Artistic strategies to remember the Roma Holocaust
An insightful commentary on the public memory of the genocide of the Roma in the Holocaust.
I invite you to come to Rohrbach and take part in the street performance, The Rohrbach Living Memorial, which is dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of Roma, victims of Nazi persecution genocide. This invitation is open to men, women, and children of non-Roma and Roma origin.” These are the opening lines of the public invitation of the Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovič, which was distributed to the residents of Rohrbach, in the northern part of Austria, during the Festival of the Regions in 2005. It then goes on to say that due to the lack of a national memorial to the Roma victims of the Holocaust, this artistic performance will “demonstrate that we are not willing to forget the crime, so that it may not be repeated in the future.
By participating in this action we will also show that we are able to challenge not only the ‘invisibility’ of the Roma people in the troubled past, but also the widespread public prejudice and official discrimination which they are facing at present.” In the end, the artist explains the hidden aesthetics of her idea, suggesting that instead of unshouldering the burden of memory on a permanent memorial we shall become “active witnesses,” while its fragility is a metaphor that stands for the long process of “the recognition of the Roma and their culture within today’s Europe.” How could a memorial not be permanent and fixed, or rather, what is the reason behind making a memorial that dissolves in time? What does “living” imply in the title of the Living Memorial? How could an artist of the post-Holocaust generation “remember” events which she has not survived? Is it legitimate or authentic for an artist of Croatian origin to suggest an artistic design to remember the Roma Holocaust? What are the reasons for remembrance? Why shall we remember a past event which is almost forgotten and therefore displeases or embarrasses no one? What does “active witnessing” mean, and what do I have to do with this project, as a local of Rohrbach who spends each day peacefully with the other residents be they of Roma or non-Roma origin? These questions had to be assimilated into the memorial process by the artist(s) in each artistic design or reflected upon by the visitor/viewer. Before turning back to Ivekovič’s invitation and answering the aforementioned questions, I will introduce two other art projects. All the projects under consideration raise very similar questions, acknowledging the power of art as an effective tool to communicate across borders and communities and understanding the need to act in solidarity with discriminated communities, in this case the Roma.
The primary aim of this text is to examine the various ways in which communal solidarity is created through memorial art works. The projects focus on the forgotten elements of the Roma Holocaust, calling attention to the arbitrariness of political decisions on what will be remembered, challenging conventional aesthetics and ethico-political concerns. There is an explicit or implicit link between the Holocaust and present-day racism in each work, emphasizing how thin the border between the two actually is, while also suggesting the necessity of learning about and remembering the Holocaust in order to prevent racism. The artists work autonomously, free of the “free market of ideas” and outside of the traditional institutional system of the art-world. These artists can not be labeled passive observers of the society from the Ivory Tower of Art, they are “instantaneous witnesses”, active participants in events by channeling their experiences into art and believing that artistic agency can make a difference in the lives and work of communities and institutions.
What further characterizes the artists is their belief that their artistic responses to events may inform the broader environment about injustices and may call for action, strengthening and promoting solidarity among people. Finally, but most importantly, all these artists emphasize solidarity as a possible foundation upon which communities can be constructed, regardless of age, sex, nationality, or ethnicity.
Pearls before swine
I will start with a project that tackles the forgotten site that is the former internment and concentration camp of Roma in Lety, run by Czechs during the Second World War. Alfred Ullrich, a German artist of Roma origin, launched the project entitled “Pearls before Swine” on the site in 2000. A pig farm has been located on the site since the 1970s, and therefore the project calls for the implementation of appropriate procedures to relocate or demolish the farm and provide official recognition of the former campsite by the government and local authorities. At the site, Ullrich tore a pearl necklace belonging to his deceased sister and threw the pearls in front of the swine through the farm’s gate. The performance was documented in photographs which have subsequently been exhibited in various places in order to loudly denounce the injustice and disrespectful treatment of the former camp site, a graveyard to thousands and a place of remembrance for those who survived or lost loved ones.
