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The Devouring: It’s time to recognize Roma genocide

Gina Csanyi-Robah is co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Roma Alliance; Robert Eisenberg is a Canadian Jewish businessman, philanthropist and author of Thomas and the Gypsy Violin; Vahan Kololian is a Canadian Armenian businessman, philanthropist and Chair of the Mosaic Institute.

The Devouring: Can there be a stronger word in the English language to depict sheer horror and utter helplessness? This is the translation of the Roma word, Porajmos. The Romani people, more conventionally known as Gypsies, use this word to describe the genocide they endured during the Second World War; a genocide yet to be recognized officially by either Canada or the United Nations.

A slaughter that in many ways paralleled both the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16 as well as the Jewish Holocaust. August 2 is the official date designated by the worldwide Roma community to commemorate the Devouring. So why have so few people heard of it?

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Unlike Jewish history and what has become the best recorded genocide of the modern era, the Devouring is still little known. While the history of the Roma genocide has been passed on orally through the generations, only recently has there been a movement to record this tragic history. Following the war the Roma community was so devastated it took 60 years to rebuild.

As a result, estimates of the number of Roma killed by the Nazis vary significantly, ranging between 250,000 and 1.5 million. Dr. Ian Hancock of the University of Texas, a world renowned expert on the Roma genocide suggests "… of the estimated 20,000 Romanies in Germany in 1939, fully three quarters had been murdered by 1945. Of the 11,200 in Austria, a half were murdered. Of the 50,000 in Poland, 35,000. In Croatia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Luxembourg, almost the entire Romani populations were eradicated."

And there are many more in the field of genocide studies who have supported Dr. Hancock's theory. Indeed, it is telling that the only country at this point that has recognized the the Devouring as a legitimate genocide is Germany.

Like Eastern European Jews, they were designated as Untermenschen, unworthy of life. Along with the Jews, they were rounded up from their nomadic villages and thrown onto cattle cars destined for death camps. Indeed, it is said that Roma and Jews walked hand in hand into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The designation of genocide has always been emotionally charged. Motivated by both the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, international legalist Raphael Lemkin coined the term to give specific meaning to the systemic and systematic murder of an entire people. Today, the United Nations genocide convention, which has universal acceptance, defines it as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

If denoting genocide is emotionally charged, its political ramifications can be even greater. The Armenian community struggled long and hard to have Canada finally recognize their tragedy. Threatened economic and diplomatic repercussions from Turkey – which has steadfastly refused to accept the slaughter – were lodged with Canadian authorities when it discussed recognition in Parliament. Nonetheless in 2004, the Parliament of Canada began the process that was completed two years later by the Harper government with full recognition.

The Roma community in Canada, indeed worldwide, has neither the clout in government nor the institutional presence necessary to convince governments to recognize the Devouring. Sadly, global systemic discrimination was also a key factor for ignoring their history. Indeed, to this day the Roma, especially in Eastern Europe, remain persecuted targets of neo-Nazi and other extreme right-wing groups. However, time has certainly come for this recognition.

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We lost Elie Wiesel last month, a Nobel laureate and a chronicler of the Holocaust. Mr. Wiesel once wisely noted: "Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future."

On August 2, the Toronto Roma Community Centre will present the film A People Uncounted which documents the horrors of the Roma genocide.

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