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Elie Wiesel, Simon Wiesenthal, Romanies and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council

Ian Hancock

E AuÓvicate meras bokhatar, phanden amen ande baraki bare. And’o AuÓvic bengesko si o kapo. Kathende Óaj rakhas manrro. O dñivipen si kade dur, o meripen paÓe … (In Auschwitz we are dying from hunger, they imprison us in huge barracks; in Auschwitz the kapo is cruel, and nowhere can we find bread.  Life seems so far away and death so near . . .) 
 Romani prison song.
The Other is not my enemy.
Elie Wiesel.

Jews and Roma have stood as perpetual outsiders for as long as they have been a presence in the West.  Both populations came into Europe from Asia, for centuries neither inhabited a homeland or possessed a national government, economy or militia, both maintained social and religious barriers that kept the outside world at a distance, both were shunned by Christendom and both employed an “alien” language for what were considered suspicious and dangerous purposes. And both have been the prime targets of scapegoating and horrific efforts to eradicate them. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Europeans perceived a close connection between the two, some even suggesting that Roma were in fact Jews, who had finally emerged from hiding in the forests where they had taken refuge following the medieval pogroms1.

The actual relationship between our two peoples is a close and complicated one, a complication that has been greatly exacerbated by the post-1945 approaches to placing the Holocaust into the historical record.

In my own writings I have consistently interpreted capital-H-Holocaust to mean the implementation of the directive of the “Final Solution,” viz. genocidal action intended to eradicate “contaminants” from the Nordic gene pool in the creation of an intended master race.  There were only two such directives: The Final solution of the Jewish Question and The Final Solution of the Gypsy Question2.  Not one other group targeted in the Third Reich was slated for extermination, nor was the focus of a “final solution.”

While almost all of what we know about the fate of the Romani victims of the Holocaust (called the Porrajmos “the devouring” in the Romani language) is the result of Jewish scholarship, the way in which it has been interpreted has differed widely.  Some researchers, such as the late Sybil Milton, have argued forcefully for its inclusion in the definition (1995); others such as Gunther Lewy have gone so far as to maintain that not only were Romanies not a part of the Holocaust, but that their treatment by the Nazis did not even qualify as genocide (2000).  Nowhere has this polarization become more publicly apparent than with the creation of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Romani people lost perhaps its greatest champion with the passing of Simon Wiesenthal in 2005. Keenly aware of the fate of the Romanies in Hitler’s Third Reich, he was the driving force in getting the first Romani representative appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. For that he must be remembered.  That fate was simply yet eloquently described by Roman Herzog, Federal President of Germany in a public address on March 16, 1997:

The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial mania, with the same premeditation, with the same wish for the systematic and total extermination as the genocide of the Jews.  Complete families from the very young to the very old were systematically murdered within the entire sphere of influence of the National Socialists,

and as Miriam Novitch of the Ghetto Fighters’ House in Israel put it, “the motives invoked to justify the death of the Gypsies were the same as those ordering the murder of the Jews, and the methods employed for the one were identical with those employed for the other.” Despite these facts of history, it took seven years after its creation for the sixty-five member Holocaust Council to appoint even one Romani representative.

The Council was established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, and to raise funds to build the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in our nation’s capital; Elie Wiesel was appointed to chair it.  At that time no Romani representation was considered for inclusion, although as a federal institution supported in part by the American taxpayers, the new Council’s policy of selectivity was unconstitutional.

Wiesel has steadfastly maintained an exclusivist position regarding the definition of the word Holocaust, interpreting it as referring to the fate of the Jewish victims alone; the word has never once been used in the Council’s or the Museum’s documentation in connection with Roma, not even in the program for the Romani Day of Remembrance, which took place on 16 September 1986.  The U.S. Government Printing Office lists the booklet produced following that event In Memory of the Gypsy Victims of Nazi Genocide under the Library of Congress subject heading “Holocaust: Jewish,” and the Council’s circular announcing its national writing contest on the Holocaust refers to “The six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and the millions of others.”  It was only following Elie Wiesel’s resignation as its chairman that Romani representation became a reality, and that happened because of Simon Wiesenthal’s intervention.

At the beginning of January, 2007, an article appeared in the New York Observer by Philip Weiss entitled “Forgiving Elie Wiesel, somewhat, on his opposition to Gypsies in Holocaust Museum.”  Weiss was moved to write this after reading a passage in Elie Wiesel’s book Night; it was quickly followed by a number of responses most, though not all, of which were generally critical of Wiesel, and one of which queried Mr. Weiss’ presumption as a non-Romani in taking it upon himself to “forgive” Wiesel on behalf of the Romani people.

