Monday, July 14, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Documenting the Holocaust

For a host of frightening ideological reasons, many individuals, including current heads of state, persist in outright denying the Holocaust, or at least minimizing its extent. Perhaps only the murder of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust is less readily acknowledged than that of European Roma and Sinti populations, but that is a distinction hardly worth making. All should be remembered, which is why this year the NY Gypsy Film Festival focuses special attention on the Roma/Sinti Holocaust experience with several documentaries.

Alexandra Isles’s Porraimos takes its name from the Romany word for “devouring,” which has become their equivalent term for “Shoah.” It provides an informative overview of the period from 1938 to 1945, during which time at least 600,000 Roma and Sinti individuals were murdered by the National Socialists. Isles emphasizes the twisted interest in eugenics shared by Menegele and his protégés, which resulted in many senselessly cruel experiments. The evil doctor evidently had a particular obsession with the Romany people, despite as Isles points out, his own dark somewhat Roma looking features.

Despite the horrors they witnessed, two of the interview subjects in Porraimos would later make contributions to humanity through the arts. Karl Stojka, born into an artistic Roman Catholic Roma family, survived Auschwitz to document his experiences on his canvass. Dina Gottliebova, later a Disney animator, speaks of surviving through her artistic skills, including painting Roma portraits as part of Mengele’s bizarre research.

Several related films screening at the festival are more specific in scope, like Hidden Sorrows, which concentrates on the Romanian Roma, giving special attention the survivors’ current living conditions. With little fanfare, the German government and a Swiss banking consortium announced a narrow window for Romanian Roma to claim, not reparations, but humanitarian assistance. Director Michelle Kelso documents her efforts to find survivors and help them prove their eligibility for the funds. The figures involved were $770 from the Swiss and $500 from the Germans for years of slave labor in the Transistria concentration camps. The only Swiss disbursements eventually approved would in fact go to the Roma she worked with.

It is disturbing how many wish to obscure or even deny the events that took place in Transistria and elsewhere in Europe during the Holocaust. One hopes more festivals will program these documentaries, many of which, like Sorrows, are making their American premiere at the NY Gypsy Film Festival.