A holocaust survivor

Mehru Jaffer

It might be 60 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but Ceija Stojk, who was persecuted during World War II, remembers Auschwitz "every waking moment of my life."

Her hands brought together in traditional Indian greeting - the namaskar - Ceija Stojka, 71, stands in her Vienna apartment, and says that it is she who is Aryan, not Adolf Hitler. After all, Europe's gypsies are proud to trace their origins to India, despite the fact that the Nazis persecuted them during World War II, for being too bohemian, dark-skinned and curly-haired.

The navy blue ink of the identification number - Z 6399 - that was tattooed on to her left arm by the Nazis, when she was barely 10 years old, still glistens in the grey light reflected by a snowstorm outside. Behind Ceija, the television screen shows scenes from a sombre ceremony in Poland.

The year 2005 marks 60 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the death camp where 1.5 million people were killed between 1940 and January 1945 because the Nazis considered them impure of race.

While most of those killed were Jews, the others included Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis. From Ceija's extended family of over 200 people in the 1940s, only her mother, four brothers and sisters survived the Holocaust.

And ever since then, Ceija dyes her long, dark tresses blonde in defiance of Hitler's cruel politics of pitching one race of people against another. In her apartment, Ceija - pronounced like the Indian name Chchaya - is surrounded by photographs of family members both dead and alive.

The musician, painter and writer's apartment is also full of paintings of flowers, forests, and the caravan that first brought gypsies from India to Europe about a thousand years ago.

She says she is able to smile today only because the zest for life is a gift from God to the gypsies. This longing to live to the hilt is best portrayed through an ongoing exhibition of paintings in Vienna, titled `Ceija Stojka - Alive'. The exhibition will travel all over the country and abroad throughout 2005.

Ceija was born in 1933, into a Lovari family, considered to be an extension of the Indian community of ironsmiths (lohars) and traders in horses. In the same year, politicians met to discuss the "gypsy question" in Austria. At that time, there was a proposal to deport the country's 11,000 gypsies to an island in the Pacific. The then prevailing race laws put them on par with millions of Jews.

The Roma were the only other population besides the Jews who were targeted for extermination on racial grounds. They arrived in Europe about the year 1300 A.D., having departed from India between 1000 and 1200 A.D. Their entry into Europe, from the Byzantine Empire, was a result of Islamic expansion.

As non-Christian and non-white Asian people, possessing no territory in Europe, the Roma were considered outsiders in every country. Their distinct Romani culture too encouraged a social distance between Roma and gadje (the non-Roma), further reinforcing their difference from the Europeans.

In his book, Genocide of the Roma in the Holocaust, Ian Hancock says that when the Nazis came to power in 1933, German laws against the Roma had already been in place for hundreds of years. For instance, not having a permanent home or job, and not being on taxpayer's register, were punishable offences.

Gypsy children were forbidden to attend school, and the first orders to intern them in a forced labour camp followed after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. This, of course, was a transit camp on the way to extermination.

Ceija's seven-year-old brother, Ossi, was used for medical experiments at Auschwitz; and he died in 1943. Along with her mother and an aunt, Ceija was transferred to another camp for women.

When British troops finally liberated the concentration camp in 1945, only 2,000 of the 11,000 Austrian gypsies survived, and returned to Vienna. Since travelling and camping were forbidden during the years after the War, Ceija was unable to follow the family tradition of trading in horses. So she sold carpets instead.

The little girl, who had constantly wondered why her father didn't return home, got evidence of his murder in 1942 at a Nazi concentration camp, much later in 2003. Her book, We Live In Seclusion: Memories Of A Romni (published 1988), was the first book written by a gypsy about the fate and suffering of the Roma in the concentration and extermination camps.

"I have survived on paper and pieces of leather when I was hungry and it is not just today but I remember Auschwitz every waking moment of my life," says Ceija who chose to drown her misery in music, painting and poetry.

"I am unable to go to places in my mama's beautiful wagon but that does not prevent me from roving in my mind," she says. She does not believe in hating even those who have harmed her in the past. But what disturbs her is right wing fascists winning elections in both Austria and Germany. "I have no room for hatred in my heart but what about some of those around me," she asks.

Women's Feature Service

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