Holocaust Memorial Day: Pact of Silence

“Pact of Silence”: Remembering Roma Holocaust

Written by Annamária Pšenková

The balance between remembering and forgetting the past seems to be disrupted with the tendency to clash in the present times with raised concerns of finding the golden means to not repeat the past, to not forget but reconcile, forgive and move forward. Memory predominantly serves as the essential tool for official institutions to deal with the past in terms of remembering, which is perceived as the effective narrative within the international community. Although memory is opposed by academic scholars who point out the presence of uncertainty, instability, and inconsistency in it; the prevailing argument is based on the reality that society chooses which memories are important to be remembered (Assmann, 2008).

Indeed, history is written notably by winners, whereas losers have memory. Therefore, the memory pursues the ability to fill the ethical deficiency and contribute to the archives to fulfil justice and prevent inhuman treatment in the present and future times. The importance of memory in our present politics is particularly needed for a shift towards reconciliation, which can be done only by being responsive to the past (Kusa, n.d.).

The atrocious crimes committed in the past hold the duty to be remembered within our social and political spheres. By creating the space for memory which has been inherently tied to past traumatic experiences, one adheres to individual dignity, recognition, acceptance and responsibility to provide mechanisms to protect human rights. Therefore, Holocaust Remembrance Day demonstrates the momentous occasion to widen the circle of empathy and fulfil its goal of making human beings comprehend the brutality committed by an irrational, inhuman political system. Holocaust Remembrance Day was established as an international day to honour all victims of the Holocaust – Jews, Roma, LGBTQ+ and disabled people. However, this paper aims to dedicate it to Roma victims whose victimhood status has usually been forgotten.

The Holocaust is considered to be a pillar of European identity and whereas people tend to only connect it with Jews, the Roma were also part of this abhorrent policy. Thus the Roma Holocaust is referred to as the “Forgotten Holocaust”. Nazi Germany committed genocide against Roma and Sinti that caused indescribable physical, cultural and psychological harm. After the war, victims have been struggling to gain recognition and compensation for their persecution during the war. Roma and Sinti groups are victims of discrimination until this very day and have not received any reparations in some countries such as Slovakia. The lack of political will to approach the Roma Holocaust and the lack of knowledge about the horrendous events are notably missing in public discourse.

The Genocide committed by Nazi Germany was the outcome of their public policies and political structures that aimed to eliminate everyone who differed from “pure race”. The whole process started after Germany withdrew from the League of Nations. The decision taken by Nazi Germany posed a real threat to any minority living in their territory, based on the nature of minority rights that can be secured either by the state or by the foreign power through international treaties (Rosting, 2017). A similar scenario is happening right now as the Russian Federation announced plans to withdraw from the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. It is not strictly limited to the past, eventually, it can happen in our present times, therefore, remembering the past is immensely important. (Hillebrecht, 2022) As Nazi Germany was not bound by any international treaty, the process of securitization had begun in the forms of sterilization, persecution, medical experiments, euthanasia, and concentration camps that emerged into genocide. The 11 million Jews were eradicated, of which 6 million were killed in concentration camps and between 200 000 to 500 000 Roma people were murdered by the Nazi regime and their collaborators (MRG, 2020).

The story that illustrates the brutality committed by Nazis is about Rita Prigmore and her twin sister Rolanda. Rita and Rolanda were born in the Sinti family in 1943 in Würzburg. The same year earlier Nazi Germany adopted a law – “racial law applied on Gypsies” that forced Romani women to undergo compulsory sterilisation. As a punishment for refusing it, they were sent directly to Auschwitz. Rita and Rolanda’s mother were forced by Nazis to undergo abortion right after the sterilisation, however after they realised she was carrying twins, Nazis let her give birth. After their birth, Rita’s mother was forced to sign a paper to give her children to the hands of Nazis for medical studies. When she returned to the hospital to see her daughters, she found Rolanda’s body lying in the bathtub dead. Thanks to the Red Cross, Rita was reunited with her mother in 1944 (Zafeiri, 2014). Forced sterilisations were a common practice even under communism in Czechoslovakia, where Romani women were forcibly sterilised without their consent. Only last year some women in the Czech Republic could receive compensation for such barbaric practice (Hutt, 2021).

Unfortunately, an abominable act was committed, and it has had a destructive impact on the whole of European society in the forms of police brutality, structural antigypsyism, and institutional racism that continues until now. These practices were happening even before the Holocaust, however, during the Nazi occupation it was legitimised and now it is even harder to get rid of them. Since the reality of the past cannot be changed, the question that remains raised is how to approach the past concerning the principle of memory and truth that should be leading towards reconciliation.

