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International Day of Commemoration
for Victims of the Holocaust

Memorial Ceremony, General Assembly Hall
25 January 2013



Professor Ethel Brooks, a sociologist and associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey


Excellencies, respected Holocaust survivors and your families, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honor for me to be here today.

I am here today to tell you a story about heroes and heroines, and about how the common compassion that people have for one another can help to fight the worst forms of oppression. As we participate in the 2013 International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, we can learn lessons from those whose kindness remained strong even as fascism and barbarity swept through Europe.

I come before you as an American Romani woman and a scholar working on Holocaust testimonies of Romani survivors. I grew up in a Romani community that did not talk about the losses our people suffered in Europe in the Holocaust; my community has been in the United States since the 1880s and did not know the extent or the details of what our brothers and sisters were suffering in Europe, but all of us lived under the cloud of that unspoken genocide.

The photos you can see on the screen behind me document Romani and Sinti experiences of life before the Holocaust; the identity cards with anthropometric measurements and racial categorizations; the roundups and internments that began in Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s.  The photos portray individuals, families, communities, about whose fate we know nothing, and whose story is not told in history books; nor, most likely, is it one that would be commemorated in national archives.

This past October, in Berlin, the Memorial for the Murdered Roma and Sinti under National Socialism was dedicated, directly across from the Reichstag in the Tiergarten. That Memorial came thirty years after Germany officially recognized the racially-based motives for annihilation of the Roma and Sinti, and nearly forty years after the first activists began calling attention to the losses suffered by Roma and Sinti communities, after their persecution had gone unacknowledged in the decades after the end of World War II.

Romani Rose, head of the German Council of Sinti and Roma, a Sinto activist who lost 13 members of his family at Auschwitz-Birkenau, said, “There is not a single family of Sinti and Roma in Germany, who have not lost immediate family members. It shapes our identity to this day."

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today is a memorial ceremony, dedicated to those who were murdered, to those who lost family, loved ones and community, to those who returned from the camps or hiding only to find their cultures and lifeworlds decimated; to those who survived genocide. But at the same time, this year’s theme, “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care,” encourages us not only to remember the dead and commemorate the survivors, but also to celebrate the heroes, those who reached out beyond their families, beyond their communities, who –in the work of saving the lives of others—ran the risk of losing their own.

Take, for example, the story of Dutch Romani survivor Zoni Weisz, who, as a 7-year-old, was saved, along with his aunt, by the kindness of a guard who kept them on the platform while Weisz’s parents, brothers and sisters boarded the trains that would transport them to concentration camps, and, eventually, to their deaths.  At the Berlin ceremony, Weisz recalled the last glimpse of his family before the trains took them away, the vivid blue color and the feel of the soft wool of his sister’s coat as he held onto it when his family was boarding the train.  That was his last memory of his family, haunting him even as he remembered the quietly heroic actions of the platform guard.

I also want to share with you the story of Alfreda Markowska, a Polish Romani woman, born in 1926 in a caravan in Stanisławow, Poland. As the President of Poland recounted in 2006: “In 1941, her family was murdered and she was taken captive... After her escape from prison, she and her husband resided first in the Lublin ghetto, and later in Łódź and Bełżec. She escaped from each of these places, saving Jewish and Romani children. Upon receiving the news of yet another pogrom, she would visit execution sites in search for surviving children. She then transported the survivors to her “base” and procured false papers for them. Some of them she gave back to their … guardians, others she placed in the care of [Romani] families or brought up herself.”

Mrs. Markowska saved nearly 50 Jewish and Romani children over the course of the war. On 17 October 2006, the President of the Republic of Poland awarded Alfreda Markowska a Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta for heroism and exceptional courage, and for outstanding merit in saving human life.

When we start to look for them, in the footnotes of history, in the hundreds of oral and video testimonies of Roma and Sinti survivors, there are other moments of compassion, other heroic acts and other heroic lives, such as those of two Romani men who were part of the resistance to the Nazis and their nationalist collaborators: Amilcare Debar, who worked with the Italian resistance, and Iosif Teifel from Czechoslovakia, who worked clandestinely in the Mukacevo ghetto, and was able to hide people, provide food aid and carry out resistance activities inside and outside the ghetto.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On this solemn day, it gives me great pleasure simply to say the names of these true heroes: Zoni Weisz. Romani Rose. Amilcare Debar. Iosif Tiefel. Alfreda Markowska.

These are just a few of the lives that have been marked by the enormity of the Holocaust.
They are just a few of the Romani survivors whose stories make us aware of the power and meaning of ordinary kindness and compassion that spared lives during the Holocaust.

I cannot but fully concur with what Dani Karavan said in Hebrew at the inauguration of the Memorial in Berlin: “I feel like my family was killed and burned with the Sinti and Roma in the same gas chambers and their ashes went with the wind to the fields. So we are together. It is our destiny.”

Hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti were murdered during the Holocaust; the death toll could be significantly higher than half a million, with countless casualties more still to be documented in the search for mass graves and unmarked massacre sites throughout the Nazi-occupied areas, especially in the eastern regions.

I welcome the opportunity to speak up and recall the names of these few Roma and Sinti survivors. It is a time for the world to listen to our histories, as part of the history of the Holocaust.

Much work still needs to be done by us, Roma and Sinti, historians, leaders and activists to fully document it, but also to recognize and honor the victims and survivors of this genocide in official commemoration and in everyday acts of remembrance.

Such recognition means also continuous fight against racial and ethnic violence and discrimination of which, unfortunately, Roma and Sinti are still targets in many places in Europe in the current moment.

Events like the one we are holding today are fitting places to raise such concerns: We need all to be vigilant and stand up against xenophobia, hate crimes, discrimination against anyone, including against our minority.

Just as ordinary kindness and compassion could help to spare lives during the Holocaust, there remains a need for solidarity, for compassion and heroism in our uneasy times, in which some politicians, nation-states and extremist groups alike throughout Europe are renewing calls for our destruction.

Today, even as we remember the dead, we honor the living –the survivors and heroes among us—and we renew our commitment to documenting, listening to and claiming our histories as part of the larger history of the Holocaust, and as part of the history of Europe and of the world.

In so doing, we also renew our commitment to the legacy of Amilcare Debar, Iosif Tiefel, and Alfreda Markowska, and the countless unnamed heroes who rose to the occasion and risked their lives in the face of xenophobia, intolerance, and extremist violence.  May we all have, as they did, the courage to care.

See the website of the President of Poland, http://www.president.pl/en/archive/news-archive/news-2006/art,158,outstanding-heroism.html ; Internet; accessed 17 January 2013.

See the website of the President of Poland, http://www.president.pl/en/archive/news-archive/news-2006/art,158,outstanding-heroism.html ; Internet; accessed 17 January 2013.

The complete testimonies of Amilcare Debar and Iosif Teifel can be found in the Visual History Archive of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California.