Commemoration of the Roma victims at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Aug 2, 2016 (photo: Misko Stanisic)
Instead of introduction
About 15 years ago, we visited the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad, Serbia, with a group of about 15 Roma students. The Museum of Vojvodina is an art and natural history museum with a large Department of Ethnology where the culture and history of over 20 ethnic minorities living in the Vojvodina Province are exhibited. Among others, there was a map where various ethnic groups of Vojvodina were represented. A very nice curator who hosted our group was pointing to the map proudly showing the multicultural character of the province. After a while, one of the Roma students asked: “Where are the Roma?” The curator turned to the map and started looking. “Ehm… Roma, of course, is one of the large minorities, and let’s see… where on the map…” And he couldn’t find it. It was not there. They forgot to put it there. I am sure that it was not done to “deny” the well-established and known fact that Roma lives in Vojvodina in large numbers. They honestly forgot. I am afraid that it was even worse.
Teaching about the Nazi atrocities
While millions of innocent people killed by the Nazis and their helpers are all unique individuals, the perpetrator’s particular perception of their identities and affiliations to specific groups, actual or projected, were often essential components of incentives and processes that led to the crimes.
Distinctive experiences of all victim groups explicitly targeted by Nazi Germany and its collaborators inspired by racist or extreme nationalist conceptions are all specific in many ways. Some aspects of the persecutions and genocides against different victim groups during the Nazi era are similar. Others are singular and specific only for certain groups. Even the atrocities against the same groups sometimes unfolded very differently in different regions or periods, or were committed by different perpetrators. Such is the case of the persecution and genocide of Roma and Sinti, too.
Among the most important goals of teaching and learning about this history is developing knowledge and raising awareness about the consequences of various forms of hate and xenophobia, such as antisemitism and antigypsyism. To better understand the mechanisms and processes that led to these crimes, including genocide, we have to expand and create enough space to investigate and discuss the shared aspects, similarities, and distinctions between various forms of prejudices, racism, and hatred essential to Nazi ideology.
The same applies to contemporary racist and xenophobic concepts. A better understanding of the histories of antisemitism and antigypsyism and how they manifested in the past is essential for identifying and addressing them today. In the case of antigypsyism, this means recognition of and increased knowledge about the manifestations of individual expressions, as well as institutional policies and practices of marginalization, exclusion, hate, violence, and devaluation of the Roma, as well as individuals and groups perceived as “Gypsies” in the past, and contemporary societies.
In order to better comprehend the scope and consequences of the persecution against the Roma and Sinti during WWII, we have to learn more about the life and contribution to the mainstream society of the Roma and Sinti communities in the pre-war period, including the long history of discrimination, stigmatization, and exclusion. The rejection of recognition of the Roma and Sinti victims in post-war Europe was, and still is, fundamental for this community’s continuous marginalization and discrimination. Today, it is our duty to acknowledge the absolute necessity to introduce the history of persecution of the Roma to the majority and incorporate it into the mainstream memory culture, including research, memorialization, and education.
Contemporary teaching about the persecution of the Roma
When looking at contemporary teaching and learning about the persecution and genocide of the Roma during the Nazi era, we can notice several significantly challenging aspects. The most important is the continuous lack of recognition of the crimes against the Roma communities and the lack of interest and courage to change this. Secondly, as a result, despite some noteworthy progress in recent years, there is a lack of research about this history. Consequently, there is a lack of quality teaching materials as well as a lack of experience among teachers and educational professionals that could serve as a base for developing better-adjusted pedagogical approaches to this topic and solving various challenges in the classroom.
Elevating the importance of teaching and learning about the distinctive historical experiences of the Roma and Sinti and the long history of their discrimination, including the persecution and genocide during the Nazi era, is not only crucial for a better understanding of the past but for addressing the present challenges, including antigypsyism. At the same time, learning about the persecution of the Roma will contribute to a better understanding of the distinctive features of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust and the manifestations of contemporary antisemitism, as well as of other victim groups.
