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 29, 2015
At the airport in Timisoara, going back to France.
These three days have gone by seemingly so fast, but as I think back on them: “What a road we traveled”, both literally and figuratively…
Thursday was ’travel’ day as we left Sibiu and headed for Arad where the team had planned its next investigations. Travel days during a Yahad investigation are ‘down’ time: the morning was open, the first time off the team had enjoyed in a week. Then we drove through the countryside for 3 to 4 hours, stopping for lunch on the way.
Arriving in Arad, we settled in the hotel. Valy and his team met with an ‘intermediary’, a friend of a friend, who was to give them tips on where to start investigating the next day. These encounters are crucial for the team to be pointed in the right direction. The next day the investigators were to take off at 7:30am and start knocking on doors to find witnesses with the information provided by the ‘middle men’. We, camera person, investigator, script, team leader, were leaving an hour later at 8:30am, going to the location of the first witness.
We drive out of the city towards small villages. Our first witness—and our only witness of the day as it would turn out—was Ana, 81 years old.
Ana and her family were sedentary Roma. They were settled in this village, Cermei, side by side and interacting with Romanians. Ana’s family rented their home from a Romanian. It seems there was very little ‘us’ and ‘them’ here.
Ana was not deported during the war. Towards the end of the war, the Russians occupied their village and Ana and her family had to hide. They were protected by a Romanian soldier. During a battle with the Russians, their Romanian protector was shot.
What becomes apparent as we hear from the investigators searching for witnesses in other parts of this area is that the Roma from this region were not deported. This is new knowledge to the Yahad team: there was not much in the archives about this area and this fact. It seems the sedentary Roma here were more integrated in the community and not sought after to be deported.
We are told that in a village further away there may be a witness. We drive there to find that the person has passed away. From village to village, we stop and ask ‘Are there old people here?’ For we need the memory of the elders to impart the story for future generations. But we often arrive too late.
We are told that there may be two elders down the road. Again we drive towards another village. And again the two people we are looking for are no more.
Little by little, the team is coming to the realization that we may need to leave this district. The plan had been to be here for another week. But the search is fruitless. And then we hear from the investigators near Oradea: they found some Roma but these will not speak. They are angry and vehement: they have applied for funds from the government, they have received nothing. Yahad is lumped in with this situation. And there is nothing to be done.
We reconvene at the hotel at the end the day. Frustration weighs heavy on the team. But this leads to rethinking the plan. Maps are pulled out, the web is scanned, and historians consulted by phone. Valy and Paris say we must leave the region and propose that the team move to a new base: the city of Cluj, farther North, some 300 kilometers away. If this decision is taken they will change hotels and stay in Cluj for the next week.
Father Desbois is joining us tonight. He will be traveling with the team for three days. He will be consulted on the decision. Over dinner all together, we debate the pros and cons and what area would be best for Yahad to investigate during this last week on the ground in Romania: Cluj is given the go ahead. Again the two teams of investigators will leave ahead and, on the long drive toward Cluj, will search for witnesses. And thus it goes: Yahad facing the challenges and adjusting the plans depending on what is found on the ground.
Impressions from my travels:
A world of contrasts: In this area of Romania you see these unbelievably grand houses, majestic and extravagant, in the countryside—they stick out! Who owns these homes I inquire. And always the same answer: those belong to Roma who have been to Europe and come back and build their own house. They rarely live there for more than a week each year. But they own a house ‘back home’ in Romania. This is an accomplishment.
Yet 10 kilometers down the road… You discover abject misery, shanty towns so to speak, where Roma are living today. Smiling children, animals running around…
The challenge and strength of the Yahad team: While we were driving, searching for witnesses one day, Victoria said: “We have come a long way for this one interview”. True. But each little piece adds to the story, with Yahad helping to rebuild the past bringing forth a history based on evidence and knowledge… This is the Yahad way.
And finally, a thought that nags at me: You wonder what bringing up these memories does to a witness after we leave. So often they have never spoken: is the memory unlocked for a minute, and then shut in again? Each witness has shared something that will help write the history of the Roma. That is to the good.
To Valy, Paris, Oscar, Katya, Victoria, Bebe, Sorin, Catalin, Cristian, Albert I say au revoir and merci. It has been an honor to spend these days at your side pursuing Yahad’s mission. Thank you for welcoming me into the family. A bientôt.