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.
November 28th , 2013
At the breakfast table, in the large room, seemingly deserted, Father Desbois gives the final instructions to the team. A research trip is not just a series of interviews. A constant reflection on how best to investigate, to select witnesses, and how to understand and use the information collect livens the team as he speaks. I take in these moments and use them towards my own shortcomings. Valy explains to me the chronology of the deportations. First, about the nomatic Gypsises, from June of 1942, and then of their settling, in September. Some in their wagons, others in trains.
We drive to the village of Marasesti. The landscape is becoming familiar to me: the profile of the huge steelworks of Galati (the largest in Romania), the fields with their crossings of muddy tracks, the houses, each one so different. We arrive at Nikolai’s home; he is 82 years old. A farm with blue walls, a barnyard: the atmosphere is cheerful and serene.
Nikolai is part of the so-called Lingurari, whose job it is to make wooden spoons. He carves them with a knife, as his father and grandfather did before him, and punctuates his sentences by taping the spoon he has just finished on a stump of wood in front of him. His feet – and much of dirt floor – are covered with poplar wood-chips. A hen pecks around them, protesting against the obstacle of our feet.
A bandage of blue fabric is wrapped around Nikolai’s fingers. Ancestral knowledge and decades of practice do not protect one from an accidental slip up…
During the war, German soldiers were stationed at the edge of the village. Nikolai and the other children would pick the candy that the soldiers threw them. He saw those being deported but was not deported himself. The Lingurari do not speak any dialects and do not consider themselves as Gypsies. Antonescu, the Romanian dictator ally of Hitler, did not include them in his target of persecution. Not having been farmers, they could continue their trade during the Soviet period.
The extraordinary variety within the Gypsy world appears decidedly more obvious with each witness.
I cannot talk about the storytellings of the day without mentioning the testimony of Iankulu. His house is located behind the brand-new Protestant temple of Iveşti. At 93 years of age, he lives in serious destitution. He’s sitting up in his bed, which is placed under the window, a red comforter over his legs. We guess that he rarely leaves.
And yet his voice remains strong and his memory alive. He gives us details about his deportation to Transnistria. The meager food distributions. The forced labor in the corn fields. An episode haunts his testimony: the death of his grandfather in the bunker around the fire. “We were trying to warm ourselves up … warm ourselves up…” he repeats. “We didn’t have a chance to bury him, he was left there…” His gaze fades from his eyes as we see before us the wave of pain which is awakened by this memory.
The room is so cold that a frosty vapor escapes his mouth every time he answers. We collect wood and rekindle the stove before leaving. After having said goodbye to us, he returns towards his home. I cannot help but feel that in his thoughts another fire is burning, that of the bunker, around which he sat with his family when his grandfather died.