Surviving History, essay by Damian Le Bas

It was a May morning, and I was nervous.

I was going to visit the Bock family in Manchester.
I hadn’t met them before. My friend, the photographer Eva Sajovic, boarded the train to Manchester with me and showed me copies of previous interviews with the family, which now form part of the Holocaust Memorial Day archives.

I learned how Darina Olahova, a Slovak Romani woman, was a child during World War II, when the Roma of
that land were expelled from their homes by the Nazi- allied government and forced to take to the forests to survive. Her daughter, Valéria, had later married Vilém Bock, a Sinti man, Czech by nationality, from a long line of German-speaking travelling horse dealers. Vilém, Valéria and their family were now living in the Eastlands area of Manchester, having previously moved from the Czech Republic to Norway, Holland, Canada (where they still have family) and back.

Vilém’s family had split into two groups before World War II, half moving to Czechoslovakia, the others remaining in Germany. By the end of the war, 39 of the Bocks, including 11 young siblings, had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. Three of them survived.

One of the survivors was Vilém’s father, Frantisek,
who lived through Auschwitz as a child, though both his parents died there. Vilém’s mother Berta had also escaped from the camp. Her father Antonín István
had been executed at Pankrác prison in Prague, informed against by a relative for speaking out against Hitler. In Slovakia, Valéria’s family had to suffer the Nazi occupation. Her grandfather was shot in the
eye by German soldiers as they raided his home.

I had studied the Holocaust at school (though of course my textbooks said no more than that “some Gypsies also died under Hitler”), but what could I really know about the sufferings of this family, on both sides, under the Nazis? I read and read the Bocks’ stories, thick with atrocities and suffering, that stretched from the 1930s to the present day. The Czech Republic, even today, is not a safe place to be Romani.

I am an English Gypsy. Like all of our people I owe my life to Hitler’s failure to conquer this island: he thought my family possessed ‘lives unworthy of life’ like the rest of Europe’s Romanies. Comparatively, we in the United Kingdom are lucky, though our lives remain blighted by regular battles for a place to live; by commonplace racism often voiced to our faces; by attempts to stifle the customs, travelling and horse fairs that have kept us together.

The freshly elected British government has already set out its thoughts on Gypsies and Travellers, and how it plans to deal with us: we are a nuisance,
of interest only for our alleged tendency to flout planning laws and disturb the peace. 

This shameless attempt to invert reality is disgusting: in fact, our nomadic culture was outlawed by the Conservatives in 1994, and the planning laws which are already heavily biased against Gypsies and Travellers will now be further reformed in an attempt to ensure we can’t pursue our way of life. No more money will be provided to refurbish council sites. The tabloid press rejoices, their amoral puppeteers having failed to recognise that we, like other peoples, must not be caricatured according to the transgressions of the few.

Those lucky enough to have their own land are subjected to regular abuse. In 2005, the fence around my Grandparents’ site, where I grew up and was living at the time, was daubed with incitements to ‘get the gipoes out’. Alongside the slogan, three-armed neo-Nazi swastikas had been sprayed, perhaps by people with no idea what that might mean to us; perhaps, which is worse, by people who knew exactly what they might mean.

Yet, comparatively, we are lucky.

I was thinking of this as we met Vilém and his son-in-law Mario at Manchester Piccadilly station. They shook hands with Eva and myself, and with our interpreter, Teresa, before helping us with our equipment and driving us to their home.

Valéria welcomed us in and made us tea, and we sat down near where her little grandson was asleep with a little gold curb chain on his wrist. The Czech Republic is a long way from Manchester but I felt at home, like this was a normal Romany house. With my fair skin I stayed incognito for a while, until Eva and Teresa were discussing the Czech
and Slovenian words for tea (Eva is from Slovenia; Teresa is Czech), which to me sounded like one of the Romani words the Gypsies use in England.

‘Chai si o lav ando Romanes’, I said, mixing structure I’ve picked up from Ian Hancock’s Romani Grammar and from Roma people I know with the nouns I grew up using (English Romani
is rarely spoken with Romani grammar these days). For a minute I thought I probably sounded weird, or that my grammar was awful, or that they might speak a different dialect. I shrugged.

Mario smiled, and Valéria asked what he was smiling about. ‘Cigan’, he said, nodding in my direction.

I exchanged a few words in Romani with Valéria about her experiences with doctors. ‘They’re better here than abroad’, she said, ‘but I’m getting old’. We didn’t speak much because my Romani grammar needs work, but let me tell you, it’s a powerful thing to be united with people from across a continent, across centuries, by these little Indic words.

