Oct. 24 (Bloomberg) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel today inaugurated a Berlin memorial dedicated to the Roma and Sinti people murdered by the Nazis, three years later than scheduled and 67 years after the end of World War II.
Hundreds of thousands were persecuted as “gypsies” between 1933 and 1945 in Nazi-occupied Europe. Though no precise figures are available, as many as 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Roma and Sinti were subject to forced sterilization from 1934, deported to concentration camps and murdered both in mass shootings and gas chambers.
“This memorial acknowledges a group of victims who have gone unacknowledged for far too long,” Merkel said at the opening ceremony. “We cannot reverse what happened. But we can bring remembrance of it into the very center of our society.”
The memorial by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan is a water basin, containing a stone on which a fresh flower will be placed each day. Karavan said he aimed to create “a place for meditation,” and that the site in the Tiergarten, near the Reichstag, is ideal because of its peacefulness. The memorial is a symbol for life, sadness and memory, he said.
“I wanted to reduce it to a minimum, not to make a big cry, but a silent whisper of pain,” Karavan said by phone from Tel Aviv before today’s ceremony. “I feel very close to their tragedy. It felt like a mission to do something for them.”
The memorial for the Roma and Sinti is the third to commemorate victims of the Holocaust in central Berlin. Peter Eisenman’s “field of stelae” in memory of the murdered Jews of Europe opened in 2005 near the Brandenburg Gate. A memorial to Nazi-persecuted homosexuals opened in 2008.
The Nazis viewed the Roma and Sinti, like the Jews, as racially inferior and stripped them of basic rights in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Though Jews could be identified by religion, the Roma and Sinti were Catholic and therefore often harder to classify.
Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man and the organizer of the Holocaust, ordered the Racial Hygiene Research Unit to trace and register all Sinti and Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1938. Suspected Sinti and Roma were subjected to body measuring and genealogical research dating back to the 16th century.
It was decades before Germany officially recognized the murder and suffering of the Roma and Sinti under the Nazis. In 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt publicly described the terror against them as genocide -- the first official acknowledgement.
In 1997, President Roman Herzog said the persecution of the Roma and Sinti was the same as the terror against the Jews. In 2008, the German parliament gave final approval to Karavan’s concept for a memorial. Disagreements over the wording on the memorial and Karavan’s dissatisfaction with some of the workmanship led to delays.
Karavan said he hopes the changing of the flower on the memorial will become a ritual that people come to see. The stone on which it is placed is a triangle, to symbolize the badges Sinti and Roma were forced by the Nazis to wear. In the background, Karavan said, visitors may hear a violin playing.
“Sometimes you hardly hear it,” he said. “The sound comes from different places.”
Members of the audience at today’s ceremony were visibly moved by the words of Zoni Weisz, a survivor. Weisz described how he escaped a train headed for a concentration camp with his parents, brother and sister on board. A benign police officer helped Weisz, then seven years old, and his aunt to slip away unnoticed from the platform.
Weisz remembered watching the train pull out, taking the rest of his family to their deaths.
“The world knows very little about the suffering of the Sinti and Roma,” Weisz said. “I hope that this memorial to what I describe as the forgotten holocaust will help it to earn the remembrance it deserves.”
Romani Rose, who has led the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma since its foundation in 1982, warned that discrimination against the Roma and Sinti -- who have lived in Germany for 600 years -- is not just a thing of the past. An exhibition at the Topographie des Terrors, through Oct. 27, documents the crimes of the Nazis against the Sinti and Roma across Europe from 1933 to 1945.
It also gives details of recent racist attacks by right-wing extremist groups and even police in countries including Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Albania.
“It is important to raise awareness, not just in Germany but in Europe as a whole,” Rose said at the exhibition opening. “Roma and Sinti are the victims of exclusion once again. Eastern European countries must know that this is part of their history too, and that they need to address it.”
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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