Our Polish taxi driver rushes in a half an hour late to get us to the airport, apologizing profusely. His battery had died and he managed to get the car running again, but he didn’t dare shut it off so it was idling in the street. He’s a HUGE man and before we can say, “those are really heavy” he scoops up our bags and hustles out the door. We protest, but he simply shrugs and says “No problem, I have wife.”
He gets us to the airport in record time with the added bonus of a fascinating free running commentary on the history of the city. We pass a huge park where people are biking, flying kites and picnicking. Our guide tells us their favorite queen made it a law that this piece of land could never be developed – it must always be a park and a place for the people. It is a law that is literally written in stone. This queen ruled in the 15th century.
We are ready for the second leg of our trip, which takes us into the city of Berlin. From there we have several day trips planned to the concentration camps Ravensbruck and Sachenhaussen, as well as an informal interview with a German documentary film maker who is making a film about the life of his uncle, a gay German musician who was held both at Dachau and Mauthaussen, considered one of the most brutal camps there was. Klaus, the nephew, will be speaking about his uncle in my documentary “Forget Us Not.”
But first-Berlin, the city once divided by The Wall. There is a lot to take in from a historical perspective. Berlin was the seat of Nazi power so we are going to visit different historical sites and do some information gathering. But my primary purpose in the city is to find the Roma and Sinta Memorial. I have become more and more frustrated with the fact that the Roma and Sinti people, also brutally targeted for complete annihilation, appear to have been largely ignored. At every concentration camp we have been too thus far, there are memorials to pretty much every group and nationality that was held, but the Roma and Sinti are conspicuously absent. No exhibits, no memorials and just passing mention in many of the guide maps. Roughly 500,000 Roma and Sinti were murdered during the WWII Holocaust, which was a huge portion of their population in German and the occupied territories. Even today, they continue to suffer in Europe from discrimination and hatred.
A couple of guide books make mention of the rough location of a memorial that had been planned, but apparently, a lack of support and money has stalled the project for a number of years. Nobody can pony up the money to just put a damn plaque somewhere? Theresa and I tromp around the city. We orient ourselves at the Gardens of Stone – a memorial to the murdered Jewish people. We have heard the Roma memorial possibly exists behind the Wall Of Crosses, a memorial to the people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. As we wander about, we pretty much stumble across a memorial to the gay men who died during the Nazi Holocaust.
Now on one hand, I am pleased to see a substantial memorial to the gay men who suffered and died in the camps. Even after the war, liberated gay men could not reveal why they had been in the camps for fear of being arrested again and thrown in prison. The Nazi SS guards were notorious for coming up with inhumane ways to kill and torture gay men in their camps.
So it is with some dismay (and I feel I can speak with a bit of authority to the whole gay thing) that I discover the memorial to the gay men is a large grey block with a little viewing window cut into the side. When you peer into this little window, it shows a short black and white film of two young men kissing. That’s it. I may be overly sensitive here –but a memorial that vaguely resembles a peep show does not lend itself to the respect and remembrance due to these men who suffered and died or who survived, but had to keep silent.
The Gays are still doing better than the Roma’s however. We cannot find the Roma memorial at all. Our search for the Wall Of Crosses brings us to the Berlin Wall and the historical museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the American military gate at the Berlin Wall. We wander along the Wall and displays. Bosnian beggars approach every few minutes with notes in their hands. “Do you speak English?” and then they would hold out a note explaining they were refuges and looking for money. Unfortunately, we have to stop saying we speak English. There are too many people begging and we can’t give money to everyone.
We discover the Wall Of Crosses is clear across the city from where we are. It is in fact, back where we started. We tromp our way back to our original starting point and then move off in the opposite direction hoping to get lucky. Finally, success – the Wall Of Crosses. According to one guidebook, in 2007 the Roma Memorial was started somewhere in the park behind this display. Theresa and I eagerly head into the park.
Finally, we find the memorial. Or what was once going to be the memorial. In an overgrown patch of the park, walled off by both a
chain fence and a wooden barrier, is a large dirty tent. There is garbage strewn everywhere and it is clear it has been abandoned for some time. I am half hoping this is not actually the site, but we find a sign, almost completely hidden behind the wooden partition that reads in part “Roma and Sinti Memorial”.
When we forget the suffering of any people, when we don’t remember the mistakes of the past, we are in danger of repeating history. I think of recent news that notes that various European countries repatriated some 10,000 Roma last year or pursued policies to allow similar action. In Slovakia, the government recently built a large wall around their Roma community to keep them “separate” from other people. A young Roma girl was recently set on fire in a hate crime because of who she was. In other parts of Europe, Roma children are not allowed into school.
This all sounds very familiar: In German circa 1930’s and 1940’s, Roma and Sinti had to register with the government. They were not allowed into public places – signs in parks said “No Roma Here”. They were considered ‘sub human’ and ‘impure’. They were not given jobs or allowed in schools but then called vagrants and beggars and labeled ‘Asocial’ a crime for which they were then arrested and sent to the concentration camps where they perished in great numbers. Many of those who survived continue to struggle today with extreme poverty and discrimination.
And all that stands as a testament to their past suffering is a dirty white tent abandoned in the park. Unseen. Unknown.