Editor’s Note: The post below is signed by Emmanuel Cortey, Deputy Director of Yahad, who is accompanying the research trip to Romania (Nov. 22nd – Dec. 6th), investigating the persecution of Gypsies during the Second World War . Emmanuel Cortey joined the Yahad research team on Nov. 26th.
Wednesday, November 27th
Through the window of my room, I see rows of houses with colorful roofs. Their forms remind me of those Japanese paper structures, called Origami. Quite ordinary and at the same time quite strange, this is a good prelude to my first day of the research trip in Romania.
With my breakfast eaten, we are on our way. The horizon is green and distant, no barbed-wire barriers or fences. These Romanian landscapes retain a Soviet mood.
Small square room. In one corner, the bed, a mattress placed upon four blocks, covered with colorful blankets and cushions. Wet linen is sitting in a water-basin. The team members’ placement in the room is a well rehearsed choreography. Georgi, with deep blue eyes beneath his threadbare astrakhan hat, is patiently smoking a cigarette. He is calderash (Kalderaš). This Roma subgroup, formerly nomadic, traditionally works with metal. His father made boilers, saucepans (it is actually from the word ‘saucepan’ that the name calderash comes from, Valy informs me), his mother was a fortune teller. Father Desbois’ questions are very specific and very precise. Georgi answers, sometimes scratching his forehead beneath his hat in concentration. He tells us about the deportation “to the Boug,” a river around which were the bunkers of the Gypsies deported to Transnistria. Before their departure, they had to gather all of their belongings. They were promised land, work, and housing. Jews were made to gather as well, but without baggage .
Georgi tells us about the long months of survival in the bunker, the food that was procured however they could, and their reliance on the venality of the guards. Close by was the ‘Lager’ where the Jews were locked up. “They all died one right after the other” of hunger, typhus, etc. After these hardships, the surviving Gypsies were sent to Romania. It is on the way back that Georgi lived through the worst. His father, in trying to protect his mother from rape by a soldier, was shot alongside her. Nataliza, his elder sister, barely 16 years old, was also killed for refusing to give herself to the soldiers.
The excitement of getting new information on the persecution is mixed with the emotion caused by their violence. When lunchtime comes, it is a welcomed break. The mititei (small rolls of minced meat) and the mamaliga (polenta porridge) are delicious. After taking a moment to check in with our colleagues in Paris and do a final verification of our route, we leave.
Our next destination is the village of Iviesti. The second witness interview of the day is given by a couple: Georcelu and Sylvia. They are also Calderash. They describe in detail the wagons that their families had, the tents they contained, their tools,etc. Sylvia wears a traditional headdress: braids weaved with ribbons and medallions.
Soon, their family members and neighbors come in and join us in their tiny room. They cut in with remarks, they too want to respond to the interviewer’s questions. I cannot help but think of the famous scene of the Marx Brothers, where a dozen people come in and out of a boat cabin, creating a joyful and noisy chaos. But with the calm returned, the interview continues.
Georcelu and Sylvia were also deported to Transnistria. They stayed there for 2 years and 7 months. They give many details about life in the bunkers, especially about the food rations. Fifty meters away was the Lager of the Jews, surrounded by barbed wire “so tight that even a bird could not pass through.”
Here again, the story of when they were sent back is poignant. Death by exhaustion was not uncommon. “The carts just rolled over the corpses!”
Looking for witnesses, of course, is a major difficulty of the trip. Some refuse to talk, others disappear before our arrival. “We run after death” says Father Desbois. The car takes off into the darkness of the Romanian countryside and these words, far from discouraging us, reignite our will to continue.