There is reason to believe that Professor Wiesel did have a particular and very personal motive for not promoting the representation of the Romani victims during his own term of office on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, stemming from the painful experience of seeing his own father knocked to the ground in an encounter with a Romani kapo at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the animosity towards Romanies it engendered in him. The passage in Night that Philip Weiss refers to, describes that exchange in some detail:

A gypsy deportee was in charge of us.
My father was suddenly taken with colic.  He got up and went towards the gypsy, asking politely in German “Excuse me, can you tell me where the lavatories are?”
The gypsy looked him up and down slowly, from head to foot.  As if he wanted to convince himself that this man was really a creature of flesh and bone, a living being with a body and a belly.  Then, as if he had suddenly woken up from a heavy doze, he dealt my father such a clout that he fell to the ground, crawling back to his place on all fours . . . Yesterday, I should have sunk my nails into the criminal’s flesh.  Had I changed so much then? So quickly!  I thought only, I shall never forgive them for that.

Whether it involved “such a clout” and “beating up,” or as he said in recounting the same incident later “simply a slap,” them here refers to Gypsies and not to the Germans, as he made clear thirty years later in an interview with Bill Moyers entitled “Facing Hate,” which was televised over PBS in December 1991.  In response to Moyers’ question “Did you feel hated when you arrived at Auschwitz? Did you think ‘they hate me – why do they hate me’?” he replied

“Not from the Germans so much.  The Germans didn’t even hate us, because you hate human beings.  We weren’t human, in their eyes.  I felt hated by the anti-Semites in the camp.”
“Other prisoners?”
“I think I write about it; the night we arrived I have seen a prisoner beating up my father, the first time it happened.  And later on, I was beaten mainly by prisoners, not by Germans.  Germans arranged the killing, the murder, and so I hate, because there were anti-Semites even there.”
“Your father was beaten because he was Jewish?”
“Just . . . ”
“Just because he was Jewish.”
“And what did you . . . can you remember what you were thinking as you saw your father being . . . “
“It plagues me to this day.  I remember, I felt like running to that man, to that kapo who beat him up.  I should have done that, but it was two hours after our arrival and I remember, I write about it in Night, was a kapo, so he went to the kapo, saying ‘can I go to the toilet?’ and all of us, there were hundreds and hundreds of people there, lined up, and the kapo measured him up with his look, and gave him simply a slap in the face, only one, and my father fell to the ground.  It lasted a second; my father got up and came back.”

Elie Wiesel’s reaction was quite understandable at a human level, but totally unsupportable and unacceptable in his policy-making capacity.  It hasn’t been edited out of the most recent (2003) edition of his book. Having by now learned that there was to be no reaching out to the Romani community with any offer of recognition on the part of the Council—which nevertheless had both African American and Armenian representation among its members—a concerted effort was made by some Romani leaders to initiate a dialogue with the Council’s administrators. Their general attitude was either mocking—its chairman Seymour Siegel told The Washington Post that Romani efforts to obtain representation were “cockamamie,” and also told a reporter from the Dallas Times Herald that Romani spokespersons were “cranks” and “eccentrics”—or else patronizing: acting executive director Micah Naftalin told The Washington Post “the problem with Gypsies is that they’re not well schooled. They’re quite naïve and, to some extent, distrustful.”  All of these statements are reproduced in the relevant newspaper articles (Leslie Doolittle who wrote the Dallas Times Herald piece told me she was warned by a Council staff member to be careful when talking to me, because I was a “wild man”).

In 1984 a group of Romani Americans staged a demonstration in Washington, wearing concentration-camp uniforms and carrying placards claiming racism; this protest was covered—with a photograph—by The Washington Post3. It took this protest, and a threatened discrimination suit, finally to get media attention.  It was in this same year that Wiesenthal wrote a letter to the Council (dated December 14th) criticizing the omission of Romanies from its program, in which he stated “The Gypsies had been murdered in a proportion similar to the Jews, about 80% of them in the area of the countries which were occupied by the Nazis.”

On September 16th, 1986, five years before the Moyers interview, we were allowed an official Romani Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Washington.  Elie Wiesel made a very brief appearance at that event, where he told us “I couldn’t be here today, and yet I couldn’t not be here . . . we have not done enough to listen to your voice of anguish.  We have not done enough to make other people listen to your voice of sadness.  I can promise you we shall do whatever we can from now on to listen better.”   Despite this assurance, Romani efforts to have even just one permanent representative appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council continued to be frustrated.  Instead, I was given a window-dressing position as “special advisor to the chairman on Romani issues,” though my advice was never sought nor did we ever meet.

