Play for the Day

2 August 1944: Liquidation of the ‘Gypsy’ camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The launch article for “Play for the Day” outlines the history of the Porrajmos and looks at examples of recent plays about it – as well as probing contemporary attitudes towards Roma communities.

A young Roma woman with child, 1938. Photo: TIME / Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images.

The Nazi persecution of the Roma – the Porrajmos, or ‘devouring,’ in Romani – began virtually as soon as the Nazis came into power in 1933. Declared to be ‘racially inferior,’ the Roma were subjected to escalating persecution, from “racial examination” and restriction of movement to sterilisation, forced labour and murder. After 1939, the Roma were deported to concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Ravensbrück; to death camps such as Chelmno and Treblinka; and to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Between February 1943 to July 1944, approximately 23,000 Roma & Sinti were imprisoned in the Zigeunerlager (‘gypsy’ camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with at least 21,000 deaths. Roma prisoners were not subjected to selection upon arrival; families were allowed to stay together; and prisoners were permitted to wear civilian clothes. But conditions in the Zigeunerlager were horrendous, with overcrowding, lack of sanitation, starvation, and disease. Many prisoners were subjected to the infamous ‘medical’ experiments conducted by Josef Mengele.

On 2 August 1944, the Zigeunerlager at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated. This wasn’t the first attempt by the SS; in May 1944 they had tried to enter the Zigeunerlager, but the prisoners barricaded themselves in the barracks and armed themselves with whatever weapons they could improvise. The SS withdrew and, in the ensuing months, deported around 3,000 inmates to elsewhere within the Auschwitz complex or to other concentration camps. Finally, on 2 August, they once more moved in on the Zigeunerlager. The SS loaded the approximately 4.2-4.3 thousand men, women and children into trucks and sent them to the gas chambers.

The Porrajmos in history

The Porrajmos is generally included in definitions of the Holocaust, in that the Nazi persecution of the Roma is touched upon in relation to wider persecution by the Nazis (for example, see the USHMM, Wiener Library and Imperial War Museum (IWM) websites). However, it’s a relatively little-known aspect of the Holocaust, and there are many reasons as to why this could be the case. The In Minorita website observes that crimes against the Roma were not investigated after the Holocaust, with perpetrators going unpunished, and that “The dominant opinion within the Roma community itself was that it was better to forget the tragedy and the suffering as quickly as possible.”

Romani scholar Professor Ian Hancock agrees, stating that:

For perhaps most Romanies today it […] [is] seen as just one more hate-motivated crisis— albeit an overwhelmingly terrible one—in their overall European experience. Others refuse to speak about it because of its association with death and misfortune, or to testify or accept reparation for the same reason.

O Porrajmos: The Romani Holocaust

Added to this is the fact that the Roma tradition is an oral one, meaning far fewer written accounts about the Porrajmos, and so fewer historical documents for scholars to work with in the conventional sense. However, there’s a small yet significant area of scholarship about the Porrajmos, led by scholars such as Professor Hancock, Professor Ethel Brooks, Professor Rainer Schulze, Robert Dawson, C R Sridhar and others, with emerging scholars also starting to step into the field.

However, a deeper – and more disturbing – potential reason for the lack of more widespread research and interest in the Porrajmos is the fact that Roma are still seen as ‘undesirables’ in many countries and societies.

Recent examples include:

  • The UK government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (2021) effectively seeks to disproportionally criminalise the nomadic way of life for Roma and Traveller communities;
  • In the Czech Republic, Roma women were being sterilised without their consent as late as 2007;
  • And in Bulgaria in April 2019, Krasimir Karakachanov (head of the Bulgarian National Movement) presented his ‘Roma integration strategy’ to various ministers, which defined “Roma people as ‘a-social Gypsies’” and called for “a limit on the number of children Roma women can have by offering free abortions.’”

In terms of the Porrajmos itself, France didn’t apologise for its “collaboration in Nazi crimes against Roma and Sinti” until 2016; Romania didn’t officially recognise the Roma genocide until 2004; and it wasn’t until 1982 that the then-German Federal Republic (West Germany) officially recognised the Nazi persecution against Roma as a genocide based on race.

With history, politics, society and culture intrinsically linked, it seems that we can’t look to global governments or the majority of ‘mainstream’ institutions to lead the way when it comes to wider education about, and representation of, the Porrajmos. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in my work on Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979), sometimes it takes a play to raise awareness about a lesser-known aspect of Holocaust history. Thankfully, when it comes to the Porrajmos, there are grassroots theatre companies doing just that – although the struggle is far from over.

Performing the Porrajmos

It’s worth noting that, in the early years after the Holocaust, “the only public expression of the war experience [of the Roma]” was, in fact, a play. Written by Elena Lacková, a Romani survivor, The Burning Gypsy Camp was first staged by Lacková and her family in their home village as a means of expressing what they had gone through – an experience detailed by In Minorita:

…thoughts of our wartime experiences kept coming back to me, and composing themselves as scenes on a stage. Before the War, I used to visit the amateur theatrical group and so I knew what theater was. And so one night when the moon was full I decided that I would write a play for the theater. For our Romani theatre! And that we would show the gadže who we were, what we had been through and what we were going through, the feelings we had, and how we wanted to live.

