A project that allows not only to hear but also to see the voices of the past

4 November 2017, Kremenchuk, Ukraine

About the project

This project is one of the first attempts to open the veil of history and look at the tragedy that happened to the Roma during the Second World War from a different, somewhat unusual, point of view. The focus of our study is the theme of genocide in the memories of children whose experience has long been ignored and remained unclaimed.

In the text of the study, we look for answers to many questions.

Why were the memories of Roma children almost ignored? How and what do these witnesses of history remember? Do we need to remember these events and why? What lessons should humanity learn from this experience? And how its significance can be conveyed to modern society?

An attempt to answer the last question was the graphic part of the project. With the help of art, we try to make the voices of the past visible and understandable, turning them into visual images.

In the centre of each poster is an object or symbol that is vividly engraved in the memories of informants and was often the key to salvation in the harsh conditions of military life.

Thus, we wanted not only to convey to a wide audience the few unique stories that have been saved, but also to bring the problem of war and childhood to another level of comprehension, where the experience of survival in a hostile environment for a child of the Second World War period could be universal and reflect the stories of hundreds and thousands of other children not only in the wars of the past, but also in the armed conflicts of the present. 

The project should also draw attention to the problems of childhood in the current conditions of increasing the level of xenophobia and romaphobia, when, the smallest inhabitants, children, suffer most of all due to the inaction of the relevant authorities and the aggravation of manifestations of right-wing extremism in the spontaneous settlements of some socially excluded Roma groups during attacks and arsons.

Natalia Tomenko

“The problem of memory preservation bothers me to the depths of my heart, because it’s also a part of my personal history. The theme of the Romani genocide came into the life of our family during the Second World War. Fortunately, the memories given to me by my grandfather are full of humanity, which erases borders despite nationality and ethnic origin. But this is rather an exception to the rules, because the Genocide brought misery, suffering and death to the homes of many Roma.”

Volodymyr Yakovenko

“My family is no exception, and it also suffered, like many other Roma families, during the war. The memory of difficult times is kept in many families. But nowadays it often seems that people have forgotten the lessons of the past. This is eloquently evidenced by events that take place in the world, including Ukraine. For many years, the Roma have been silent about the calamities that fell on their fate during the war. Now we are surrounded by hostility, xenophobia, attacks! It’s time to remind us that we have once passed through these troubles…”

Tetiana Storozhko

I began to be interested in the Roma’s stories about the ancient times from my adolescence. So I learned that wasn’t described in the school textbooks and that wasn’t discussed during history lessons. Realising that, perhaps, besides me, these stories no one else would hear, intuitively I began to record them. Now, I quite consciously understand that it’s important not only to collect memories. Everything must be done so that thousands of human stories won’t be obliterated, along with their joys, pain and suffering. These voices must sound as loudly as possible, warning people of the danger of new catastrophes.

The topic of the Roma genocide for a long time remained on the edge of scientific research. And although with the achievement of independence by Ukraine, the topic of the Second World War appeared in the centre of numerous social discussions, and a significant amount of works concerning military operations on Ukrainian lands has been accumulated in the field of historical science, the Roma topics in these studies have not been effectively elucidated. Prohibition of the so-called “ethnic” historical studies disappeared only with the collapse of the Soviet Union. At present time, the interest in Roma issues is revived within international scientific circles, but it will take a long time for domestic scholars to focus on them equally with other topics.

This project is called to return the history another “forgotten” face – the face of Roma children, who during the Second World War, along with their families, became victims of mass extermination by the Nazi occupation regime.

The collection of memories of the witnesses of the Romani tragedy began at the time when a significant part of the Roma, who were the adults during wartime, had already died. The children who witnessed military operations are now, in fact, the last generation, which can personally share life experience in wartime.

