The forbidden romance between a Roma girl and Hitler Youth boy

Holocaust by Bullets at JW3 gives testimony from witnesses to mass Nazi executions

Holocaust by Bullets at JW3 gives testimony from witnesses to mass Nazi executions - Credit: Archant

The “forgotten Holocaust” against the Roma people is explored in a novel and a forthcoming exhibition

Angela Merkel has called the genocide of the Roma by the Nazis “the forgotten Holocaust”.

Speaking at the 2012 unveiling of a memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten marking the death of 220,000-500,000 Roma and Sinti, the German Chancellor hoped it would now receive “the attention it deserved.”

Mass executions of Roma and Jews in Ukraine between 1941-1944 is the harrowing subject of a forthcoming exhibition at JW3 in Finchley Road.

And Highbury author Sarah Matthias published a novel on April 6 to coincide with International Romani day, about the forbidden relationship between a Hitler Youth member and a Roma girl.

A Berlin Love Song follows teenage trapeze artist Lili Petalo whose circus family go into hiding during the war but end up in the Zigeunerlager (German for gypsy) camp in Auschwitz.

She falls for Max who is initially an enthusiastic Hitler Youth member but later reluctantly joins an SS Panzer division defending Caen after the D Day landings.

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“We know about homosexuals and Jews but why is there so little about the Roma and Sinti exterminated by the Nazis,” asks Matthias.

“Why did it only make the footnotes of history books?”

It was a 2011 exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum that set Matthias investigating what the Roma called Porajmos. (great devouring) “It was the first time a German museum had looked at how Hitler managed to dupe an entire nation. A small corner was devoted to the persecution of the Roma and Sinti communities.”

Growing up, Matthias’ next door neighbour was a German Jewish refugee who had been in Auschwitz. Her own father had been in the RAF and she was vitally aware of the legacy of the conflict.

“I have always been interested in the Second World War. Our neighbour Mr Adler was a dentist who had fled Germany. I remember when he used to talk about his experiences this respected professional would become very emotional and shake and cry.”

Matthias believes the Roma’s story has been largely untold because of the ongoing marginalisation of a group whose rich culture is largely an oral tradition.

“I’ve thought a lot about this and there isn’t a written linguistic tradition as with other persecuted groups. They are less articulate in writing - there are few Roma diaries or memoirs about their experiences, so it’s not surprising that the more conventionally eloquent Jewish community received more attention.”

When settling post war reparation, the Germans refused to accept the Roma community had been persecuted on racial grounds.

“They were categorised as asocial – thieves and criminals and persecuted for those reasons – that was used after the war to deny them reparation and few spoke up for them.”

Matthias discovered the Roma were allowed to wear their own clothes and live together in the Zigenlager at Auschwitz. But the sanitation was so poor that many died of typhus and cholera.

They were also the subject of Dr Josef Mengele’s notorious racial research. In the novel Lily befriends a Czech Jew who paint portraits for Mengele’s book on genetics - a character based on a real artist Dina Gottliebova whose painting of a girl in a blue headscarf was the inspiration for Lili.

“He couldn’t get their skin tone right so he got a portrait artist to paint them for his book to show they were an inferior culture,” says Matthias, whose previous books were medieval mysteries for young adults.

She says writing about the war forced her to pose the difficult question “how would I have behaved?” and led to the creation of Max, an ambivalent character who initially admires Hitler, despite his anti Nazi father banning him from joining the Hitler Youth.

“He sees his friends going off to camps, marching singing, but he changes throughout the book. Max is my conscience, he epitomises my feeling of confusion as to how I would have behaved in those impossible times. It’s too easy to point the finger and say how appallingly people behaved. But it wasn’t just black and white. If you didn’t join Hitler Youth your children would be taken away.

“And while a lot of Catholic priests sacrificed themselves, they were unmarried. If caught and killed there was just them. But if like me you are a mother of four children would you hide people and potentially take your husband and kids down with you?”

In fact Matthias’ next book centres on Max’ paediatrician father who is opposed to the euthanasia of disabled children, and features a priest who speaks out against Jewish persecution.

“I went to Auschwitz several times and read first hand accounts which were really gruelling,” she says. “You think of the worst possible thing any human being could do to another and it doesn’t come close.”

A Berlin Love Story is published by Troika Books £7.99.

Holocaust by Bullets runs from May 7-29 at JW3 and is a travelling exhibition based on French Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois’ decade-long research into the Nazis’ mass executions in Ukraine. His organisation Yahad-In Unum recorded witness and survivor testimony to identify the sites of mass executions to ensure they can be respectfully memorialised. Father Desbois speaks at JW3 on May 9 at 7.30pm and Hampstead human rights lawyer Philippe Sands speaks on May 23. There will also be a screening of the remarkable 1945 documentary ‘German Concentration Camps Factual Survey’ on May 18.

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