On the Trail of Traveller Lives

In Issue 73 of Jewish Socialist magazine, Ross Bradshaw explores Romany lives, past, present, and those cut short by the Nazis, in the context of his own family’s history

Anna Steinbach en route to Auschwitz

The images only last seven seconds. Despite their short duration they amount to a complete film documentary of the deportation of Jews somewhere in Europe, to the extermination camps of the National Socialist Third Reich.

At first we see the side of a goods wagon and the huge roundheaded clouts nailed into its vertical boards. Over the breadth of six planks, someone had chalked ‘74 Pers’ in bold figures and flowing letters.

The camera … sweeps along a hand which seems to be bolting a door... Then the camera comes to rest on the head and upper body of a young girl who is standing in the crack of the sliding door of the train wagon. … Her head is covered by a light fabric  and a trace of dark hair escapes beneath the headscarf; the face under the tightly pulled cloth is oval with deepset eyes. The girl’s mouth is slightly open and her upper teeth can be seen.

The girl in the wagon is looking out… When the seven seconds have elapsed, the film continues with other shots of the bustle which always accompanies the departure of a long train, such as this one getting ready to leave the internment camp for Jews near the Drente village of Westerbork, on its way to the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen…

Aad Wagenaar, the Dutch journalist who wrote the piece above, saw this short film 11 times over the spring and summer of 1992 either on television or in places of remembrance; the girl was always described as Jewish. In Holland that image is known second only to that of Anne Frank. Aad decided to trace the girl to find out who she was and what happened to her and. Did she survive?

She did not. Anna Maria Steinbach was murdered at Auschwitz. She was not yet 10. And she was a Sinti girl whose family name was Settela. There were 26 non-Jewish Steinbachs either murdered or missing presumed dead. The only one of her family to survive was her father who was away when they were rounded up. He died shortly after the war, having tried and tried to find anything remaining of his family.

Closer to home

In 2004 some Travellers had set up camp in the park behind where I lived in Nottingham. The council, having refused them skips or even a supply of water, evicted them, leaving a mess which was reported in the local press. My mother was visiting at the time. She had an annoying habit of reading out letters from the local paper and she read out one which said that this would happen again and again, councils playing pass the parcel, until proper stopping places were available. After saying she agreed with every word, my mother asked if I knew we came from a Traveller family. I was 52 at the time, and she had never talked about it, though all the time I lived at home she had what she called “Gypsy friends”. Her gold jewellery mirrored theirs. Her favourite Sunday hobby was going to caravan sites or looking at vans for sale. She loved the old vardos (traditional covered wagons), and until I left home my grandmother and I spent every school holiday in a caravan, sometimes on unauthorised sites, as well as every weekend, regardless of the weather, with my mother joining us after work on Saturday. As a child I played with others making marks outside people’s houses as to the character of the householder. This was patrin, the codes that Romanies left for others in the days of door-to-door calling. For my birthday that year my mother sent me a copy of a book, The Kirk Yetholm Gypsies, which includes a photo of 13 long-dead relatives of mine.

That does not, I think, make me a Romany but it adds something to hearing the words Gippos or Pikey, both of which I have heard and once was able to challenge. I’ve also been called zhid in Poland, not in a nice way. If it happens again I might be tempted to say, “No, actually, cygan.” This is the standard word for Gypsy in Poland, which also means cheat or swindler. Cyganski means deceitful.

So far a variety of names – Sinti, Romany, Gypsy, Traveller… I could add Kale for the Gypsies of Spain, the Manush of France, the Domari of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the Roma from Eastern Europe, the English Romanichal... The term Gypsy itself is considered to be old-fashioned, though there is the Gypsy Council in the UK. What they have in common is a history of discrimination, school exclusions, bullying, colour prejudice (most are dark). Their assorted languages have a common root in India: manushi, for example, means woman in Hindi and Romani but what they share above all is a history of repression and, in some cases, portable skills..

There are other ethnic groups with “service nomad” history – Bargees, showmen, Irish Travellers, Scottish Travellers. Strangely the first Holocaust Memorial Day in Nottingham was organised largely by me and someone whose parents were Bargees, and we formed half the team that organised a major project on antisemitism in 2004 involving 15,000 people. At the opening of that event, my late friend, Esther Brunstein, a Bundist who had been in the Lodz ghetto and in Auschwitz, made a point (as she almost always did) to mention the Gypsies who were in Auschwitz. Indeed, there was a separate Gypsy ghetto in Lodz. She knew that, apart from Jews, Romanies were the other group destined to be wiped out and she knew, of course, about the experiments made on them by Mengele.

Cultural traces

A few years ago there was an article in the local paper about some lads from Newark who had decided to make a dictionary of “Newarkese” – of all the uniquely “local” words only spoken in the town. Words like jukel (dog), jall (go) rocker (speak), yog (fire)... You guessed it of course: these are all common Romany words. Some such words have gone into English, like kushti (good), chavie (boy, in English chav…). This was the town that in the late 1970s still had notices in pubs saying “No Gypsies”. It’s a town where some Romanies live on the authorised site at Tolney Lane but hundreds of others live in houses. You can see how many when there’s an important funeral and people line the streets. The dictionary of course never appeared; someone must have told the lads.

