- Photo: Gypsies at Belzec concentration camp 1940 – USHMM, courtesy of Archiwum Dokumentacji MechanicznejDuring the late 1930s and 1940s a Final Solution was executed by the Nazi Regime against the Roma and Gypsies. Naming this horror has proved problematic.
It has been called the Gypsy Holocaust, the Forgotten Holocaust, Holokosto, the Porajmos, Porrajmos and the Pharrajimos. Detractors have taken issue with all of those variants. In the Balkans, some scholars and Roma have opted for Samudaripen. In Russia, it’s been named Kali Traš or Berša Bibahtale. This sea of names, inciting strong academic debate over the best one to use, has resulted in a babble of study titles. The casual reader would be forgiven for not linking them together at all.
Lest we forget, the story of a genocide is in danger of becoming submerged beneath the semantics. This wouldn’t simply be a casualty of Academe. It’s a situation which could so easily happen again and, some might argue, is on the brink of doing so. Allowing the lessons to sink unheeded, for want of a collective title, could prove fatal.
HIstorical Studies: What’s in a Name?
Before any history can be effectively told, it has to be named. For current events, a headline does the job. Once something becomes bigger, then categorisation under a label helps to collect those otherwise disjointed facts and tellings into an instantly recognisable whole.
Umbrella terms help people fix an event into the vast tapestry of time. We know precisely where to point our historical compass if we are told that something is Iron Age, Elizabethan, or dates from the American Civil War period. It is a learning aid or a mnemonic, which works in precisely the same way as a marketing brand. It is easier to determine exactly what drink is being discussed if we use Pepsi or Coca Cola, instead of saying ‘fizzy brown stuff in a can.’
The opposite is also true. Argue too much over its name and a story risks not being told at all. It becomes lost in the confusion of too many unconnected testimonies and facts. Few histories have been as dogged by linguistic pedantry than what happened to the Roma, Sinti, Gypsy and Traveller communities, as a result of the Nazi Regime’s Final Solution.
The Gypsy Holocaust as a Popular Historical Label
The most obvious term to describe these atrocities would be the Gypsy Holocaust. The fate of the Jewish people, under the polices of the Third Reich, has been successfully publicised as the Holocaust (burnt offering). A plethora of media, ranging from high brow scholarly studies to Hollywood films, has helped to educate people about this period in history. It is taught as standard in many European classrooms, and memorial events continue to make the news.
Even those with scant historical knowledge can equate the word Holocaust with death camps and Nazi policies. By the simple act of placing the word ‘Gypsy’ before it, another correct image is formed. It was the Holocaust, with all those connotations, but the victims were Roma instead of Jews.
Jewish Opposition to the Term Gypsy Holocaust
The word Holocaust is Greek. It originally referred to animal sacrifices used in religious rituals, but evolved in common parlance to mean any great massacre. It is a misconception that the word is Judaic and therefore shouldn’t be used outside the confines of Judaism. In fact, many Jews have resisted its application to their suffering, as it has Pagan links and aligns them with animals. They prefer Shoah (calamity), with its precedent in the Torah.
However, once the word Holocaust had firmly become rooted in the minds of the general public, education took priority over linguistics. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, the majority of the most outspoken Jewish historians and public figures then sought to frame the Jewish race as the only victims of the Holocaust. Ismar Schorson, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, went as far as to say that ‘to insist on more (victims) is to imply or overindulge in invidious comparisons.’
In short, for fear of trivialising the genocide of the Jewish race, many commentators have backed away from using Holocaust to describe any other massacre at all. This includes those that happened at the same time and in the same place.
Dr Ian Hancock Introduces the Terms Porajmos or Baro Porrajmos
Professor Ian Hancock is a British Romani man, who obtained his PhD in linguistics, before moving to the USA. He is now a lecturer at the University of Texas, as well as a writer of over 300 books on Romani history and culture. He represents the Romani people on a variety of platforms, including speaking on their behalf at the United Nations. He reacted with frustration to the whole question of what to call the Gypsy Holocaust, if that label was going to meet with such strong opposition.
He turned to his own people, asking various tribes what this genocide was called in the Romani language. A selection of names was put forward, but he selected one suggested by a Kalderash Romani man, whom Dr Hancock met in Romania.
This was the Porajmos, which he has now refined to Baro Porrajmos. It translates as ‘devouring’ or ‘great devouring’. Due mostly to Dr Hancock’s prominence, in a rarely publicised field of study, this word has come to widely signify this horrific period in Gypsy history.
Other Terms for the Genocide of the Roma and Gypsies Between 1936-1945
There has been some criticism that Porajmos can also mean ‘rape’, thus it’s too vulgar a term to apply to the Gypsy Holocaust. Some scholars and Roma alike have sought to introduce words like Samudaripen (collective murder), Kali Traš (Black Fear) or Berša Bibahtale (Unhappy Years), but they haven’t received the publicity nor traction of Porajmos.
Just as the Jewish scholars eventually had to accept the distasteful word Holocaust, as the best way of ensuring that the history itself wasn’t buried, then it is probably time for Gypsy scholars to embrace Porajmos. It is the word that has long since been most associated with the story that needs to be told.
- M Berenbaum, A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. (IB Tauris and Co Ltd, 1990.) p 27
- Dosta!, What does “Samudaripen” mean?
- I Hancock, On the Interpretation of a Word: Porrajmos as Holocaust. (The Romani Archives and Documentation Center.)
- I Hancock, Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend to Minimize the Romani Holocaust. (Patrin.)Train to Become a Teacher www.tda.gov.uk/recruit
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Jo has a BA (Hons) in History and Philosophy and a MA in History. She has a book published on the history of Wicca.