Recognizing the Roma Holocaust

In his recent book Rain of Ash, historian Ari Joskowicz examines the evolving relationships between Jews and Roma in the struggle for justice.

Daniel Kraft
October 5, 2023

The band Mistes performs at a gathering in memory of Holocaust victims on August 18th, 2023. This year marks 80th anniversary of the mass transport of Roma from Hodonín u Kunštátu to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

AP Photo / Patrik Uhlir

Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi regime murdered as many as half a million Roma people, frequently incarcerating and killing them alongside Jews. But as the story of the Holocaust became widely known in the following decades, the genocide of Europe’s Roma—a stateless ethnic minority often, though not always accurately, associated with the Romani language and a nomadic lifestyle—was largely excluded from the narrative, even as many of the Nazi structures for persecuting Roma persisted. In 1947, for example, the Bavarian parliament requested permission to construct a prison at the site of the Dachau concentration camp for the purpose of incarcerating and reeducating Roma, and France maintained the Vichy government’s system for monitoring Roma people until 1969. In some cases, Jews have worked in solidarity with Roma to oppose these injustices, record Romani histories, and seek recompense, while in others, they have seen Roma as competitors for recognition and restitution, and omitted them from Holocaust documentation and commemoration.

In his recent book Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust, historian Ari Joskowicz examines the complicated, often contradictory relationships between Jews and Romani people from the Holocaust up until today. Joskowicz—who grew up in Vienna, as the grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and who is now the chair of Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University—has written extensively about interactions between Jewish communities and other European minority groups. In Rain of Ash, he describes the ways that Roma have relied on Jewish institutions and individuals in their own pursuit of justice. His research raises difficult questions about Jewish communal responses to Roma suffering: How do and how should Jews and Roma interact, Joskowicz asks, given the groups’ connected experiences of genocide, but unequal access to opportunities for redress? What is the responsibility of victims toward the suffering of others, as they struggle with limited resources to tell their stories, and to fight against abiding injustices?

I spoke with Joskowicz about the discrepancies between Jewish and Roma experiences after World War II, the shifting dynamics of Roma–Jewish solidarity, and the relationship between historical knowledge and moral action. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Kraft: Awareness of the Jewish Holocaust is practically ubiquitous, but there’s relatively little awareness of the Roma Holocaust. What accounts for that difference?

Ari Joskowicz: The persecution of Jews was explicitly central to the Nazi regime. There was much less discussion of a project to exterminate the Roma. This discrepancy has often been used to downplay the Roma genocide: “Show me the Roma version of the Nazi sources on antisemitism.” But those sources don’t exist—and part of the reason why is that anti-Roma persecution was normalized before Nazi ascendancy. While there is a perception among the general public that the Nazi regime was doing unusually brutal things to Jews, when it comes to anti-Roma discrimination, there was much more continuity with previous measures. As with the persecution of homosexuals, the Nazis drew on discriminatory legal codes that preceded them to persecute the Roma. From the very beginning, anti-Roma violence appeared less spectacular to those who weren’t its direct targets.

And then there is the question of resources: The Roma don’t have funds to support research or storytelling on an institutional level comparable to what exists in Jewish communities. You can see how this disparity informs our sense of history in, for example, the Nuremberg trials. As far as the court was concerned, what was at stake were Nazi war crimes and the invasion of other countries; the murder of Jews was not really the central subject. Significantly, though, the documentation coming out of those trials was often available only through institutions focused on the Jewish Holocaust, and supported on the staff level by Jewish translators and researchers. So, from the earliest days of Holocaust memory, there has been a place to go to find authorized information about antisemitic violence—and Roma don’t have anything comparable.

DK: In the preface to Rain of Ash, you write that your exploration of Roma experiences of persecution would not be “sensible” to your grandparents. What do you mean by that?

AJ: I call this a book about the stories my grandparents never told. Even as people like my grandparents had no special obligation to others simply by virtue of being victims, there was an absence in their stories that felt notable. I wanted to know where this absence came from.

And in fact, these histories are entangled. I open one chapter with a 1946 list of so-called “gypsies registered with us”; it’s one of a series of lists created by a Jewish survivor organization. Right beside it in the archive was a list of Jews who survived concentration camps, which includes my grandmother. Did they stand in line next to each other applying for some benefit, applying to be recognized as victims?

DK: What was the relationship between Roma survivors and Jewish communities at that time?

AJ: Jews have a history of international self-organization, so after the war, there was already an infrastructure of support in place. As Jewish survivors tried to find surviving relatives, feed themselves, and move across borders and oceans, they had institutions to aid them. Some of the most important organizations that fed European survivors, like the Joint Distribution Committee, were Jewish. Immediately, Roma survivors—who rely primarily on familial networks—started turning to Jewish institutions.

It is tempting to think about Jewish power here, but the lesson is really one of robust Jewish self-assertion, often in the face of incredible adversity, especially in European countries. This is where Jewish successes have been inspiring to Roma communities. For example, right after the war, the big fantasy among Roma was that there would be international trials like Nuremberg—that the people who killed Roma would also be condemned on an international stage, that Romani voices would matter to the world, and that authoritative documents would be produced. But this didn’t happen. Yet another model of justice presented itself during the Eichmann trial, where a sovereign Jewish state abducted a central perpetrator and tried him. That inspired a lot of Romani intellectuals. Many Roma are not invested in a shared national project, but for those who are, Zionism is a key model—and that image of the victims convicting a Nazi war criminal was essential. Roma survivors started writing to prosecutors, saying: “So-and-so was our Eichmann. Please apprehend this person, put him on trial.”

