"Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust," with Ari Joskowicz

On Thursday, April 11 at 7 p.m., Federation is pleased to host Ari Joskowicz, associate professor of Jewish studies, history, and European studies at Vanderbilt University, who will discuss his new book, Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust.

This Zoom presentation is part of “Jewish Literary Voices: A Federation Series in collaboration with The Jewish Book Council.” Register via the calendar of events at jewishberkshires.org.

Jews and Roma died side by side in the Holocaust, yet the world did not recognize their destruction equally. In the years and decades following the war, the Jewish experience of genocide increasingly occupied the attention of legal experts, scholars, educators, curators, and politicians, while the genocide of Europe’s Roma went largely ignored. Rain of Ash is the untold story of how Roma turned to Jewish institutions, funding sources, and professional networks as they sought to gain recognition and compensation for their wartime suffering.

Rain of Ash is a revelatory account of the unequal yet necessary entanglement of Jewish and Romani quests for historical justice and self-representation that challenges us to radically rethink the way we remember the Holocaust,

The BJV Interview: Ari Joskowicz

In March, Professor Joskowicz spoke to the BJV about Rain of Ash and some of the contemporary issues with which it resonates. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

The subject of the book, as you put it, is the “relational history” of the Roma and the Jews, a complex and heavy subject. For people who don't have any familiarity with this history, what would be a good thing for them to understand going to your talk?

A good chunk of it deals with a group that people just know very little about, Roma, and how striking that should be to us, because they are actually Europe's largest ethnic minority. Somewhere between ten to 12 million Roma live worldwide. Still, they will not show up in textbooks, in museums. One thing that I will discuss also is what happens to them during the Holocaust. But really, it's also useful to pause and reflect on the fact that much of the rest of their history is even less known.

When I introduce people to who the Romani people are and their diversity, I will discuss also is how much more overlap there is [with Jews] in where they were persecuted than we might be aware of. Roma who are not just in concentration camps next to Jews, but Roma were deported to the Lodz ghetto and the Warsaw ghetto. [Roma and Jews] are shot next to each other in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union. One thing that I think especially a Jewish audience should know is precisely, there is a history of suffering next to each other – not necessarily with each other and not necessarily with an awareness of each other - but suffering in proximity to each other.

You examine how different the two cultures are, certainly in their engagement with the wider European culture. Jews were authors and historians, they had positions in universities, and were definitely much more embedded in the culture – and that’s why we know more about one people’s experience than the other’s. You write that Rain of Ash is not about memory, but rather about the production of knowledge and the resources it takes in order to produce that knowledge. Can you explain what you mean?

The term “memory” is metaphor because we're speaking not about simply individuals remembering things, but societies remembering things – but societies don't have brains. “Memory” is really in a culture, it's really about the sort of things people write, the sort of things we can see on video clips these days or in the movies. When we use the word “memory” for what ultimately are references to the past, we get some confusion. One such idea is that memory is something that comes for free, that all you have to do to remember something is to focus [better on a subject]. It gives the impression that what we're missing with the Roma is the idea that if we only knew to ask the [right] question, now we'll learn about [them].

Ultimately, the challenge with groups that have been forgotten in some ways is often that they don't have forces to produce this type of culture. It's about creating the massive infrastructure that one actually needs to remember. Jewish communities had already been building these infrastructures before World War II and had been studying themselves very systematically. They stand out among minorities in the way they build institutions to document their past and create their own non state archivesto record and document what happened to Jews. What I'm trying to highlight is moving beyond the idea that we just need to be aware of things, and then we can fix them – a question of representation, one might say.

What I'm instead arguing in this book is that this is also where our responsibility comes in, the ethics of it all. If the ethics of it all is just to nod and say [to the Romani], yes, join us in our commemoration [of this shared history], that’s one thing. But really [the ethics] are about how we allocate resources to study the past, to document the past, to teach the past. All of this takes much more than we are usually aware of, and I think it's gotten worse in the age of the Internet, because it feels like information is for free. There's much less awareness that information has to be produced in some way, and that it takes immense resources even to keep up websites. When we compare Jewish and Roma experiences, you see a stark difference between one group that had built up that infrastructure and another group that was pretty much lacking it completely before World War II. It took decades for that group to build up anything that is remotely similar to what Jewish institutions already had set up.

