Telling the Story of Europe's Roma
A new film explores the struggle of “Gypsies” in the Holocaust and today.
In his powerful new documentary, A People Uncounted, filmmaker Aaron Yeger tells the story of the persecution of the Romani people (or Roma) both during the Holocaust, when between 500,000 and 1.5 million were murdered, and in today’s Europe. Often referred to as “Gypsies,” the Roma are an ethnic minority who came to Europe from India more than 1,000 years ago. Falsely associated with mysterious and even supernatural traits, they have endured racism for centuries. Yeger spoke with S&H about his film.
What were you were hoping to achieve with this film when you first started out?
The initial goal was tell the story of the genocide of the Romani people during the Holocaust, which is always treated as a footnote in history. So anywhere that we could find a Romani Holocaust survivor who was open to telling the story on camera, we went there. Then, as we made the movie, we realized that we also needed to show the contemporary situation of the Roma.
What did you discover as you expanded the story?
We realized how much ethnic nationalism and racism against the Roma continues to exist. We see the precursors to what happened in the past happening again. While we were editing the film, there was a mass deportation from France. Ten thousand people were rounded up—some were born there, some were from other European Union countries, which means they had the right to be there. The fascist Jobbik party in Hungary has gained more power since we finished the film, winning 20 percent in the last parliamentary elections. Things aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse. And education is the one useful tool we have.
To what do you attribute this continuing prejudice?
In some areas, it’s probably ignorance. Historically, what research has shown me is that in the European tradition, the worst thing is to not have a place of origin. That’s something that Jews and Roma had in common a century ago—they were stateless ethnic minorities, which made them incomprehensibly mysterious to people. For the Roma, that still persists. In the film, we talk about this “romanticize and vilify” dichotomy. Politicians, journalists, scholars can still talk about them in a stereotypical, disparaging fashion, even in countries that are considered progressive. The romanticized view of “Gypsies” doesn’t help, either. Listening to classic rock, it’s amazing how much the so-called “gypsy lifestyle” is romanticized in pop music.
Besides education, what’s the solution? How do we prevent this kind of prejudice and persecution?
There’s a point in the film that I would reiterate. Persecution, protection, and education all happen locally. No matter what laws are written on the national or international level, it’s up to individual people to realize the impact this has on their society. In World War II, millions were killed with staggering efficiency, not just because of high-ranking Nazi authorities, but also because of local participation. Similarly, many people were saved not by the stroke of a pen but by local people. We show examples of this in the film. And, whether it’s in the media or at social gatherings, it’s important that positive messages be spread.