For our first full day in Iasi, we explored an area that rarely receives any visitors—a Roma village on the city edge. As our van turned a corner, apartment buildings quickly gave way to rows of multicolored mansions and rundown shacks. Despite a clear demarcation between the mansions and shacks, both sides belonged to the same Roma village.
Our fleet of five cars must have made a memorable sight for the curious crowd that gathered to investigate the commotion we caused. It soon became clear that villagers did not interact much with outsiders as they marveled at my Asian features and complained about the jeans that women supposedly should not be wearing. Some Roma women even believed my friend was a princess because of the beautiful skirt she wore.
We made our way to the house of a Roma witness who agreed to share his family’s experiences during World War II. Like Jews, the Roma also experienced centuries of persecution in various European countries, which peaked during the Porajmos (the Romani Holocaust). We gathered into the witness’s bedroom and listened as he relayed how the Romanian Gendarmerie removed Roma inhabitants and placed them in labor camps.
After hearing his story, our group travelled to a nearby Jewish cemetery containing gravestones of Iasi’s Jewish community. Individual gravestones ranged from more recent ones containing pictures of the deceased to decaying headstones from centuries ago. At the back end of the cemetery were memorials in the shape of huge tombstones to commemorate the Jews who died on the Iasi death trains. The scale of these tombstones compared to other gravestones in the cemetery seemed to visually signify the scale of death for the Jewish community in Iasi. In merely a few days, a thriving, centuries-old Jewish community had been almost completely wiped out.
Though greatly diminished in numbers, the Jewish community in Iasi still remains today. The most fascinating part of the Romanian leg of our trip for me was seeing the continuation and recovery of communities devastated by genocide. In the villages we visited in Moldova, the Holocaust killed nearly all the Jews there, relegating Jewish life to an ossified past told by outsiders. However, Romania revealed to us a more active narrative for genocide victims—first for Jews, through speaking with a survivor of the Iasi pogrom the previous day, and then for Roma, through visiting the Roma village. In addition, I was intrigued by the decisions that some from both groups made to return to the neighborhoods and communities that previously aided their persecution. When I asked the Holocaust survivor about his reasons for staying, he mentioned not feeling any overt anti-Semitism from the surrounding community; unfortunately, I was unable to glean more information due to time constraints.
The Jewish cemetery next to the Roma village also created a striking image to me—here were two communities with vastly different cultures, traditions, and lifestyles. Yet, the indiscriminate process of otherization and dehumanization resulted in genocide for both groups of people. The experiences of the Roma, Jews, and many other groups of people only demonstrate the need for continued vigilance around the world against human rights abuses and violence.