Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon

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As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was pleased to find a rare book on the neglected subject of the Romany Holocaust.  The book also draws attention to the also difficult and little-discussed subjects of the removal of Yenish children from their parents by the Swiss authorities, and psychiatric treatments in the inter-war years.  Unfortunately, much of it just isn’t very good.  It jumps about too much, parts of it are written in a strange made-up dialect, and some of the storylines seem to belong in a Victorian penny-dreadful rather than a Holocaust novel.  However, parts of it are genuinely moving and powerful, and there are just so few books about the Romany Holocaust that I’m still glad to’ve found it.

The eponymous Jakob is an 8-year-old boy, described (repeatedly) as “a half-blood gypsy child of Roma and Yenish”, living in hiding in Austria in 1944.  He’s become separated from his parents and two younger siblings, and was on the run when he was taken in by a farmer, who is also hiding two Jewish men.  It’s a promising idea for a book, and some of the descriptive narrative is excellent – although some of it is really OTT purple prose – but it’s just not very well put together.

It’s not coherent, for a start: it jumps about confusingly between “the present”, which is written in the present tense, what happened the previous year, Jakob’s mother’s past, and Jakob’s father’s past.  On top of that, Yavy, Jakob’s father speaks in an utterly bizarre dialect which sounds like a cross between Cockney gone wrong, Yorkshire gone wrong and West Indian gone wrong.  I have no idea what the author was trying to achieve with that – presumably to create some sense of him being an outsider?  All the narrative involving him is also in this bizarre dialect, making it quite hard to read.And there are too many bitty storylines, none of which are properly developed – which is a shame, because each of them is quite interesting by itself.

I initially took “of Roma and Yenish” to mean one Roma parent and one Yenish parent, so I got very confused when it turned out that Jakob’s mother, “Lor”, short for “Glorious” (??), was from a well-to-do family in Somerset … except that her parents weren’t as upper-middle-class as they made out.  her dad was the son of a butcher from Newcastle (one attempt at Geordie dialect, all wrong!) who’d inherited a huge tobacco firm from a distant cousin.  As you do.  The book said that the West Country was the centre of the British tobacco industry.  I didn’t get that at all … but the author’s based in Bath, so must know Somerset a lot better than I do.   Lor’s mum was the daughter of a Polish heiress who’d drowned herself.  And presumably a British father.  It was all just too complicated for a 300-page book that was supposed to be about something else.

Lor (the name really didn’t work at all)’s mother took her own life.  When Lor tried to do the same, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Austria.  The accounts of the strange and deeply unpleasant treatments there could have been very interesting, if difficult to read, but they were skipped over in a few pages – before Lor ran off with Yavy, who was working there.  Posh woman is sent to an institution abroad and runs off with a gypsy?  It sounds like something out of a Victorian penny dreadful.

Yavy, not Jakob, is the one who’s half-Yenish and half-Roma.  Yenish on his mother’s side.  The Yenish are a traveller group living mainly in Germany and Switzerland.  Between the 1920s and the 1970s, and especially in the 1930s, many Swiss Yenish parents were put into institutions and their children taken away.  We learn that Jakob’s father was one of those children.  We’re also told that his father fought in the First World War – presumably for Austria-Hungary, as he (the father) seems to have grown up in Austria – and that he remembered often seeing him tending war graves.  I’m not sure what that had to do with anything.  We learn that Yavy was born in Switzerland, but it’s not clear why they were then living in Austria, and then were living in Switzerland when the children were taken away.  Maybe it’s just meant to reflect a traveller lifestyle, but the way it comes across as muddled and confusing.

The book scrapes surfaces but doesn’t go deeply into anything – which is such a shame, because, as I’ve said, each of the storylines could have made such a good book.  We get a few tantalising glimpses of Yavy’s life as a child taken away from his parents, first sent to an orphanage and then put out to work,  first at a farm and then at the hospital where Lor was being treated, but not enough to tell us much.  Why the Swiss authorities would have sent him to work at an Austrian hospital makes about as much sense as the rest of the random moving about; but the horrific story of a child being taken away from his parents as part of some sort of cultural re-education programme, like the Lost Generation in Australia, could, like Lor’s time in the psychiatric hospital, could have been very interesting … but we only get a few pages of it.

We also hear little bits about the two men being hidden at the farm, and about the farmer who’s hiding them, but, again, not much. It dips into so many storylines, but doesn’t develop any of them.

