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Hungarian Embassy Commemorates Roma Holocaust Victims

By Chiara Vercellone

On Oct. 3, the Embassy of Hungary hosted an exhibition commemorating the victims of the Roma Holocaust, a genocide that, during World War II, is estimated to have killed anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of Europe’s Romani population.

The exhibition, composed of a series of panels, showed the history and personal stories of survivors of the genocide. The display was meant to raise awareness of the massacre while encouraging people to embrace tolerance and understanding of different cultures and ethnicities.

The completed exhibition will tour Europe in April 2019 and will include pictures and paintings depicting the persecution of the Roma, as well as the panels shown at the embassy. This is the first of many cultural tours the Hungarian Embassy wants to sponsor to find “justice for the Romani people,” as Hungarian Ambassador László Szabó said.

Hungarian Ambassador László Szabó welcomes guests to an exhibition commemorating the victims of the Roma Holocaust during World War II. Photo: Embassy of Hungary

“Even after 70 years, we have to remember and remind others to the meaningless execution of our heroes, mothers, fathers and brothers,” Szabó said. “It is important to remind the whole world to prevent a future genocide based on country of origin, religious beliefs or ethnicity.”

“This is a piece of history that hasn’t been well shown through the media, and I believe they deserve to be remembered,” agreed Krisztian Janzso, head of the embassy’s Economic and Trade Section.

The Roma, commonly known as gypsies, are a transient group of people marked by poverty and persecution. They migrated to Europe roughly 1,000 years ago from northern India. However, they didn’t settle down in Hungary until the 11th century. Their persecution started roughly 200 years afterward, but peaked during World War II and has continued since then.

According to an August 2010 report by CNN, the persecution the Roma population suffered before World War II ranged from laws against their language and dress, to their expulsion from the cities in which they lived. Many were forced into slavery by Hungarian nobles while others were killed if they protested.

A series of panels showed the history and personal stories of survivors of the Roma genocide during World War II. Photo: Embassy of Hungary

Later on, Hitler’s Germany classified them as enemies of the state along with Jews, homosexuals and other minorities. Roma across Europe were subject to arbitrary confinement in concentration camps, where they were exterminated in gas chambers, required to do forced labor or partake as “guinea pigs” in biological experiments.

“Right here, right now we must bow our heads for those that died [in those camps] unjustly. May they finally rest in peace,” said László Teleki, a former member of the Hungarian Parliament and proud gypsy.

Teleki also mentioned the significant effort European countries have made in recent years to recognize and honor the lives lost in the holocaust, declaring in 2015, for instance, that Aug. 2 would officially become the Roma Holocaust Memorial Day.

Yet there’s a certain irony to Hungary hosting an event encouraging tolerance when it’s been widely criticized by the European Union for doing the opposite at home. Hungary has experienced a surge of nationalist sentiment that has propelled the rise of far-right, xenophobic parties. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has launched an uncompromising crackdown on immigrants, particularly those from Muslim nations who came during the 2015 refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, amid the anti-immigrant, populist wave that has swept other European countries, the Roma still face widespread discrimination and violence.

In an April 2018 report, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights said that the “most heinous forms of anti-Gypsyism, hate-motivated crime and harassment continue to hamper Roma inclusion,” with one out of every three Roma reported having been the subject of harassment.

Hungarian Ambassador László Szabó and László Teleki, a former member of the Hungarian Parliament and proud gypsy, light candles in honor of the Roma murdered during the World War II Holocaust. Photo: Embassy of Hungary

Jud Nirenberg, an author of Roma descent who wrote “Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis,” lived in Hungary in the early 1990s. Although he had U.S. citizenship and lived in Hungary while working for an American company, he still faced segregation and was denied housing.

“I was there with my friend who speaks Hungarian, and he was translating the housing lease to me in Romani. All of a sudden, the lady looked at me and said, ‘But, are you Roma?’ When I said yes, she immediately took back the lease into her hands and said, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Gypsies,’” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Nirenberg, who attended the exhibition, believes that for people to learn about what is happening to the Roma people nowadays, they have to learn about what has already taken place. He described the exhibition as a “fair representation of what happened to us” and urges people to become aware of the discrimination and humiliation the Roma still endure.

Molly Grant, who had a Roma grandmother, said the exhibit was a way to remember those who have been targeted for so many years.

“I think [this event] is wonderful for keeping the memory alive. It’s simply important to remember them,” said Grant.

The Hungarian Embassy aims to host more cultural events that highlight the country’s history. With this goal in mind, the embassy will be renovating its current space to transform it into a cultural and innovation center. The center, located at 3910 Shoemaker St., NW, will be open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information about the embassy and upcoming events can be found at https://washington.mfa.gov.hu/eng.


Chiara Vercellone is an editorial assistant for The Washington Diplomat.




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