Past Due: Gypsies Finally Win Some Allies

Aug. 2 marked 53 years since the Roma, or Gypsies, of Hungary died by the thousands in Nazi camps.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Bela Danyi has a simple request. Half a century after the Roma (Gypsy) Holocaust, Mr. Danyi is not asking for an apology from the Hungarian government.

Not for the two years he spent in grueling forced labor, first under Hungarian fascists in 1944, then under the Soviet Army. Or for the indignity of being coerced to play his violin while fellow Roma prisoners, some weeping, kept digging trenches. Or even for the return of his cherished Stradivarius, given to him by his grandfather, which was stolen by camp guards.

No, all Danyi says he wants is a little extra cash for his troubles. As a retired factory worker, he receives a small $99 monthly pension, equal to the price of a nice pair of Nike sneakers in a downtown Budapest shop.

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Danyi and a small handful of Hungarian Roma survivors were on hand recently in Budapest to commemorate the Aug. 2, 1944, liquidation of the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp) in the Auschwitz concentration camp, when several thousand men, women, and children were massacred to make room for new arrivals.

By then, the Nazis had lumped together Roma and Jews as "alien, inferior" races that should be exterminated. Hundreds of thousands of Roma, countless because they were often nomadic and undocumented, perished across Europe.

Even the number of survivors is unknown. But when and how they will be compensated has become a hot topic within the Roma community.

The Hungarian government has come under increasing pressure from American Jewish groups and the Clinton administration to compensate all Holocaust survivors and return property stolen by the Nazis or nationalized by the Communists.

At the same time, the European Union (EU), in which Hungary eagerly seeks membership, has recently criticized Hungary for inadequate support of its half-million Roma.

In June, the Hungarian Parliament, hoping to finally put the issue of Holocaust compensation behind it, passed a law making everyone who survived the ghettos, labor camps, and concentration camps eligible for an additional compensatory pension.

An earlier law, passed in 1992, was poorly publicized and drew few applicants from the Roma community, which was ill-informed of its rights. By enacting the new law, Hungary became the first country in Eastern Europe to provide a blanket compensation, though the exact amount to be given to individuals has yet to be determined.

The recent decision drew mild praise from deeply cynical Roma leaders. "Hungary is buying its ticket to the EU ball," says Bela Osztojkan, a Roma writer and activist whose uncle and his family were deported and never seen again. "There are certain criteria" Hungary has to meet for membership, "and the Roma question is one of them."

The EU, for its part, is not entirely altruistic. Observers suggest that if Hungary and other prospective EU members do not improve education and work opportunities for the mostly impoverished Roma, it could trigger their westward exodus into other European countries.

"We are somehow lagging behind on the [Roma compensation] issue," Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs told the Monitor. "The Roma appreciate having the West on their side; historically, they've had few allies...."

Ever since the Roma settled in Europe around the 13th century, they have faced various forms of prejudice and persecution and have been unable to shake the stereotype of being vagabonds, thieves, or fortune tellers.

During World War II, Germany took the boldest steps against them. Beginning in 1933, many Roma were subjected to sterilization or internment. According to Nazi plans, they were to be eliminated along with Jews.

Estimates of Roma deaths across Europe from 1933 to 1945 are mostly educated guesses, ranging from 250,000 to 1.5 million. While research has pinpointed the number of Jewish victims at some 6 million, documentation of the Roma Holocaust suffers from a lack of recordkeeping during the war and public apathy today, Roma leaders say.

Some Hungarians are unaware that the Roma suffered a fate similar to the Jews. Roughly three-quarters of Hungary's 800,000 Jews were annihilated; the Roma death toll here was anywhere from 5,000 to 70,000.

During communism, public mention of the Holocaust was taboo in an attempt to prevent tensions between ethnic groups. West Germany compensated Roma survivors in 1953. But it denied money to victims in the Soviet bloc because it believed those regimes would pocket the hard currency.

Hungary's communist ideology allowed the Roma equality in the workplace. But privately, they were still viewed as second-class citizens.

The World Jewish Congress is speaking up for the Roma in negotiations with Swiss banks to locate assets deposited by Holocaust victims.

But Jewish groups in Hungary have been less helpful. "We know the Roma also suffered, and we're sorry," says Erno Lazarovits of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary. "Every minority is busy solving its own big problems, with little time to find possibilities to help others."

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