And the Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati

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I’ve had this book for a while, and I didn’t particularly intend to read it just before Holocaust Memorial Day, but it was probably quite an appropriate time for it. It’s one of very few books covering the subject of the Romani genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies – often referred to as the Porajmos, although the term isn’t commonly used by Roma people themselves.

On the subject of terminology, the book was written in the 1980s, and uses the word “gypsy”, which isn’t generally used today but was in both the 1980s and the 1940s, but getting bogged down in semantics isn’t really very helpful: it’s the story which it tells which is important.   The author, Mark Ramati – also the author of The Assisi Underground – claims (and there seems no reason to doubt his claim) to have been given the script by Roman Mirga, the protagonist, a Polish Romani and an Auschwitz survivor.

The title of the book reflects the popularity of Romani music – usually referred to as Tzigane (the Hungarian word for “gypsy”) music, or Zigeuner (the German word) musik in Central and Eastern Europe (and, obviously, in Spain, although Spain doesn’t come into this).  Roman Mirga’s father, Dymitr carried his violin with him into Auschwitz.  There, he became part of a Romani orchestra which was forced to play every time that people were taken into the gas chambers.  The book says that the idea was that the music would calm them.  The book also says that Dymitr Mirga, a particularly talented violinist, was expected to play violin solos to entertain the Nazis – but that the music also heartened the prisoners.  There’s no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, but let’s hope that it is, and that the music brought some sort of comfort in a hell on earth.  When the violins stop playing, Roman knows that his father has gone to the gas chambers.

The story’s told in the first person, and opens in November of 1942, when teenage Roman’s living with his parents and younger sister in Warsaw. The children are at school, with Roman having one more year to go, and the parents are musicians in a popular nightspotThey don’t consider themselves to be at any particular risk – until a relative comes to tell them that Roma and Sinti people have been forced into the ghetto in Lodz.

Roman’s father decides that they’ve got to escape to Hungary – at this stage an ally of the Third Reich but not actually part of it. Due to the Nazis having handed part of Slovakia over to Hungary, there is at this point a border between Poland and Hungarian-controlled territory, in the Tatra mountains.  They go straight to a Roma camp at Brest-Litovsk, which is where the family are from originally and is where Roman’s grandparents are still living.

More confusion over names. And borders.  We’re now supposed to refer to Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus, as Brest.  I do try to remember, but I’m too used to talking about the Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596) and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)!   After the First World War, Brest-Litovsk became part of Poland, and was renamed Brest-on-the-Bug.  Then it was handed over to the Soviets in 1939.  Then the Nazis took it in 1941.  And, to get to the bits of Slovakia which were ruled by Hungary, they crossed through Ukrainian Galicia, part of which was then in Ukraine but part of which was then in Poland.  Anyway.  The book says “Brest-Litovsk”.

Many of the people at the camp, including the leader of the “kumpania” (company/group), are sceptical about what’s being said, even when warned by a leading local Polish man that the Nazis intend to move against them, but eventually they decide to leave, and Roman’s father is chosen as the new leader of the kumpania. They head for the border.   The journey is harrowing.  Many people become ill: some don’t make it.  There are disputes and the group splits up, and some of them are attacked by Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) and murdered.

Everyone is – hopefully – aware of the concentration camps and the atrocities committed therein, but there doesn’t always seem to be the same awareness of the mass killings carried out by the death squads, even large scale massacres such as that at Babi (Babyn) Yar. Without wishing to be too controversial, it doesn’t help that some of these took place with the assistance of local collaborators, and that the authorities in the countries concerned prefer to play that down, and to focus on other aspects of the wartime years instead.

They also pass close to the extermination camp at Sobibor, and are able to smell the burning flesh. Somehow, with the assistance of some of the local people, the survivors of the group make it to the border, and reach a Hungarian-ruled part of Slovakia.  There’s an action-packed border crossing scene, in which the Nazis are pursuing them and Roman’s best friend is gunned down and killed as the rest of the group cross the river: maybe some of them was added for dramatic effect, but it doesn’t really matter.