Apart from one brief public encounter, we never in fact spoke at all. In July, 1988, I was invited to present a paper entitled “Uniqueness of the victims” at the Remembering for the Future: Responses to the Holocaust conference at Oxford University.  I was accompanied by a gentleman named Leland Robison who recently reminded me of a startling confrontation I had with Professor Wiesel at that event—though I’d scarcely forgotten it. It remains very clear in my mind to this day.  Professor Wiesel, surrounded by cameras and journalists, was being interviewed on the university grounds.  During a break between questioning, I approached him and said “Professor Wiesel, please don’t forget the Gypsies!”  He turned aggressively towards me, glared, and barked “Mister Hancock!  I have read what you have written!  And I don’t like it!  I don’t like it at all!!” and turned away.  He never did mention the Gypsies. He was presumably referring to my piece on “uniqueness” in SHMATE, the only article on the Holocaust I then had in print and the one in which my correspondence with him was reproduced.

Nineteen eighty-six was also the year that Romani activist groups stepped up their effort to gain recognition.  Simon Wiesenthal drew attention to this in an article published at that time entitled “Tragedy of the Gypsies.”  Wiesel’s response was that “it’s not my prerogative; it’s the White House’s prerogative,” although it is well known that to a large extent the Office of Presidential Appointments takes its recommendations directly from the various agencies it serves.  The Washington Post article also reported that

The most likely Gypsy candidate now would appear to be Dr. Ian Hancock, an English professor at The University of Texas.  “He is the only Gypsy I know of with an academic background,” Wiesel said, “although there must be more.” 

I was not a U.S. citizen at that time, however, and was therefore ineligible for the position.

The situation changed in 1987 when, thanks to our efforts together with California congressman Tom Lantos, William A. Duna became the first Romani representative to be appointed to the Council, later to be replaced by myself once I had acquired American citizenship.

The possibility that during his term as its president Professor Elie Wiesel himself may have been actively blocking attempts to gain representation comes to light in the pages of Simon Wiesenthal’s book Justice Not Vengeance, where he expresses his dismay at the Council’s attitude towards Romanies:

On this council sat voting representatives not only of the Jews but of Poles, Russians and Ukrainians—but not Gypsies.  Efforts in that connection by the International Romani Union were in vain.  To help them, I wrote a lengthy letter to Elie Wiesel the president of the Council.  A few months later I received an answer from his secretary that the appointment of members depended on President Reagan.  The International Romani Union and The Society for Threatened Peoples thereupon wrote long letters to President Reagan—which ended up with Elie Wiesel.  In the end, I turned to Wiesel again, this time with the suggestion that one of the more than thirty Jewish members of the Memorial Council might be replaced by a Gypsy.  To this letter I received no answer at all.  When I subsequently published this ‘correspondence’ in our annual report, because I felt the attitude of the Holocaust Memorial Council to be unjust, I received a number of copies of other letters in which all kinds of people had approached Wiesel with the request that he should support the claims of the Gypsies.  But the only thing that the Holocaust Memorial Council ever did for the Gypsies was a kind of memorial hour in September, 1986.  Only after Elie Wiesel had given up his presidency were we informed that the newly-formed board had invited a Gypsy representative . . . onto the Council.

One of the documents forwarded to Simon Wiesenthal was a copy of a four page letter from myself to Elie Wiesel, which I wrote in my capacity as Representative for the Romani people on the UN Social and Economic Council and in the Department of Public Information and to UNICEF, a position I still hold.  It was reproduced in SHMATE: A Journal of Progressive Jewish Thought mentioned above, and was dated 25 November 1987.  The three-line reply from Professor Wiesel, dated the following 10 January 1988 is included in the same magazine, and read in its entirety

Please forgive the delay.  I have been overwhelmed with work.  Thank you for your letter.  I hope you know how much your words mean to me.

During the period in which I served the Council, Elie Wiesel was not a member.  He returned during the last year of my four-year term, at which time I was not reappointed.  In 2007 we still have no representation on the Council.

Many writers on the death camps have described the atrocities committed by the kapos. In her book Return to Auschwitz Kitty Hart describes the kapos in the concentration camps:

The vast majority of prisoners were under supervision at all times, but not always by the people you expected.  Everywhere, all the time, prisoners were to be found aping our oppressors . . . every work party had its Kapo (from the Italian capo, or head), quite possibly a fellow Pole or Jew, who showed admiration for German discipline by whipping and kicking you.  Anybody might attack you and beat you up, and indeed it was expected of the prisoner officials.

