Slovakia gets to know about the work and detention camps for Roma.
photo: Courtesy of Slovak National Museum
"WHEN we talk of the Holocaust today we have in mind the historical period when Jews and other ethnicities were killed. But we forget there are similar attempts directed on other religions, nations and other groups, also today," said Pavol Mešťan, director of the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava.
He was speaking on November 9, when Slovakia mourned the death of the 21-year-old student killed by neo-Nazis and when the Jewish museum opened its doors to educate on the Roma Holocaust.
The Slovak Roma Holocaust 1939-1945 exposition in three languages, including English, is part of the Ma bisteren! (Don't Forget! in Roma) project aimed at reminding and educating on the horrors committed on the Roma population during World War II. Along with the educative role, the project also marks the locations connected with the Roma Holocaust with memorial plaques.
Housing the exhibition in the Jewish museum is more than just a symbolic gesture. Though the Holocaust was first of all directed at the Jewish population, the terrorizing genocide did not spare other ethnicities, including gypsies, as they were called at that time.
Several hundred Roma died during the Holocaust in Slovakia. Overall, up to half of the then Roma population in Europe was killed during WWII. Slovakia and Croatia were the only two nations who offered to pay to have each Jew deported to concentration camps, Mešťan says, and the same legislation used against Jews was enforced on the Roma.
Jews often bring attention to the fact that other ethnicities also died in concentration camps during the WWII Holocaust. But in general, ethnographers say, the Slovak public tends to associate the term with Jews. The Roma Holocaust is something that is new to them, an unknown landscape. Not only the general population but also the Roma themselves have an insufficient knowledge of the Roma Holocaust. Ma bisteren! is one of the few attempts in Slovakia lately to try to raise awareness of the historical facts.
"One of the reasons it's come so late are the Roma themselves, as they haven't attempted to make the subject more visible," said the cabinet plenipotentiary for Roma communities Klára Orgovánová, who understands the exhibition to be about Slovaks' mutual history. "It's about people who've been living on this territory for a long time, including Roma."
The number of victims might not be as important as was the suffering all these people went through and the serfdom they were subjected to. It was all based on principles of ethnic superiority, which was enough of an argument to enforce laws that resulted in the killing of millions.
For the Jews it also took time to spread the word, to build first memorials and then open expositions illustrating the WWII horrors. The first exposition in Slovakia, dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust, was opened in Nitra last September, 16 years after the collapse of Communism.
"Western Europe has been talking about the Holocaust for entire decades. Eastern Europe, including Slovakia, was quiet. This changed in the 1990s, when [Slovak] Jews who survived began to talk about the six million dead. They felt the need to share the horrors, to let them out. The Roma didn't have this need," said Mešťan, reminding us that the process of revealing this part of history is very slow in general. "But here is the beginning. And anything more we do in the matter would help a better understanding of the issue and better relationships with one another."
| Ethnographer Zuzana Kumanová, one of the Ma bisteren! project organisers, reveals more facts on the still unfamiliar Roma Holocaust.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Jewish Holocaust is mentioned quite often in Slovakia. Why has there been silence on the Roma suffering in the concentration camps?
TSS: How does Slovak society cope with this history?
TSS: It's been 60 years since the war and new materials on the issue of the Roma have emerged. The exhibition shows a detention camp in Dubnica nad Váhom, which the public seems to know nothing about.
TSS: Do the Roma know?
TSS: Can the exhibition somehow help the relationship between the majority and minority?
What: Slovak Roma Holocaust 1939-1945
21. Nov 2005 at 0:00 | Zuzana Habšudová