Hope dies last

Author note: I follow the recommendations of Alexandra Oprea and in this article replace ‘Gypsy’ with G. I also refuse to use the continental European versions of the pejorative appellation, replacing the Romanian term Ţigan with Ţ. This convention has also been applied to quoted material.

Romani resistance to genocide within the Nazi death camps has been well documented. Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz, for example, heard the protests on 2–3 August 1944, when the SS sent 2897 Romani victims in the Zigeunerfamilienlager section of the camp to the gas chambers. The refusal of the Roma to go quietly was noted by both their exterminators and their fellow prisoners (from whom they were separated by both physical fences and racial hierarchies).

Why, then, do Romani victims of the Holocaust remain peripheral to historical memory? Part of the answer is that majority populations in Europe continue to use Roma as a racialised scapegoat.1

In contemporary Australia, it is rightly considered offensive to refer to Jewish people by the derogatory terms used by the Nazi regime. Romani people, however, are still considered sufficiently mythical and animalistic for people to think it appropriate to refer to them by the pejorative G-word. Australians eat G-word ham in cafés and dance to G-word music – but they have not absorbed how Romani people were murdered during the Holocaust under that name, nor do they listen when Romani people ask them to desist.

The Holocaust in Romania

In 1941, Hitler occupied a region named Transnistria in today’s Ukraine, bordered by the Dniester and Bug rivers and administered by the Romanian Nazi-allied regime of Ion Antonescu. In 1941 and 1942, the Romanian government deported 146,000 Jewish Romanians to Transnistrian camps; between 1942 and 1945, more than 26,000 Romani Romanians were also expelled.2

Romania had (and still has) one of the largest Romani communities in Europe: in 1940, the Romani population was approximately 300,000. More than half of the Romani deportees were children.

In May 1942, Antonescu ordered that ‘in line with the general order to remove all parasitical and disorderly elements … all groups of nomadic Ţ from the whole country are to be sent to Transnistria.’3 Gendarmes (military police) identified groups of Kaldarari, Fierari and other Romani family groups who were beginning their summer work. Many of these people owned property in villages where their families had lived for generations. This land was nationalised at the time of deportation or, in other cases, simply taken over or stolen by Romanian inhabitants (complaints about which are common in the archives). On 1 June 1942, 11,441 Romani Romanians identified as ‘nomadic Ţ’ were assembled across Romania and marched on foot, with their wagons and horses, under armed guard to Transnistria.4 They had all arrived in Transnistria by 4 August, two months later.5

Gendarmes easily deported certain Romani communities on the basis of being ‘nomadic Ţ’ because the stereotypes of Ţ as brightly dressed women and moustached men living in wagons matched the physical appearance of some real people. To get the families to walk all the way to Transnistria, the gendarmes told them they would be given their own land to work. At the border, the deportees had their gold confiscated.

Dobrin Costica was eight in 1942, the year he and his entire family were deported from Galaţi to Transnistria (which he calls ‘Bug’ as it was beside the Bug River).

When they took us there, they said they would give us land and houses, they said we would live well. But that wasn’t true at all; we became full of filth, of lice, and really poor. The Russians asked us why we had come, and we said, ‘The mayor sent us, he said he would give us land, houses, horses and wagons.’ Their answer was: ‘You will see houses the same way that I am a priest here before you.’ It was such a big lie! And it was not only me, there were many who went to Bug and came back wretched, with clothes made out of sacks, and also people who died, who are no longer alive while we are here speaking.6

Once in Transnistria, where many slept in their wagons or out in the open, Roma began to fight for repatriation both legally (petitioning) and illegally (escaping).

Antonescu’s decree also ordered the census and deportation of ‘sedentary nomads (especially those who, being non-nomadic, are convicts, recidivists, or have no means of existence or precise occupation from which to live honestly through work, and thus constitute a burden and a danger to public order)’.7

Most gendarmerie branches simply replied, ‘We don’t have any Ţ like this’ to the Council of Ministers, which responded by ordering the General Inspectorate of Gendarmerie to resolve the lacklustre performance of its regional offices. On 25 July 1942, the council requested another census of ‘all sedentary Ţ who have prior convictions, are recidivists, or live without a means of existence’.8 Gendarmes who reported again that no-one in their jurisdiction fit this description again received (on 4 and 15 August 1942) telephone orders to comply.9

