Voices of the victims

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With One’s Own Voice

Karola Fings

The genocide of European Jews is documented in hundreds of self-testimonies written in the form of letters and diaries during the persecution. Still very popular today and published million-fold in countless editions are the diaries of Anne Frank (1929-45), who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It was through such personal depictions that this crime against humanity first entered the consciousness of the general public. There is no comparable body of sources – in terms of either the type or scope of document –for the genocide of Sinti and Roma in Europe. However, documents by members of the minority do exist in which the persecution suffered is reported in their own words.

Counter-narratives

These documents are all the more important because they represent a counter-narrative to the version constructed by the perpetrators. For decades, the one-sided and defamatory sources of the perpetrators have dominated the historical account of the NS persecution. To be found in large numbers in archives and libraries, those sources are easily accessible for researchers. They form the basis for publications that, in turn, lay the groundwork for other publications, thereby perpetuating the stigmatisation of Sinti and Roma. Moreover, perpetrator sources provide no information, as a rule, about the actual motive or practice of persecution. The testimonies of those directly affected are not only a corrective to the perpetrator perspective; they also allow new insights into the process of persecution.

Early Testimonies

‘Voices of the Victims’ shows that there are far more early testimonies by Sinti and Roma than were known to exist to date. These sources can be discovered through intensive research in archives or through contacts with private individuals and made accessible to the general public. Some sources from the period of persecution are to be found in official records – for example, when those persecuted submitted petitions and thereby gave details about their situation at the time. Letters written in the camps are more likely to be found in private ownership but sometimes appear in perpetrator sources when the letters were confiscated. Sources from the first post-war decade are relatively numerous. These are usually accounts given for victim associations, compensation applications, statements made to commissions documenting crimes during the occupation years, criminal charges filed against offenders, and witness statements made during public prosecutor investigations or in court.

Biographical Sources

Since the 1960s, biographical narratives focusing on an individual life story have featured more prominently. Autobiographies were written in which NS persecution also played a role. The very experience of persecution was often the motivation to speak out. As civil rights movements grew stronger, interest in these personal histories increased; and in the 1980s, the number of biographies grew, particularly those based on interviews with survivors. The first audio documents were recorded in the 1960s; the most notable is the unique Sammlung Heinschink (‘Heinschink Collection’) in Vienna. The late 1980s marked the beginning of an ‘era of the contemporary witness’, and there was growing interest in audio-visual documentation that included the testimonies of Sinti and Roma. Particularly extensive is the collection of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, established by film director Steven Spielberg. This collection contains 407 video interviews with Romani survivors from 18 countries, which were recorded between 1995 and 1999.

Securing the Legacy

Testimonies by survivors are also to be found in the archives of memorial sites and in museums – for example, the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno (Czech Republic), which has been collecting interviews since the 1990s. Moreover, Roma and Sinti organisations worldwide have collected accounts by and interviews with survivors; these documents number in their hundreds but have barely been made available to the general public – there is no portal for making such testimonies accessible. An institution comparable to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. (US) or ‘Yad Vashem’ in Jerusalem (Israel) does not exist and is urgently needed to perform the task of permanently securing the legacy of the Sinti and Romani survivors in Europe.