Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

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Earlier this month, the Italian government announced plans to carry out a census of Roma people.   Last week, an attack on a Roma camp in Lviv left one person dead and several others injured; and it wasn’t the first attack on a Roma camp in Ukraine recently.  The president of the Czech Republic has described Roma people as “asocial”.  There’s also been “ethnic cleansing” of Roma people in Kosovo – an area much in the news this week, for rather bizarre reasons relating to Swiss footballers – due to allegations that they sided with Serbia during the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s.  Stalin used false allegations of siding with the enemy to deport thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars from their homes.

A lot of Nazi-related terminology is being used lately, in relation to everything from American immigration policies to the World Cup.  Some of it isn’t being used appropriately, but the Italian government’s plans, in particular, do have worrying connotations of what happened during the 1930s and the Second World War.

It’s not known how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, but estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials, and, despite the designation of 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, the Romani genocide is not widely discussed and maybe not even widely known..

There doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as might 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.  The only two books I’ve found on it in English are And The Violins Stopped Playing, which I read earlier this year, and this one.  And The Violins Stopped Playing was a memoir, written in the form of a novel, given to a non-Romani third party to publish on the author’s behalf.  This one is written by an American Jewish woman whose German Jewish father escaped from Nazi Germany, and who says that she had always felt an affinity with gypsies (she used the term “gypsies” in the book, published when that term was still widely used) because of the Holocaust, in which many members of her family were killed.

So neither of them are “direct” memoirs as such, but, in writing this, Toby Sonneman worked closely with Reili Mettbach Herchmer, a Sinti woman who’d moved from Germany to America, and some of her relatives, most of them living in Germany, who told of the horrors they’d experienced under the Nazi regime.   It’s not a very well-written book, it has to be said.  The grammar and syntax leave rather a lot to be desired, and it jumps about a lot.  However, what is has to say is important.

For a start, it explains clearly the difference between Roma and Sinti culture, which very few books do.  There have been Sinti communities in central and northern Europe for many centuries.  Roma communities lived mainly in southern and eastern Europe – many in the Danubian Principalities (that’s me using the term I’m used to from reading a lot of Russian history!  The areas that are now, roughly speaking, Romania and Moldova), where it was legal to hold Roma people as slaves until 1856 – until the 19th century, when some groups moved into other areas.  When I was a kid, gypsy (the term we used then) ladies would sometimes knock on the door, selling pretty lace or clothes pegs: I didn’t know until this week that that is a Sinti “thing” only, and it would be very unusual for a Roma lady to do that.  So that’s all quite interesting to read.  It’s so easy to lump cultures and traditions together – the author uses the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish cultures and traditions as a comparison.

However, the book is about the Romani genocide – I’m not going to say “Porajamos” because that term isn’t generally used by Sinti and Roma people – and not about culture and tradition.  A textbook would start with something scholarly.  This starts with strudel.  Reili, who like Toby’s father was from Bavaria, welcomed Toby to her home with platefuls of strudel.  A relative of mine always used to make strudel when we went to visit her.  Did the recipe come from her grandma, who was born in Austria?  I don’t know, and, seeing as she’s been gone for nearly twenty years, I can’t really ask her now, but Toby Sonneman made such a good point about how it’s recipes that get passed down through the generations.

Some people emigrate because they’ve been offered good jobs in another country.  However, historically as now, most people have emigrated to escape poverty and or persecution, and have taken very little with them but the clothes on their backs – but they’ve been able to take recipes, in their heads.  A couple of generations down the line, the descendants of those immigrants don’t speak their language, and, in many cases, don’t dress like them, or follow their cultural or religious practices, but the food tends to live on.  And spread.  Manchester’s Curry Mile, the Birmingham baltis, the Scouse (originally lobscouse) brought to Liverpool from the ports of the Baltic, the New York bagel, the ice cream vans that bear Italian surnames, the Swiss origins of the lovely cakes you get in Bettys … and, if you believe the story, the original recipes for fish and chips were brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  There are a million and one other examples: being a very greedy person, I could write about food all day.

I know it seems a strange thing to pick up on, when writing about a book about genocide, but it is very true that food tends to survive everything.  Toby Sonneman said that recipes were the nearest thing that her family had to heirlooms.  The same could probably have been said about Reili Mettbach Herchmer’s family.  It’s an interesting thought.

Another point she made was that the Romani genocide doesn’t have a “face” in the way that the Jewish Holocaust has Anne Frank.  It’s horrible to think of someone as being the “face” of a genocide, or of any other form of horror and persecution.  There was a lot of talk in April, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, of Stephen being the face and the personification of the horrors of racism in the UK.  The famous picture, in September 2015, of the dead body of little Alan Kurdi focused attention on the Syrian migrant crisis.  I’ll never forget the faces of Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, the two young lads killed by the IRA bombing in Warrington in 1993.  No-one’s legacy should be that, to personify and symbolise such horror – but it is so very true that it’s the personal accounts, and the faces, that really bring it home to people just what has been done.  All those shoes, and false teeth, that you see in the museum at Auschwitz, all of which once belonged to someone.  And that’s why personal accounts are so important.  They do a lot of things that all the scholarly works in the world can’t.

A lot of Holocaust memoirs have been published, even if not by Roma and Sinti survivors, and that means that a lot of what’s in this book is tragically familiar – the introduction of laws persecuting particular groups of people, the taking of people to concentration camps, the experiments carried out by Josef Mengele and others, the question of whether or not those living close to the concentration camps – Dachau is very close to residential areas outside Munich, where many of the Mettbach family lived – knew what was going on, the horrific conditions in the concentration camps, and, of course, the gas chambers.  But every personal story is that little bit different, every experience is that little bit different.  And it is personal – and personal accounts are what really brings it home to the reader.

There’s also a lot in this book about forced sterilisation.  That isn’t really addressed in And The Violins Stopped Playing, and it’s not generally addressed in the memoirs of Jewish survivors because it was Roma and Sinti people who were the target.  The idea of the Final Solution would have meant that forced sterilisation of Jewish people was pointless, because they wouldn’t live to have children, but there seems to have been some idea of … a postponed genocide, for lack of a better way of putting it, by preventing Roma and Sinti people from being able to have children.  Former soldiers were even given a choice of going to the gas chambers or being sterilised and then released.  There are some graphic and very distressing descriptions of what was done to Reili’s relatives, both male and female, some as children, some as adults.

This has never been spoken about much until recently, because of cultural taboos, but it should be noted that forced sterilisation of Romani people was carried out in the 20th century in a number of countries, including Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, the last places you’d associate with that sort of policy.  It was particularly common in Czechoslovakia, and then in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the country split into two, and was going on as late as 2003 or 2004 – yes, 2004.  An online petition was launched earlier this year to demand compensation for those affected: this is not something that’s just part of the past, this is something that’s affecting people to this very day.

This isn’t the world’s greatest book, but it’s an important reminder of something horrific, that happened within living memory, that is still not spoken about very much.  And can you imagine the headlines, and the international outrage if the Italian interior minister announced plans to carry out a census of any other community?   But next to nothing’s been said about this.  It’s horrible.  It’s frightening.  A lot of unpleasant stuff is going on in Europe and in the United States at the moment, but this is arguably the worst of it.  This isn’t a great book, but it would be great for people to read it.