The constant requests for longer lists encouraged broad sweeps on the ground. In the city of Buzău, gendarmes held a morning meeting to discuss how they would identify Ţ for deportation. They then set off to explore the ‘Ţ area’ around the local market place, deciding to deport all Ţ who had untidy courtyards.10

In Botoșani, local gendarmes identified 155 people ‘to be deported because they don’t have certain means of existence … [they] spend all they earn on food and drink.’11 In the city of Roman, the column entitled ‘motives for deportation’ included descriptions such as ‘he sits in the pub all day’.12 The wives and children of the men to be deported were not assigned a reason for deportation – their relationship to the deportee was sufficient. In Pitești, gendarmes walked the inner-city streets, using a red pencil to mark Romani-owned homes on a crude map.13 Back at the office, a proper map was neatly drawn up and the residents of those properties were all listed for deportation. In Râmnicu Sărat, the chief of the gendarmes, Ilie Ionescu, obsessively deported women who lived with men to whom they were not legally married.14 Major I Peschir, the Commander of Timiș-Torontal Gendarmerie in Timișoara, argued for ‘cleansing the Romanian race of Ţ’.15 In Bucharest, settled Romani Romanians who lived like other working-class Romanians were rounded up by gendarmes. Justinian Badea was twelve years old at the time he was deported:

Inspector Cojocaru from our neighbourhood had the order and came and took us away, not just me but the majority of people from our street. They took us to the prefect’s office on Calea Victoriei and held us there as prisoners, feeding us just like we were in jail. They treated us like thieves and then took us to the north train station and put us in the cattle freight cars – as if we were cows!16

In cities across Romania, Romani deportees were held in the same schools, offices and stadiums where Jewish deportees had been held, and were then deported by train in the same kind of cattle wagon.

The orders for deportation were supposed to be secret, but clerical workers and police often told people that they were listed and that their property would be signed over to the state. This sparked panic, and many people sold their homes and livestock to the rumour-mongers themselves at less than market value. Single individuals often took to the road, while urban-dwelling families tended to liquidate their assets and entrust their children to family members whom they thought were least likely to be deported.17

The Roma also physically resisted. The chief of gendarmes in Pitești reported that the ‘collection’ was difficult ‘due to the fact that the Ţ conformed to their habit of being scandalously hostile,’ adding that deportation was only possible with the ‘energetic intervention of the soldiers’.18 More soldiers were used for the deportations of Romani Romanians than for the deportations of Jewish Romanians before them. Homes were raided at 1 am on the secret dates, with the electricity supply cut off to the part of the city being targeted.19

Gendarmerie reports explain that the deportation numbers were always lower than planned because a significant number of people ran away en route to the train station. The gendarme often tried to make up the numbers by seizing individuals who looked like Roma from the street. Institutional documents detail searches for those on the lists who had fled. There are also documents concerning those who were grabbed from the street and deported, for their families often petitioned for, and sometimes successfully secured, their return (especially when they were ethnic Romanians wrongly deported as ethnic Roma). In one letter, Vasile and Teca Covaci of Comuna Acmariu, Judet Alba, request the return of their four children from Transnistria:

We are Roma, and thus legally married, and these are all our legitimate children. We are not nomadic Roma, we are Fierari, with property and a household and we move for work, to earn a living. At the time they were taken we were at work and the children were mistakenly taken with the other Roma. We hope that you understand our pain as parents remaining without our children, and give permission for them to return.20

The authorities denied permission for Vasile and Teca’s children to be repatriated, but replied that they could sign their property over to the state and travel to Transnistria to be with their children.

In Transnistria

Irimia Gheorghe was only twelve when she was deported by train in September 1942, but she still remembers a Romanian in a market place at the border telling her father, ‘Brother, you are being sent there for extermination.’21 In Transnistria, Romani people fought against the starvation and typhus that authorities knew would kill them.