There were no doubt the Romani kapos Wiesel describes, who brutalized Jews, Romanies, homosexuals and everybody else indiscriminately.  There were likewise Jewish and Polish kapos who inflicted the same terrible cruelties upon those in their charge, including their fellow Jews and Poles and Romanies.  But we know too of Jewish inmates who were physicians, and who as a result were forced to participate in deadly medical experiments upon prisoners.  These were people caught in the jaws of hell, whose own lives and the lives of their families would have been forfeited had they refused.  As Kitty Hart said, among the inmates “nobody was to be trusted; anyone could be a thief, a traitor, a spy.”  The controversial nationalist party president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman (1989) writes of the “participation of Jews in the liquidation of Gypsies” in Uštica in 1942, a containment camp for Romani prisoners south-east of Jasenovac in Yugoslavia.  Should Romanies, then, “never forgive”?  The histories of both our peoples and the situations each has had to confront and deal with are almost too tightly intertwined to separate.  Simon Wiesenthal has himself written on the theme of forgiveness (1997), and a humbling lesson may be learnt from Eva Mozes-Kor, who wrote that she “forgives Mengele and all the other doctors that conducted appalling experiments on me and my twin sister Miriam” in Auschwitz. “I forgive those who killed my parents,” she said, “[the ones] who stole my family from me, who took away my childhood and turned my life into hell. I exonerate those who did the things that have been with me, night after night, for the past 60 years.”  The French say that to understand is to forgive, and understanding—and accepting—the true details of the fate of Romanies in the Holocaust yet remains to be achieved.

Resistance to this dates from the time of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when not one Romani was called to testify in his own behalf. The United Nationstoo did nothing then to assist Romanies nor, sadly, were Romanies mentioned anywhere in the documentation of the U.S. War Refugee Board.   This is all the more puzzling since the situation was known to the War Crimes Tribunal in Washington as early as 1946, the files of which contain the text of the meeting between Justice Minister Otto Thierack and Josef Goebbels on 14 September 1942, which stated plainly that

With regard to the destruction of asocial life, Dr. Goebbels is of the opinion that the following groups should be exterminated: Jews and Gypsies unconditionally, Poles who have served 3 to 4 years of penal servitude, and Czechs and Germans who are sentenced to death . . . The idea of exterminating them by labor is best (USGPO, 1946: 496.  Emphasis added).

The Tribunal’s then Chief Prosecutor Benjamin B. Ferencz, founder of Pace University’s Peace Center in New York, did not recommend that the U.S. War Refugee Board include Romanies in their compensation payments to survivors, which amounted to several hundred million dollars.  “Gypsies” are not mentioned anywhere in their documentation. To date Mr. Ferencz has not replied to several requests for clarification, and together with Elie Wiesel, whose Foundation for Humanity offers the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, he is called upon to explain his position regarding Romanies, then and now.

During my four years as a Council member, I was invisible.  William Duna would call me after each of his own visits to Washington, always shaken and hurt.  “I thought I was a decent person” he told me once; “but I come back from these meetings feeling completely degraded.”  On one occasion, at a January 1991 meeting of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council’s Annual Days of Remembrance planning committee, when asked by Bill Duna when Romanies would ever be included as well, chairman Benjamin Meed replied “ask me again in about twenty years.” Romani leader John Megel, who lived in Washington DC and who would frequently visit the Council offices to try to speak with the staff there told me three weeks before he died of a heart attack “those people are killing me.”

My own experience matched Duna’s—members were for the most part distant; some were even openly hostile.  During the coffee breaks I stood alone.  A couple of fellow members would tell me privately that it was shameful the way I was being treated, but they would never speak up publicly in my behalf.  I was put onto two committees, Holocaust Education and Acquisitions, but was never invited to a single meeting of the latter, and was not once consulted at the former.  When I spoke up about school curricula, I was completely ignored.  A film of the Council’s Days of Remembrance ceremony held annually in the Capitol Rotunda and distributed commercially had the section deleted which showed a young Romani girl lighting a commemorative candle on a menorah for the Romanies who perished in the Holocaust.  Our own privately-filmed version provides evidence of the deletion.