Lots of people don’t say that they are Romanies. Being openly a Romany is a good way to not get a job. The 2011 census for Nottinghamshire revealed 441 Travellers and one Roma. Hmm! The day I gave a version of this article as a talk at Nottingham UNISON’s Holocaust Memorial Day, I passed six Roma in the street. There are also traces of the Gypsy past here. I can think of two local Gypsy Lanes and one Tinker Lane, the traditional stopping places, the hatchin tans no more.

There are perhaps 100,000-200,000 Romanies and Roma in the UK, both groups with high birth rates. Romanies have been in this country since the 16th century, even though at times you could be hanged just for being one.

The Nottingham Jewish writer Rose Fyleman wrote a children's book where some middle-class children found a child in the country and took it, thinking that some Gypsies must have stolen it and they needed to take it to the police. It turned out that the child's nursemaid had nipped off to see her boyfriend and no Gypsies were involved, but the book reflected the myths that Gypsies stole children. Blood libel, anyone? Ironically, the reality was the other way round, with Romani children often being taken away. One of the storylines of Philip Pullman's Book of Dust had the “Gyptians” trying to get back their stolen children from the Magisterium. Pullman gave one of the Gyptian leaders the name of Faa – the best-known Romany family name from the Kirk Yetholm of my grandfather's family. Neat. Romanies have also been exoticised in other literature; I'm thinking here of DH Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy.

Persecution and resistance

Nobody knows how many Sinti and Romany people were killed in the Holocaust. This was the khurbn of Yiddish speakers, the Porajmos or the Samudaripen of the Romanies, though these words are contested in the same way as the terms Holocaust and Shoah are. We do know that 20,000 were killed in Auschwitz, but the total lost has been estimated as anything between half a million and a million and a half. The late Jewish Socialists’ Group member Donald Kenrick described in his two-volume work The Gypsies in the Second World War how they were massacred throughout Europe, being almost wiped out in Romania and Croatia. He also described the slow build-up of restrictions which mirrored those placed on the Jewish people. This did not start or finish with the 1929 “Centre for the Fight Against Gypsies in Germany”.

We know that our current government felt comfortable about including in their manifesto a commitment to “tackle unauthorised traveller camps”, giving police unwarranted power to seize property and vehicles, to make intentional trespass a criminal offence and to give local authorities more power within the planning system to prevent sites developing. I am pleased that a Romany friend of mine has enlisted the support of our MP, Nadia Whittome, to oppose this. I would suggest that the “antisemitism Czar” John Mann adds this to his brief but his views on Romanies are not what you might call sympathetic. Some minorities count for more than others if you are John Mann.

I want to end by looking at resistance. On 16th May 1944 Romany and Sinti people in the Zigeunerlager at Auschwitz resisted the liquidation of the camp with homemade weapons. The camp was finally ended on 3rd August when 2,897 children, women and old people were gassed. But 16th May is celebrated as a day of resistance. Recently 105 Roma took part in a demonstration in London against the Slovakian LSNS, a neo-Nazi group. Debbie Abraham organised the Roma from London, Derbyshire, Dover and Yorkshire, working with other anti-fascists to stop the LSNS rallying their British supporters. In Slovakia she recalls being called cigany (that word is all over East Europe), a dirty Gypsy, and being shot with a birdgun when she was ten. She recalls trying to wash off her brown skin colour. Just as the Tories’ manifesto puts Travellers outside the community, she felt she was not “part of the collective” in Slovakia. The Romanies carried their flag – green for the earth, blue for the sky, overlaid with the 24-spoked wheel, the Chakra, a reminder of the Indian origins of her people. The LSNS meeting was abandoned.

My grandfather was an old soldier in World War II. He was called up because he had military training, having been in the Territorial Army. He was promoted to being a Regimental Sergeant Major in the field. At one stage he was in charge of a convoy that fell behind enemy lines as the Germans swept south following the Italian surrender. His convoy included some Glasgow Italians who made contact with Partisans and he spent time fighting with them. He died when I was four so I have no idea whether he thought about his ethnic background in relation to the war he was fighting, but I like the idea that he was fighting against those who wished to wipe out his people. My mother, as a teenager, was working in munitions in Britain, doing her bit too. Had the Germans invaded the UK, I would no more be here than would my Jewish partner.

Jews and Romanies have something of a shared history. Ian Hancock, author of We Are the Romany People taught Yiddish for a while, and his London grandfather passed himself off as Jewish in order to get work in the sheet music industry, a Jewish trade. I’ve recently heard Roma street musicians playing klezmer music in the street, and klezmorim playing Gypsy music.

The Jewish organisation for human rights, René Cassin, has protested to the British government over its policies towards Travellers. But on Holocaust Memorial Day this year a local Labour ex-MP sent round something urging us to remember the six million. Fine, but what of the rest?

Posted: 22 April 2020  |  Published in: Jewish Socialist No 73