Romani and Jewish Romanians were housed in neighbouring camps in Transnistria. These camps are designated as concentration camps rather than death camps by Holocaust historians because they primarily served as labour and detention centres, though the killing, raping and torturing of prisoners was an important part of the camp structure. Everyday violence against prisoners was extreme, relentless and largely undisciplined, as Calin Petre remembers:

There were two camps. Ţ were on one side, and Jews on the other. We watched them dying, they watched us dying. So many were shot. When they saw a Jew – Bang! Shot! When they saw a Ţ – Bang! Shot!22

A 1942 state-of-affairs report by the Romanian administrators of Oceacov region in Transnistria details the horrific conditions:

[D]ue to the malnutrition, some of the Ţ – and these make up the majority – have lost so much weight that they have turned into living skeletons. They are naked … they don’t have any underwear or clothing. There are women whose bodies are naked in the true sense of the word. In general, the situation of the Ţ is terrible, and almost inconceivable. Due to the misery, they have turned into shadows and are almost savage.23

From the earliest days, Romani prisoners attempted to escape. There was also a constant struggle to survive. Aurică Mitică describes how her family worked together to find food:

We woke up in the morning and began the journey, we would go to the Russians’ vineyards and find one grape here, one grape there. We took grapes, washed them and baked them on a tin. What do you think that my uncle was doing when he died? He went with a cousin of his to take corn and he would steal seven, eight or ten corn cobs. He would also bring home left over food from the military. Even my grandfather went to the Bug River to catch fish.24

Maria Dumitru remembers being twelve and searching through the soil for a kernel of corn, only to be ‘beaten like a viper’ when she was seen by a guard with a handful of dried-up corn kernels.25 Alexandrina Radu was fifteen when she was sent to Transnistria and remembers even today the dangers her mother faced trying to find fresh water:

The spring was about one and a half kilometres away. My poor mother would go barefoot to the water and would later brush the snow from her feet like this [demonstrates]. One day the Germans found her, hit her in the head with their rifles, and she stayed unconscious for a day, some Russian women took her into their yard. Then she was well and came back to us.26

Romani deportees could sometimes work as traders or, if women, fortune tellers.27 Some ran away to the cities of Tiraspol and Odessa and played music to earn money.28

These efforts were not enough to prevent massive loss of lives from hunger and exposure.

Romani deportees, the majority of whom could not read or write, paid notaries and literate Romanians to transcribe requests for repatriation, which were then sent to Bucharest.29 These petitions set in action a chain of inquiries back to the petitioner’s home town for clarification on the motives of deportation, before a reply was issued from Bucharest and returned to Transnistria.

Amid thousands of pages of archived petitions and responses, there are many cases of deportees who smuggled themselves back into Romania, requested their family’s repatriation at police stations using a different name, then travelled to other locations and made the same request, before returning to Transnistria to be with their families again. Sometimes it took over a year for police to ascertain the identity of the petitioner, and petitioners thus evaded capture even as they requested repatriation.

Clandestine travel was enabled not only by bribery, but also by the performance of oneself as an ethnic Romanian vagabond, rather than someone who would be seen as Ţ. This could be achieved with subtle differences in dress, speech and, importantly, by public disassociation with others seen as Ţ.

Although repatriation was almost always refused – and definitely refused after the outbreak of typhus in the winter of 1942 – the petitioners created a record of how they repudiated the racism used against them. Dumitru Marin’s petition is one of hundreds:

Even though I am of Ţ origin, I have lived my whole life a Romanian life, and we identified with the obligations and aspirations of the Romanian people. No blame, no reproach, against any one of these banished from their property and their beloved country can justify their deportation to a foreign land. I ask you respectfully with all my soul to remember that in the Great War there were Ţ soldiers of Ţ origin and you have seen with how much generosity they gave their blood for our country – because they do not have any other.30

Although the Romanian government had decreed that all veterans, soldiers and families of active soldiers were to be exempt from deportation, this directive was ignored. The government investigation found that half of Marin’s family had not even been listed on any census or deportation list – they were among the uncounted number of Romani families deported to their deaths without evidence other than these petitions.

Tudor Mamai was away fighting with the infantry of the Romanian Army when he came home and found his family had been deported to Transnistria:

I fought at the front for 18 months, and in Stalingrad, in which time I had no kind of vacation. This month I was granted leave for 25 days and I returned home to my family in Comuna Balateşti, Jud. Ilfov. When I got home I entered the courtyard and met a stranger who asked me what I was looking for in his house at this late hour. On my own property I asked him what he was looking for in my house. Later I found that my family had been sent to Transnistria, Comuna Bogdanovca, because we are Ţ.

