Gypsies. He targeted Poles, homosexuals, the insane, political
dissidents. Millions died in the countries he invaded. I understand 25
million Russians alone died in World War II. Hitler was of course far
from the only one using power for mass murder. Stalin and Mao Zedong
more than held their own in this era of horror and inhumanity.
It would take years for me to learn the full extent of the war. All I
grew up knowing was that any stranger was presumed an enemy. When in
doubt, kill. War on a planning board and war on the ground are two
unrelated realities. War on the ground has no logic; humanity is
replaced by killer instinct.
On the other side of that brutality was the need to trust. We trusted
our own. We trusted those we knew were persecuted like ourselves, those
who like us were on the run. Among them were Roma, then known only as
Gypsies. They were different from us, in dress, in custom, in language.
I don't remember animosity between us. Once back in Cologne, where I was
born, it was with a group of Gypsy kids that I "procured" potatoes and
briquettes for heating off railway cars in the dark. I knew we were
different, what brought us together was a humanity that was stronger
than the differences. Many of us had shared similar fates.
After the war I lost track of Roma. I lived in a world removed from
theirs, until 1995, when I picked up a pen and started to relive the
past. Once again, I connected with Roma as much as I could. I tried to
find out how Roma were faring in the after-war. In France I asked my
friend Mateo Maximoff, the Kalderash writer, how Gypsies were doing in
France. He told me they were doing alright, there was no trouble. All
the people from his clan had jobs in factories and hospitals repairing
pots, etc. In Italy I was told, Gypsies had resumed their lives from
before the war. They traveled the shores of the Mediterranean and the
Adriatic selling trinkets in the summer, doing itinerant farm work
Then attitudes began to change. I witnessed the first open hostility
toward Roma in Paris, when a furious bell hop in front of a fancy Paris
hotel chased away a young Gypsy woman with a baby clutched to her chest.
Nobody seemed to care. The woman was alone with her baby, she looked
homeless. I later figured out she must have been a refugee. The Yugoslav
war, where Roma had been used as human shields, had come to an end. Roma
started to flood Western Europe in search of hope, only to crash into a
growing wall of hate.