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The Roma Holocaust, contemporary racism and the question of gallows humour
71 Potter

Blog post by Madeline Potter, University of York

In the comedy special ‘His Dark Material’, Jimmy Carr joked about the Roma Holocaust:

‘When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the tragedy and horror of 6 million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis. No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.’

Carr’s joke has sparked widespread outrage – yet some voices have defended it as ‘gallows humour’. Back in 2017, the author Alexandra Erin, in a Twitter thread on comedy, wrote ‘If the person on the gallows makes a grim joke, that’s gallows humor. If someone in the crowd makes a joke, that’s part of the execution.’ And here, Carr wasn’t speaking from the gallows; those on the gallows are in fact, one of the most oppressed and discriminated against groups to this day: the Roma, and within the scope of the joke, the European Roma and Sinti targeted in the Holocaust.

Known as the Porajmos, meaning ‘the Devouring’ in the Romani language, estimates on numbers of victims are as high as 1.5 million, rather than the downplaying ‘thousands’ (Hancock, 2004, p.392). In 1997, Roman Herzog, the Federal President of Germany at the time, affirmed:

‘The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial mania, with the same premeditation, with the same wish for the systematic and total extermination as the genocide of the Jews. Complete families from the very young to the very old were systematically murdered within the entire sphere of influence of the National Socialists’

The Roma are an ethnic group originating in Northern India, in the Punjab and Rajasthan regions. Although traditionally nomadic, the vast majority of Roma are now settled, and many in the UK are recent immigrants from Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. They are a different group from the UK Traveller community, who also face cruel persecution, and with whom the Roma share a history of nomadism. As a now settled ethnic group of Indian origin, many speaking an Indo-Aryan language, known as Romani and related to Hindi and Punjabi, the Roma face a very particular set of challenges in both continental Europe and the UK. And their history of persecution is not a recent one: in Romania, they faced 500 years of slavery. In Wallachia (territory of modern-day Romania), through to the mid-nineteenth century, all Roma were born slaves, were property, and could be bought and sold at will (see Hancock, 2005, p.21). An account from a Romanian periodical magazine, ‘Cugetul Românesc’, describes how they were priced per ‘okka’ (a measure for weight equalling roughly 1.2 kilograms) of meat.

Across Europe, they are known by some variation of the term ‘tsigan’, derived from the Byzantine Greek ἀθίγγανοι, athinganoi, meaning ‘untouchables’. The term was associated with a Monarchian sect, and historians suggest that it became associated with the Roma due to their perception as outsiders (see Wesler, 1997, p. 126). As Hancock notes in the entry on the Roma Holocaust in the Encyclopedia of Genocide, ‘[a]s a non-Christian, non-white people, Asian people possessing no territory in Europe, Roma were outsiders in everybody’s country’ (Hancock, 1999, p.501).

And the English term ‘Gypsy’ stems from the misunderstanding that the Roma came originally from Egypt, a term which has historically been used for racial Othering and exoticisation. Margareta Matache and Jacqueline Bhabha have written about the dehumanisation discourse surrounding the ‘gypsy’, and how it focused on racial othering: ‘In the 1400s narratives centred on Roma’s “blackness” and “inferiority”, describing their “most ugly faces, black like the Tartars”, and pointing out that “the same sun makes the linen and the Gypsy black”’, while in the 1600s the Roma were described as ‘disfigured by their swarthiness’ (Matache and Bhabha, 2021, pp.256-7).

In its origins as a term used for racialisation and othering, the term ‘gypsy’ is a slur. As Ian Hancock has noted, ‘writing “Gypsy” as “gypsy” has only reinforced the common idea that we are a people defined by behaviour rather than by ethnicity’ (Hancock, 2005, p. xxi). This common association of the term with the idea of being free-spirited, and loving travel, especially when adopted by whites to describe themselves, has created misunderstanding about the persecution of the Roma, and their continuous struggles as people of colour in Europe. Such is the case with Whoopi Goldberg’s assertion that the Holocaust was white-on-white violence, which has erased the racialisation of both Jews and Roma, the two groups classified as ‘racially inferior’ by the Nazis. Even in her apology, no mention of the Roma was made.