Ullrich’s project is greatly motivated by the fact that his entire family was deported to various Eastern European concentration camps in 1939 (his mother lost her parents, her first son, and twelve out of fifteen siblings) and the existence of the pig farm on the former concentration camp site deprives him of the opportunity to properly commemorate his dead relatives. Ullrich’s project is motivated by a very simple cause: remove the farm and create a place for the remembrance of the mostly Roma victims of Lety. But how shall we interpret this aesthetic gesture of tearing a necklace into pieces? Since pearls were and are still used in burials, the pearl necklace perhaps represents the cycle of life. As the artist tears his dead sister’s necklace and throws it to the swine, he refers to her unusual, unnatural death and exclusion from a proper burial ceremony, with the pearls carelessly buried in the mud under the feet of the swine. Not only her death is commemorated but the deaths of all the victims who were “thrown before” the brutality of the National Socialist regime. It bears mentioning that throughout history pearls have been appreciated as valuable items of nature, and symbolized wealth, status and beauty; pearl necklaces were meant to be symbols of order and harmony. Tearing the thread shows discontinuity, a disorder in the artist’s life due to which it has lost its foundation and integrity.
For Ullrich, the source of disintegration stems, at least in the first place, from the fact that his project is destined for failure. For that reason, Ullrich draws attention to the importance of the relationship between territory and remembrance. In this work of art, he claims that remembering needs to be practiced somewhere, hence active and concerted effort is necessary, allowing people to inhabit the space and to relate to that site and its memories. He is claiming that the relocation of the pig farm and the inauguration of a memorial to the victims of the Lety concentration camp would recognize their sufferings and contribute to the cultural continuity of the community from generation to generation.
Civil Unity for the Sinti and Roma Murdered under the National Socialist Regime
A project of the European Roma Cultural Foundation (ERCF) was dedicated to a very similar issue, the territorialization of memory, however it was different in its scale. Starting at the end of 2011, the project focused on the (then) unfinished Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Murdered under the National Socialist Regime in Berlin, urging its completion by creating an international network of supporters and by organizing a demonstration next to the site at Tiergarten, Berlin. The success of generating a network in a few weeks was mainly due to Germany’s distinguished position in memory, more precisely, its symbolic and central role in remembering the Holocaust. As the project’s description stated: “It is the main objective of the Initiative to carve the memory of the Sinti and Roma victims into European collective memory,” and “it is essential to commemorate the Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust and place them in history in order to acknowledge the continuing attacks on the Roma throughout Europe today.” In fact, not so long after Germany’s reunification, an international competition was held in order to solve the German nation’s “memorial problem,” to provide a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.
In the same year, due to pressure from the Documentation and Cultural Center of the German Sinti and Roma, a powerful cultural organization and Holocaust archive in Heidelberg led by Romani Rose, a politician and activist of Roma origin, the Berlin Senate, the federal government, and the then federal president made the decision to erect a monument to the Roma and Sinti victims of the National Socialist Regime. According to the original plan, the construction of the Memorial would have been completed in the same year as the memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in 2005. However, disputes ensued over naming amongst Roma organizations in 2000: Sinti Alliance challenged the lobby work of the Documentation and Cultural Center of the German Sinti and Roma and insisted on using the term “Zigeuner,” which was resented by Rose and company. Therefore, construction of the site only began in 2008 and stopped soon after, principally due to unexpected conflicts between Dani Karavan, the designer, and the Berlin authorities. This was the state of affairs when the ERCF initiated its project at the end of 2011, an unfinished construction site at one of the corners of the Tiergarten, and hesitation on both the designer’s and the authority’s sides to cooperate and start working again.
Under the framework of the 7th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art, the ERCF advocated for the completion of the memorial by disseminating a so-called “Call for Unity,” collecting the signatures of supporters on a web-based platform and then creating an international network of Roma and non-Roma organizations and individuals to put pressure on the stakeholders to finish the building of the memorial. The pressure was twofold: (1) using channels of direct political lobbying in order to present the folder of signatures, and (2) calling the network to organize a demonstration on 2 June 2012 at Tiergarten. The project aimed to create solidarity across communities and develop the scope of civic responsibility toward the recognition of each other’s pasts. It was implied that knowing more about the other is a means to equality and tolerance among communities.
