In his book Leaves in a Holocaust Wind Bob Dawson has given us a compelling read. I hope none will be put off by the dreaded word Holocaust in the title. It is a subject we should be ashamed to shy away from; to understand the past should be our way to better the future.
Virtually everyone is aware of the horrendous extermination, by the Nazis, of millions of Jews, but many people are unaware that over a million European Roma people met the same cruel and appalling fate. Through the testimony of two young gypsies who survived the best efforts of the Third Reich to annihilate all their race, the young man Foxy and young woman Zuzzi, we are drawn into the drama of their escape and ultimate survival. The book is cleverly devised in that the two main characters take it in turns to tell their, initially separate and then joint, experiences by way of offering evidence to the Allied War Crimes Commission.
As with all good historical fiction the major events within this gripping tale are based on fact. The author's deep knowledge of Romanies, their culture and their language, internationally, and the dreadful events perpetrated by the Nazis, make this an informative book. Well written, moving forward in short chapters which always tempt you to read just one more, we glimpse the horrors of the Nazi regime, often understated but conveying none the less the enormity of the atrocities. And we see the resolve and resilience, the artfulness and craft, of their race enabling these young gypsy people to survive.
Leaves in a Holocaust Wind also makes it clear that it was not the Nazis alone who hated gypsies……and, sadly, and shamefully, that prejudice against them continues to this day.
This book is indeed a ‘must read,’ gripping throughout and with a startling conclusion.
(As an old romantic I would love to have known that Foxy and Zucci spent the rest of their lives together!)
Three generations ago little children were expected to be 'seen and not heard', but today's children are considered people in their own right. Sadly, not so for Roma/Gypsy/Travellers. Even today many people wish neither to see them nor allow them a voice in the community. And this goes for Holocaust testimony too.
Many people are unaware that the Nazis' ideology included the elimination of all humans that they imagined to be a threat to the pure perfect master-race they intended to create – not just the Jews. All people who opposed Nazism, whether due to political or humanitarian views, had to be annihilated. Any imperfect person, even if from Aryan stock, had to be culled as a danger to the blood of the imagined Aryan race. Zigeuner or Gypsies have long been disliked right across Europe. They were considered by the Nazis as unworthy of life, which was very much how they were regarded right across Europe and still are by many people today. At one time in Britain, if you were known to be of Gypsy stock you risked being put to death immediately. In the light of the new HMDT slogan for next year “Stand Together,” it is time for us to reflect on this relic of past ideologies and realise that the decedents of the original Roma, who came to Europe 500 to 1000 years ago, are every bit human beings like you and I are.
World War Two testimonies abound; most but by far but not all are Jewish and Romany ones are rare. Very few people have even heard of the Roma and Sinti Documentary Centre in Heidelberg. This centre, containing a photographic exhibition of the Romany victims of Nazism, was not possible until 1997 because the new post-war German government did not recognise 'Zigeuner' as survivors of Nazism and continued to treat them as non-people labelled 'social misfits'. No compensation or government money was forthcoming for the surviving Roma until the 1990s.
The Wiener Library will be opening an exhibition of the Roma in the Holocaust on October 30th. For decades the Roma part of the Holocaust was air-brushed out of the emerging Jewish narrative of the Holocaust, in spite of documented evidence of Roma in all the main concentration camps and killing fields of Eastern Europe. Sometimes Roma and Jews shared the same barracks yet the narrative kept them invisible just as local planning laws try to do today. Therefore it is very important that Dawson, who has been seeped in Romany culture since he was a small boy, exposes in his book, the truth about this much-maligned and ignored people who are still largely deprived of their rightful voice.
One might ponder on two questions: Why did it take 55 years after the end of World War two before an international task force initiated an annual international Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27th, the day that Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945? Why, when this international day of remembrance, commemoration and Holocaust education was founded in 2001, was it a 'Jewish only' narrative?