In his Dissertation on the Gipsies, translated into English by Matthew Raper in 1787, Grellmann writes about the possibility that the Roma might be ‘a disgusting sight for a European’, for reason of ‘their dark brown, or olive colored skin, with their white teeth appearing between their red lips’ (Grellmann, 1787, p. 8). Kenrick and Puxon explain that ‘the conviction that blackness denotes inferiority was […] well-rooted in the Western mind. The nearly black skins of many Gypsies marked them out to be victims of this prejudice’ (Kenrick and Puxton, 1972, p. 19). Ian Hancock further illustrates the degree to which the Roma are racialised as the Other and rendered exotic: the ‘Gypsy creams’ and ‘Romany creams’ biscuits, he writes, ‘are brown sandwich biscuits with a brown creme filling’, while the Italian ‘Gypsy boy’ and ‘Gypsy lady’ ‘are covered in chocolate’, in associations which objectify and exoticise the Roma (Hancock, 2005, p. 80).

And yet the continuous plight and dehumanisation of the Roma is often erased and overlooked. And when I say continuous, I mean continuing through to contemporary times. One example is the forced sterilisation of Roma women up until 2004. In 2021, a Roma girl named Olga was crushed to death by sliding doors in Greece, while indifferent witnesses watched without intervening. Also in 2021, a Roma man was killed by a police officer in the Czech Republic, as he kneeled on his neck, compressing it, and killing him. In 2005, the mayor of Craiova, Romania stated: ‘if I put them in the zoo and showed them to kids saying look at the monkeys, they wouldn’t see any difference’. In 2010, Riccardo De Corato, the deputy vice mayor of Milan, Italy, stated: ‘These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me.’

An aggregation of data from 1892 to 2009 across 14 published dictionaries of the Romanian language has shown the correlation between definitions attached to the Roma, skin colour, and demonisation. The term ‘țigănos’ (adjectival form of ‘țigan’) was defined as ‘negricios’ – a term whose root is obvious, and which translates as ‘blackish’, ‘swarthy’; this was immediately followed by ‘having bad manners’. In 2007, Jiří Čunek, the Czech Deputy Prime Minister said that in order to receive state benefits, one would ‘have to get sunburned, make a mess with your family, put up fires on town squares, and only then some politicians would say, “He is a really miserable man.”’ The sunburn reference alludes once again to the brown, racialised Roma, and inherently links the Roma with antisocial behaviour.

In 2013, Gilles Bourdouleix, member of National Assembly, France, stated: ‘Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them’. Earlier the same year, Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of Hungary’s Fidesz Party, stated:

‘A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the ‘achievements’ of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.’

When contemporary political discourse affirms that the Roma ‘shouldn’t be allowed to exist’ and calls for our extermination, I return to the gallows-executioner dynamics in comedy and point out that executioner jokes fuel discourses of hatred, as history has often shown us. In 2017, Jimmy Carr said he would joke about anything, but never about the Hillsborough disaster. On that note, I want to ask: what makes the Hillsborough disaster off-limits for comedy, but the Roma Holocaust fair game? What is the difference between the lives lost at Hillsborough and those lost in the Holocaust? Why are some lost lives treated as more worthy of mournful respect than others?

 

References

Grellmann, H. (1787). Dissertations on the Gipsies, trans. Matthew Raper. London: Printed for the editor, by G. Bigg, and to be had of P. Elmsley, and T. Cadell … and J. Sewell.

Hancock, I. (1999) ‘Roma: Genocide of Roma in the Holocaust. Encyclopedia of Genocide, Vol. I, A-H, ed. Israel W. Charny (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide.

Hancock, I. (2004). ‘Romanies and the Holocaust: A Reevaluation and an Overview’. The Historiography of the Holocaust, ed. Dan Stone. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hancock, I. (2013). We are the Romani people. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Kenrick, D., and Puxton, G., The Destinies of Europe’s Gipsies (1972). Colombus Centre: Everyman Paperback.

Matache, M. and Bhabha, J. (2021) ‘The Case for Roma Reparations’. Time for Reparations: A Global Perspective. Edited by Jacqueline Bhabha, M. Matache, and C. Elkins. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wesler, P. (1997) The Case for the Relexification Hypothesis in Romani. Relexification in Creole and Non-Creole Languages, eds. Julai Horvath, P. Wesler. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

 

Image credit: From the Romani people in Europe gallery. Institution: National Library of Serbia. Provider: National Library of Serbia. From Europeana on Unsplash.

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