At present I am serving with Reg. 21 Infantry which is at the front in Stalingrad, but I have a permission of leave for 25 days, please give a permission to return for my family … I am decorated with the Military Virtue [medal].31

Escapes from Transnistria

Individuals from all groups attempted to cross into Romania with false identity cards, and communists in the camps made homemade armbands with Nazi swastikas, presumably in preparation for prisoners to escape and travel in disguise through occupied territory.32 When the Bug River froze in 1942, people crossed to Romania more easily.33

The most memorable day of my research in these sad archives was when I found a letter, dated 11 November 1943, from CZ Vasiliu, Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior, to the Inspector General of the Gendarmerie.

A goods train arrived in Tighina Station to which were attached 3 wagons containing 194 Ţ, who said they were sent from Golta-Transnistria by the German authorities, with the destination of Sebeş, Alba Iulia.

How is this possible? This statement is inaccurate, the Ţ have run away from their settlements, and they need to be returned.

If something really happens with the German military and they send Ţ from the areas where they are kept, they should be stopped and held by the Gendarmerie on that territory, in Transnistria, where in fact there are no German troops.34

This shows that there were Romani people who survived the harsh winter of 1942 and the typhus epidemic. They survived until November 1943, when groups as conspicuous as 194 people secretly organised and paid the right people to escape across the border in train wagons, and then they bargained even more time.

In July 1944, an estimated 14,000 surviving Roma (mostly children under the age of ten) began to walk home to Romania behind the invading Red Army troops. Police registered only 6439 Romani survivors.

The government ordered local farmers and police to stop them and put them to work.35 Local farmers complained to the government, arguing that emaciated and diseased children aged two to eight years were burdens rather than a workforce. Members of the public who saw the survivors working on state-owned buildings as labourers complained that they were most often nearly nude, and that it was improper that they should be naked in public view.

Romani civil rights campaigners petitioned the incoming socialist government, but the Roma were not recognised as a ‘co-inhabiting national minority’. Throughout forty-five years of socialist government, Romani Romanian survivors lived beside those who had facilitated their deportation, without any state recognition of their persecution as an ethnic group. Since 1990, the violence against Romani people in Europe has intensified, often fostered by the refusal of states to provide identification documents, asylum applications and other basic rights.

The application process for Holocaust reparation funds in the late 1990s was a re-traumatising experience for many Romani Romanians. While survivors were terrified that they would be re-deported if they gave their details to the state, their communities convinced them to detail their experiences in the hope of an apology and perhaps enough money to buy a gravestone for parents who died in Transnistria. Yet survivors were told that most of their identification documents were not sufficient to access archives or to prove their experiences.36

It is clear that Romani Romanians were neither silent nor passive victims. Nor, as stereotypes would suggest, did they sing and dance their way to death in the Holocaust. Romani people, overwhelmingly illiterate and peripheral to society, had the courage to acknowledge from the first rumours of impending deportation that this was a threat to their lives. They acted. They garnered what resources they could to protect their families; they utilised social networks to find scribes and petition all levels of government; they tried to earn money and food for their families in Transnistria. Many Romani detainees also put their lives on the line, escaping in and out of the camps to send petitions and to find food and money. Strikingly, the oral histories of survivors highlight that Romani Romanians also dedicated themselves to the emotional care of their families and community throughout the horror of the Holocaust and in the decades since, even as they were forced to steal and travel illegally to do so. Without the resistance of the Roma, there would not have been so many survivors. Nor would there be such a culture of resilience in the current fight against persecution.

Romani people have consistently struggled from the most marginal social positions to confront powerful institutions with demands for justice. The Romanian archive of Romani resistance is evidence that even the most disenfranchised individual can speak and act directly against racism and violence. Today, when we become tired and overwhelmed by the struggle before us, we can be humbled and strengthened by remembering how others have fought, and we can hope to honour their struggles in our own.
1                 For recent statistics about European perceptions of Romani minorities, see ‘Chapter 4: Views of Roma, Muslims, Jews’ in Pew Research Centre (Global Attitudes Project), A Fragile Rebound for EU Image on Eve of European Parliament Elections, 12 May 2014, www.pewglobal.org/2014/05/12/chapter-4-views-of-roma-muslims-jews/.

2                See Randolph L Braham (ed.), The Destruction of Romanian and Ukrainian Jews during the Antonescu Era, Social Science Monographs, Boulder, 1997.