For dealing with such a horrendous past Assmann (2010) presented four models for overcoming it, which relied on Margalit’s two paradigmatic solutions – either remembering or forgetting that is inevitably intertwined with the memory. The models are as follows: dialogic forgetting; remembering to prevent forgetting; remembering to forget; dialogic remembering aim is to explain the ways how to approach the past (Assmann, 2010).

The first approach – dialogic forgetting – was principally oriented on solving the issue with pragmatic “silence”, especially in the past. The state did not possess the power to influence human memories, but it could have claimed control over the public presentation of the past. Assmann (2010) has pointed out the case of post-war Germany, where the public sphere was generally shaped around the pact of silence to support the economic and political reconstruction of the state. Unfortunately, this scenario is certainly applied to the Roma minority in many member states of the European Union until now.

The other one – remember to never forget – has been adopted as another model by acknowledging that the first model – dialogic forgetting though – was a remedy for symmetric situations (mutual forms of violence) however it does not function as a cure for atrocious asymmetric situations (powerful perpetrator attack defenceless victims) (Assmann, 2010). The shift that has been made from forgetting to remembering has enormously changed our moral sensibility. As one of the responses to that, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was adopted by the United Nations Assembly in 2005 to honour the victims and signify the liberation from Nazi Germany (International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2022).

The third model might seem to be a bit controversial – remembering to forget – but the term “forget” should not be taken literally. Remembering in this context is perceived not as a primary goal but as a medium that aims towards recognition and reconciliation. Therefore, “forgetting” is understood as an act of reconciling and putting the past behind to focus on a common future.

Finally, the fourth model – dialogic remembering – functions as a transition of the history of violence into recognition of guilt and is applicable first and foremost for states (Assmann, 2010). The shared knowledge, memories and history of past traumatic experiences let us coexist together peacefully.

Along with these four models, Assmann (2008) elaborates further on the memory that functions in two ways – whether the memory has relevance or potential concerning state position (Assmann, 2008). Roma people in the Eastern bloc countries have not received compensation and reparations for atrocities that were committed against them. The non-recognition of the “Forgotten Holocaust” demonstrates the irrelevance of the event to be remembered in our society. As Eagleston (2004) described, memory has the power of identifying, naming or legitimising things around us (Eagleston, 2004). Identifying and recognizing the victims of the Roma Holocaust society led to legitimising the importance of the past traumatic experience on the national and international dimensions.

The Roma minority is frequently left behind when it comes to the memory of the Holocaust. Besides all other atrocious deeds committed against the Roma minority, the cruelty undertaken upon Romani people by Nazi Germany killed the sense of humanity within our societies. The Roma and Sinti have been experiencing centuries of discrimination and racism that have survived until now. According to Assmann’s (2008) theories, the memory of the Roma Holocaust in this matter has no potential or relevance for society to be acknowledged and remembered. A clear example is the absence of an adequate curriculum concerning the Roma minority in the educational system or the lack of general knowledge in public discourse. There is eloquent evidence of stagnation in terms of the integration of the Roma population into the society that is encouraged by institutionalised racism. Even though memory is considered a moral foundation of our democratic societies, it is institutionalised from the position of power: in a sense, it is shaped by the interest and needs of the actors possessing the power (Kusa, n.d.).

All things considered, the crucial elements that play an important role in the remembering process of the Romani past must be noted. The victims hardly encountered any compensation or recognition from the traumatic past which illustrates the ongoing racism in European countries. There is a general lack of political will to address and solve the issue, concerning the European and national institutions, which unofficially demonstrates how discrimination is deeply institutionalised. The outspoken evidence of the ongoing racism is illustrated in real cases – sterilisation was a common practise after the Nazi regime fell, and police brutality is not being taken seriously regarding Romani people (Stanislav Tamas and currently the Greek Murder). And as a reaction to the issues mentioned above and consideration of Assmann’s (2010) four models of overcoming the horrendous past and memory theory, the Romani people remain within the first model – the “pact of silence”, as a consequence of being continually forgotten as victims of genocide and other crimes against humanity, due to holding no potential or relevance towards states positions to be remembered.


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Kusá, D. (n.d.). Introduction: Regimes of Memory. BISLA: International Conflict and Cooperation Reader. pp. 340–359

Roma/Sinti. (June 30, 2020). Minority Rights Group. https://minorityrights.org/minorities/romasinti/?fbclid=IwAR0oypfy0sxA8e46LtvPwzAUxffYBBIzuKblWe52HsSEchCP4uGfOIGHlVo

Rosting, H. (May 4, 2017). Protection of Minorities by League of Nations. American Journal of International Law. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law

Zafeiri, A. (August 6, 2014). They Survived Genocide. Now, They Have a Message for Us All. Open Society Foundation. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/two-survivors-roma-genocide-share-their-stories


Holocaust Memorial Day: Pact of Silence – ERGO Network

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