Exhibition Project in Search of Sinti and Roma Cultural Identity
The projects of the Education Agenda NS-Injustice make the fates of persecuted people and groups visible, with a special focus on those who have received less public attention so far.
One example is the exhibition project of the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma.
In the heart of Heidelberg’s historic old town, surrounded by cobblestone streets and centuries-old buildings overlooking the hilltop Heidelberg Castle, there is a unique institution: the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma.
Opened in 1997, the building houses the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, in addition to an exhibition that was the first to document the National Socialist genocide against Sinti and Roma.
Its significance extends far beyond the city limits: The Heidelberg Center stands for decades of civil rights work in the struggle to recognize the persecution of Sinti and Roma during National Socialism.
The discrimination and persecution suffered over many centuries culminated in the racist ideology of the National Socialists. They deported people to ghettos and concentration camps, turned them into forced laborers, abused them for medical experiments and murdered them. More than 500,000 Sinti and Roma in Europe were victims of this genocide. In their common language, Romanes, the genocide is referred to as "Porajmos" or "Samudaripen"—in German "the devouring" and "complete murder"—to put the horror of extermination into words.
For decades after World War II, the National Socialist policy of exterminating this minority was invisible in the German culture of remembrance, at memorial sites and in museums.
It was not until 1982 that then Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt acknowledged the genocide: "The National Socialist dictatorship inflicted a grave injustice on Sinti and Roma. They were persecuted for reasons of race. Many of them were murdered. These crimes constituted an act of genocide."
With the murder of the people, a piece of cultural heritage was also lost
To this day, there is neither a museum collection nor an archive that centrally documents the long suppressed and denied genocide against Sinti and Roma, their history of persecution, and their cultural identity.
A project of the Heidelberg Center closes this gap and will expand the existing collection of the Documentation Center with a cultural remembrance storage.
"Now we face the great challenge of socially countering the often clichéd image that the majority still has of members of the minority with a true image. Therefore, we want to focus even more on the influences that Sinti and Roma have had and still have on the cultural development of Europe."
Romani Rose, Chairperson of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the recognition of the genocide, in March 2022
1,000 objects recount the history of Sinti and Roma peoples
A stuffed animal, a piece of jewelry, or photos and documents: In the collection project, a wide range of items—more than 1,000 in all— is assembled, identified, scientifically documented, and processed.
The focus is on personal objects with a connection to National Socialist persecution. However, the collection also shows continuities of stigmatization and deprivation of rights of the Sinti and Roma.
Two prominent eyewitnesses tell their stories and show objects that exemplify their identity as Sinti or Roma. One is the survivor of National Socialism Rita Prigmore, and the other is civil rights activist and current president of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, Romani Rose.
The common denominator between these objects is the way they are developed through their respective histories and closely interwoven with the biographies of those who made, owned or used them.
The exhibits intentionally speak and break with existing narratives: the resistance pass of a Slovak Roma, for example, tells the story of a man who joined the resistance against National Socialism despite persecution and mortal danger.
A participatory collection project from the community
The project takes a participatory approach: self-organizations and people from the community are called upon to help and are addressed as founders and lenders of potential exhibits. A broad network of 35 cooperation partners makes it possible to build up the collection—together with the community—focusing on the historical persecution and murder as well as on the ongoing disenfranchisement of the Roma and Sinti, with the goal of having a lasting effect.
Youth in the community are actively engaged through social media campaigns in recording the forgotten or untold stories for posterity, while eyewitnesses are still among us.
Author: Sophie Ziegler