ONE of the regulations issued by the wartime Slovak state defined the Roma as people “who avoid work”, while stripping them of a number of elementary human rights based on racist principles. The Roma were required to remove their dwellings from the proximity of public roads and were condemned to live in remote places out of sight. They were banned from public transportation and had access to some municipalities only during specific hours of the day. They could not even own a dog, as Arne Mann, an ethnographer from the Institute of Ethnology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, who focuses on the Roma Holocaust, suggested in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
Indeed, in Slovakia it was Mann who initiated the first commemorative event of the Roma Holocaust in 1990 in Dúbravy pri Detve, which is actually much more recent than one would have thought for the first such event.
Even though the public’s awareness of the Roma Holocaust has been growing (altogether an estimated 300,000-500,000 Roma from around Europe died during the Second World War), some of the stigmas that the Nazi regime applied to the Roma seem to be gaining a second life.
Seventy years after the Roma Holocaust, there are public figures in Slovakia who would still describe members of this marginalised ethnic group as having the trait of “avoiding work” and talk about removing their dwellings from lands that the Roma do not legally own as though it were only to remove a heap of thrash.
They rarely miss a chance to use anti-Roma sentiments to boost their popularity while resorting to soft racism, and when confronted by the media, they argue that they are only defending the interest of the “decent people” as opposed to the “indecent”.
Even though the tradition of remembering the Roma Holocaust is far from well-established in Slovakia, scholars studying these tragic times suggest that over the past couple of years these events have received more intense media coverage and even some politicians have begun putting the anniversary on their political map.
However, if the remembering is stuck at the level of some formal political speech and a couple of wreaths laid on memorials across the country, then the potential of these anniversaries is wasted.
The majority population in Slovakia knows so little about the Roma outside of the general stereotypes that when a discussion ensues, many readily offer a number of negative experiences they have had with “gypsies”, assuming that these “stories” constitute a sufficient basis of knowledge about the second biggest ethnic group in Slovakia.
The problem is that the voice of the Roma among the majority population remains unheard, as though those people whom some Slovaks describe as “indecent” or having asocial traits were completely voiceless. Without understanding how the Roma had been treated throughout the course of Europe’s history, seeing that they have been one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in Europe, regardless of state borders, Slovaks will never understand the situation of the country’s Roma.
Zuzana Kumanová, an ethnographer from the In Minorita non-governmental organisation, rightly pointed out that some time ago people attached the word “unknown” to the Roma Holocaust. However, it is more fitting to say that it was “unacknowledged”, with Kumanová saying in an interview with The Slovak Spectator that she sees a “crucial difference between these two words”.
But there has been progress and now it is up to the media and perhaps the history teachers, because not allowing children to hear the story of the Roma at an eary age (one quite different from what they might hear from their parents) could saddle them with that familiar baggage of stereotypes for their whole life.
This is and should be one of the roles of the media: giving a voice to the voiceless so that they are able to share their stories. Stories are powerful because if they are told at the right time to the right people and in the right place, they can make the world a better place.
11. Aug 2014 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová