Tuesday, November 1, 2016

les Gens de Voyage, the Travellers, the Roma

France admits role in WWII Roma internment
President Francois Hollande on Saturday acknowledged that France bore "broad responsibility" for the internment of thousands of Roma by the World War II Vichy regime and in the early months of the post-war government. The spoiler to this historical moment is taking place in Paris where the police have been clearing hundreds from the immigrant (Afghan, Syrian and refugees) from the tent town under the Stalingrad overhead Metro line. "The day has come, and this truth must be told," Hollande said in the first presidential visit to the main internment camp for Roma, located in Montreuil-Bellay, central France.
"The (French) Republic acknowledges the suffering of travelling people who were interned and admits that it bears broad responsibility," Hollande said. Roma, also known as gypsies, were brutally persecuted in the Holocaust, parallelling the systematic murder of Jews. Estimates of how many died vary widely, between 220,000 and half a million. The Vichy regime is the term for the government set up in France – but under de-facto Nazi control -- after France surrendered to Germany in 1940. The Vichy regime fell in late 1944 when the allied forces reconquered France and General Charles de Gaulle set up a provisional government.
Between 6,000 and 6,500 Roma were interned in 31 camps, the biggest of which was Montreuil-Bellay, where more than 2,000 were confined between November 1941 and January 1945. About a hundred of them died. The camp was also used to intern a number of people from the city of Nantes who were officially categorised as homeless. Some Roma remained interned in French camps until 1946. "Nearly all families of travelling people have at least one relative who passed through Montreuil-Bellay," Hollande said. 'Never forget'
More than 500 people took part in Saturday's ceremonies, held 66 years after the last interned Roma had been set free, including some survivors as well descendants of the victims. "It was important to us to have this recognition. It affects thousands and thousands" of Roma families, said Fernande Delage, head of the France Liberte Voyage NGO. "It's late, but better late than never," he added. Lucien Violet, a 69-year-old whose parents were held in Montreuil-Bellay, also attended the ceremony.
"This is the first president to pay homage to travelling people. We feel genuinely moved by his presence," Violet said. "Our families have suffered enormously and we will never forget, even though there is forgiveness," he added. At the site, a commemorative art installation by ceramics artist Armelle Benoit was set up, comprising a portico of eight columns engraved with the family names of the 473 affected families. Hollande on Saturday also threw his weight behind moves in parliament to scrap a 1969 law that defenders of minorities say is discriminatory. The legislation traces its roots to a regulation in 1912, which aimed at pressing Roma to settle down. It required "nomads" to have a special ID card. This was replaced in 1969 by the requirement for "travelling people" to have a specific set of papers and name a district as their home base.
This article about the ceremony jumped out at me because doing research for Murder on the Champs de Mars had several Roma characters. I visited Roma, the French born Rom and descendants of Django Reinhardt researching. Because much of the Rom tradition in France not written but oral stories passed on it was difficult to discover species on what the Rom call Pojarmos, the Holocaust. I found out about this camp via a blog of a Frenchman Jacques Singot, a local historian, who'd lived there and heard stories. He singlehandedly built up a testimony of witnesses and survivors from the 80's. He spoke with nuns who helped people in the camp and wrote a book published in the early 90's. Cara - Tuesday


  1. Caro, I knew, but not these telling details. So important to "Never Forget." The traveling people are still vilified in many places in Europe. I wonder about the relationship between the suspicions of them and envy of their living outside the constraints of the lives of ordinary people.

    1. So true Annamaria. It's a double edged sword to use a cliché. While some Rom (French born) are semi nomadic in that they have land and caravans, and travel in the summer, the others seem itinerant, a difficult life in present day France. Envy and a sort of romanticism seem to be in their way.

  2. An interesting change of position by France. When last I looked into this in connection with a book I wrote a half-dozen years ago (Target: TInos), AP wrote:

    "The European Parliament has called on France to suspend its expulsion of gypsies.

    "The rare criticism of an EU state was backed by 337 lawmakers meeting in Strasbourg, France, with 245 opposed and 51 abstentions.

    "France has stepped up its long-standing policy of rounding up Eastern European Gypsies, or Roma, and sending them home. Officials have dismantled more than 100 illegal camps and expelled hundreds of Roma, mostly to Romania and Bulgaria.

    "The policy has drawn criticism from the U.N. and the Roman Catholic Church. Many at the EU parliament accused Paris of targeting Roma as a group, ignoring essential European human rights guarantees."

    I wonder what's brought on the government's change of heart? Assuming it is a change.

    1. Yes, Jeff when I saw the news I wondered also what has changed for Hollande to make this huge gesture. I'm not aware of any new laws or legislation but it's now on my radar.