Rohrbach Living Memorial
Finally, let’s return to where we started, to the art project of Ivekovič. It is similar to the ERCF project in that it is based on participation and envisions a memorial not as something fixed, static, and material but as “living.” Following the public invitation, those who replied “yes” and were willing to participate received a badge with a black triangle, a sign that was used by the Nazis to differentiate Roma, and were asked to sit or stand under the arcades from 8:00 to 12:00 and think about the murdered Roma. The origin of the project was an archive photograph of, as the caption says, “A group of Gypsy prisoners, awaiting instructions from their German captors, sit in an open area near the fence in the Belzec concentration camp.” Ivekovič invited local residents of Rohrbach to re-enact the scene under the Arkaden am Stadtplatz. In this case, ‘re-enactment’ did not mean exact copying (and affirmation) of a past event. This artistic practice serves to raise questions relevant to the present day with the help of a well-known past event. In other words, it investigates the possibilities of (re)acquiring knowledge of the Roma Holocaust by re-staging the photograph with, which we are all familiar but from which we have probably disconnected the specific information it conveys.
Ivekovič’s project is not site-specific; Rohrbach was chosen as one of the participating settlements of the Festival of the Regions. The deportations of Austrian Roma were primarily concentrated on Burgenland. Instead of dealing with local stories, the artist’s aim is to make people aware of the Roma and Sinti Holocaust in general. However, her work is more than just about formulating the need to direct public attention to the fact that in Austria no state-supported memorial was erected to the memory of Roma victims of the Holocaust (in 1984, in Lackenbach, a memorial initiated by the Cultural Association of Austrian Roma was erected by the state of Burgenland). Her art certainly questions the traditional understanding of the monument as an everlasting, material manifestation of public memory with either a “heroic, self-aggrandizing iconography celebrating national ideals”, as the American art critic James E. Young has noted, or the aim to heal, console, or provide a solution. Instead of following memorial conventions and materiality, the artist shifts the emphasis to participation and demands that each participant establish a relation with the past event.
As one of the participants recalled: “When I sat there I remembered the Second World War. I was eight at the time and I remember it very well, as if it all happened yesterday.” Another participant said that, “It was very easy for me to imagine how it would feel to not even be noticed. What surprised me most was that I studied the passers-by so attentively.” Ivekovič initiates, contextualizes, and directs the event with a few instructions in the invitation, including the time and place or the distribution of badges, and then leaves the participants on their own with the hope that each participant finds significance in the memory of the murdered and discriminated Roma in Europe. What is the source of hope for Ivekovič? How could an art performance evolve into a memorial and turn the site of history into a site of memory?
First, let’s imagine the process of re-staging the photograph, the re-staging of the past event “as it was.” It evokes the Holocaust not as an event represented but as an event “experienced directly.” The instructions of Ivekovič, the limitation on the participants’ free movement, or the experience of being displayed to the gaze of non-participating residents, all leads to a re-enactment of the emotional principles that define the Holocaust. In this sense, the participants are not “left alone” by the artist to find a way to anchor memory (as it happens in many cases) but are “submitted” to a performance which provides an “explicit reference” to the Holocaust.
Second, we shall not forget that the origin of Ivekovič’s project is a photograph, and in her invitation she writes “I invite you to join us and become that image.” This suggests that visual memory helps forge an affective and effective relationship to the past. Similarly to Shimon Attie’s Sites Unseen (started in 1991) work, in which the artist projects photographs of a now invisible Jewish past onto sites they used to inhabit (the work started in Berlin and then initiated similar installations at the Dresden and Hamburg train stations), Ivekovič, makes the photograph part of the collective visual memory of the wider public, of the passers-by.
The hope is that, once the image becomes visible it, will be internalized by those who see it, allowing its “after-image” to continue to generate memory, even if the installation is no longer there. Not only do the participants become an inherent part of the image but the image itself becomes meaningful for the non-participants. All three projects appeared to be successful, at least as measured by the number of participants, publicity, and or by their presence in the circulation of contemporary (international) art events. However, since they gained publicity mostly in and through art events, it is highly doubtful that the reference of the work (its main objective) will succeed in breaking out of the context of the art-world comma allowing it to become a potential political reality. Nonetheless, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Murdered under the National Socialist Regime in Berlin was inaugurated on 24 October 2012.
This text originally appeared in Visegrad Insight 1 (3) 2013, and has been re-published to commemorate International Roma Day 2014.
Anna Lujza Szász is a sociologist and doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Program at the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest. Currently, she is a research fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, as well as one of the curators of the European Roma Cultural Foundation (ERCF).