But the relationships between Jews and Roma are also characterized by the prejudices of their environments. So while there is a long history of engagement across the communities in the sense of Roma individuals turning to Jewish institutions, and to individual Jews who may be interested in Roma, it is only in the past 30 years that we’ve begun to have a fuller—albeit still asymmetrical—dialogue, community to community.

DK: What do you think accounts for that shift?

AJ: It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that there was a real boom in Holocaust memory. At that point, there was a proliferation of college courses on the Holocaust, as well as monuments and museums. With these initiatives came some big debates, including about the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust. A lot of Jews were saying, “Our stories are finally being heard, and now these Roma interlopers want to be added; that undermines our achievement.”

On the other hand, many Jews coming out of progressive traditions understood it as critical to enter alliances with other marginalized groups. After all, we face shared threats to our lives from the right. For example, in 1984, Jewish students in France were key to founding SOS Racisme [a major anti-racist organization in Europe]. I was there. I remember that we—the Jewish socialist youth, along with other socialists—went to Brussels to demonstrate, and everybody was chanting “Nous sommes tous les enfants des immigrés” (“We are all children of immigrants”).

Sadly, alliances between Jews and Roma are tightest where liberal democracy breaks down. To some degree, the rise of anti-democracy movements has encouraged the creation of alliances that didn’t seem as urgent in the ’80s or ’90s. In Germany, the Romani youth movement ternYpe commemorated the one-year anniversary of the 2019 attack outside the synagogue in Halle, and Jewish groups lit Hanukkah candles in solidarity with their Roma and Sinti brothers and sisters. In places like Hungary, where you have a regime targeting both groups, there are incredible solidarities, especially among younger Jews and Roma. I chatted with Jewish activists there who had a grant to build up a youth organization for Roma, modeled on the Jewish socialist Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair.

DK: How do debates about Zionism influence these Jewish–Romani relationships?

AJ: Some older Romani activists are Zionists. But the younger generation is very clearly inspired by ideas about the Global South and settler colonialism, by Black history, by frameworks that facilitate an understanding of the relationship between power, violence, and the ways history gets told. These frameworks do not lead one to sympathy with contemporary Zionism.

I think we’re seeing a real shift: The Israeli narrative of a community defending itself against an existential threat has given way to a perception of Israel as the dominant party—and even Jews outside of Israel are perceived in light of these politics. The old framework took for granted Jewish victimhood, the appeal was for a kind of inclusion in that status; Roma said, “We suffered like you,” and Jews, when they were willing, said, “You suffered like us.” But now debates about Jews are not really about powerlessness, even as some Jews continue to be attached to this position. Now, there’s a sort of inversion: This Jewish–Romani alliance makes sense to many Jews because it enables them to tie their own story into the narrative of a group that can legitimately claim to remain profoundly marginalized and over-policed—and to evoke that existential urgency.

DK: You frame the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, as exemplary of the contradictory ways that Jewish narratives are mobilized both to support and to oppose Roma claims.

AJ: The Holocaust Museum is a fascinating case study because its mandate was to focus on the Jewish Holocaust, but to frame it in terms of broader lessons. There were some very contentious early discussions about whose histories the exhibits would reflect. Many non-Jewish groups tried to advocate for inclusion. The exhibition teams felt that if they featured one non-Jewish group, they would open up thorny questions about how to decide who not to share the space with—so they basically ended up blocking all these attempts. There was also a sense that this museum had to be very accessible. That meant sticking to the main story, which, as far as they were concerned, centered Jews. So in the exhibit itself, the textured Romani history is reduced to a trope of nomadism: The museum got a wagon from a film studio, which is supposed to represent Roma. It’s sort of set off from the rest of the exhibit. Unsurprisingly, many Romani representatives find this display offensive.

The exhibit hasn’t changed much. But contrary to what the founding generation of the institution had planned, the museum—which was originally conceived only as a museum, but has become one of the biggest research institutions on the Holocaust—started to collect resources on Roma as well. Though little of their work deals with Roma, the work they do makes a significant difference in a field that is so starved for resources and professional labor.

DK: How can Jewish communities commemorate the Holocaust in ways that are more equitable to Romani people?

AJ: I think we need both to include Romani themes in Jewish institutions and to ensure that Jewish institutions are part of coalitions that support Romani groups in creating their own institutions. This requires dialogue with Romani scholars and intellectuals—and those conversations have to happen with two key understandings: First, we need to acknowledge the asymmetry in power. Second, we need to be attentive to the ways that the Romani Holocaust is already part of Jewish history and Jewish institutions are already part of the Roma story. That creates a more urgent sense of responsibility than framing Roma histories as pure absence from Jewish contexts: It’s not simply one among many injustices in the world that Jews can decide whether or not to turn to. Whether they want to be involved or not, it’s something they have already worked on, often in unproductive ways.

Daniel Kraft is a writer, translator, and educator living in Richmond, Virginia.