The post below is signed by Robin Massee, Executive Director of American Friends of Yahad- In Unum, who is accompanying the research trip to Romania.
August 26, 2015
We gather with Victoria at breakfast to review pictures from the interviews of the day before, choosing a few to post on YIU’s Facebook page. Sharing the investigation as we go gives the team an outlet for the grueling days and brings people and friends into the fold…
The investigators have been out for a couple of hours already, searching for Roma witnesses willing to speak. In this region surrounding Sibiu, the team has encountered Roma survivors who were deported to Transnistria.
Investigating the fate of the Roma here is a very different story from testimonies gathered on the research trip I accompanied to the Odessa region in Ukraine two years ago. We speak with survivors of deportation and hellish conditions, who are telling outsiders for the first time of their experience—they are not only eyewitnesses to the crime, they lived it.
The only reason they are speaking to us is because the research team is made up of Roma. Without these dedicated colleagues who gain the trust of the witnesses by speaking their language and being ‘of them’, we would not be able to piece together this mostly unknown part of history.
In this region, the Roma are Calderari and were semi-nomadic before the war. They lived mostly in tents and traveled from village to village plying their craft: in this case, making copper and steel pots to sell. As they all say: one day we were told to gather our things and were ‘moved’ to Transnistria. I come to understand from the interviews that these people were used as ‘forced labor’ there, living in terrible conditions, many dying of sickness and hunger, while others are shot for taking an onion from a field or attempting to escape from the camp where they were interned…
Through gentle questioning to uncover the story, Valy, the team leader, asks several questions about what life was like before the war… This is important since so much of who the Roma people are and were is cloaked in misunderstanding and falsehoods.
The questioner then moves us to the war period and the deportation: columns of people walking, carrying their belongings, forced to go to Transnistria. They started in the Spring and got there when “the snow was falling on the ground”… They were hungry… Some were allowed to sell their wares in the villages they passed through… Others exchanged goods to survive… Many died along the way from cold, typhoid and other illnesses while others died of hunger…
Victor, 80, chokes up… He must stop speaking. He tells us his sister died during the forced march. The memory so real so many years later… A family of eight children with his mother and father. Two years later, only Victor and his mother returned to this village, Avrig.
Beyond the terrible testimonies, I am struck by the caring our team shows for these survivors we meet; the teamwork necessary to find them and then, at the willingness of these survivors to speak. They understand the importance of Yahad’s work, of transmitting this past to outsiders. They willingly agree that Yahad may share their stories.
Father Desbois has trained several team leaders in what we now call Yahad’s ‘methodology’ of investigation. It is fascinating to see how each individual team leader has incorporated the core tenets of the method (uncovering evidence, using criminal investigative methods, one question at a time, seemingly banal, pushing towards the truth—a ‘cold case’ investigation so to speak) and adapted it to his or her own personality.
Valy, this trip’s team leader, encouraged Paris to be the lead questioner for one interview today. It was his first time in that role. He brought out a touching and important testimony from the witness. It was wonderful to witness Paris on his way to becoming himself a team leader. Bravo!
The frustrations are many—we arrived at the home of a witness we had been told was ready to speak. From behind a gate we hear her saying “no, I do not want to’. The investigators probing, trying to change her mind. A man appears, her son, and a discussion unfolds. Later, when we are back in the car, I am told he said there were 11 brothers and they did not want her to speak. So even had we convinced this one, there were ten more to go! Many Roma are suspicious, have been taken advantage by people before, or want money to speak…
But the rewards are plentiful, as when we are welcomed into a home, when stories are shared that will help put this history in perspective and bring dignity to the people we meet.
And that keeps us going another day.