“In the end we all received a registration number: a white, elongated strip of cloth with a black triangle that meant work-shy. (But how could I be work-shy? I was still only a child)”.(57)
Writing as a 55-year-old woman from the perspective of an eleven-year-old child interned in Ravensbrück concentration camp, Ceija Stojka cannot fathom the horrific National Socialist policies targeting Roma, “Zigeuner.” Her story is utterly remarkable. Born in 1933, she belonged to a traveling Lovara family, one of at least six Romani groups in Austria. On October 17, 1939, Stojka family was on the road when they learned of the Festsetzungserlass, a decree forbidding Roma from travelling. Her father converted the wooden mobile wagon into a stationary residence that they parked on the property of their Gadje (non-Roma) friend, Mr. Sprach, in Vienna.
In 1941, Stojka’s father, was arrested, then deported to Dachau in 1942, and eventually murdered in Hartheim as a victim of the T4 euthanasia program. In March, 1943, Ceija, her mother, and her five siblings were deported to Auschwitz. Ceija had the number Z6399 tattooed on her arm. In 1943, Ceija’s youngest brother Ossi died of typhoid fever in Auschwitz at the age of eight. In late July 1944 and early August, all remaining inmates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau “Gypsy camp” who were able to work were transferred to other concentration camps. Ceija went to the Ravensbrück women’s camp. In the night of August 2-3, 1944, the approximately 4,200-4,300 Roma remaining in Auschwitz were gassed. In January 1944, Ceija entered Bergen-Belsen, which British troops liberated in April 15, 1945.
After the war, Stojka entered the second grade at age twelve, and her family resumed the traveling life. As cars became the main transportation means, Stojka traveled around selling carpets at markets and fabrics door-to-door. She settled in Vienna, married, and had three children and then many grandchildren. In the mid-1980s she began to write down her stories in notebooks, and eventually, she told her life story to Karin Berger, which evolved into three published memoirs. Her first memoir—published in 1988 as Wir leben im Verborgenen, which could be translated into English as We Live in Hiding or We Live in Secrecy, or We Live in Seclusion—depicts a life of resilience, resourcefulness, and hope. The book became the first Austrian publication by a Roma to relate the horrific torture under National Socialism and depicts a life characterized by resilience, resourcefulness, and hope.
While on the surface, readers can glean biographical information from Stojka’s memoirs, on a deeper level, the writings reveal poignant human emotions and narratives about life and death, survival and destruction, happiness and sorrow, and hope and despair—subjects that concern scholars and students across many disciplines. Children remain at the center of many of her stories. Reading about children in such dire conditions is tortuous, but ultimately the memoirs are about survival before, during, and after the war. Indeed, discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudices against Roma did not dissolve after liberation. The struggle for restitution and compensation for lost family members, work experiences, property, and goods continued as Roma were not immediately recognized as an ethnic group that had been victims of Nazi atrocities. Stojka’s post-war story follows her as a single working mother who traveled for work. She displays undaunted courage in writing about the tragedy of her son Jano, who was becoming a well-known musician as a drummer in rock and jazz bands when he died of a drug overdose in 1979.
Still, Stojka did not forget the beautiful times she had spent traveling through the lush landscapes of Austria, as depicted in the fields of poppies, pumpkins, cornflowers, and sunflowers, one of which adorns the cover of my book. Visual imagery accompanies written description in a constant interplay between showing and telling. The book includes thirteen color prints of her artwork.
My translation of Stojka three memoirs is the first in English, a remarkable feat, considering that translations of all or parts of her memoirs exist in Japanese, Czech, French, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish, and very few works by German-speaking Roma and Sinti who survived the Romani Holocaust have appeared in English. I encountered several challenges when translating, annotating, and publishing this work. First, my target audience was an intellectual one interested in reading, researching, and teaching on Roma, including their long history of persecution and discrimination in Europe and their vibrant cultures and forms of resistance. To reach that audience, I needed to include a glossary that explained many of the historical references to places, events, and people that surface in Stojka’s work, a task requiring intense work in archives and with archivists in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen. Second, I wanted to convey as adequately as possible in English, Stojka’s particular voice that so many readers of Austrian German find at once accessible, endearing, direct, and impactful. This process was difficult and required many readers who were generous with their time and expertise. Third, I needed to grapple with several terms particular to Romani cultures. The term “Roma” itself can be contested. I use it, as many scholars now do, as an umbrella form for all the groups of Roma that exist, including Arlije, Burgenland Roma, Gurbet, Lovara, Kalderas, and Sinti. In German, in contrast, one often refers to “Sinti and Roma” to distinguish between, in the former case, the group that has been settled in Germany for over 600 years, and, in the latter case, those groups that have migrated to Germany mostly in the past thirty years. The term “Romani Holocaust” might also find its critics, as other terms in the Romani language exist for the exterminations that occurred during the Nazi times, including Porajmos (or Porrajmos), literally meaning “the devouring,” and Samudaripen, connoting “mass killing.” Still, “Romani Holocaust” seems the most recognizable amongst English-speaking readers.
With Stojka’s translated memoirs, I aim to show her persistent need to write, paint, and speak about the horrors until her death. I want her voice to reach a larger public audience while contributing to the many autobiographical writings by other Roma and to the increasing number of scholarly studies on Romani history, cultures, and literatures. A poem from one of her notebooks ends the volume and epitomizes the way in which the trauma of the three concentration camps continued to envelope her life and should continue to occupy public and scholarly discourse about the relevance of reflecting on past horrors for contemporary times:
“Auschwitz Is My
is My Overcoat
And I have
To Live with That.
This guest post was written by Lorely E. French, Professor of German at Pacific University, Oregon, on the memoirs of CEIJA STOJKA (1933 to 2013), an Austrian Romani writer, painter, musician, and activist.