The devastation and demoralisation of six years of war were on such a scale that those who survived had little energy or appetite for anything more than picking up the shattered pieces of their lives to adjust and start anew. Also, for many people, it was just too frightening to face the horrific details of what had been done by humans to other humans on an unimaginable scale, not only in war crimes but deliberately in killing camps and slave labour outfits. Avoidance, lethargy, indifference, and denial set in for 50 years until post-war born generations began asking questions and demanding answers. During this half-century, the very first memorial to the Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem, was opened in Jerusalem in 1963. Because the rest of the world was not ready to face the past, Yad Vashem claimed the Holocaust must not be taught or compared with anything else other than the Jewish narrative. This spread through the Jewish diaspora and the Holocaust became 'Jewish property'. Overtly, this avoided offending Jews but it was also convenient as an excuse for avoiding the full scale of the horror of the industrially planned and executed Nazi killing-machine. Dawson has written many books based on his experience of and with Romany Travellers. “Leaves in a Holocaust Wind” is particularly suitable for introducing readers to the richness of the Romany culture. Dawson is skilled in presenting his narrative to pull the reader into identifying with the Romany characters of his stories to introduce them to the humanity behind the usual negative stereotypes of 'Gypsies'.
“Leaves in a Holocaust Wind” is the story of two children, a girl, Zuzzi, in France and a boy, Foxy, in Slovakia, whose families are caught up in the Nazi persecution of Zigeuner (Gypsies). As sole survivors of their large families, they find each other 'on the run' and then survive together until the end of the war. Zuzzi and Foxy are fictional characters based on the oral testimonies Dawson had absorbed. Bearing in mind that story-telling is a highly developed skill among Roma, while so many Roma children are still deprived of effective education today, Dawson was able to tap into the oral culture to write testimonies for those who agreed but were unable to write. He does this by having the two survivors, Zuzzi and Foxy, giving their statements to the Allied War Crimes Commission after the war. The reader is immediately drawn into the two teenagers' situation of awe and anxiety but also determination at taking on such a task so soon after the massive trauma and grief they both suffered. Knowing they are both the sole survivors of their families, they feel they must tell the world what happened to their families and themselves. Dawson has them choosing to do this by first Foxy and then Zuzzi telling their own family story up to the point where they first meet. After that, they tell their joint story alternately chapter by chapter. Just as in so many Jewish survivor testimonies, the reader is taken to meet the people in each of the two families and is introduced to the traditions, beliefs and mores of two variations of the gentle self-sustaining and very rich culture of the Romanies. The appearance of the Nazis in the story brings all the horror and destruction that is usually there in any Jewish Holocaust testimony yet from an interestingly different angle. The Romany deep respect for all life is an anti-dote diametrically opposite to the Nazi disregard for all life they deem 'unworthy of living'. Roma and Jews are perhaps the most persecuted peoples to have lived on Planet Earth. Both have thrived, not by aggression, greed for power, or oppression of others, but by developing skills that help them to adapt. Romanies adapt through their closeness to nature in the countryside. Dawson's story introduces us to many of their skills in utilising the bounty of nature for food, healing, hiding, communication and many other ways vital to survival and radically different to Jewish adaptation mainly within the urban living.
The theme of leaves appears repeatedly, first introduced in the passionate dancing of Zuzzi as a happy little girl, and later in more sombre tones as representing the fate of Romanies scattered like leaves in the wind and the bitter-sweet music of their guitars. Both the title of the book and the cover design magnificently capture this essence of Romany being. The leaves that city dwellers sweep away as rubbish is the fundamental pillar of survival skills of those who live with nature in the countryside.
The end of the story will come as a shock to many readers but, sadly, true to the still pervasive attitude to Gypsies today that they are often not taken seriously and 'don't count'. As I read the story, I wondered how it could end. Like in so many Holocaust testimonies, what justice would there be for Zuzzi and Foxy? How much justice was even possible after World War Two? And how little of what might have been possible was actualised! Dawson's story captures this well.
Dawson's narrative explains so many words, customs and ideas as the story develop that there is no real need for any index or list after the ending. Further reflection on Dawson's book should lead us to accept that Romany Gypsies are here today, as much as Jews are, as part of our community, not just a feature of the Holocaust.