Book review | The Roma holocaust through an artist’s life 

Even as India looks to embrace the community, a recent book sheds light on the Gypsies who, like the Jews, were exterminated at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp

“Roma people are children of India.”
This official endorsement of the Romas by India’s minister for external affairs, Sushma Swaraj in February 2016, made a lot of people sit up. The occasion was the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the cultural wing of the ministry of external affairs and the Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad-Bharat (ARSPB), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Eight ARSPB speakers made a case for the Hindu cultural identity of the Romas at the Conference.

After being discriminated against for hundreds of years, particularly in Europe, the Roma people today are increasingly banding together to make themselves heard. Many governments are also trying to make up for prejudices that continue to impact Romas. A memorial to Romas murdered during the Holocaust was erected in Berlin, Germany, in as late as 2012. While many artists made fortunes painting Roma subjects, Roma artists gained recognition only in 2007 when the Venice Art Biennale created a separate pavilion to exhibit their work.

An excited Indian media reporting on the 2016 Conference noted that Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley and Michael Caine had Roma ancestry (by imputation Indian). This was a feel-good factor. Nothing boosts ego more than success by affiliation. What the Conference did not mention, was that European Roma are Christian.

India first came out in support of the Romas in 1971 under then prime minister Indira Gandhi when it together with the World Council of Churches organised the first Romani World Congress in London. At this Congress, (attended by a large contingent from Punjab) the Romas adopted a blue and green flag with a 16-spoked chakra and an athem “Dzelem, Dzelem”, and the organisation was renamed as Comite Internationale Rom. The romance with Roma people and culture since then has grown. Perhaps best illustrated by the success of the 1998 cult film, Black Cat, White Cat, directed by the masterful Emir Kasturica. Yet, India, after 1971, made no significant contribution to this movement.

Reading Watercolours, A Story from Auschwitz by Polish journalist Lidia Ostalowska, in this context makes for an interesting reading. The book first appeared in Polish in 2011. Its English translation by Sean Gasper Bye for Zuban hit the Indian bookstores in May 2017.

The book tells two stories. The primary narrative is about Dina Gottliebova-Babbit (1923-2009) who survived the horror of Holocaust by painting watercolour portraits of Roma sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The second story, running in its shadow, is the story of Roma struggle for dignity and reclamation of its place in the history of world’s people. From the Roma perspective, the frontlining of Dina’s story, whether done consciously or not, is tailor made for a Hollywood biopic. However, given the government’s conviction that Roma’s originated from North India, this book may interest Indian readers.

Book: Watercolours, A Story from Auschwitz; Author: Lidia Ostalowska; Translated into English by Sean Gasper Bye; Publisher: Zubaan Books

Watercolours traces the story of a Dina, a painter who was commissioned to draw watercolour portraits for the notorious Dr Joseph Mengele (who conducted all manner of physical experiments on the Roma at the concentration camp) in exchange for not being sent to the gas chambers. Dina and her mother survived Auschwitz, after which they emigrated to the United States where she married animation artist Art Babbit, the creator of Walt Disney’s “Goofy”. After relocating to America, Dina attempted to retrieve her watercolour paintings from Auschwitz museum but was rebuffed. She died in 2009 aged 86.

The shadow story weaves a disturbing narrative about the fate of Romas and their touching relationship with Dina’s watercolours after the liberation of Auschwitz. Most historians can only guess how many Romas were exterminated by the Nazis. The figures range from 30,000 to 60,000. But it could have been more.

“Among the Gypsies,” says the writer, “it’s still forbidden to talk about the experiments …. There are no cemetries for commemoration. A nomad mourns the dead and then sets out on the road. The past recedes. Auschwitz had been described by Jews, Poles, Russians. There are no Gypsy records of Auschwitz.”

We learn from Ostalowska that the Roma section in Auschwitz-Birkenau – described as a human zoo – was known as Zigeunerlager, and included people captured in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Norway, USSR, Poland and Spain.

