On July 20, 1984, a small group of protesters, many dressed in homemade costumes reminiscent of concentration camp prisoner uniforms, demonstrated against a meeting of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington. Seen from the hindsight of 2023, when both historical ignorance about the history of the Holocaust and outright Holocaust denial are on the rise in the United States, it might seem reasonable to assume that these protesters against the Holocaust Memorial Council were motivated by far-right ideologies.
But rather than advocating against Holocaust remembrance altogether, these demonstrators were there to call for a more inclusive reckoning with Nazi Germany’s legacy. Carrying signs that read “US Gypsies Demand Representation on Holocaust Memorial Council” and “Why No Gypsy Representatives—Racism Betrays Ideal of Holocaust Memorial Council,” these Romani activists had gathered in Washington to insist that the genocide of Europe’s Roma be commemorated alongside the genocide of Europe’s Jews.
The fact that approximately 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime during World War II is well-known to educated Americans. Much less well-known are the facts of Roma persecution during World War II. Historians estimate that between 250,000 and 500,000 Romani people were systematically murdered by the German regime, out of a prewar European population of perhaps 1 million.
And yet the large-scale polls designed to measure American knowledge of the Holocaust rarely ask about Roma persecution at all, an omission that points toward the broad ignorance of this major, genocidal chapter in modern history. Not until 1982 did West Germany officially acknowledge that the Roma had been victims of a genocide at all. Against the backdrop of this illiteracy, and of the continued discrimination that Roma faced in Europe during the decades after World War II, those activists converged outside the Holocaust Memorial Council’s meeting in 1984 to demand that the injustices committed against their community not be relegated to a historical footnote, known only to specialist scholars, but that they receive the public commemoration they deserve.
In his new book, Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust, historian Ari Joskowicz—a professor at Vanderbilt University and the grandson of Jewish holocaust survivors—provides the first comprehensive account of the complicated, often contradictory, relationships between Jews and Roma during and after their genocides under Nazi Germany. Drawing on exhaustive research from primary sources in several languages, Joskowicz offers a fascinating and often heartbreaking account of the Roma struggle for justice and restitution in the face of persecution. Along the way, he offers insight on vital questions whose relevance extends far beyond the legacy of World War II, as he explores how different victims of the same oppressor can act in solidarity with one another, even as the circumstances of their oppression force them into competition for finite resources and for public recognition of an idealized victimhood.
Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust
By Ari Joskowicz. Princeton University Press.
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The extreme postwar injustices Joskowicz presents do not make for easy reading and are often infuriating. He describes the 1956 decision by West Germany’s Federal Court of Justice (the entity that was, in that country, analogous to the Supreme Court of the United States), which ruled that Nazi deportations of Roma from Germany to foreign countries and concentration camps before 1943 were not necessarily racially motivated, because it was an established fact that “Gypsies” were “asocial.” (In 1971, delegates at the inaugural World Romani Congress voted unanimously to support a declaration that the word Gypsy is pejorative and that the terms Roma and Romani are preferable. Following Joskowicz’s approach, this review uses that standard contemporary terminology, while putting the word Gypsy in quotation marks when referring to historical usages.)
This court ruling relied on a perverse form of logic to legitimize German persecution of Romani people. Unlike the Nazi mistreatment and genocide of Jews, the West German court claimed, which were caused exclusively by bigotry, Nazi deportations of Roma were at least initially based on reasonable concern over Roma criminality, even if the Nazi response to that criminality was sometimes too extreme. The court failed to consider the obvious truth that this concern over Roma criminality was itself a symptom of bigotry and instead claimed that “Gypsies,” because of their supposed “asocial behavior,” had instigated their own oppression. In doing so, this ruling made it much harder for Roma to receive the compensation, such as financial restitution for stolen property, to which they were entitled.
This was not the only instance Joskowicz discusses of Nazi-era anti-Roma measures being legitimized by postwar European governments. In 1947, the Bavarian parliament unanimously voted to ask the American occupation authorities to build a prison at the site of the Dachau concentration camp “as a facility for the internment and reeducation of work-shy individuals,” a term often used as a euphemism for Roma. The Americans, already disturbed by Bavarian anti-Roma policy, rejected this request. And in France, the administrators of some Roma prison camps kept their inmates incarcerated after the war had ended; “until 1969,” Joskowicz writes, “the French state even maintained the same registration system for so-called nomads that was previously used by … the Vichy regime during the Second World War.” Over and over again, Rain of Ash shows the brutal ways that anti-Roma bigotry continued after the fall of Nazism.
But Rain of Ash also describes the Jews who fought for the rights of those of their fellow victims of the Nazi regime who weren’t Jewish. Kurt May, a German Jewish World War I veteran and lawyer who had survived the war in Palestine and returned to Frankfurt afterward to help victims of Nazism fight for compensation, orchestrated the attempt to overturn the 1956 court ruling that had blamed the Roma for their own victimization. He coordinated a diverse network of both Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers and scholars in order to correct the court’s egregious error, and wrote in a letter, “It relieves my conscience to know that these ‘Gypsies,’ who were hunted down by the Nazis, will finally get their right.”