Eleven Clinton appointees were replaced by the Bush administration, but no new Romanies were selected to fill any seats.  Ex-member Michael Berenbaum wrote that Jews were at the center of the Holocaust, and near that center were the Gypsies.  We have a rightful place in Holocaust history, but are being excluded.  While new administrations routinely replace government personnel with members from their own party, the prevailing policy is to appoint anyone, regardless of political affiliation, if a party member cannot be found and a need remains.  We are now into the seventh year of the present administration, and still no effort has been made to appoint a Romani American to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. After protesting this for the n-th time, I received an e-mail from Chairman Fred Zeidman (dated April 5th, 2007) telling me that they were relying on me to find them someone.

In 1993 I was invited to be a member of the Roma Advisory Council of the Princeton-based Project on Ethnic Relations, a position I gladly accepted. In this capacity I went to Europe a number of times, including attendance and presentation at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights meetings in Warsaw.  I wrote a report on Roma and the Media at the request of the Project, which was published in 1996.  I asked Livia Plaks, who is Director of the Project on Ethnic Relations, to intervene with her uncle Elie Wiesel to try to resolve our differences.  Whether because of this or not, I was dropped as a member of the PER board very shortly afterwards.

Attitudes such as these are very disturbing and hurtful, and the literature is replete with them.  Edward Alexander called the recognition of Romanies as victims of the Holocaust both “ignorance and arrogance” (1990:13); William Safire called it a “mistaken notion” (1983:12), while Yehuda Bauer has said that “the whole Gypsy ‘problem’ was for Himmler and most other Nazis only a minor irritant” (1994:446). Given the indifference that has overwhelmingly typified attitudes towards the genocide of the Romani people at the hands of the Nazis, Simon Wiesenthal’s effort becomes all the more significant to us. Had he not brought attention to the exclusion of Romanies from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, we would not have won the representation in that organization that we enjoyed for the years between 1987 and 2000.  We have very many Jewish friends and supporters, but his name stands highest among them.


1. This is still believed to be true by some; see Sándor, 2004.

2. The earliest Nazi document referring to “the introduction of the total solution to the Gypsy problem on either a national or an international level” was drafted under the direction of State Secretary Hans Pfundtner of the Reichs Ministry of the Interior in March, 1936, and the first specific reference to “the final solution of the Gypsy question” was made by Adolf Würth of the Racial Hygiene Research Unit in September, 1937.  The first official Party statement to refer to the endgültige Lösung der Zigeunerfrage was issued in March, 1938, signed by Himmler.

3. Reproduced in Hancock, 2002.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward.  “Review of Lopate,” Congress Monthly,  May/June, 1990, p. 13.
Bauer, Yehuda, 1994. “Was the Holocaust unique?,” Midstream, 30(4):19-25.
Doolittle, Leslie, 1984.  Gypsies say holocaust project snubbing them,” The Dallas Times Herald, June 28th, p. B6.
Grove, Lloyd, 1984.  “Lament of the Gypsies: 40 years after Auschwitz, petitioning for a place,” The Washington Post, July 21st, p. C4.
Hancock, Ian, 1986.  “Gypsies and the Holocaust: falling through The cracks of history,” Shmate: A Journal of Progressive Jewish Thought, 17:6-12.
Hancock, Ian, 2002.  We Are the Romani People: Ame Sam e Rromane Džene.  Hatfield: The University of Hertfordshire Press.
Hart, Kitty, 1979.  A Return to Auschwitz.  Chicago.
Im Nin’ Lewy, Gunther, 2000. The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies.  Oxford University Press,  2000.
Milton, Sybil, 1995.  “Der Weg zur ‘Endlösung der Zigeunerfrage’: Von der Ausgrenzung zur Ermordung der Sinti und Roma,” in Edgar Bamberger & Annegret Ehmann, (eds.),  Kinder und Jugendlicher als Opfer des Holocaust. Heidelberg: Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma, pp. 29-52.
Mozes-Kor, Eva, 2005. [On forgiveness], Ynetnews for 26 June (,7340,L-3090830,00.html).
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Sándor Avraham (“Im Nin’alu”), 2004.  The True Origin of Roma and Sinti.  The Romanestan Webring  (
Tudjman, Franjo, 1989. Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy. Zagreb.
USGPO,1946. War Crimes Tribunal FileNo. 682-PS, Volume 3: Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Washington: The U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 496.
Weiss, Philip, 2007. “Forgiving Elie Wiesel, somewhat, on his opposition to Gypsies in Holocaust Museum.”  The New York Observer, January 2nd.
Wiesel, Elie, 1982.  Night.  New York: Bantam Books.
Wiesenthal, Simon, 1986.  “Tragedy of the Gypsies.”  Bulletin of Information No. 26, Dokumentationszentrum des Bundes Jhdischer Vervolgter des Naziregimes.  Vienna.
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