And as Vilém began to unfold his story, this same sense of familiarity was about to make me feel like I’d just been punched in the chest.

‘Before the war there were about 5,000 of us’, said Vilém, referring to the German Sinti of which his family, living in the Czech Republic, were a part. ‘After the war there were about 2,000 of us only.

‘What I remember from the tales from my father, my grandmother and my aunt, I remember they named all the people. Some children from the people who were in the concentration camps are still alive. But most of them out of the two and a half thousand, the big family, they mostly stayed in the concentration camps and never returned.

‘Very, very few only made it out of the concentration camps. And whoever actually made it out of the concentration camps was in a very poor mental state. 

‘Out of eleven, eleven siblings, only my father, one of his brothers and one of his sisters survived.’

I thought of my Nan back at home. She was one of fourteen brothers and sisters: the ten that made it through their first winters into adulthood had hard lives but they were spared what the Bocks had been through across the channel. My Nan’s brothers were massive presences for us growing up. They had the wisdom of a different time; they taught us our language; our family history; the lessons of their lives. The Bocks were robbed of so many of these presences by the gas chambers, labelled less than human by people who’d never even met them.

‘They tried to get out in all directions. They didn’t go back to Germany straight after the war. But some did go back to Germany, after some time, because some of them were born there, so they went back to Germany, but a while after the war. My father had the chance to go there several times, but he and his brother said that they didn’t really ever want to see the Germans again, ever. So they never actually went back there, ever.’

Here we were with a family sharing their home, their food and their memories with us, a family the Nazis did their best to annihilate. I thought of Holocaust deniers, people who try to play down these atrocities, and wondered what motivation they could possibly have. These things happened, Vilém’s family were murdered in their dozens, and I felt sick to think of it.

The persecution of Roma and Sinti preceded the Holocaust, and it continues, as Vilém explained.

‘Since about 1935 until about 1955 when the Communists forbade us to move in the wagons, maybe even a bit before that, the family always stayed together. Until the Communists really just forbade travelling with the horse drawn wagons, the family stayed together.

‘When they forbade us to do the travelling our
way, they offered us flats, places to live, a roof above our head, but it was all over the place, everywhere: north of the Czech Republic, back then it was Czechoslovakia. They split us, they didn’t let us stay together. It was obviously much better when we were all together, we could travel.

‘Now they put us all in one group, whether it’s a good Romani or bad Romani, all judged [the same].

This is part of a pattern I started to recognise from childhood.

The unity of the Gypsies is constantly questioned. Continental academics pour scorn on the idea of any sort of unified origin; in Britain, home-spun popular ‘wisdom’ ludicrously states that the ‘true Romanies’ have disappeared; that their progeny are somehow pretenders, fakes, ‘pikeys’. Only one unity is afforded us by the outside world: a facile group identity of troublemaker and thief, cobbled together from half-dreamt, half-recollected images of the lowest common denominator, and used to excuse the sort of reckless hate inflicted on the Bocks, their forebears, and many Romanies across the world.

The Bocks told us many other stories which will resonate with me forever: how their daughter, Maria, was called ‘black hose’ at school when they found out she was Romani, even though her father thought she’d escape racism because she wasn’t quite as dark as
her parents; how they suffered attacks from fascists
in the Czech Republic; how their family has started new lives in Canada and England. I won’t forget their cheerfulness, their resolve, and their little grandson: ‘Hitler would have let this little boy live because he has blue eyes’, Vilém said wryly (they call him ‘the demolition man’ because he likes to grab everything and throws a hard punch: ‘tatcho Rom’, Mario and
I said laughing as he sparred with his Grandad, Vilém), and the home-cooked food they made for us.

I will wonder for the rest of my life what this Sinti- Romani family, who in some ways felt so much like my family at home, could ever have done
to deserve the hate that’s been poured out at them over the past 70 years and more, and how they have come through it with such optimism and strength. But they have. Opre Roma. 


Eva and Damian would like to extend their thanks to Vilém and Valéria Bock, their daughter Maria and son-in-law Mario, for their kindness, openness, trust and hospitality; and to Zuzana Slobodova, David Chirico, Nidhi Trehan, Donald Kenrick and Amanda Sebestyen of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for kindly providing access to their interview materials.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has kindly made available a series of interviews previously conducted with the Bock family. These provided the foundation of our research for producing the work exhibited here.

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