"A Vanished World" provides unique glimpse of Romani and Sinti life destroyed by Holocaust|
This week saw the opening of "A Vanished World" a unique photo
exhibition at the National Gallery's Veletrzni Palac in Prague. The show is
based solely on never before publicly viewed photographs of Roma and Sinti
families who once lived in the Czech lands. The show represents lives and a
way of life, destroyed in the Romani Holocaust.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus attended the opening of the show on Wednesday
and praised efforts by organisers in mapping Czech Roma history.
President Vaclav Klaus:
"I think that the exhibition is important: this is something that we
usually don't see here. To put together all this documentary material is
important for the Roma themselves and I am sure it is important for the
majority of the population of the Czech Republic. So, I wish for people to
come here and see it."
Mr Klaus was far from alone in his praise for the show, which was held
partly under the auspices of the president as well as the auspices of
Prague city hall. Wednesday also saw attendance by other public figures
including the minister for minority rights, Dzamila Stehlikova, former
dissident Jiri Dientsbier, and members of the Roma and Sinti communities.
Cenek Ruzicka - president of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma
Holocaust - was critical in his opening speech, saying that a large
majority of the Czech population viewed the Roma as an alien element,
despite the minority's long roots in the Czech lands.
"The aim of this exhibition is to show to visitors that the Roma and
Sinti were always part of the Czech lands. Dear visitors, it is my personal
wish that the genocide of the Roma and Sinti and destruction of their
culture to make it into the history books. You will find nothing of
original Roma and Sinti history in Czech history books."
On many levels the exhibition itself is personal, presenting family
photographs of the Roma and Sinti from the early part of the 20th century,
now lives almost entirely forgotten. Parents, their children, grandparents,
are seen in the pictures sometimes in photographers' studios, sometimes on
the road, sometimes in the fields. There is the photo of a young married
couple or the young officer in the army, the family gathering bringing
together generations, a child recovering in hospital. I spoke to Markus
Pape from the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, who put
extensive work into bringing the exhibition together:
"The main issue to show the real world of the Roma and Sinti who
lived in this country for 600 years until they were almost entirely
exterminated by the Nazis, and whose history and cultures are almost
entirely unknown by Czechs today. Unfortunately Czechs don't know what to
be proud of. This is kind of a first opportunity for them to see what kind
of a rich culture lived here and what was finally destroyed."
Prior to World War II in Czechoslovakia's First Republic many of the Roma
in Moravia lived in settlements while Bohemian Roma were more nomadic.
Cenek Ruzicka says that even then they were discriminated against:
"Law 117 dating back to 1924 forced Roma to have identity cards. The
Roma weren't allowed to enter numerous villages. They had to be constantly
registered. That's the kind of discrimination Romanies and Sinti have
always had to put up with. Most made them aware they were second-class
citizens. But when you look at the photographs you see they weren't. They
were normal, well-dressed, educated and intelligent people. A
non-problematic people. I don't understand why almost this entire community
was killed during the Second World War for reasons of race. For what
Given the tragic history that followed, there's no way of viewing the
exhibition without the Holocaust at the back of one's mind. The terrible
impact of the Nazis' final solution is felt even though the camps and the
gas chambers are for the most part not explicitly mentioned. Markus Pape
says that not discussing the Holocaust until the last stage of the exhibit
was an important decision.
"It's a very unusual exhibition about the Holocaust because it
doesn't focus on the perpetrators nor on the horrible pictures we've known
for decades from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or documents of
persecution. This new exhibit tries to show their own view of the Roma and
Sinti themselves: they went to a photographer's studio and asked him to
photograph them. This is their view: not what some policeman or racist
thought about them. Not someone who tried to make them look like criminals
and deform their image. We believe that this way the Holocaust and its
results and tragedy will be better understood.
"During the last decade we collected lots of historical materials in
state archives but the photographs that are seen here today are only from
family archives. We travelled all over the country and persuaded survivors
or families of survivors that it makes sense to show - for the first time -
The glimpse into their lives is nevertheless not "fully"
complete: in all of the photos, the subjects and their stories remain
anonymous. Says Markus Pape, for good reason:
"For centuries these people were taught by their parents to take care
of their privacy and not to talk. Not to let anybody know who they are.
This is a kind of survival strategy which is valid up to today. Also, you
don't see all the photos we found: there are still certain moments in the
live or the Roma that they don't want the public to see. Funerals and so
on. They say 'we still want to retain some of the taboos'. A special
quality of this exhibition is that you don't see the names. "
It is inevitable that some images - even the most ordinary portraits -
will stick in the viewer's mind: there is a father's proud expression as he
stands next to his small son, there is fear in the eyes of a young
accordionist sitting in a studio chair flanked by a lying dog; there are
the smiling faces of sisters and friends. One can only guess at their
personal stories and fates. One of the most enduring images is then a
drawing by a Sinti boy at Auschwitz, a drawing which brings the scope of
the Romani tragedy full circle. The drawing could be of a Roma caravan or
it could be the gas chambers: there are many possible interpretations.
It has been estimated that 5,000 Czech Romanies were transported to
Auschwitz. Only 583 ever returned. As a consequence only a few thousand
Roma originally of Czech descent live in the Czech Republic today. The rest
of the Roma minority in the country, estimated at 250,000, originally had
roots in Slovakia.