On May 16th, 1944, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp saw a spark. That spark set a whole continent aflame.
That day, SS Guards surrounded the Zigeunerlager, or “Gypsy Camp,” at Auschwitz II–Birkenau with machine guns, ready to liquidate the camp and murder nearly 7,000 people.
The Roma and Sinti prisoners, however, despite being engulfed by the daily reality of death in the camp, chose life. When the SS commando unit called for Roma and Sinti to leave the residential blocks, they were met with prisoners who refused to come out, barricading the doors and fashioning work tools, handcuffs, knives, and rocks into weapons.
Romani Holocaust survivor Hugo Hollenreiner recalled his father shouting, “We’re not coming out! You come in here! We’re waiting here! If you want something, you have to come inside!” The SS unit called an end to the stand-off and retreated, and the “Gypsy Camp” at Birkenau maintained their survival until August 2nd.
After many of the Roma and Sinti prisoners fit for labour were moved to Auschwitz or other concentration camps, the nearly 3,000 remaining—comprised of mostly the sick, elderly, and children—were slaughtered in the gas chambers. The Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust have been estimated from 220,000-500,000 (with some scholars estimating upwards of 1.5 million). In some countries, like the Czech Republic, 90 per cent of the Romani population perished under the Nazi regime.
This radical act of resistance by the Roma and Sinti prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau became memorialized as Romani Resistance Day. This event, along with many others that have become the pulse of Romani cultural and self-preservation, stands starkly against a continued narrative that Romani people are agentless victims, objects to act violently against, a focus of pity.
As an early modern race studies scholar, I am constantly working to read against the archive for fragments of subjectivity, agency, and resistance, careful not to conflate these individual concepts. I follow scholar Alexander Weheliye’s call in his book Habeas Viscus to “[bracket] questions of agency and resistance” when it comes to people of colour, “since they obfuscate—and not in a productive way—the textures of enfleshment, that is, the modes of being which outlive the dusk of the law and the dawn of political violence”; in other words, they cannot give us the full picture when it comes to oppressed people.
Despite this desire to bracket agency and resistance from the notion of subjectivity, the nature of the early modern archive often refuses this gesture. As far as I know, the early modern English archives do not have any documents written by a Romani writer: there are court cases with interviews, a recording of Romani language as “Egyptian” in proto-ethnographic texts, but no unmediated Romani voices.
State archives and private collections, thus, only have white voices weaving tales about Gypsies. Some of these tales are romantic and outlandish, some show obvious disdain and fear, some are clearly strategic political narratives to bolster a project of the citizen. While there are quite literally thousands upon thousands of 16thand 17th century English materials on Gypsies, they tell the reader more about the white English writer’s subjectivity and identity than they do about Romani history.
Yet despite the structures and content of the archive, glimpses of Romani resistance to state oppression can be found. Historian David Cressy has noted that early modern Romani people produced counterfeit pardons and seals to dupe government officials, thwarting the threat of death. In his article “Trouble with Gypsies,” Cressy claims, “wandering Gypsies found a friend, or at least an accomplice, in Richard Massey, a Cheshire schoolmaster, who used his literacy to forge licenses and passports that purportedly authorized their travel.”
“Massey’s fake licenses showed up among Gypsies as far south as the Thames Valley,” he writes, adding: “There was evidently a black market in documents and seals, that some Gypsies exploited to fool gullible officials.” When we consider the legal conditions that made these black-market documents necessary—and the punishment if caught travelling through England—these fake licenses can be seen as textual talismans of survival and freedom.
These otherwise banal events, therefore, show a glimmer of agency and resistance in a vast archive that recapitulates the detrimental idea that “Gypsies” are monstrous swarms bent on destroying England—or, as Thomas Dekker put it in 1608 in his Lantern and Candlelight, “caterpillars of the commonwealth.”
These events, of course, get recorded as “criminal activity”—a sentiment that is often reiterated in scholarship about Romani people. But, in the numerous countries in Europe that had early modern anti-Gypsy legislation like England’s Egyptians Act 1530 and Egyptians Act 1554, the very notion of being Romani while living in those countries was inherently criminal, potentially punishable by death. In many of these countries, these state-sanctioned murder laws were not appealed until the late 19th century. In some places, laws existed even later: in Nazi Germany, as we have seen, Roma and Sinti people were legally subjected to torture and death.
Even today, anti-Romani structural and legal racism is not just a relic of the past. Romani people all over Europe are fighting to gain or maintain their civil rights in the wake of state-sanctioned violence and ethno-nationalist regimes that use Romani people as scapegoats for economic decline and immigration issues.
These fights take different forms—in countries like France and the Czech Republic, for instance, Romani people are fighting for the right to desegregated public education. Conversations around immigration control in the UK, Sweden, Denmark, and France (among many other countries, including the US and Canada) have gestured towards the “Gypsy problem”—a narrative which Roma communities must fight against. Throughout Europe, Roma are fighting for the law to protect them and seeking justice for the countless murders that go un-investigated.
Even Holocaust memorials have become sites of political resistance, with concentration camps like Lety the focus of renewed anti-Romani white nationalism. To continue to live and produce intellectual, political, artistic, and cultural work in these conditions is a radical act of resistance.
Yet despite my celebration of Romani Resistance Day, and of the multiple modes in which Romani people express resistance against the paradigms that wish to exploit and destroy them, as a Roma woman, I yearn for a world in which this resistance was no longer a necessary part of our survival. I fight—we all fight—so that our people can one day thrive, not just survive, in a world which does not criminalize our existence.
I fight to live in a world in which our cultural contributions, our intellectual property, and our lives can be recognized as valuable and necessary, for a world in which our subjectivity is not predicated on reactions to political and spectacular violence. I fight because I love my people.
This piece was originally published on Sydnee Wagner’s blog, Racing Backwards, as “Subjectivity at the Edge of Resistance: Romani Resistance Day”. Read more here.