Despite the fact that this is essentially a Holocaust novel, some of the descriptions of the journey are very normal, and give an interesting picture of Romani customs. The style’s very simplistic, and it’s quite reminiscent of something like Little House on the Prairie, in the middle of all the horrors.  The reader’s shown a lot of Romani customs, and told about different groups of Roma and Sinti people.  There are also some very normal domestic and community scenes, such as Roman getting into a fight with another boy over a pretty girl whom they both fancy – and whom Roman eventually marries, with a lovely description of Romani marriage rites.

It’s good to read about the realities of Romani culture, because it’s something about which there are a lot of strange ideas and stereotypes. Well, there are two main sets of stereotypes.  There’s the romantic one – think Carmen, and the images of gold earrings and gorgeous brightly-painted caravans, and women selling beautiful lace, and, of course, music.  And there’s the negative one about crime and curses, which is so prevalent that it features in numerous Enid Blyton books and even in Jane Austen’s Emma. The stereotype of Romani people as criminals is one of the reasons why the Romani genocide was not recognised at the time: it was, horrifyingly, claimed that Roma and Sinti people had been targeted because of criminal activity, rather than as an ethnic/cultural group.

We don’t hear much about the group’s experiences in Hungary during 1943, but all seems to go fairly well … but then, in March 1944, with the Hungarian government looking to switch sides and align itself with the Allies, the Nazis march in. The Mirgas and the rest of their kumpania are taken to Auschwitz.

There’s quite a lot of documentary evidence about the Familienzigeunerlager (gypsy family camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It doesn’t seem to be widely known, though.  I can’t actually remember it even being mentioned when I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007.  The Roma and Sinti inmates there were, as the name suggests, left together as families, and initially none of the people from there were taken to the gas chambers.  But many died in the horrific conditions.  The doctor in charge of medical treatment of the camp was Josef Mengele.  It’s chilling to come across him in a book, chatting away with characters whom the reader has got to know well.  Again, it seems likely that there’ve been exaggerations for dramatic effect, but the book relates that Mengele took a shine to both Roman Mirga, who worked for him as a translator, and Dymitr Mirga, because of his musical talents.  Roman witnesses some of Mengele’s horrific experiments, especially his attempts to change eye colour, and there are descriptions of the “kindergarten” that Mengele established for Romani children under the age of six.

On August 2nd 1944, the Zigeunerlager was “cleared”: thousands of people were sent to the gas chambers.

The book tells us that Roman was saved. Only one other member of his kumpania was also saved – none other than the boy whom he’d had a fight with over his future wife.  The two of them manage to escape, and meet up with Roman’s sister, whom their father had pushed off the train taking them to Auschwitz and who’d found refuge with a Polish peasant woman.  It doesn’t really sound very likely, but who knows?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much if the story of this particular individual is 100% factually accurate or not.  What matters is that hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, and that everyone needs to know that.

No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Bulgaria had, and still has, one of the largest Romani populations in the world, but, although the Bulgarian wartime government was closely allied with the Nazis, there were no killings of either Bulgarian Roma or Bulgarian Jews: that’s something else which deserves more credit than in gets.  Total estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.

People in the Czech Republic are voting in a presidential run-off today and tomorrow. It’s 2018.  Tomorrow marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Sitting president Milos Zeman has, during his election campaign, made comments about Romani people being “socially unadaptable”.  If a political leader had made comments like that about any other group of people, there’d have been an international outcry.  It didn’t even make the mainstream news here.  Mind you, nor did November’s big far right march in Poland, and there’s only been limited coverage of the rise of the far right in Austria.  Maybe the media should take its eyes off America and the Middle East for a few minutes and have a closer look at some of what’s going on in parts of Europe.

West Germany recognised the Romani genocide in 1982, and a memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazis was unveiled in Berlin in 2012. In 2011, Poland recognised August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.  It’s now marked in many other countries too, but it’s not really very well-known, and the Romani genocide just isn’t very well-known generally.  It’s not like the Armenian Genocide, which most countries refuse to recognise because they don’t want to damage relations with Turkey.  There just doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as would be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  However, that does seem to be changing now, with young people wanting to raise awareness of what happened, and hopefully that’s something that can be achieved now.

This book is not going to win any prizes for literary style, but it’s one that should be read. A film version’s been made of it as well, and is available on You Tube.  It’s a story that everyone should know.

 

 

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