One of the largest initiatives under which such evidence was collected was the project of the Visual History Foundation “Survivors of the Shoah”, founded by S. Spielberg. Today it is one of the largest digital video libraries in the world. Compared to other collections of the fund, the Romani one is relatively small and comprises 407 interviews. Search work was conducted in 18 countries, and the collected evidence is sounded in 17 languages. The lion’s share of memories was recorded in Poland (181) and Ukraine (135). These materials formed the basis of our project.

In the conditions of occupation life gains a new rhythm, the established social ties are destroyed or radically changed, the other values and goals come to the forefront, among which, first of all – the preservation of life. Namely the children become the most vulnerable category of the population, and those who got the so-called “special attitude” from the warring parties had the smallest chances of salvation.

Informants in their stories often turn to plots of suffering, wandering and constant struggle for survival. The brightest line through almost all the records is the subject of family relationships; the memories of orphanhood and forced premature ageing are emotionally complex. The fate of completely orphaned children was much more complicated, because they had to take care of themselves. One had to escape from the annoying cold; nothing could be done with a constant famine and nobody could help.

Lack of food was a major problem with which the Roma, like many other inhabitants of the occupied territories, faced every day. The retreat of the Red Army from the territory of Ukraine was accompanied by the use of the tactics of “burnt earth”. In order to feed themselves (and sometimes adult members of their families), children had to beg or work hard.

Among the most popular narrations is about interaction with the non-Roma neighbours and occupiers; forced removal or hiding. In order to survive, it was necessary to carefully conceal one’s ethnic origin. Occupants often found it difficult to identify the Roma, so they asked for help from local henchmen. But this principle also acted in the opposite direction – sometimes the patronage of someone from the local non-Roma population could be enough to save entire families even on the brink of death.

By the way, it should be noted that not all occupiers in the memories of children acted as potential enemies who brought fear. Some Germans, who lived in houses of civilian population, helped them with food and household goods and so on.

Despite the vulnerability, the children still managed to survive. It is difficult for us to speak at least about the approximate number of such cases, because those memories that we managed to fix are just a drop in the sea of life stories that got into the storm of wartime. But along with this it’s worth remembering those who have never managed to escape and whose stories have never been told.

Today, even those few memories that were recorded and stored in the archives of scientific institutions and public organisations remain unclaimed – and above all, by the Roma community itself. These materials are used mainly in the academic environment and for the general public – they are only silent voices of the past. Such a situation can not contribute to the effective solution of the problem of preservation of historical memory. And without communication with history it is impossible to break the boundaries based on numerous stereotypes and biases, and to overcome the anti-Roma sentiments that are common in modern society. This project is called to start changes in this situation.

Each selected fragment of the interview is a story about survival strategies: searching for food, livelihoods, about support and salvation, heavy losses and the severe routine of the war which faced the smallest witnesses and participants – children.

It was important for us not to be limited by the usual illustration of stories in creating graphic images. In the focus of each story are bright things, the characters that became key ones in these memories. On the one hand, it will make it possible to convey to a wide audience the few unique stories that have been saved. On the other hand, it will bring the problem of war and childhood to another level of comprehension, where the experience of survival in a hostile environment for a child of the Second World War period could be universal and reflect the stories of hundreds and thousands of other children not only in the wars of the past, but also in the armed conflicts of the present, in particular, topical for us – war in the East of Ukraine.

In different countries, the tragedy that happened to the Roma was different, but what was definitely common to all the numerous groups in different countries – suffering of children. We hope that the search for common symbols and ideas about the past will give an impetus to the development of new forms of representation of the Roma of their own history in the public space. The project should also draw attention to the problems of childhood in the current conditions of increasing the level of xenophobia and romaphobia, when, the smallest inhabitants, children, suffer most of all due to the inaction of the relevant authorities and the aggravation of manifestations of right-wing extremism in the spontaneous settlements of some socially excluded Roma groups during attacks and arsons.

During the war, let me think, there were six of us in the family. There were three of us, and there was one and … – five. It was six of us. One girl died. So, five left. The elder sister was a babysitter for us all and prepared food. She could not go to school, because our father didn’t permit it.

