Sabina Higgins gives emotional address at Roma Holocaust memorial

Event in Dublin marks second World War genocide of 500,000 Roma

Sabina Higgins gave an emotional address at the Roma Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on Wednesday, which commemorated the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Roma and Sinti people killed in the genocide of the second World War.

Ms Higgins became upset as she highlighted the deaths of 3,000 Romany men, women and children who were gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on August 2nd, 1944.

The wife of President Michael D Higgins, speaking at the commemoration at the Mansion House in Dublin, said the genocide of the Roma was not fully recognised until 1982. Some 500,000 Roma were killed, between one and two thirds of their whole community, but another 500,000 were displaced, dispossessed and had their identity papers destroyed during the war.

Roma activists campaigned for decades to have the genocide acknowledged and it took until 2009 before the first international Roma Holocaust Memorial Day was marked. It has been commemorated in Ireland annually since then by Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, which organised the Dublin Holocaust memorial ceremony.


Hate crime

The suffering of Roma has continued since the war and “today the Roma still face racially motivated hate crime, violence, persecution, deportation and discrimination in countries across Europe”, Ms Higgins said.

“The recent rise in right-wing neo-fascist parties in Europe has brought about that reawakening of that anti-Roma sentiment, along with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant narratives.

“These poisonous narratives must not be allowed to gain foothold in the contemporary moment,” she said. “[It is] the politics of hate, fear and otherness and in its place we must strive for inclusion, mutual respect and ethics.”

Ms Higgins became emotional again as she recalled “all who lost their lives during the darkest moments of European history, whether Roma, Jew, Gentile, homosexual, people of different physical and mental ability and other minority groups”.

US professor Ethel Brooks said in some areas 90-95 per cent of the Roma community were killed by the Nazis. She said "we mark this date after decades of struggle for the recognition of our loss, for our status as victims and survivors of the Holocaust".

Roma were not asked to give testimony at the Nuremburg trials. They were “simply ignored,” she said, adding that during the de-nazification of Germany after the war Roma were largely forgotten.

Prof Brooks said there were unmarked graves and unrecognised sites across Europe. A former concentration camp where thousands of Roma were killed is used as an industrial pig farm and still receives funding from the EU, despite requests for it to be closed, she said.

Families of survivors have a commemoration close-by every year. She said survivors’ families have asked the authorities to close it down. “They’re saying ‘this is a grave, this is a site where our ancestors’ bones are and you’re producing pigs’.”

Gabi Muntean of Pavee Point said there had been anti-Roma marches in Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic and that racism was a problem closer to home.

In research undertaken by Pavee Point, 80 per cent of Roma reported discrimination on the street in Ireland including remarks such as “go home Gypsy”.

“So, as we commemorate the past we must also pledge to change the present,” she said.

During the commemoration, the stories of survivors were read out. Damaris Paun spoke of the experience of Danafe Spirache, one of 25,000 Roma from Romania who were transported to Transnistria in the Soviet Union, occupied by Romanian and German forces. Only 11,000 survived.They were duped by promises of houses, land and livestock, but were left with little to eat and subjected to violence, and the women and girls were raped by Russian soldiers.

Mr Spirache said “I teach my children that they must never forget they are Roma and they must never trust in authorities”.

He said: “The truth is that nothing has changed.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times