A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia (1999: 126)

As further discussed on the In Minorita website, the play subsequently toured in Slovakia and parts of the Czech Republic, with a total of 106 performances, and was most recently staged in 2000 as Romano lagros (The Gypsy Camp) by Romani theatre company Romanthan. I’m yet to find a detailed synopsis of either play, but am hopeful…

I have no doubt that there are more plays about the Porrajmos waiting to be found – and I hope to talk about them in future articles. However, at the time of writing, I’ve found just three that have been created in the contemporary moment:

  • Crystal’s Vardo (2011) by Suzanna King (UK)
  • From Man, to Beast, to Crawling Thing (date unknown) by Yale Strom (USA)
  • Kali Traš (Black Fear) by Giuvlipen Theatre Company (Romania)

Earlier in July 2021 I reached out to Yale Strom to request a copy of his play, and am awaiting a response. I first discovered the play through the Holocaust Theater Catalog – an invaluable resource that I highly recommend and couldn’t do without – and the synopsis is as follows:

The play is about two Holocaust survivors, one a Jew (Yankl) and the other a Roma (Janos) who meet each other on a road to their respective hometowns. They find out that they are from the same town and begin their journey together as they walk home and talk about their pasts, including what happen [sic] to each of them in the concentration camps. They still hold some stereotypical prejudices against each other and come to realize that these biases are ridiculous since they both ended up in Auschwitz with their families and friends going up in smoke in the chimney flues. By the end, they have grown closer, though the Roma survivor Janos holds a very dark secret that makes it almost impossible for him to enter his hometown.

I really like the premise of two characters facing their own prejudices towards each other, and the way in which these two Holocaust survivors are thus ‘humanised.’ At the same time, I can’t help feeling somewhat apprehensive as to what Janos’ “very dark secret” is, especially as one of the play’s tags on the HTC is “Perpetrators, Bystanders and Collaborators.” This feels like it could veer dangerously close to the stereotypical image of ‘Roma as outsider,’ with Janos potentially having engaged in a (morally) criminal act in Auschwitz that will ostracise him from ‘ordinary’ people…but until I can see or read the play, this is pure conjecture.

Kali Traš (Black Fear) is by Giuvlipen, an independent feminist Roma theatre company from Bucharest, Romania. According to the company’s website, the play’s name is one of the Roma names given to the Nazi persecution and genocide, and the play itself is a free adaptation of With Death in the Eyes, a novel by Roma writer and survivor Valerică Stănescu:

We follow in the footsteps of a Roma traveling theater troupe from Romania in the 1940s, during the Antonescu regime and we gradually find out what turn the lives of the four protagonists take: Leanca, Şopârla, Franț and Diloda, when they find out that they will be deported to Transnistria, in the camps from Bug, where I [sic] don’t know what awaits them.

“In ‘Kali Traš’ we used all our artistic resources, passion but also anger and pain, to portray such a dark history. With “Kali Traš” we want more than a simple presentation of the past. We want a show that will remain in people’s minds and souls for a long time to come. Although painful, we now call on memory to respond to contemporary situations in the light of past experiences. We are replacing emotionally comfortable amnesia with complex answers from our recent history.”

Mihaela Dragan,

The play is in Romanian and Romani with English subtitles, and its June 2018 premiere was produced by Giuvlipen and the Teatrul Evreiesc de Stat (State Jewish Theatre) of Bucharest.

To commemorate the European Holocaust Memorial Day for Sinti and Roma, a full recording of the play was premiered on YouTube earlier today, and you can watch it here.

Crystal’s Vardo premiered in 2011, an educational piece written by Suzanna King and regularly performed by Friends Families and Travellers throughout the UK. The play is designed to educate audiences about the prejudice and persecution experienced by Roma, with protagonist Crystal enduring bullying at school before travelling back in time to different periods in history and seeing what life was like for Roma communities. In one scene Crystal encounters Zekia, a twelve-year-old Roma girl in hiding on a farm in Serbia, and learns about the fate of her family: her parents and brother are in a concentration camp, and her sister was shot while trying to pass them food.

Image: / Crystal’s Vardo

The writing can be a bit kitschy and clunky at times (in response to Zekia’s assertion that the war will end soon, Crystal declares to the audience: “The war on Gypsies goes on”). However, it’s a really interesting and much-needed piece, as it places the Porrajmos in the context of both historical and ongoing antigypsyism. Theatres, schools, and community organisations should be able to book a performance once it’s safe to do so, given the current COVID situation; in the meantime, you can watch a recording of the play here. There’s also an accompanying educational booklet.

I am indebted to Teresa Wontor-Cichy (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), Professor Ian Hancock (The University of Texas at Austin) and Professor Rainer Schulze (University of Essex) for their insight and guidance.

This post has been longer than future posts will be, due to the nature of the subject; however, I hope it’s been of interest and provided some food for thought. In the next few days I’ll be posting a list of resources and organisations to do with performances and the history of the Porrajmos, so make sure to check back! Please feel free to leave a comment or reply below, and if you’d like to recommend a play for a future post, get in touch.

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