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the holocaust, roma and genocide

A conference on Holocaust Education, Roma and Genocide was held in Brussels  under the auspices of the Hungarian Embassy. 

ICJW representatives Liliane Seidman and Eliane Sperling-Levin attended this event at the Martin Buber Institute of the University of Brussels to find out why it was sponsored by the Hungarian Embassy, in light of the present Hungarian government and its record on racism.

In his opening remarks, the Ambassador spoke eloquently about the efforts made by his government to fight hate crime, to further the Memory of the Holocaust and to include the often ignored Roma genocide. He readily acknowledged that not only were the Germans responsible for the crimes against Jews and Romas, but also the Hungarian Nazis. He stressed all that was done to educate the next generation, in the spirit of the motto at the Budapest Holocaust Memorial: "THE PAST OF OUR GRANDFATHERS SHOULD NOT BECOME THE FUTURE OF OUR CHILDREN".

Mr. Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, a historian, State-Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office, gave an excellent overview of the mechanism of destruction of the Hungarian Jews, apportioning the blame both to the Germans and the local fascists. He insisted on the ethnic cleansing that was the fate of the Romas.

He pointed out that 2015 marks 15 years since the creation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which this year it is Hungary's turn to chair. For the Hungarian government, the priorities are Holocaust Education, fighting antisemitism and making the Roma Genocide better known.

There were two panels: 

Panel 1. Education about the Holocaust

Robin Sclafani, Director of CEJI, spoke to "Addressing Antisemitism Today with Holocaust Education". She stressed that the time for words was past, action was urgently needed. She gave concrete examples of what is being done in various countries, as in Canada. Competition of suffering has to be avoided at all costs. One has to face the difficulty of broaching the subject of the Shoah in classes where prejudice is rife and where the equation Israel = Nazis is common. Teacher training is therefore most important, as that of officials at all levels. Belgium shows the way with special training of police (this is our own Nadine Iarchi's field).

Prof. Joël Kotek, of the Univ. of Brussels and an expert on antisemitism, spoke to "Why and How to Teach Holocaust". He recalled that the acknowledgement by European governments of their responsibility in the Shoah came painfully late: 1995 in France, and not until 2007 in Belgium! He insisted that it is essential that discrimination against other groups, not only Jews, should be considered. Nor should one trivialize the word "Holocaust" by applying it to all sorts of atrocities. One should be accurate and teach the value of an open and democratic society. He stressed the enormous loss that the destruction of the Jews meant for European culture.

It is worth noting that this first session was attended by the Ambassador of Rumania, a country, with a large Roma population. Also a high-ranking U.S. diplomat, and the Ambassador of Norway. Norway is very supportive of action to revive Jewish culture and to combat antisemitism through the "Norway Grants".

Panel 2:  The Roma Genocide
I much regret to note that half of the audience left after the coffee break, and did not stay for the second session. This lack of interest in the Roma question was most disappointing, after the many declarations of solidarity with all minorities. The two speakers, both of Roma origin, spoke with much conviction and from personal involvement.

Ivan Ivanov, Director of ERIO, on " Roma Genocide: Remembering the Past and Shaping the Future". 

500.00 seems to be the toll suffered by the Roma, but exact figures are unknown. Even before the Nazi period, the Roma were neglected, discriminated, marginalized, mostly dispersed in bitterly poor villages. A great work is in progress to collect historical evidence, as written material is lacking. Survivors are reluctant to testify as speaking of the dead is a strong taboo in Roma culture. And when they do tell what they have lived through, many are unfortunately very old and not reliable.

Prof. Istvan Antal, Rector at Colleague of Jesuit Roma, a resident college aimed at training a Roma elite in the path of excellence, addressed "History of the Genocide of the Roma in Hungary". We were given an excellent outline of the actions against the Roma well before World War II. :
- 1916: regulations against "nomadic" Roma, forbidden to leave their village;
- 1929: rounding up Romas, in a razziah, treating them like animals;
- 1934: Laslo Endre organizes the deportation of Jews and Romas;
and so it goes on till the 1942 genocide, with Romas closed into guettos, and the final horrors of 1944, without forgetting the post-liberation pogroms.

Much is now done to help the Romas. But, we were told, one must be aware that promoting a specific group may produce a backlash.

This whole event left us with an uneasy feeling. Knowing from many sources - suffice it to read the reports of our own Katalin Pesci - about the antisemitism of the present Hungarian authorities, we were not comfortable with the idyllic picture painted by the Hungarian speakers.