An update from Pedro Gonzalez, who earned a master of liberal studies, with a concentration in human rights, from SMU in 2012 and is a current graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas:
Hungary is a thousand-year-old country that exudes history. Because of the motive of our trip and its tragic nature, one name has been in the background of everything I do here: Walter Benjamin.
In the 9th Theses about the Philosophy of History (Anmerkungen zu den Thesen uber den Begriff der Geschichte), Walter Benjamin talks about Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. He notes that the Angel stares at something inquisitively. His eyes are fixed to his left, and having the mouth open and his wings fully spread, he is gazing, horrified, at the past. Benjamin states that the Angel does not see a long chain of events, like regular persons do, like we do, but a single catastrophe that piles up ruins at his feet; although the Angel wishes to stop and wake up the dead and fix what has been destroyed, he cannot do it, because a hurricane blows strongly and prevents him from tucking in his wings; this happens while the overwhelming wind drags him into the future, which he confronts with his back while his terrified gaze still looks at the piling mounds of ruins that reach up to the sky.
“This hurricane is what we call progress,” states Benjamin, with the Holocaust the most significative part of that mountain of destruction, evoking not only 6 million Jewish people murdered, but hundreds of thousands of other people, such as the Roma.
Today, Friday the 9th, our third day of activities within the EHRP’s Tour of Budapest (with the purpose of studying the history and sites of the Holocaust in this country) focused on the Romas’ tragic fate during the Holocaust.
As a footnote, the weather here has been brutal and inclement. For the past two days, at -9 C, as we walk on the streets for several periods of over 30 minutes at the time, the air becomes a cumulus of microscopic shaving blades that shred the bronchi. But I am happy, because this trip is not supposed to be comfortable and charming, but sobering and cathartic. As with all things related to the Holocaust, learning the truth is what really hurts during these trips, what really macerates the deepest fibers of my humanity to make me realize that no cold wind or lack of sleep can be an obstacle between us and what we came here for: to study the horror suffered by millions of people, who just like those in today’s presentation, the Roma, were humiliated and murdered in the name of evil utopias of fascist nature that include cleansing the body politic, dreams of one’s people’s unity and purity (Aryan), all in the name of progress, modernity and pseudo-science.
The Roma Holocaust occurred desynchronized and decentralized, as Anna Szasz, a doctoral student and our kind presenter invited by the European Roma Cultural Foundation, told us today. Therefore it is difficult to quantify the victims and the locations and modus operandi of the perpetrators. As a result, the Roma have been engaged in a process of transfiguration (of their tragedy) that utilizes images instead of words. In this way memories are being transmitted in patterns of remembrance that are noticeable in 2nd generations of those who survived.
The Roma genocide hence becomes a social trauma inflicted under the premise of a “supposed” backwardness, detrimental to a society that pursued the perfection of social engineering. In other words, the discourse of nomadism and hygiene sustained the justification for the elimination of the Roma people.
Our presentation today included the viewing of the only image extant of the Roma Holocaust: the actual identification/processing card of a Roma woman, Erzsebet Hovoath. This card changed forever the fate of the young Erzsbet, costing her life. She, like the Angel of History, is a witness of the tragedy that accumulated at her feet, and terrorized looks at the camera that represented her own future, her death.
The barbarity of the modern West is not the result of the decadence of a civilization process, but a more plentiful deployment of the same principle, as Walter Benjamin states: “The barbarity of fascism does not interrupt progress, but it is the result of its continuation.”
This is one of the explanations why the Engel der Geschichte looks back, because with every step taken by humanity in the direction of the future in terms of technological progress, industry and organizing efficiency (but only when performed outside social reach), it walks toward the deepening of the same structures of exploitation and repression that have built barriers between contemporary life and tradition and solidarity (the same kind embodied in Jewish and Roma traditions), understood as the precepts of the original proposal of liberte, egalite and fraternite, emanated from the same Revolution, which for many represents the watershed in terms of the very idea of modernity.
The Angel not only contemplates disaster – he is not inactive – he also looks back to stop the continuum of history, because memory which can be so easily corrupted in a society affected by the obsession of social engineering to fulfill dystopias of greed and power, as well as grandiose economic aspects, finds a fracture in the merciless machine called time. As an example, in his documentary Shoah, Claude Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, a barber who used to cut the hair of many women before they stepped into the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Bomba remembered the horror of the situation and how another stylist felt himself so close and interconnected with those women that he wanted to die with them. For a moment, while Bomba is narrating in his shop and cutting the hair of another person simultaneously, the viewer gets the impression of watching the barber cutting the hair of terrified women who are about to die, a window is opened in the homogeneity and unstoppability of time. By freezing time and the continuum of history, Lanzmann confronts a moment of the past instantly.
I strongly believe that we have done just that: we froze a moment in time to watch the tragedy of the Roma, and like Lanzmann, humbly prevent the erosion caused by time, which erases their memory and dignity from history, which in some cases, as a human manufactured product, has a tendency to forget its devastating deeds. The difficulty involved in Hungary’s coming to terms with the Holocaust is reflected not only in the way it is taught in schools, but in the way the Roma stigma has been able to transcend even in the minds of regular contemporary citizens, as we were told by a group of panelists in the Roma Cultural Foundation.
Let’s confront this moment in time like the Angel of History and Lanzmann: By stopping the linear contemporary, merciless, continuity of time, in order to observe, think and act. It is our responsibility as the witnesses that we have become. It is mandatory, since (paraphrasing Dr. Halperin) “the savagery that made the Holocaust possible is still alive in the world today.”