It’s only at the end where we see how good the book could have been, where there are very powerful passages telling us that Roma children were killed by the Nazis either by dashing their heads against a tree or by drowning, or by being torn to pieces by dogs.  And we learn that Jakob suffocated his baby brother, to save him from a worse death at the hands of the Nazis.  We see that he was sent with the adults to face the Einsatzgruppen, told to dig his own grave.  We can only assume that his parents both died, but that somehow he escaped from the pile of bodies – there are stories like that, from Babyn Yar and other places where massacres were carried out.  I was expecting to hear that his parents had died in a concentration camp, but I’ve often said that more attention needs to be paid to the killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.  It was a very powerful chapter.  It just showed how good this book could have been.  But it was just too bitty.

Then it jumps back again, and we find that Lor and Yavy hoped to get their children out of Austria, into Switzerland and on to England.  Lor talks about Vimto … which would have been quite touching had she not said that it was fizzy.  Vimto is not supposed to be fizzy, and you certainly couldn’t get fizzy Vimto in the 1930s and 1940s.  Minor point, OK, but it annoyed me!!   But it’s quite a touching section about the idea of a green and pleasant land, and, how, instead of ending up there, four of the five family members ended up being murdered.

Or maybe five, because we don’t know what happened to Jakob.  The Nazis came to the farm where he was hiding, and he fled.  The reader is left to wonder whether or not he survives, and also what happens to the two Jewish men and the farmer.  It’s not a satisfying ending, but it’s a well-written one.  Parts of this book are so good.  It had a lot of potential, but there were too many bits of too many different things, and so the book as a whole didn’t really work for me.

But, because of the importance of the subject matter, I’m still glad to have read it.  No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide … I don’t like to use the word “Porajmos”, because some people find it objectionable. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Total estimates of those killed usually vary between 220,000 and 500,000, and some historians put it even higher, maybe even as high as 1,500,000.   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.  And not much has been written about it – although I’ve read that that’s because Roma and Sinti culture doesn’t place much emphasis on history and memoirs, not because of lack of interest or lack of concern.  There doesn’t seem to have been the same persecution of the Yenish people, but there are certainly some documented cases of deportations.

We’re now coming up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and of the other camps.  There are still some survivors left, and it was good to see some of them being recognised in the New Year’s Honours List for their work in sharing their stories, but, as time goes on, we’re just going to have to learn their stories from books, be that text books, memoirs or novels.  When it comes to the Roma, Sinti and Yenish people, there aren’t many of those written accounts around, so even a fictional one is precious.  I just wish this one had been better.  It could have been: it had potential, and some bits of it were excellent.  But it was just too bitty.  Oh well.  Still worth reading.

 

A Very British History – BBC 4

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This was a four-part series looking into the experiences in 20th century Britain of four different groups of people – “Romany gypsies” in the Home Counties, “Black Brummies”, “the Jews of Leeds”, and “Ugandan Asians” in the East Midlands.    Each programme in the series was presented by a member of the community in question, rather than the BBC pushing its own agendas, and, although there was sometimes a bit too much focus on personal family history rather than broader community history, it generally worked very well.

A BBC-led series would probably have focused largely on prejudice, in a way that attacked the wider community.   This didn’t, although obviously the issue of prejudice and how it was faced did come up.  There were old BBC films (with subtitles where people were speaking in Cockney accents!) of people making negative comments about gypsies.  I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word “gypsies”, because we’re usually told now that it’s offensive, but the presenter said that he was OK with it.  People who’d moved to Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s spoke about struggling to get mortgages, and of the abuse suffered by couples in mixed-race relationship.  Jewish people who’d lived in Leeds during the inter-war years talked about being called “Christ killers” at school (the old religious prejudice that’s now largely been replaced by other manifestations of anti-Semitism) and of Oswald Mosley trying to whip up trouble in areas with large Jewish communities.  And we were shown photographs of notices issued by Leicester council, saying that Ugandan Asians shouldn’t move to their city.

But there was overall a fairly positive feeling, with the Jews of Leeds and the Ugandan Asians in particular speaking about their pride in being British. One of the Black Brummies said that he felt that a lot of prejudice was due to ignorance and fear of the unknown; and that’s why programmes like this are important.  I know I’m always harping on about soap operas, but I think it makes such a difference when they include characters from minority groups!  TV can do a lot.  Only the Black Brummies programme said much about the influence of the culture of different groups on British culture in general – music, food, language etc – though, although the Jews of Leeds programme did mention Michael Marks and Montague Burton and their influence on the British fashion industry and British retail in general.  I’d like to have heard more of that, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour.

