Two generations have not yet passed since ninety percent of Czech Roma, and between a half million and two million European Roma in total perished at the hands of the Nazis in The Great Devouring, or Porrajmos, the Romani word for the Holocaust. Roma, also known by the pejorative term “Gypsies,” make up the largest minority in Europe today with some 10 to 12 million members. Roma face fierce discrimination in accessing employment, education, health care, and public and social services. In spite of repetitious cases of racist violence and hate speech targeting Roma, the community continues its struggle for human rights all across the continent.
Two years ago I paid my homage to those who died in Auschwitz and Hodonín u Kunštátu, a Czech concentration camp for Roma. “Tensions in society are heightening. Perhaps the time will come again when we are sent away to designated areas,” were the words of the priest leading the commemoration service.
Today, many in the Romani community echo these fears, afraid for their safety since numerous neo-Nazi-led marches have been taking place periodically across the country, and several arson attacks at Romani residences have been perpetrated by white supremacists. Racial tensions have been growing more intense with the media printing negative stereotypes, inventing damaging reports and spreading fabricated accounts blaming criminal acts on members of the Romani community.
In mid-February, the director of the European Roma Rights Center, testified that violence against the Roma is on the rise at a hearing in Washington DC held by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission).
In the Czech Republic, where I was born and raised, a study on extremism commissioned by the Czech Interior Ministry states that there are currently about 4,000 militant neo-Nazi activists in the country. Experts warn that violent crimes committed by neo-Nazis against Romani people will likely rise. The risk of race wars in some regions of the country, specifically between gangs of white Czechs and groups of ethnic Roma, looms large, experts say.
Today’s white supremacist movement is pan-European (with strong German and Italian influences), and international (namely US-inspired). Since the years 2008 and 2009 the movement has become more radicalized and organizationally sophisticated in the Czech Republic, becoming more visible in the streets and infiltrating the political scene.
In Hungary, an armed militia group has been patrolling and terrorizing a Romani village. This following a series of racially motivated murders.
“Gypsy criminality” is one of the most prevalent anti-Roma stereotypes. It permeates all parts of central European life—and can be found as commonly in the media as the local pub. The Roma are also said to abuse welfare and to not want to work. The World Bank just showed the former was absolutely untrue in Slovakia. The latter is a also a damaging myth held by the white majority. These stereotypes are all the more exaggerated in light of the economic downturn and the scarcity thinking the crisis triggers in the white majority.
What are the solutions? Many rights groups are pushing for economic betterment in the form of job creation and training. Organizations are active in producing independent media with a human rights bent, as well as waging campaigns pressuring mainstream media outlets to be accountable and responsible in their reporting. Key are also positive opportunities for cross-ethnic social interactions and education. Those aware must remain vigilant and spread the word about the threat of extremism that exists in European societies. We must never again permit another Great Devouring.