3                These archival references will make sense to anyone who accesses the catalogue of files in the Romanian archives, or copies of these held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC. ANIC Folder IRJ, Dosar 258, Doc.4. 1942, end of May, Order from the President of the Council of Ministers, Military Cabinet, to the General Inspectorate of the Gendarmerie.

4                ANIC Inspectoratul General al Jandarmeriei (henceforth IGJ), Dosar 126/1942, Doc. 204-205, 203.

5                ANIC, PCM, Dosar 296/1942, Doc.130.

6                Dobrin Costică, seventy-four years old, GalaţI, interviewed in October 2008. In Adrian-Nicolae Furtună, Delia Mădălina Grigore & Mihai Neacșu, De ce nu plâng? Holocaustul romilor si povestea lui adevăratã. Deportarea romilor în Transnistria: mărturii, studii, documente, Centrul de Cercetãri Culturale și Sociale ‘Romane Rodimata’ Bucharest, 2014, p. 128. All citations from this text are my own translations from the Romanian.

7                17 May, 1942, ANIC, Fond Inspectorate Regional de Jandarmi, Dosar 258, Doc.6-6v,12.

8                ANIC, DGP, Dosar 188/1942, Doc. 48-48v.

9                ANIC, ‘Direcția General a Poliției,’ Dosar 188/1942, Doc. 211.

10              Prefectura Judetul Buzau, Dosar Nr. 26/1942 ‘Privitor pe Țigani nomazi’ File 39, 6 May, 1942.

11               USHMM, Legiunea Botoșani, Inspectoratul Jandarmerie Iași, IGJ Reel 23 Doc. 353.

12              USHMM, IGJ Reel 23, Doc. 389.

13               Judetul Arges, Pitești, Dosar Nr 54/1942 ‘Populaţia Judeţului, control, împânâ nteniri, renunţari și primisi de supușenie românâ’ Doc.6 and Doc.10.

14              USHMM, IGJ Dosar 86/1942 Doc. 1148-9.

15               Inspectorate Jandarm Timiş- Torontal, Dosar 27 1942, Doc.1.

16              Badea Justinian, cited in Furtună, et al., De ce nu plâng?, p. 20.

17               See the excellent documentary by Michelle Kelso, Hidden Sorrows, In The Shadows Productions, 2005. See oral histories collected by Michelle Kelso in Kelso, Radu Ioanid & Luminița Mihai Cioabă (eds), Tragedia Romilor Deportaţi în Transnistria 1942-1945, Polirom, Bucharest, 2005.

18              USHMM, IGJ Reel 18 1942, Doc.780-782.

19              ibid.

20             ANIC, fond Direcţia Generală a Poliţiei, dosar 188/1942, f.211

21              Kelso, Hidden Sorrows.

22             ibid.

23              State-of-affairs report from Oceacov region 5 December 1942 ANIC fond IGJ, dosar 130.1942, vol.1, f.128-131

24             Aurică Mitică, cited in Furtuna et al., De ce nu plâng?, p. 78.

25              Maria Dumitru, cited in Furtuna et al., De ce nu plâng?, p. 73.

26             Alexandrina Radu, cited in Furtuna et al., De ce nu plâng?, p. 79.

27              Kelso, Hidden Sorrows.

28             Romanian National Archives RG 25.002 M Dosar 200/1942.

29             For detailed studies of these petitions see Shannon Woodcock, ‘The Holocaust and Romani Romanians: Deportation and Resistance’, Genocide Perspectives IV, Colin Tatz (ed.), UTS Press, Sydney, 2012 pp.353–380. Other papers on this subject in English can be accessed at https://independent.academia.edu/ShannonWoodcock.

30              Dumitru Marin, 29 December 1942, USHMM IGJ dosar 59, 1942, Doc. 899.

31               USHMM IGJ dosar 59, 1942 Doc. 1056. Letter dated 9 January 1943.

32              Romanian National Archives RG 25.002 M PCM File 122/1942 Doc.166.

33              Romanian National Archives RG 25.002M Reel 31 1942, Doc.136.

34              Romanian National Archives RG 25.010 Reel 19, Doc.597.

35              IGJ Reel 29 Dosar 86/1944 Doc. 30, 7 April 1944.

36              Kelso, Hidden Sorrows.

Shannon Woodcock

Shannon Woodcock is a colonist in Gunai Kurnai Country .

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