“In Auschwitz their uniforms were marked with a black triangle – meaning “asocial”. Their numbers started with Z for Zigeunur – meaning, Gypsy,” says the writer. The first portrait Dina painted of a Roma was a young girl in a blue scarf round her shoulders. “I removed that scarf and draped it over her head. I asked her to smile a little. She told me her two-month-old-daughter had just died because she couldn’t breastfeed. After that I stopped asking people to smile,” Dina is recorded as saying.

Quoting Tadeusz Joachimowski, a Polish prisoner who worked at the Gypsy registration desk in the camp, Ostalowska recounts that the Romas brought to the camp included World War I veterans as well as Wehrmacht soldiers freshly decorated for bravery in Crete, Crimea and Sevstopol. “In the early days…the camp Gestapo didn’t know what they were meant to do with this lot,” she writes, the confusion arose because the Roma were seen as Aryans.

In 1950s and 1960s, many Romas seeking their family members and friends started visiting the Auschwitz museum. There was no mention of them. The crimes against Romas wasn’t recognised as genocide at the Nuremberg trials or any post-war conference

In Dina’s pictures, the Romas don’t look the viewer in the eye. They are portrayed as suspects on an arrest warrant. Dina, says Ostalowska, had no memory of Mengele’s Roma experiments, but “she admitted to hearing of one” in which a 40-year-old woman was administered electric shocks to see how much she could withstand.

Ostalowska however, diggs out other chilling details, in particular Mengele’s experiments on Roma twins and children: “One by one, he took them away – as living material for his experiments…They preserved whole heads in jars for the SS Medical Academy in Graz. Despite brutal methods, the results gave no clear answers posed by Aryan science. So Mengele sought ultimate enlightenment in autopsies…Gypsy children were given drops to change the colour of their irises…which were then preserved in formalin. Carefully packaged, they were sent to Prof Verschuer with a stamp: Urgent Shipment essential for War Purposes.” This monstrous collection was never recovered after the war.

At the end of 1944, a decision to liquidate Roma people was taken. “Mengle with his flair for drama, had picked out the time and place,” says Ostalowska. She records, Marian Pawlowski, a Polish Gypsy, “They went into the ovens, and they came out of the ovens with the fire.”

After the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, the camp was turned into a museum. Some historians claimed that a third of European Roma had perished. In 1950s and 1960s, many Romas seeking their family members and friends started visiting the Auschwitz museum. There was no mention of them. The crimes against Romas wasn’t recognised as genocide at the Nuremberg trials or any post-war conference. Then the 1971 London Congress happened.

By 1980s, the Romas were making it known that they had perished in the camps too. They approached the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and asked for Block 13 to be dedicated to Roma memory. Before retreating, the Nazis had burned Zigeunerlager. Only chimneys were left. “Gypsies were absent in the camp, uncertain traces remained, usually in other prisoners’ memories and in the books dug out of the ground,” says Ostalowska.

In 1982, German Chanecellor Helmut Schmidt officially recognised the persecution of Roma as racism and their deaths during Nazism as a Holocaust. In June 1991, a pogrom in the Polish town Mlawa, 120km from Warsaw, shocked Europe. “A Roman teenager caused a road accident, knocking down two young people…the boy died and the girl was permanently disabled. Two days later, a drunken mob ransacked Roma houses…a curfew was introduced,” records the author.

In the past, during pogroms, the Roma would hide and wait it out. Now it was different. On August 2, 1991, the anniversary of liquidation of Zigeunerlager, the Romas gathered in solidarity with those attcked in the pogrom. At the Auschwitz museum, they declared, “We don’t have our own country, let us show all our persecution in Block 13”. The Museum agreed. In Block 13, the main exhibits are Dina’s watercolours. They symbolise Roma identity and constitute a holy relic.

In embracing the Roma as lost people of India, the government also needs to embrace this tragedy. For one, the maker of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin would approve.

(Photo credit: The New York Times)
(Charu Soni is an independent journalist. She was a deputy editor at the National Herald where she launched the weekend edition of the National Herald on Sunday)

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