Lions and Lambs; or, My How Times Have Changed

Wow. I mean, just wow. It’s not exactly the lamb lying down with the lion, but still . . . .

Everyone knows that the Nazis set out to eliminate the Jews from Europe, and that at the Wannsee Conference they decided, in great formality, that the “final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe” entailed the industrialized slaughter of them all. What sometimes gets a bit lost in that pile of 6,000,000 corpses is the fact that the Jews were not the only minority ethnic group which the Germans decided to rid Europe of along the way. Foremost among those were what English-speakers know as “Gypsies,” and which the Europeans commonly know by their two principal sub-groups: the Roma and the Sinti. 

Even more so than the Jews, the Gypsies were perennially the outsiders wherever they lived. They eschewed fixed abodes, moving forever back and forth, as opportunity or oppression pulled or pushed them. With no places of regular employment, no established trades, no towns, no shtetls, no ghettos, no financial relationships to wherever they happened to be encamped, they had limited contact with the societies among whom they moved. In truth they weren’t always the best of neighbors, earning a reputation for having more than a little difficulty with the intricacies of meum and tuum. They were spread over most of Europe (James Herriot describes in one of his books treating a horse for a family of Gypsies in north Yorkshire in the 1930s) but the Roma were principally concentrated in the southeast, in Bulgaria and Romania, with the Sinti concentrated in the central areas, mostly Germany and Austria. 

According to Wikipedia, anywhere up to 1,500,000 Gypsies were killed off during the war, frequently being shot on sight by the Einsatzgruppen. Their exact status took some determining; it wasn’t until later on that the Nazis decided that they too needed to be slaughtered; Eichmann plumped for resolving the Gypsy “problem” contemporaneously with (and in identical fashion to) the Jewish “problem.” Eventually the determination was made that the Gypsies were of so different a sort of human that they were dispensable. Were it not so grim and so real, and were it not for the fact that these deliberations in fact resulted in the murders of thousands upon thousands of real live people, one could almost chuckle at the notion of some pettifogging German bureaucrat screwing up his brow and laboring mightily to decide just what sort of being a Gypsy was. The mental image has something of the farcical element of Monty Python to it . . . except for the fact that it wasn’t farce at all, but rather in deadly earnest. 

Again, according to Wikipedia, there now live several million Gypsies of the various groups, concentrated mostly in their traditional host countries. They remain largely outsiders there, forever among the poorest, with the highest rates of all manner of social pathologies, and exciting the same antipathies they always have. Of course, the communist tyrannies of that part of Europe did their level best to destroy the traditional Gypsy nomadic life (it’s much harder to bugger around someone who’s perfectly fine packing up and living out of a horse-drawn wagon), herding them into concrete warrens of housing projects. They also subjected their populations to coerced sterilizations. With the fall of communism the money to provide/enforce a sedentary lifestyle for a people for whom a sedentary life is utterly foreign to their culture went away, but of course their traditional forms of existence had long since been disrupted, first by the war and its slaughters and then by 45 years of communist tyranny. And being outsiders they have found themselves once more convenient scapegoats in societies the fabric of which was itself rent and frayed, almost beyond recovery. 

As something of an aside, Americans – in fact Westerners in general – don’t seem to realize just how fragile, how frangible, their civil existence actually is. The ability to have a house full of relatively nice stuff, out in full view through windows over which no bars are installed, and through which any reasonably enterprising burglar could smash a brick, climb in, and annihilate in a matter of an hour or two the accumulated tangible wealth of decades of toil, but not having to entertain an expectation that such will happen if vigilance is relaxed for a moment, is a precious gift. We forget what so easily happens when the bonds of family, culture, and religion are forcibly sundered by organized violence.  So we don’t always understand well what happened in Eastern Europe from 1914 through 1990, and how the aftershocks of those awful decades continue to crumble, undermine, and sweep away human dignity. 

Now, what’s left of the societies where the Roma have lived for centuries are slowly collapsing into poverty and chaos. What is there left for the Roma in those places? The worse things get there, the more likely becomes renewed repression. They’re not ethnically kin to their host societies and needn’t expect any successful degree of assimilation. The degree of prosperity and security – modest as it was, and however precarious in comparison to Western Europe – that enabled them to support their traditional existence is dead nearly these 70 years. 

But there remains one place in Europe where there is relative prosperity, where there is relative stability, where there is money to be had, in some cases for the asking: Germany. And so, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports, thousands upon thousands of Roma (and other desperately poor from that area of Europe) are coming to the land that within living memory sent the Einsatzgruppen their way. The Germans are begging the source countries please to do more to integrate them into their own societies so they won’t keep coming and draining the coffers. That’s cute, really: We want you to assimilate these people we don’t want to assimilate. The Germans are even willing to use EU funds to promote the integration of the Roma into their “home” populations (have to love the notion that they think it’s so important that they’re willing to spend someone else’s money to do the trick). 

But you have to savor the irony of a people flooding to the country that made a good start at slaughtering them.  Who would have thought it, in May, 1945?

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