Page last updated at 07:51 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Roma Holocaust victims speak out

Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January is an occasion for Jews and Roma (Gypsies) to remind the world how their families were terrorised and butchered by the Nazis in World War II.

Roma in Vlasca, a village in southeastern Romania, told the BBC's Delia Radu about their wartime ordeal.

Roma men in Vlasca
The wartime suffering of many Roma villagers is not well documented

The Roma people of Vlasca - traditional metal workers called Kalderash - are closed and inward-looking. They are reluctant to talk to anyone from outside the community.

It took weeks of negotiation to hear the accounts of Holocaust survivors in the village.

Historians often call it "the forgotten Holocaust". Up to 500,000 Roma are believed to have died in mass shootings and Nazi gas chambers.

Recent studies have brought more of their suffering to public attention, but to this day little is known about the Roma targeted for persecution and extermination by the allies of the Third Reich on the eastern front.

The men are the first to speak - and later, when it is the women's turn, they leave the room.

Dumping ground

Sandu Stanescu remembers how, in the early summer of 1942, some policemen installed a table by the road, covered it with papers and made lists: Roma families, extended families, communities - shatras.

Adolf Hitler (right) speaking to Ion Antonescu, 23 Mar 44
Antonescu (left) was an ally of Hitler on the Russian front

The Nazi-backed ruler of Romania - military dictator Ion Antonescu - had just received his reward for attacking the Soviet Union: Trans-Dniester, "the land beyond the Dniester". It was a chunk of land in the east, between the rivers Dniester and Bug.

The territory, most of it part of today's Ukraine, became Nazi Romania's ethnic "dustbin" for Jews and Roma.

Conveniently the nomadic Roma had carts and horses and the police only had to escort them across the border.

But as soon as the convoys reached Trans-Dniester, the Romanian authorities confiscated everything.

"We lost our carts, horses, all our baggage and all the gold our fathers had hidden in the carts' shafts," Mr Stanescu says.

In freezing cold, with no food, thousands of Roma were marched towards the river Bug. The survivors were forced to live in camps of flimsy hovels on the outskirts of war-torn villages, or in stables on deserted collective farms, to provide forced labour.

"My father, Mihai Gheorghe, died there, my mother Maria died there, both my brothers died there," says Mihai Gogu.

"They died because of the bitter cold, because there was nothing to eat and you couldn't wash. I think filth was the main killer: lice were crawling everywhere, like teeming ants in an anthill. That was our ordeal."

Scavenging for food

One man speaks of "beatings, disease and bitterness in the fields".

Mihai Iorga
My mother... managed to find another way to sneak back into the village - we waited and waited, fearing she might never come back
Mihai Iorga

Mihai Iorga recalls how his mother had "brought with her some embroidered pieces of cloth, like those ones people arrange on walls under the icons".

His sharp grey eyes are moist and he stands in the middle of the gathering to tell the story better.

"She tried to sell those in the neighbouring village, for food. But a Romanian policeman and a Ukrainian guard saw her, beat her badly and threatened to shoot her. She rushed back home crying.

"Me and my brothers begged her not to go again. But the following day off she went. She did what she did and managed to find another way to sneak back into the village.

"We waited and waited, fearing she might never come back... But lo and behold, there she was, carrying two buckets of potatoes and sweet cornflour! Oh, how we hugged her, how we kissed her! She then baked those potatoes straight on the flame because we were left with nothing, not even a pan or dish for cooking.

"Afterwards she managed to find a small tin. She melted some snow in it, there was no other source of water, and made a nice tiny polenta. It was so good! We felt so good!"

In 1944, when the war front moved west and the Romanian administration withdrew from Trans-Dniester, the Roma had to walk back hundreds of miles, "covered in mud, covered in bitterness".

A teenager at the time, Mihai Gogu was the only survivor in his family and saw many children dying on the road.

"We walked back, barefoot. Parents carried children on their shoulders. But time and again, one of these little ones would slip and fall off the grown-up's back. They died of hunger."

Mihai Iorga's father was taken ill and died during the return journey. It was his mother who managed to see her children safely to Romania.

Wife of bulibasha - the local Roma leader
Vlasca's Roma are close-knit and maintain a traditional lifestyle

Girls targeted

The men leave, the women enter in their flowery scarves.

During the deportation pregnant Roma women were killed because they were unable to walk fast enough.

"A heavily pregnant woman was shot before my eyes," Maria Mihai recalls. "She fell on the ground. And the baby started struggling inside her."

The women remember how their mothers had to find water and food miles away from the camps, there were long queues at the wells, sometimes the water sources had dried up. They remember their mothers making clothes out of thick brown paper potato sacks.

But most stories revolve around the constant fear of being raped by the armed guards.

"Both my parents died. I was only a girl, in the flower of my youth. That was very dangerous. They tried to take us young girls by force," says Natalia Mihai.

There were horsemen hunting women and little girls hiding under their mothers' long-layered Gypsy skirts.

"Once they put a gun at a girl's neck and raped her, something like a whole committee raped her and they were shouting and chanting," says Floarea Stanescu. But Natalia Mihai asks her to stop: "Don't remind me of all that, I feel like dying".

Maria Mihai - Holocaust survivor
Maria Mihai says she and fellow Roma were reduced to eating dog meat

A report by the International Commission for the Study of the Romanian Holocaust says the number of Roma victims in Trans-Dniester is difficult to establish, mainly because the lists of deportees were negligently put together.

Some 25,000 Roma deportees are accounted for and the number of dead is thought to be 11,000. According to the report, half of the deported Roma were children and the women were frequently subjected to brutal sexual attacks.

Now that the Roma women in Vlasca have finished their stories, the men are back.

Both groups make a few final comments about the food in Trans-Dniester. "The Ukrainians used to catch those underground creatures, moles, you know", says Maria Mihai. "They skinned these animals and either ate them or sold them to us."

"Yes," says Mihai Iorga, "I ate moles too, on the banks of the Bug".

"And when we saw those moles, we wept with revulsion," continues Maria Mihai. "And we ate dogs, too… Yes, dead dogs, sweet Jesus, we were given dog meat, too."

"But in the summer, the mussels in the Bug were a luxury," says Mihai Iorga. "She knew how to cook those, my poor mum."

Most of the Holocaust survivors in Vlasca have received compensation via the International Organization for Migration, in Geneva. The IOM says survivors and their close relatives receive up to 7,000 euros (£6,590; $9,070) each.

The compensation is paid under an IOM partnership with Germany.

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