And so, Romani history, especially the World War II era, is thus filtered through the Jewish experience.

Right. First of all, it makes for very peculiar relations. [Both sides have an] understanding that they're being misunderstood. Let me just give you one example of how this would feel to a Romani survivor. So the Shoah Foundation is this massive institution that started collecting interviews in the 1990s, that has amassed over 50,000 interviews with Jewish survivors, usually conducted by volunteers who get a single weekend training going out to interview people they know. Especially in the US, it would be Jewish volunteers interviewing other Jews. In the earliest form that they would give people to fill out, because it was made for Jews, it would ask ‘What denomination were you? What type of Jew were you?’ And this would also be handed to Roma because that's the form they had. That immediately sets up a particular framework. There are other assumptions – for example, the first thing that was asked was for someone say their name, and the interviewer would ask how to spell it. Now, this may be challenging for some older Jewish survivors, and it’s particularly hard on people who perhaps learn to write very late or had historically been, might even be illiterate. You're basically embarrassing those people on the first five minutes of the interview – it’s an infrastructure simply not built for them. It also creates a sense that while the Romani were also victims, they were “a different type of victim.”

These experiences transform over time. In the 1990s, there was a lot of competition for access to resources and access to who controlled who would be represented in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. There were conflicts over whether there would there be shared monuments in a place like Berlin, or would the two groups have separate monuments. And these types of conflicts are not really fully going away, but they've become less, and in part because of generational changes, and the way Jewish communities have started to build fences with other groups.

So now a subject with a more contemporary resonance. The word “genocide” is being used a lot now in relation to what Israel is doing in Gaza. Think about the progression of how Zionism has been looked at. In the 1970s, it was that Zionism equaled racism. Then, it became that Zionism was apartheid. More recently, Zionism has become part of the settler/colonialist project. And now, the Zionists are committing a genocide in Gaza. In your opinion, is this a way of normalizing the term “genocide,’ casting the Holocaust of the Jews as just one genocide amongst many other genocides?

Genocide as a concept is invented during the war, but really popularized after the war. The first time it was used was at the Nuremberg trials and actually, several of the most crucial new terms used there came from Jewish lawyers. One is ‘war of aggression,’ which comes from a Soviet side Jewish lawyer, and then ‘crimes against humanity,’ [by a British Jewish lawyer]. They entered international law in slightly different ways, but from the very beginning, the whole intention was to generalize them. When these Jewish lawyers were inventing the term, the whole point was that it wouldn't be a category that would only have the Holocaust in it, because that would not a useful legal category if there's only one case study.

I would say the contention is more about the world ‘holocaust.’ Already in the 1980s, where there's a sense of, well, the Jewish Holocaust is a Jewish Holocaust, and for everybody else, we need a different term. I actually use the word Romani Holocaust. The Holocaust Museum had its own negotiation of these sort of things, and came to the idea that there were ultimately 6 million victims of the Holocaust and then others who were caught in the net of the Nazis.

The past is always filtered through our current political concerns. It's why the past matters and otherwise [the study of history] becomes a hobby where you're interested in things that don't matter anymore. There's a reality that people will appropriate these things and will draw parallels, like saying the state of Israel is now like the Nazis. That would be one thing that would be considered antisemitism according to many of the definitions of antisemitism. As a historian, for me it's also interesting to step back and rather than say whether one side is right or wrong, to analyze when did people start doing that and what did it mean for people to do that

One reason the US did not ratify the Genocide Convention until 1986, among others, is because our National Lawyers Association said, well, based on these definitions of committing genocide, maybe this would mean we could be sued for lynchings. I don't think that was a particularly accurate interpretation and by 1986 these concerns weren’t there. But genocide has a legal context . And it also has a context where it becomes just an accusation for a really bad situation rather than anything that has to do with a legal context.

That is a problem for people who want to use terms precisely, because people are also deeply offended if you say something isn't a genocide, but rather, say, only a crime against humanity. There's basically two politics around the world. One is the politics that surround legal obligations, which is where state politics comes in. A state has to be extremely careful and is overly cautious, perhaps, in its use of the term. And then we have the exact opposite when it comes to public opinion, where people are very quick with calling any atrocities, calling any violence, or calling anything they disapprove of genocide.