After the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 and the end of World War II, many Roma who survived had no country to return to, and no new country willing to take them in. An ethnic minority believed to have migrated to Europe from India during the Middle Ages, Roma communities are spread throughout Europe.
There are about 10 to 12 million Roma on the continent today, but many fear being brushed out of the history of the Holocaust — the defining event of modern Europe. For example, Roma survivors, or the offspring of those killed, were for many years ineligible for Holocaust restitution payments because the German government argued that the Nazis had killed them because they were labeled criminals, not because of their race. That policy was reversed in 1979, but by that time many survivors were dead, and it contributed to a persistent public perception that the Roma were not true victims of the Holocaust. "There are still scholars who, when you talk about the Roma Holocaust, say 'no, no, no, that was a separate genocide. The Holocaust was Jews,'" Taba says.
With little about the Roma included in books, movies or teaching materials about the Holocaust, the Roma must tell their own stories. "We've learned about this issue through members of our family, our fathers and grandfathers," says Djordje Jovanovic, 35, research director for the European Roma Rights Center in Toulouse, France, whose great-uncle was among the Roma killed at a concentration camp in Croatia. Many Roma organizations will observe a separate commemoration of Auschwitz, at an event on Aug. 2 to mark the anniversary of the 1944 massacre in the camp of about 3,000 Roma.
The marginalization of Roma extends far beyond how European history is taught. A European Union report last year found that many Roma "live in deep poverty, lacking sufficient access to health care, education and training, housing and employment" and are subjected to widespread discrimination.
Mistreatment of the Roma in Europe can take many forms, from restaurants turning away Roma patrons to schools denying Roma children an adequate education. Jovanovic, 35, was raised in Belgrade, and says that he and other Roma children were made to sit in the back row of the classroom. He says he was "beaten every day" during high school and, after graduating from college, taught at a special-education school. He discovered that many Roma children were placed there even though they had no learning difficulties. "It is just perceived that if you are Roma you are automatically allocated there," Jovanovic says.
Ten years ago, E.U. officials launched what they called a "Decade of Roma Inclusion," obligating member countries to integrate Roma into public schools and social services. But incidents of apparent bias against Roma persist. In October 2013, French police removed a 15-year-old Roma girl from a bus during a school outing and deported her and her family to Kosovo. Last June, a 16-year-old Roma boy was badly assaulted near Paris and was left, unconscious, inside a shopping cart — part of what police say is a recent rise in anti-Roma attacks. Both incidents sparked widespread debate about the Roma's marginal status.
Even without the official acknowledgment of the Roma at events like this week’s Auschwitz commemoration, the open discussion of these issues may be a sign of progress. "At least we can see that there is an awareness that something is supposed to be done," Jovanovic says. "But it will take a long time."