There was a lot of talk about socio-economic issues, and how all four groups had to some extent struggled with poverty. The Ugandan Asians who came to Britain had generally lived affluent lifestyles in Uganda, and then came here and initially had to take what jobs and houses they could get, before improving their situation through hard work.  British Jews have a very diverse cultural heritage, something that’s very rarely discussed on TV; but the family of the man presenting this programme had moved to Leeds from Eastern Europe in the late 19th/early 20th century, which is perhaps typical of the majority of British Jews, coming from very little to very little, and worked their way up the socio-economic ladder from there.  I’d take issue with the historian who said that their main reason for coming here would have been economic opportunity, rather than discrimination and persecution, though.  People from the Caribbean did move to Birmingham in the hope of better economic opportunities, though – and it was interesting to see film of smiling, very smartly-dressed people disembarking from a plane … but, having come here with high hopes, many of them initially found themselves in low-paid jobs and poor accommodation, as the Jews of Leeds had before them.

The Romany gypsies were in a different position, having done the same jobs for years but then being forced to change their way of life as technological change took away many of their traditional jobs on the land, and – an issue that’s also being faced by Bedouins in the Middle East – the authorities increasingly tried to discourage nomadic/travelling lifestyles. Barbara Cartland, who was a councillor in Hertfordshire, spoke out in support of Romany people in the Home Counties, which I never knew!  This was at a time when there were major problems over agreeing on sites where Romany people living in caravans could base themselves.

Government involvement played a big role in the experiences of both Romany gypsies and Ugandan Asians. Quite a lot of the Ugandan Asian programme was about the initial arguments about whether or not Ugandan Asians, expelled from Uganda in 1972, should be allowed to settle in the UK, and the belated organisation of an airlift, followed by the organisation of camps for people to live in until they found homes and jobs.  We saw pictures of noticeboards giving the names of areas in which jobs were available, and were told that the presenter’s family had ended up in Scunthorpe because that was where her dad found a job, and that other relatives had ended up in Leicester.

It was very different from the experiences of the Jews of Leeds and Black Brummies, who’d gravitated to areas where there was work but also, except for the very first to arrive, where there were already established communities. The Windrush Generation were encouraged to come here, “pull factor”, whereas Jews in Leeds had been looking for somewhere to go, “push factor”, but in neither case had the government really got involved in where people went when they got here – which was very different from the experience of the Ugandan Asians.

This issue came up quite recently, over the question of refugees from the civil war in Syria coming to Britain. The idea was that each local council should agree to take a small number of people.  I can see the reasons for that, because large numbers of people, regardless of ethnicity or language or religion or anything else, settling in one area at once is going to put a strain on housing and public services; but it’s not the way that immigration has traditionally worked, in Britain or anywhere else.  It didn’t really work with the Ugandan Asian refugee programme, either, with the vast majority of those concerned eventually ending up in either London or Leicester.

Some of what was said did wander off the point a bit. The programme on the Jews of Leeds got as far as the Second World War and then turned into Who Do You Think You Are, with the presenter visiting Vilnius, where his great-grandmother had come from, and learning that some of her cousins had been amongst the Jews massacred in 1942 in a village, now part of modern Belarus, about 80 miles away.  It was very interesting – I’ve been to the Vilnius Jewish Museum myself, and he was able to speak to an elderly lady who’d been living in the village at the time and remembered what had happened – and of course it was an important story to tell; but the programme was supposed to be about Leeds.   And the programme on Ugandan Asians tackled the issue of whether or not Asians in Uganda might have to some extent brought their expulsion on themselves.  It was brave of the presenter to tackle her own relatives and family friends about their attitudes towards black people, but, again, the programme was supposed to be about people’s experiences in Britain.   The other two programmes did stick more to being what the series title said, with the Romany gypsy programme showing coverage of the Appleby Horse Fair, and the Black Brummies programme discussing all sorts of things from hairstyles to dominoes to language.

Quibbles aside – hey, there are always going to be some quibbles! – , all four programmes were well worth watching, and I’m hoping there’ll be a second series at some point, covering the experiences of other communities.  British Chinese people seem to be very under-represented on TV.  There’s been a lot of immigration from Poland to the UK in recent years, but it’d be interesting to see a programme about Polish immigration to the UK in the aftermath of the Second World War.   There’s a long and varied history of Somali immigration to the UK.   There’ve long been communities with Armenian, Greek or Italian heritage in Manchester and elsewhere.   I’ve just been reading about Hungarian refugees who fled the suppression of the 1956 Uprising.  And, of course, Irish immigration to Britain has had a huge influence on British society.   And that’s to mention just a few groups.

It’s not helpful when organisations omit the word “Easter” from Easter egg hunts, and it’s not helpful when people start shrieking about “cultural appropriation” because a chef has served a dish or a singer has sung a song from a culture to which they don’t have a personal genetic link. However, it is helpful when programmes like these, explaining and celebrating the culture and heritage of the different groups within the British population, are shown.  And it’s also very interesting.  Good series.

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.