The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) has joined with Roma groups to urge the Canadian government to formally recognize the Nazis’ systematic murder of the Roma as a genocide
On Aug. 2, for the first time, the MHMC hosted a commemoration of this mass atrocity, underlining the shared history of Jews and Roma (formerly known as Gypsies) as the victims of the Nazis’ racially based persecution.
The commemoration was held in cooperation with Romanipe, a Montreal-based, not-for-profit organization that combats prejudice against the Roma, including in Canada. Its founder and executive director, Dafina Savic, says what happened to the Roma during the Nazi era is little known or largely forgotten, and even denied.
For the past three years, Romanipe and the Canadian Romani Alliance have been lobbying Canada to recognize the genocide and declare Aug. 2 the official day of commemoration.
Savic said the previous Conservative government refused the request. Her organization is hoping its Liberal successor will take a different stance.
Participants in the commemoration were encouraged to write to Immigration Minister John McCallum and to their own member of Parliament to urge Canada’s recognition of the killing of an estimated 500,000 Roma by the Nazis and their collaborators, representing about half the community. A July 18 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, signed by Roma community members and others, was circulated at the event. It expressed their disappointment that Roma survivors were not included in his visit to Auschwitz last month.
Internationally, Aug. 2 is observed by the Roma for remembrance because on that day in 1944 at Auschwitz, 2,897 Roma men, women and children were put to death in the gas chambers.
Several European countries already recognize this day, Savic said, but not Canada or the United States.
MHMC executive director Alice Herscovitch said this is regrettable.
“It is essential to remember the genocide of the Roma,” she said. “We have a responsibility to work with the Roma to ensure that this genocide is not forgotten… Alongside the Jewish communities of Europe, they suffered and were decimated.”
Herscovitch underscored the common history of the Jews and the Roma and the desire to combat hatred, which the Roma “very clearly” continue to face today.
“We are disheartened at how little is said and done to prevent hatred against the Roma people,” she said.
The event also drew attention to Romanipe’s campaign to overturn Bill C-31 passed by the Harper government in 2012, which made significant changes to the refugee determination system. Of most concern are the “designated countries of origin” where it was deemed that persecution is unlikely to take place, therefore making it more difficult for asylum claimants.
The list includes several central and eastern European countries, notably Hungary, from which many Roma have fled in recent years citing discrimination and violence.
Present at the event were rejected refugee claimants Katalin Lakatos and her 17-year-old daughter, Gilda, who are scheduled to be deported back to Hungary on Aug. 11 after living for five years in Canada. They say they fear for their life in Hungary.
Romanipe has been advocating on the family’s behalf. The father and brother were sent back in March, and the women were granted two-month resident permits by McCallum, which have expired.
Romanipe wants the deportation order cancelled and the Lakatos given permanent residence on humanitarian grounds. Savic said this family’s plight illustrates that of many other Roma who have tried to settle in Canada as refugees.
Herscovitch concurred that this part of the law “absolutely must be eliminated.”
An unscheduled speaker at the commemoration was NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who said he was “not surprised” by the Conservative government’s refugee policy but is “disappointed” by Trudeau’s response so far.
Mulcair noted that, as his wife Catherine’s Jewish parents were Holocaust survivors, he is particularly sensitive to the “discrimination and hatred” to which the Roma are subject today.
“I urge the government to acknowledge that they [the Roma], too, were victims of the Holocaust, singled out for who they were and murdered,” Mulcair said.
The commemoration included a screening of the 2011 Canadian documentary A People Uncounted directed by Aaron Yeger, which brings to light that the Nazis began deporting the Roma to concentration camps as early as 1934 and that there was also a “final solution” for these people.
There were also readings of horrific testimonies by three survivors, now living in France, Germany and Hungary.
Nicholas Batzali, a young member of the Montreal Roma community, sang In Auschwitz There is a Great House, about a man thinking of his wife during his ordeal in the death camp. It is thought by scholars that 21,000 Roma perished at Auschwitz.
At the end of the film screening, 85-year-old Jewish Auschwitz survivor Sylvia Weiner broke into sobs as she recalled seeing Roma, including children, taken away to the gas chambers.
“I thought to myself: where is God?… My heart bleeds when I see that film. I’m glad [the Roma genocide] was brought up tonight.”
After the event, Shloime Perel, whose mother lost many relatives in the Holocaust, was motivated to plead with Ottawa to relent. “Gilda and Katalin are very good, serious people. There is no reason they shouldn’t be able to stay in Canada… I hope this government will end the Harper government’s policy of deporting Roma,” he wrote to McCallum, Trudeau and MP Anthony Housefather.