Bela Danyi has a simple request.
Half a century after the Romani (Gypsy) Holocaust, Danyi is not asking
for any apologies from the Hungarian government.
Not for the two years he spent in grueling forced labor, first under
Hungarian fascists in 1944, then under the Soviet army. Or for the indignity
of being coerced to play his Stradivarius while fellow Roma prisoners,
some weeping, continued to dig trenches. Or even for the return of the
cherished violin, given to him by his grandfather and confiscated by the
No, all Danyi says he wants is a little extra cash for his troubles.
A retired factory worker, he receives a measly $99 pension each month,
equal to a nice pair of Nikes in downtown Budapest.
"The least the state could do is to give me enough to buy my coffin,"
said the smartly dressed 70-year-old, his craggy face breaking into a sad,
Danyi and a small handful of Hungarian Roma survivors
were on hand Saturday in Budapest to commemorate the Aug. 2, 1944, liquidation
of the Zigeunerlager ("Gypsy Camp") in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Several thousand men, women and children were massacred to make room for
new arrivals. By then, the Nazis had lumped together Roma and Jews as "alien,
inferior" races best exterminated. Hundreds of thousands of Roma, countless
because they were often nomadic and undocumented, perished across Europe.
Even the number of survivors is unknown, but when and how they will be
compensated has become a hot topic within the Roma community.
The Hungarian government has come under increasing
pressure from American Jewish groups and the Clinton Administration to
compensate all Holocaust survivors, and fork over property stolen by the
Nazis or nationalized by the communists. At the same time, the European
Union (EU) -- into which Hungary eagerly seeks membership -- has recently
criticized Hungary for inadequate support of its half-million Roma. When
Washington or Brussels says jump, Hungary doesn't seem to hesitate.
In June the Parliament, hoping to finally put the issue of Holocaust
compensation behind it, passed a second law making everyone who survived
the ghettos, labor camps and concentration camps eligible for an extra,
compensatory pension. The first attempt, in 1992, was poorly publicized
and drew few applicants from the generally uneducated, ill-informed Roma
By enacting the new law, Hungary became the first country in Central
and Eastern Europe to provide a blanket compensation, though the exact
amount to individuals has yet to be determined. For added measure, lawmakers
a few weeks ago voted to set aside 480 million Hungarian forints ($2.5
million) for autonomous Roma institutions.
The recent decisions drew mild praise from deeply cynical Roma leaders.
"Hungary is buying its ticket to the EU ball," said Bela Osztojkan,
a Roma writer and activist whose uncle and his family were deported and
never seen again. "There are certain criteria we have to meet, and the
Roma question is one of them."
The EU, for its part, is not entirely altruistic
in its admonitions. Observers suggest that if Hungary and other prospective
members were not to improve education and work opportunities for the mostly
impoverished Roma, EU membership would likely trigger a westward exodus.
Hungarian officials downplay a Western role in steering domestic policy.
"We are somehow lagging behind on the (Roma compensation) issue,"Foreign
Minister Laszlo Kovacs told the Monitor. "But finally we've realized this
was a debt of the Hungarian government." The Roma appreciate having the
West on their side; historically, they've had few allies. Since their arrival
in Europe sometime about the 13th century, they've faced various forms
of prejudice and persecution, and have been unable to shake the stereotype
of being vagabonds, thieves or fortune-tellers.
The Third Reich took the boldest steps to purge
itself of the Roma. Beginning in 1933, many Roma were subject to sterilization
or internment in ghetto-like camps. According to the Nazi gameplan, they
were to be the second question answered, after the Jews.
Figuring the magnitude of Roma deaths across Europe from 1933 to 1945
is mostly an educated guess; estimates range wildly from 250,000 to 1.5
million. While exhaustive research has pinpointed the number of Jewish
victims at some six million, documenting the Roma experience is plagued
by a lack of wartime record-keeping then and public apathy today, say Roma
Some Hungarians, for example, are unaware that Roma suffered a fate
similar to the Jews. Roughly three-quarters of Hungary's 800,000 Jews were
annihilated; the Roma death toll was anywhere from 5,000 to 70,000.
During Communism, public mention of the Holocaust
was taboo in the state's effort repress inter-ethnic tension. And while
West Germany first began to compensate its Roma survivors in 1953, it was
denied to victims in the Soviet bloc because it was believed those regimes
would pocket the hard currency. However, the regime's ideology also lent
the Roma artificial equality with their compatriots, particularly in the
workplace. Privately, though, they were -- and still are -- viewed as second-class
It is only since the system disintegrated in 1989 that the Roma have
been able to muster their first real civil-rights movement. But when it
comes to issues such as Holocaust compensation, the Roma find it impossible
to match the political influence of international Jewry.
So they count on the Jewish community for assistance, said local leaders.
Indeed, the World Jewish Congress is responding. They are speaking up for
Roma in current negotiations with Swiss banks to locate assets deposited
by Holocaust victims. Cooperation with the local Jewish community is another
story, as Hungarian Jews are instead focused on how to revive the remaining
community of 80,000.
"We know the Roma also suffered and we're sorry, but that's not the
question," said Erno Lazarovits, a board member of the Federation of Jewish
Communities in Hungary. "Every minority is busy solving its own big problems,
with little time to find possibilities to help others."