And I went to ask for food around the village. People gave a piece of bread. Thanks, they did not refuse. Lard was rarely given. Potatoes were given. I put them all in a bag and carried them home.

In winter we asked for food. We asked for food during the war. We went door-to-door and asked for food. We put everything into the bag that people had given. So, there was some food in the bag.

My grandfather often recollected the story of his childhood, as a German officer saved his family! This event took place at the end of the war, when the German army retreated. My grandfather’s parents lived at that time in Kremenchuk; a small town situated on the banks of the Dnipro River, and is therefore divided into two parts by the river. The only crossing of the river was a bridge.

Leaving Kremenchuk, the German army sent its soldiers and equipment through the bridge. When the crossing to another bank had been completed, the German command decided to blow up the bridge. A crowd of civilians gathered near the bridge who wanted to move to the other side, as they knew that there soon would be a Soviet army. But Nazi soldiers and policemen (who were Ukrainians) did not let anyone out.

In that crowd there was my grandfather with my parents. He was about 2 years old at that time. He sat on the father’s cart. Suddenly police came to them. They realised that my grandfather’ family was the Romani one. The fight started, the policemen began to drag the members of grandfather’s family to the side, far from the road, because they wanted to shoot them. To this hustle a German officer came to find out what was happening. The German officer ordered the policemen to stop!

My grandfather’s memory was captured with a scene when an officer grabbed him into his arms and began to play with him; he threw the child up in the air and said “Kinder, kinder”. Then the German came to my great-grandfather and showed him a photo with his children. In some way, he explained great-grandfather that he had a few minutes to move the bridge. The officer ordered the soldiers to let Roma go to the other side.

My grandfather’s family quickly, driving a horse with all the might, passed the bridge. A few minutes after they were on the other side of the Dnipro and moved a little bit from the bridge, there was an explosion, the bridge was destroyed. That is, the members of my family were the last ones who crossed the Kremenchuk bridge built by the Germans for crossing.

So, when the Germans occupied Kyiv, we had to make a living. I could not sit at home, because we had nothing to eat, otherwise we would starve to death. My mother was expecting a child … Yes. And my brother, he was a typical Jew. He was like a Jew, so he could not leave the apartment to go to the street. And I was a little less alike. I was more like an Assyrian, being a kid. And next to us, not far from there lived a large Assyrian family. There were eight children in the family. They were the same age as me.

So we were similar to each other. It was impossible to distinguish me in this crowd. And I, together with them, in order to earn some piece of bread, I cleaned Germans’, Italians’, Magyars’ boots.

It was … Here, where now … On Tolstoy Square, where is right now the former restaurant “Sport”. Here in this, near this restaurant, and then there was a restaurant only for the Germans, and we cleaned the Germans’ boots. We sat about ten or fifteen, so that. All dark ones and all looked alike. So with such chests, two brushes and all cleaned their boots. I could not walk down the street, because they would immediately arrest me, because I looked like a Jew as two peas. But here in the masses of these Assyrians I somehow hid myself and I was not noticeable.

I could earn at least a piece of bread. I could make money so that … It was impossible to buy milk for my sister, but she needed milk, because she was a newborn. And my mother was sick; she lost milk, paralysis of the right side. And there was such a task for me when I was ten-eleven years old.

And the Jews lived in our city. One family lived right by us: a man, a woman, two children. Later they left for Israel. The old man hid them in the basement. And the Roma from the street were beaten hard. They were put together, taken to the mines and shot. And some of them were hanged on the street, at the marketplace. They were shot, the blood flowed directly by the river, about two kilometres along the highway. At that time there was a highway paved with stones. It was terrible. All, all were shot: the Jews, the Gadjos, doctors, and teachers. Partisans killed one German leader. So after that about thirty men were shot. Every third man. One, two, and the third one was shot.

