Liberation of Auschwitz: Growing Recognition of Roma Holocaust Reminds Us of the Power of Solidarity Among Minorities | Opinion

Today, January 27th, we commemorate 75 years since the liberation of the prisoners at Auschwitz, where millions of Jews, Roma, and other stigmatized groups suffered unimaginable pain and loss. The atrocities committed against the Roma remain under-recognized, although efforts are underway to better commemorate Roma victims and survivors. The Roma Holocaust, known as the Porjamos (the Devouring) in the Roma language, is also often called "The Forgotten Holocaust". For that reason, unexpected acknowledgment of these events can leave a powerful impression.

A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel on Roma intended to raise awareness about Roma identity, marginalization, and plight, at a small town in Pennsylvania that had recently seen an influx of Roma asylum-seekers.The community was not very familiar with who the Roma people were, yet many seemed eager to get informed and be supportive.

At the event I met Lisa, a lawyer who'd been providing legal guidance pro bono to the Roma families and working to mobilize the community to provide them with basic necessities. The local newspaper ran a story about the Roma refugees, mentioning Lisa's advocacy work.

When she heard that I was originally from Romania, she shared with me how, Maurice, an attorney from a Romanian Jewish family, had reached out to her in a letter expressing support for her work and making a donation towards her efforts or the recipient of her choice.

As a scholar working on Roma issues for the past ten years, I don't often hear of such gestures of solidarity, so I asked if I could read the letter. Lisa went so far as to give me the letter itself to keep, saying that she trusted I would make the best use of it.

I handled the envelope and the message as carefully as an archaeologist would examine a precious artifact. The letter was written elegantly and a paragraph in particular stood out to me:

"My father came to this country from Romania at the turn of the century as a 10 year old and became a lawyer and teacher. The family was Jewish. He never spoke much of what Romania had been like, but I am sure they would not have risked it all to come here if it had been welcoming. That was unfortunately exemplified during WWII and the Holocaust when the Roma suffered much as the Jews."

The letter is an act of solidarity and acknowledgment of the Roma's suffering during the Holocaust accompanied by an act of concrete support. This was originally a personal letter not meant for the eyes of the public, yet precisely because this was a local and genuine act it carries with it a powerful lesson that activists, political figures and others should take to heart. (I reached out to Maurice ahead of publication and he kindly gave me permission to share his letter.)

Far too often oppressed groups can find themselves in competition with one another. At times it seems like a contest to see who is a "worthy victim" based on how much their people suffered, but one group's suffering does not negate nor diminish another's. On the contrary, shared trauma and seeking ways to heal can lead to bonds of kinship and empathy. Marginalized groups are strongest when they advocate for one another together. That is why Maurice's readiness to recognize how Roma and Jewish people suffered together was so meaningful.

More efforts need to be made in acknowledging the Roma Holocaust by mainstream institutions and more resources need to be made available to Roma scholars studying the Roma Holocaust. Despite numerous challenges and barriers, there have been dedicated Roma activists who have worked tirelessly to keep the Roma stories of the Holocaust alive. For example, due to efforts by the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma in 1982, the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt publicly recognized for the first time that the Roma were targeted by the Nazis for racial genocide.

More recently, a Roma organization has purchased the site of a former concentration camp for Roma at Lety u Písku in the Czech Republic, which was being used as a pig farm. Fortunately, and is working to convert it into a museum and carry out archaeological excavations. Archaeologists have exhumed two Roma prisoner burials, the first-ever discovered in Europe. The finds are a sharp counterpoint to a former Czech President Václav Klaus's denial that Lety is a genocide site.

The Wiener Holocaust Library also featured an exhibit on the Roma Holocaust this past October. It included photographs, eyewitness accounts, and documents to shed light on the crimes committed against the Roma, as well as information about Roma life prior to the 1940s. The post-war struggles of Roma in combatting ongoing discrimination and securing recognition for their suffering is also included. Additionally, in contrast with some previous events where Roma were not represented, this year's United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony in New York includes a Roma speaker.

Acknowledgment is part of healing, and such efforts at increasing visibility about Roma plight during the Holocaust can empower Roma to cope with the past and create new pathways for themselves. Awareness of the Roma Holocaust can also make some non-Roma think twice before being looking at Roma as "Gypsy" thieves and criminals.

For those of us who were not directly impacted by the horrors of the Holocaust, it can be hard to comprehend how incredibly destructive and savage this episode was unless we find elements that resonate with our personal experiences. As I near the birth of my first child, I've been sharing joyful moments with friends and family, and have received many lovely baby gifts.

Now, when I read about the Holocaust, images depicting the piles of baby clothes at Auschwitz shake me to my core as I think about how this radical dehumanization did not even spare infants.This is perhaps the lowest point humanity can reach. We cannot allow the world to keep sinking to that level again.That is why it is so important to acknowledge the Holocaust in its complexity and scope, without leaving anyone affected out of the stories we remember. We owe it both to the victims and survivors of the past and future generations.

Cristiana Grigore, a writer living in New York, runs the Roma Peoples Project at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​