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A People Uncounted

Distributed by First Run Features, 630 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1213, New York, NY 10036; 212-243-0600
Produced by Tom Rasky and Mark Swenker
Directed by Aaron Yeger
DVD , color with b&w, 99 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
European History, Genocide, Human Rights, War Crimes, World War II

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 3/14/2014

Halfway into A People Uncounted, a compelling documentary about the Roma people directed by Aaron Yeger, the double edge of the film’s title forcefully imposes itself on the viewer – how can it not? – in that the title signifies not only a population neglected for the most part historically, but also, more poignantly, the unknowable huge number of Roma slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust. Estimated at five hundred thousand dead – men, women, and children—the figure denotes the extermination of as much as ninety percent of a given Roma community.

Through archival footage, onsite visits to eleven different locales, commentary from historians, academics, and activists, along with the harrowing and haunting testimony of Romani Holocaust survivors, the film tells, as the title also declares, a too long ignored story. The earlier 2001 documentary Porraimos, Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust treats some of the same material. The present film, though, advances the story further in the wake of post-Communist Europe and the resurgence of ethnic nationalism, right wing politics, and neo-Nazism. In Europe today, the Roma continue to be subjected to widespread discrimination, instilled prejudice, and unmitigated hate crime.

The Romani people, the largest ethnic minority in Europe today, comprise a Diaspora that originated in India and is thought to have arrived on the continent circa 1000 CE. (The more common name Gypsy, now considered somewhat pejorative, derives from the medieval belief that the Roma migrated from Egypt.) The Sinti people form a subgroup of the Roma who live in Germany and surrounding areas. No matter what European country the Roma settled, they were mercilessly threatened. A partial list includes Vlad the Impaler (1456), who tortured and murdered Roma slaves; Maximilian I of Habsburg (1500), who accused Roma of witchcraft, child kidnapping, and banditry; Henry VIII of England, who in 1530, prohibited Roma from entering the country and banished those already there; and Holy Roman Emperor Karl VI of Habsburg, who, in 1721 simply ordered their extermination. And in the modern era, as early as the 1920s, Germany was already enacting laws to push Roma out of the labor market.

Interestingly, along with outright condemnation, popular culture created mythic creatures in novels and films that either romanticized the Roma as free wandering sensual spirits (we’re treated to a film clip from 1944’s Gypsy Wildcat); or congenitally criminalized them (television’s Criminal Minds, 2009); or both, as in the 2010 Shakira music video “I’m a Gypsy.” The truth of the matter is that these stereotypical characterizations are far removed from the day-to-day reality of Romani life. The Roma embraced life styles to some extent imposed on them by government regulations that applied uniquely to them. For hundreds of years in lands that allowed them to be sedentary, the Roma were known as excellent blacksmiths. Living temporarily on the outskirt of local communities, they were skilled in a variety of other crafts as well. Compelled by other laws to be always on the move, the Roma became famous as itinerant musicians, skillfully mastering their “Gypsy” violins. About the negative reputation of the Roma among segments of the general population, the noted Roma scholar Ian Hancock comments, “Once we are given a level playing field, we are as capable, more than capable, of contributing to the larger society. We’re survivors.”

The main focus of the film, however, is the Porrajmos, the Roma Holocaust (the spellings Porraimos and Porrajmos are equally acceptable). Half a million Roma and Sinti were singled out by the Nazis and ultimately sent to their death, along with Jews, homosexuals, and other populations the Third Reich declared undesirable. The film details the Nazis’ methodical identification process, the rounding up and deportation of Roma to forced settlement, slave labor, and concentration camps. Those who weren’t deported were taken care of on the spot by efficient firing squads. Roma were tattooed with a number, the letter Z for ziguener in front of the number. Dr. Robert Rittler, the Nazi founder of the Center for Race Hygiene, conducted studies to measure degrees of Gypsiness. His assistant Eva Justin learned the Romani language to gain the trust of Roma families. Of forty-one Romani children by her order forcibly taken from their parents, all but two were sent to Auschwitz and perished. Dr. Joseph Mengele, the notorious Angel of Death, was assigned to assure proper sanitation in the Gypsy family camp in Auschwitz. Instead he performed cruel experiments on Gypsy children. One of the survivors, Hugo Höllenreiner, describes a horrific invasive medical ordeal at Mengele’s hands that haunts him to this day.

After the War many Roma remained in the camps – they had no papers, they had nowhere to go. Little recognition was given to the Porrajmos. The Roma had no political voice at the time to tell their story. Not a single Roma was asked to testify at Nuremburg, and up until recently there was little understanding of the need to commemorate their history. As a consequence, almost nothing was done by way of restitution.

The film cites other more recent genocides, Darfur, Rwanda. It sends the message that to homicidally scapegoat people along racial or ethnic lines can occur at any time, in any place. A Porrajmos survivor living in Eastern Europe is interviewed but refuses to show her face – for fear her educated children and grandchildren may in the future suffer as she has….

Powerful though the film is, at times it loses momentum as it meanders back and forth among its many themes. Still, it stands as a moving tribute to the Roma who perished in the Porrajmos – and also to the survivors who continue the struggle for recognition and equality. An important film, an essential film, highly recommended.