these unique, tight-knit communities of Travellers, it sets you travelling on the right road.” Interestingly, she felt that I was sentimental at times about the communities. I disagree, of course; I feel that I let their feelings show, as fellow human beings. But it’s a fair review: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/16/no-place-call-home-travellers?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

The Times review, by Fay Schlesinger, can only be seen behind the paywall, but to sum up, the reporter concurs that it is difficult to report from both sides of the conflict as one side inevitably feels hard done by. She runs through the history in the book and does a fair summary of the book, concluding that while I attempt to write a dispassionate history of both sides of the conflict, I end up on the side of the Travellers (you must judge that for yourselves of course!). If you have a subscription you can read it here: 

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/non-fiction/article3841137.ece

The review by the Herald, in Scotland, is a very thoughtful run-through of the main issues facing Gypsies, Roma and Travellers today and historically, concluding: “Even in households where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia would be unacceptable, slurs against Gypsies and Travellers are still allowed to propagate, which is why Quarmby’s book deserves to be given due prominence. Without greater under-standing there will be more, and bloodier, Dale Farms will follow.” It rightly, in my mind, states that racism against travelling people is the last accepted form of racism in this country. 

You can read the full review here: 

http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-poetry/reviews/katharine-quarmby-no-place-to-call-home-oneworld.21901309