Things a getting better, but we are not there yet
Some improvements are notable. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance IHRA, the leading international intergovernmental organization that unites governments and experts to strengthen, advance, and promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research worldwide, had in 2007 established an interdisciplinary Committee on the Genocide of the Roma that work to sensitize IHRA stakeholders to the prejudice towards Roma and Sinti before, during and after WWII, as well as to demonstrate the link between the history of persecution and the present situation of Roma communities. On an extraordinary Heads of Delegation meeting on October 8, 2020, the IHRA adopted a Working Definition of Antigypsyism, acknowledging “the neglect of the genocide of the Roma that has contributed to the prejudice and discrimination that many Roma communities still experience today.” The definition clearly states that antigypsyism “was an essential element in the persecution and annihilation policies against Roma as perpetrated by Nazi Germany, and those fascist and extreme nationalist partners and other collaborators who participated in these crimes.”
Another important milestone is the adoption of the resolution of the European Parliament on April 15, 2015, which recognizes “the historical fact of the genocide of Roma that took place during World War II” and concludes “that a European day should be dedicated to commemorating the victims of the genocide of the Roma during World War II” where August 2 has been chosen “as the day to commemorate all Roma victims of this genocide.”
At the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism in October 2021, the IHRA pledged to develop recommendations for teaching and learning about the genocide of the Roma with the aim to “provide policymakers, teacher trainers and educators with a framework for teaching about this genocide, increasing awareness of this history as well as existing forms of anti-Roma discrimination in our societies.”
Recommendations for teaching about the persecution of the Roma
Encouraged by the successful model of the IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust, the work on drafting the Recommendations for teaching guidelines about the persecution and genocide of the Roma and Sinti during the Nazi era began in the form of an internal IHRA project scheduled from Sept 2022 to December 2024. A group of about 15 IHRA experts, together with representatives of IHRA permanent partners from the United Nations, OSCE/ODIHR, European Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Council of Europe, will work together with external experts and representatives of Roma organizations and communities on creating the Recommendations that will “encompass the issue at large, its roots, the culmination of discrimination and persecution of Roma and Sinti during the Nazi period and the aftermath, including the consequences of the lack of recognition and knowledge about this crime.” The main target groups are political decision-makers, policymakers in the field of education and remembrance, as well as agents of non-formal education. Of course, teachers and other educators will be able to use the Recommendations as a resource and inspiration for practical work in the classroom, too.
I have been assigned to take a role as Project Chair and coordinate the development of the Recommendations, together with my colleague Nina Krieger, Executive Director at Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. This is a very important and challenging task. But at the same time, it is a great opportunity to provide guidelines that will help policymakers, practitioners, and educators to develop critical and reflective thinking about this history, including the ability to counter denial, distortion, and trivialization while promoting fact-based learning that ensures accuracy in individual understanding and knowledge.
During the International Conference on the Genocide of the Roma and Combating Antigypsyism – Research and Expert Conference, hosted by the Swedish IHRA presidency 20-21 October 2022 in Stockholm, we had an opportunity to hear from representatives of various Roma organizations, networks, and communities around Europe that they still feel mostly marginalized and excluded from the mainstream representation of the history of the crimes committed by the Nazis and their helpers during WWII in all aspects of memory culture, including education.
I am confident that the IHRA’s Recommendations for teaching guidelines about the persecution and genocide of the Roma and Sinti during the Nazi era will play an essential role in bringing this complex history closer to mainstream societies and into classrooms worldwide.
Back to the Museum
Yes, they corrected the ethnic map of Vojvodina Province in the Museum of Vojvodina immediately the next day. They added a red circle marked “Roma” on the colorful puzzle of round dots in multiple colors. That was good. The thing is, a 13-year-old Roma boy had to ask for it. Basically, what he was asking was: “Where am I on the map?”
Miško Stanišić I November 2022
In order to better comprehend the scope and consequences of the persecution against the Roma and Sinti during WWII, we have to learn more about the life and contribution to the mainstream society of the Roma and Sinti communities in the pre-war period, including the long history of discrimination, stigmatization, and exclusion. The rejection of recognition of the Roma and Sinti victims in post-war Europe was, and still is, fundamental for this community’s continuous marginalization and discrimination.
Miško Stanišić, Director of Terraforming
(The opinions in this text are my own and do not represent the official stands of any of mentioned bodies, institutions, or organizations)