"A Vanished World" provides unique glimpse of Romani and Sinti life destroyed by Holocaust

This week saw the opening of "A Vanished World" a unique photo exhibition at the National Gallery's Veletrzni Palac in Prague. The show is based solely on never before publicly viewed photographs of Roma and Sinti families who once lived in the Czech lands. The show represents lives and a way of life, destroyed in the Romani Holocaust.

Cenek Ruzicka and Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Czech President Vaclav Klaus attended the opening of the show on Wednesday and praised efforts by organisers in mapping Czech Roma history.

President Vaclav Klaus:

"I think that the exhibition is important: this is something that we usually don't see here. To put together all this documentary material is important for the Roma themselves and I am sure it is important for the majority of the population of the Czech Republic. So, I wish for people to come here and see it."

Vaclav Klaus with Jiri Dientsbier
Mr Klaus was far from alone in his praise for the show, which was held partly under the auspices of the president as well as the auspices of Prague city hall. Wednesday also saw attendance by other public figures including the minister for minority rights, Dzamila Stehlikova, former dissident Jiri Dientsbier, and members of the Roma and Sinti communities. Cenek Ruzicka - president of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust - was critical in his opening speech, saying that a large majority of the Czech population viewed the Roma as an alien element, despite the minority's long roots in the Czech lands.

"The aim of this exhibition is to show to visitors that the Roma and Sinti were always part of the Czech lands. Dear visitors, it is my personal wish that the genocide of the Roma and Sinti and destruction of their culture to make it into the history books. You will find nothing of original Roma and Sinti history in Czech history books."

On many levels the exhibition itself is personal, presenting family photographs of the Roma and Sinti from the early part of the 20th century, now lives almost entirely forgotten. Parents, their children, grandparents, are seen in the pictures sometimes in photographers' studios, sometimes on the road, sometimes in the fields. There is the photo of a young married couple or the young officer in the army, the family gathering bringing together generations, a child recovering in hospital. I spoke to Markus Pape from the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, who put extensive work into bringing the exhibition together:

"The main issue to show the real world of the Roma and Sinti who lived in this country for 600 years until they were almost entirely exterminated by the Nazis, and whose history and cultures are almost entirely unknown by Czechs today. Unfortunately Czechs don't know what to be proud of. This is kind of a first opportunity for them to see what kind of a rich culture lived here and what was finally destroyed."

Prior to World War II in Czechoslovakia's First Republic many of the Roma in Moravia lived in settlements while Bohemian Roma were more nomadic. Cenek Ruzicka says that even then they were discriminated against:

"Law 117 dating back to 1924 forced Roma to have identity cards. The Roma weren't allowed to enter numerous villages. They had to be constantly registered. That's the kind of discrimination Romanies and Sinti have always had to put up with. Most made them aware they were second-class citizens. But when you look at the photographs you see they weren't. They were normal, well-dressed, educated and intelligent people. A non-problematic people. I don't understand why almost this entire community was killed during the Second World War for reasons of race. For what reason?"

Given the tragic history that followed, there's no way of viewing the exhibition without the Holocaust at the back of one's mind. The terrible impact of the Nazis' final solution is felt even though the camps and the gas chambers are for the most part not explicitly mentioned. Markus Pape says that not discussing the Holocaust until the last stage of the exhibit was an important decision.

"It's a very unusual exhibition about the Holocaust because it doesn't focus on the perpetrators nor on the horrible pictures we've known for decades from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or documents of persecution. This new exhibit tries to show their own view of the Roma and Sinti themselves: they went to a photographer's studio and asked him to photograph them. This is their view: not what some policeman or racist thought about them. Not someone who tried to make them look like criminals and deform their image. We believe that this way the Holocaust and its results and tragedy will be better understood.

"During the last decade we collected lots of historical materials in state archives but the photographs that are seen here today are only from family archives. We travelled all over the country and persuaded survivors or families of survivors that it makes sense to show - for the first time - their world."

The glimpse into their lives is nevertheless not "fully" complete: in all of the photos, the subjects and their stories remain anonymous. Says Markus Pape, for good reason:

"For centuries these people were taught by their parents to take care of their privacy and not to talk. Not to let anybody know who they are. This is a kind of survival strategy which is valid up to today. Also, you don't see all the photos we found: there are still certain moments in the live or the Roma that they don't want the public to see. Funerals and so on. They say 'we still want to retain some of the taboos'. A special quality of this exhibition is that you don't see the names. "

It is inevitable that some images - even the most ordinary portraits - will stick in the viewer's mind: there is a father's proud expression as he stands next to his small son, there is fear in the eyes of a young accordionist sitting in a studio chair flanked by a lying dog; there are the smiling faces of sisters and friends. One can only guess at their personal stories and fates. One of the most enduring images is then a drawing by a Sinti boy at Auschwitz, a drawing which brings the scope of the Romani tragedy full circle. The drawing could be of a Roma caravan or it could be the gas chambers: there are many possible interpretations.

It has been estimated that 5,000 Czech Romanies were transported to Auschwitz. Only 583 ever returned. As a consequence only a few thousand Roma originally of Czech descent live in the Czech Republic today. The rest of the Roma minority in the country, estimated at 250,000, originally had roots in Slovakia.