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Conference examines plight of Roma

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From left, Hedina Tahirovic Sijercic, Lynn Hutchinson Lee, Concordia University professor Debbie Folaron and Gina Csanyi-Robah were among the participants in a conference on the Roma.

MONTREAL — The Kleinmann Family Foundation (KFF), which since 1995 has sponsored educational activities on the Holocaust and the dangers of prejudice, has turned its attention to the plight of the Roma.

With Concordia University, the KFF organized a day-long conference on Dec. 7, open free of charge to the public, titled “History Speaks: Do We Listen? Porrajmos and the Resurgence of ‘Anti-Gypsy’ Extremism.”

Porrajmos is a Romani word meaning devouring or destruction and refers to Nazi Germany’s attempted extermination of the Roma, pejoratively known as “Gypsies.”

At the event’s launch, held at the Goethe-Institut Montréal, a German government-sponsored cultural centre, the New Democrats’ Canadian heritage critic, Tyrone Benskin, took aim at the federal government’s recent reform of the refugee system.

Passed in June, Bill C-31 has been criticized by the Jewish community, among others, as likely to make it more difficult for persecuted people, in particular the Roma in Europe, to find asylum in Canada.

“Sadly, our own government, with Bill C-31, is hurting the people it is supposed to be protecting. Canada should be a leader in stamping out racism in all its forms,” said Benskin, a Montreal MP for the Montreal riding of Jeanne-Le Ber.

Benskin, who is black, believes the legislation is “targeting” the Roma “because they do not fit in the box of the majority… We can’t close our eyes to those who are vulnerable.”

Benskin, who was first elected to Parliament in 2011, noted that Jews, Roma and blacks share a history of having been persecuted and murdered by the Nazis and of having been “regarded with fear,” which led to prejudice.

Executive director Naomi Kramer said this was the first time the KFF had sponsored an event related to the Roma.

“The reason is that it is relevant in Canada, as it is worldwide. The Roma are having difficulty getting into Canada, because most come from Hungary and, as it is part of the European Union, they cannot be considered as refugees. Yet they are experiencing discrimination and violence that is impossible to live with.”

The launch included remarks by German Consul General Walter Leuchs, who said the Roma persecution under the Nazis should be better known, and Sebastian Knotz, a young man from Austria currently serving as a Gedenkdiener, or Holocaust memorial intern, at the KFF.

Founded in 1991, the volunteer program is an acknowledgement of Austria’s role in the Nazi genocide.

The event also heard a moving tribute to the memory of Gabrielle Tyrnauer, a Jewish refugee from Nazism and a pioneering scholar of Roma history, by colleague and friend Yehudi Lindeman, a retired McGill University professor and, like Tyrnauer, a child survivor of the Holocaust.

During the 1980s and ’90s, Tyrnauer (1932-2004), a native of Vienna, recorded the oral testimonies of many Roma survivors of Nazi persecution and published reports for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, among others, on what was then a neglected subject.

On view was a digital exhibition of photos of modern-day Roma life in Romania taken by David Ward of Concordia a few years ago. Titled Marginal, with text by Salman Rushdie, the pictures depict the extreme poverty of a people living outside the mainstream, yet maintaining a strong family and cultural life.

Among the presenters at the conference, held at Concordia, were Ethel Brooks, a Romani-American scholar and feminist from Rutgers University; Ronald Lee, a Romani-Canadian journalist and author and chair of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto; Gina Csanyi-Robah, also a Romani-Canadian and executive director of the Roma Community Centre, who made representations to the Canadian government on behalf of the community during the hearings on Bill C-31; and Bosnian professor Hedina Tahriovic Sijercic, who is of Romani origin and an adviser to the Bosnian government.

The conference concluded with a screening of A People Uncounted the first feature-length documentary by Toronto-based filmmaker Aaron Yeger.

Filmed in 11 countries, it surveys the history and culture of the Roma, depicting them as a people both romanticized and vilified in popular culture.

Kramer said a second conference on the Roma is being planned for next year.

“The fate of Romani communities in many ways paralleled the fate of Jews during World War II,” she said.

“With widespread support from the European population at large, which harboured social prejudice towards the Roma, they were singled out by the Nazis as ‘racially inferior,’ and sent to forced-labour and death camps,” she said.

Historians estimate that about 500,000, or 25 per cent of European Roma, where annihilated, according to data cited by the KFF.

The KFF was founded by the late Peter Kleinmann, a Montreal businessman born in Munkacs, Hungary, who survived the Gross-Rosen, Flossenburg and Auschwitz camps. He frequently spoke to students about the Holocaust.

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