The great virtue of Joskowicz’s book, alongside the comprehensiveness of its research, is its refusal to reduce any of the weighty issues it discusses to abstractions, or to stray from the complex and often contradictory human experiences at stake. Instead, Joskowicz grounds his account in the lives of the people whose suffering and whose activism animate his scholarship. That letter by May, quoted above, was written to Hans Buchheim, a German historian who used his expertise to demonstrate that Nazi persecution of Roma was motivated essentially by racial animus.
In this, Buchheim acted as an ally to the victims of Nazism. But real human experiences are more complex than simple categories of “victim,” “ally,” and “perpetrator” allow for, as Joskowicz suggests when he notes that Buchheim had served as a Nazi soldier and was close to Reinhard Gehlen, who supported an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler while also directing the German military’s intelligence operations on its eastern front, where many of the worst massacres and abuses of Jews and Roma took place. As Joskowicz writes, these contradictions are “a living monument to the paradoxes of German attempts to rebuild a democratic society from the ruins of a racist dictatorship with mass appeal.”
Joskowicz treats his Jewish and Roma subjects with as much nuance, insisting that human lives cannot be reduced to neat categories in a hierarchy of persecution and victimhood. He describes instances of violence between Jews and Roma under Nazi occupation, as in Elie Wiesel’s description of a Romani guard at Auschwitz beating Wiesel’s father, and writes movingly of the fact that many Jewish victims at Auschwitz envied the Roma who were incarcerated alongside them, because Auschwitz’s “Gypsy camp” allowed its prisoners to remain with their families.
But the brutal liquidation of the “Gypsy camp,” on the night of Aug. 2, 1944, in which the SS murdered two-thirds of Auschwitz’s Roma inmates and dispersed the rest among other concentration camps, caused many Jews in Auschwitz to shift from seeing Roma as an abstract category of relatively privileged competitors for survival, and to view them instead as fellow victims who deserved empathy and solidarity. Few Jews saw the murder of their Roma fellow inmates on that August night, but a number vividly remembered hearing their screams. “Many Jewish witnesses,” Joskowicz summarizes, “described the night as the worst they experienced in Auschwitz, largely based on the sounds they heard.” Against a system of oppression that functioned in part by pitting Roma and Jews against each other, the tangible encounter with each other’s suffering forced these distinct groups to see each other as allies rather than as competitors.
“We should not presume,” Joskowicz writes, “that people who have experienced oppression or persecution will necessarily have a greater capacity to hear others’ stories of suffering or to feel connected to other victims.” Indeed, his book is full of anecdotes about Holocaust survivors and their descendants whose trauma makes them less receptive, not more, to empathy with other victims of oppression. The hesitancy within the Holocaust Memorial Council to include the Roma genocide fully within their narrative of the Holocaust—the target of that 1984 protest—is just one example of this. But Joskowicz provides even more counterexamples of the ways that different victims of the same oppressor can come together in mutual support.
Though the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington still does not include Roma experiences in the ways that many survivors and their family members would prefer, it has become one of the world’s preeminent centers for academic research about Roma persecution. Without the archives that the Holocaust Memorial Council has gathered, and the research it supports, much less would be known today about the fate of Romani people under Nazi fascism.
This is the broader lesson Rain of Ash offers, beyond the particulars of its scholarship: supporting others based on abstracted categories of victimhood is much less meaningful than learning about the realities of human experience, injustice, and cruelty. As Joskowicz writes, “empathy without knowledge is fleeting.” He ends his book, after surveying much depressing material, with an inspiring discussion of the 21st-century Roma-Jewish activism and solidarity that has arisen out of a willingness for Romani and Jews to hear each other’s stories, in all their contradiction and complexity.
In 2009 and 2010, when the French government led by Nicolas Sarkozy deported thousands of non-French Romani to Romania and Bulgaria and destroyed dozens of Roma settlements, the Union of French Jewish Students (known by its French acronym, UEJF) joined forces with the umbrella organization of French Romani groups in order to protest this injustice. These joint demonstrations initiated a new era of solidarity, and in 2011 UEJF and its Roma partners organized a shared journey to Holocaust memorial sites in Poland.
Joskowicz writes that, “Unlike their predecessors thirty years ago, Romani activists today have every reason to expect their Jewish counterparts to know something about their struggles and believe in their shared interests. Roma and Jews regularly form alliances that would have made little sense before the Nazi era, and had little traction in the decades immediately after the war.” As far-right and ethnonationalist movements gain power and publicity across the world, such inter-group activism is increasingly urgent. The Roma-Jewish alliances Joskowicz describes present a model of how different groups of victims can meet one another not as competitors for restitution, or for public acknowledgement of marginalization, but rather as allies in the struggle for a more just world.