There were partisans in the city. One of them lived in our house. I did not know, but my brother Hryshka knew. This was the boy of the old neighbour. He made a hole in the oven. You know the oven. He made a pit in the stove and hid there. And my brother knew it, and said: “Halia, go to the old one, sweep the yard!” And there, the Germans smoked cigarettes and threw away cigarette butts. And we together with girls swept the litter, gathered everything, but, God forbid, to raise a cigarette. They didn’t allow it, and became very angry. They did not want to be taken after them. And we swept, picked up the rubbish, and then sorted it out. I gave it to that partisan. And who knew? The parents were beaten, and there were two of us.

And the third sister, but I tell you, she froze to death. She went to beg for bread and froze. We brought her, the dead, on sleighs. Where could we put her? Frost was forty degrees, and we put her in the outbuilding. And dogs came up and tore her. So … (gesticulates).

The door was only in the house, but there wasn’t in the veranda. Brother took it off, chopped and put into the stove, burned. There was nothing to heat.

As soon as the Germans entered, they immediately exclaimed: “Zigeuner” (Roma). It was not like they put a guard – no. But it was already on us and the Jews. They did not gather us, but they ordered not to go anywhere – registration would take place. Those children whose fathers were Jews and their mothers were Russian, or vice versa, they stuck blue stars on the chests. In my opinion, this star had six corners.

For example, in Kakhovka, we saw these stars on the chests. And these Jews already … Nowhere … They gathered my friends and me for re-registration.

I was taken from their house, from their yard. When they came to take us, we were in the yard, playing. There were no fences. We lived as one family. And they took me along with them.

Jews were led to execution. And I was together with them. I went together with the children, with my friend Lily holding her hand. I did not even reach the corner – the policeman. He pulled me up and said, “Where are you going, Lena?” And I said, “With Lily.” He said, “Go home.” And he put a jacket on me…

And he shouted, “Get out of here quickly.” And I ran away, ran into the yard. Of course, the parents did not go out. I ran into the yard and then immediately entered the room and we did not leave it again. Neighbours said not to go anywhere.

I remember the Germans retreating. It was quiet at first. When they retreated, we didn’t even hear that the Germans had left the house. And when mom got up at dawn, she said: “Hey, Nikolay, it is quiet in our village. And before that they wanted to shoot us. ”

Yes, my mother told me this already, in my mother’s words that there was a covered car and we had to be shot that day. The gipsies were gathered in order to be shot. 

Yes, we were already on guard, the mother was near the window … And then, when morning had come, she said, “I would get up, I would see if there is that car.” The car disappeared, but last night we were waiting for the end. And when they left, she said, “Children, it’s not here, everything is quiet”.

And then, when it began to dawn, when they came out already, well, it wasn’t already, almost half of the village was freed, so they began to burn it … They burned warehouses with bread and then stood with guns – if you want bread, go into the fire and take it, but they did not permit the fire to be extinguished. So my father came into the flaming hut to get bread. Well, it was already burned, I remember that. And only when they had burned everything, then they left.

Project presentation

A travelling exhibition “Through my mind to your eyes” was first presented in Kyiv on the 22nd of December, 2018.

During the meeting, historian and researcher of the Roma genocide Mykhailo Tiahlyi shared the results of his scientific research on the course of genocide in Ukraine.

Roma activist V. Sukhomlyniv spoke about his experience of recording interviews in the framework of the Shoah Foundation project and communicating with some of the heroes of the exhibition.

Our team talked about modern approaches and forms of working with memory.

Interactive lesson in Nizhyn

The next destination on the travel route of the exhibition was Nizhyn, located in the Chernihiv region. Here we were hosted by the head of the local Roma public organisation “Zor”, Maryna Bublyk. With her support, we managed to organise an interactive lesson with Roma children in one of the local schools.

But how can one talk about a difficult tragic topic with an audience whose age ranges from 8 to 14? A variety of approaches to non-formal education were introduced – elements of storytelling, art and group work, where seniors took responsibility and helped younger fellows with tasks.

The next stop is Budapest

Budapest, Hungary

Central European University 14 May 2019