Visiting Scholar from Spain Exploring Roma, Sinti Testimonies in Visual History Archive

Thu, 01/27/2022 - 2:34pm

Annabel Carballo-Mesa is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona. Since January 17 she has been in Los Angeles conducting research with Visual History Archive (VHA) testimonies for a dissertation provisionally entitled “Na Bister! (Don’t Forget!) An Oral History of the Roma and Sinti Genocide”.

USC Shoah Foundation’s VHA contains 406 testimonies of European Roma and Sinti survivors who experienced the Holocaust. The testimonies span 17 languages and15 European countries, and twenty-four of them are in the Romani language.

European Roma were among the many non-Jewish groups persecuted by the Nazi regime, with an estimated 80 percent of the Roma and Sinti population in Europe murdered over the course of the Holocaust. However, the fate of this population remains largely under-researched and underrepresented within the larger history of the Holocaust. Carballo-Mesa’s research on the oral history of the genocide of European Roma and Sinti is thus a welcome and much needed contribution to the field.

Along with her studies, Carballo-Mesa works as the European and International Project Manager Coordinator with the Federation of Roma Associations in Catalonia (FAGiC), a non-profit created in 1991 to defend and promote the rights, culture and history of the Roma and Sinti in Catalonia and Spain. She is also a research member of the Spanish team of Beyond Stereotypes: Cultural Exchanges and the Romani Contribution to European Public Spaces (BESTROM).

Carballo-Mesa hopes her work will contribute to a new bibliography of the Roma and Sinti genocide in Spain and beyond. In an interview with USC Shoah Foundation, she describes what she has discovered in the VHA, the plight of the Roma and Sinti communities during the Holocaust, and what can be done to combat the widespread “Antigypsyism” that still exists today.

What brings you to USC Shoah Foundation?

After years of meeting with and listening to Roma and Sinti survivors, I decided to do my PhD on their oral memories. This is my way of paying tribute to them and helping to pass on their legacy. Oral memory is essential to continuing the lineage of a people or community, to get to know their real history. So, I want to write a history of Roma and Sinti survivors based on their own words and perspectives.

USC Shoah Foundation has the largest archive of Roma and Sinti testimonies in the world. It’s special not just for its size, but also for its quality and diversity.

Take us into the Visual History Archive’s Roma and Sinti collection. As an expert, what have you found there?

The testimonies show the diversity of the Roma and Sinti as a group. They help answer questions like whether they were nomadic, if they spoke Romani at home, and tell us about their families, work, and background.

The testimonies show us the reality of the Roma and Sinti Genocide. How some people were forced into concentration or labor camps, others into ghettoes.  How some concealed their identities or went into hiding, how others joined underground or resistance forces. And how some did many or all these things.

Almost half the testimonies in the VHA are related to the former Soviet Union—primarily Russia and the Ukraine—which is extremely important because the Roma and Sinti Genocide is under-studied and unacknowledged throughout that region. For example, the presence of testimonies from Bulgaria in the VHA is important because there’s still no official recognition that the Roma and Sinti were ever persecuted there. So the voices in the VHA fill in a gap left by the overall lack of official documentation.

But what’s most important to me is how the testimonies—despite describing the persecution, suffering and extermination of the Roma and Sinti—also provide stories of resistance, fighting and strength. This is a very important message to the new generations: Resist and don’t give up! Resist Antigypsyism and fight discrimination and racism of all kinds! At the end of the day, we are all human beings.

Can you give an overall picture of the Roma and Sinti experience in the Holocaust? 

First of all—and this is very important to mention—the persecution of the Roma and Sinti didn’t start when the Nazis came to power in 1933. It started as soon as the Roma and Sinti arrived in Europe in the 14th Century. There were already internment camps for Roma and Sinti people in Germany in the 1920s, even earlier. Registration of the Roma and Sinti began with the creation of a Zigeunerbuch (“Gypsy book”) in 1905.

But when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they scaled up the persecution of the Roma and Sinti to previously unimaginable levels. In 1935 they enacted the Nuremberg Laws that officially defined the Roma and Sinti as “non-Aryan”, and in 1936 created the Racial Hygiene Research Unit—which further identified and categorized all Roma and Sinti people in Germany according to racial standards—and went on to arrest many Roma and Sinti families. Then came the deportations and extermination.

The way Roma and Sinti were persecuted across Europe during the Holocaust differed from country to country. But what is clear is that the registration of the Roma and Sinti in many European countries prior to 1933 was key to their eventual deportation and decimation by the Nazis.

Why has the Roma and Sinti experience during the Holocaust been so critically under-represented in modern discourse? 

Because of Antigypsyism. In general terms, since 1945 there has been scant recognition across Europe of the scale of the persecution and genocide of the Roma and Sinti population. Perpetrators were not prosecuted in war crimes trials, and in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as I have said, the Roma and Sinti genocide was simply unacknowledged. Governments there preferred to classify everyone as a “victim of Fascist persecution” so the specific suffering of Roma and Sinti was ignored.

The genocide against the Roma and Sinti has also been underrepresented because many Roma and Sinti have been afraid to speak about it. Many remained silent because they are still afraid of “society” and “institutions.” Others wanted to talk but didn’t have the opportunity.

Talk about the impact of Antigypsyism/anti-Roma and Sinti discrimination in Europe today. 

Antigypsyism is a specific form of racism against all groups of Roma and Sinti and those who look like “gypsies” in the eyes of dominant society. It’s a historically rooted process of systemic “othering” which is unfortunately internalized by many Roma and Sinti.

There’s also the false image of the “imaginary gypsy” created by society which is, of course, based on social stereotypes, prejudices and clichés. If the “imaginary gypsy” is a man, he is thought of as a criminal, lazy, a barbarian, and dangerous—often a drug dealer. If the “imaginary gypsy” is a woman, she has traditionally been hypersexualized as the contraposition of the “good women” and today is portrayed as submissive or subservient—a person who has kids, stays at home, and begs for money in the street.

In terms of the impacts of Antigypsyism in Europe today, a high percentage of Roma and Sinti face social exclusion—they are generally presumed guilty, not innocent—and live in extreme poverty. The effects of the historical discrimination and persecution of the Roma and Sinti did not end when the countries in which they lived became democratic. In addition, one must understand that—not unlike as with slavery or the forced sterilization of Roma and Sinti women—past persecution produces severe trauma that passes from one generation to next.

What role can education play in confronting stereotypes? 

Education is the key to confronting stereotypes about the Roma and Sinti. But, at the same time, Antigypsyism is a multifaceted phenomenon that requires a diversified set of instruments to tackle it. This includes criminal justice reform, the introduction of equality measures, and awareness raising.

There are two general ways to tackle the stereotypes. On the social side, the key to eliminating all the prejudices and stereotypes that continue to spread in the media and everywhere lies in education. And on the political side, more commitment and more policies for social inclusion and protection are needed.

Learn more about USC Shoah Foundation’s Roma and Sinti resources: