When discussing persecution of Roma during the World War II, references from the Netherlands are rarely considered. But the history of Roma Holocaust, or Porrajmos, is well known in this region. Unfortunately, not due to school curriculum but thanks to efforts Roma and pro-Roma activists, the history of Roma is remembered. Special thanks must go to Romani activist Michelle ‘Mila’ van Burik from Utrecht, the Netherlands.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January, Mila co-organized an event to commemorate the atrocities Roma faced during the World War II. When asked why this is important, she responds without hesitation: “It is part of our history, we need to know the true story. The families that perished cannot be forgotten” she says and adds that there is also the risk of history repeating itself; “Creating awareness is important whenever and wherever possible.” And that is also why they want to organize a Holocaust memorial ceremony every year.
It is the real stories, not so much the encyclopaedic knowledge, which attracts attention of young Roma people to their history. Romani Holocaust victims often lacked adequate official recognition. Even worse is the situation of Roma who came to the Netherlands from other countries. And Romani activists keep fighting for official recognition. “We were told we cannot be included in the commemoration of Dodenherdenking (Remembrance of the Dead, 4 May), because we were not Dutch Roma and Sinti. That was a clear signal that we have to organize our own commemoration ceremony,” Mila says bitterly.
Mila and her team organized the Roma Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on 27 January and invited teachers and students to attend. Storytelling is the key aspect of commemoration. Young children are taught to respect each other and not judge other children by their descent, ethnic or other background. The message of Mila is clear: “Through stories children can learn to respect each other’s culture.”
In the current atmosphere of growing political populism, the importance and need for leadership is growing. “Politicians need to take a clear stance against discrimination and racism instead of creating chaos in society by looking for scapegoats and targeting whole ethnic groups,” Mila suggests the right approach. But then again, it is crucial that we do not rely on top politicians, but stay active and engaged ourselves: “Roma have to fight anti-gypsism and fight for their freedom. Each of us has means to fight, teaching young children to live together can be one of them.”