Roma Holocaust survivors look to Jews as model for recognition — and reparation

CHISINAU, Moldova –This September, about 70 Roma survivors of World War II in Moldova will receive compensation from Germany.

But the reparations given to these elderly people in Europe’s poorest country will not take the form of cash — only food and coal to use as fuel, and only for a few months. The budget is about $600 per person.

“These are people who never received any compensation before,” said Marin Alla, the director of the Voice of the Roma Coalition, an NGO that is distributing the aid from the Germany-based EVZ Foundation. “They are trying to survive. Some have a pension of 15 euros ($18) per month, others get 50 euros ($60) per month.”

He said there are now about 600 Roma who lived through WWII left in Moldova, but the funding from Germany is not sufficient to help all of them.

None of the Roma Holocaust survivors in Moldova currently receive German pensions, he said.

Jewish Holocaust survivors in Moldova who were in camps, ghettos and labor battalions have been receiving a pension of 336 euros ($400 USD) per month since 1998. Even those Moldovan Jews who fled from Fascist occupation have been entitled to a one-time hardship fund of 2,556 euros ($3,048 USD) since 2013, according to Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference.)

In addition, Jewish victims of Nazism in Moldova receive help with home care, food, medicine, as well as winter clothes and coal. Almost 700 elderly seniors in Moldova are currently receiving this aid, according to the Claims Conference.

The situation in Moldova is similar to the rest of Europe, where compensation for Roma survivors of the Holocaust came many decades after the Jewish survivors began receiving compensation — or not at all.

“The authorities said, ‘The Roma had nothing anyway, so what should they be compensated for?’” said Mirjam Karoly, the senior advisor on Roma and Sinti issues at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose father was born in a Roma concentration camp in Austria.

The authorities said, ‘The Roma had nothing anyway, so what should they be compensated for?’

“They were second-class victims. [The authorities said] the Roma are not victims of the Holocaust because they were put into camps for crime prevention purposes because they were criminals. So they were using the Nazi language,” she said.

The compensation for Roma survivors has varied from country to country.
For example, a year ago, it was announced that Roma survivors in the Czech Republic would get a one-time payment of 2,500 euros ($3000) each as a result of months of negotiations between the Czech and German foreign ministries.

In Romania, 200 Roma survivors began to receive monthly pensions from Germany two years ago — but only thanks to the efforts of a dedicated historian. Because the compensation came 70 years after the end of the war, very few of the survivors were still living.

Petre Matei, a researcher at the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, helped Roma survivors in Romania apply for German pensions. He said that the reason that the Roma began to receive pensions decades after the Jewish survivors is because many Roma are illiterate, the Roma community is not organized, and because there is still a lot of discrimination against the Roma.

“The problem for the Roma is that they can’t read and write, and even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to speak German,” Matei said. “Also, to be anti-Semitic could be problematic, but to not like the Gypsies in Eastern Europe, it’s not that dangerous.”

To be anti-Semitic could be problematic, but to not like the Gypsies in Eastern Europe, it’s not that dangerous

Of the 300 Roma Holocaust survivors in Romania who applied for German pensions because they were deported to concentration camps, 200 survivors received the pensions which average approximately 200 euros ($239 USD) monthly plus a sum of approximately 12,000 euros ($14,000 USD) which is supposed to make up for the money that they should have been paid in the last 10 years, Matei said.

The other 100 Roma concentration camp survivors did not receive the pensions because they were younger than 11 years old during the war, so the German authorities decided that they were too young to perform forced labor, Matei explained. (Those 100 people have become eligible for a one-time payment from Germany this year.)

It is not clear how many Roma Holocaust survivors received compensation in other countries because compensation programs often lumped the Roma together with everyone else.

As a result, the Roma were often underrepresented, according to Ralf Possekel, who is in charge of quality management at the EVZ Foundation in Germany, which is funded by the German government and private companies to compensate the victims of Nazi forced labor camps.

“Our experience is when we did a general project for survivors, very few Roma attended,” Possekel said. “It’s hard to reach the Roma people, it’s hard to include them.”

It’s hard to reach the Roma people, it’s hard to include them

Because of this observation, EVZ began to work directly with Roma organizations to help Roma survivors. In addition to the project in Moldova that started in September, EVZ has nine similar projects in Ukraine and one in Russia and is planning to expand the program to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania, Possekel said.

The budgets of these projects are small and cash is not distributed to the survivors directly. EVZ funds food, home repairs and volunteer helpers for the elderly, Possekel said.

One EVZ project in Ukraine even aims to bring a Roma organization for Holocaust survivors together with a Jewish organization “because Jewish organizations have huge experience working with survivors,” Possekel said.

Indeed, while the Jewish and Roma communities have not been historically close, during WWII both suffered.

Of the 25,000 Roma who were deported to Romanian concentration camps from Moldova and Romania between 1942 and 1944, only approximately 11,000 survived, according to Ion Duminica, a Roma researcher at the Moldovan Academy of Sciences. But these numbers are estimates at best, he said.

Lured by fascist propaganda to the so-called “work camps,” the Roma perished from hunger, typhus and from the cold. There were cases of cannibalism, with parents trying to save their starving children by feeding them dead family members, Duminica said.

The Roma said, ‘We wished that we were executed like the Jews’

“The Roma said, ‘We wished that we were executed like the Jews,’” said Duminica who interviewed survivors. “When they remember [that time], they start crying.”

Worldwide, historians estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million Roma were murdered during the Holocaust, with some countries such as Germany, Austria, and the Baltic states losing their entire Roma populations.

“Many groups were victimized (by the Nazis), but only the Jews and the Roma were victims of the Final Solution, victims of genocide,” said Prof. Ian Hancock, the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas in Austin.

Hancock points out that the Roma also had their property stolen from them during the Holocaust — their gold, their horses, and their homes — and are therefore also entitled to compensation.

In Moldova, so far, this compensation has not come.

“They mistreated us then and they still mistreat us now,” said Artur Cerari, the Roma Baron of Moldova who is regarded as the most respected Roma leader in the former Soviet Union. “The Jews get pensions every year and every month, but the Roma got nothing.”

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