This article appeared in the January 1, 2010 Jewish Advocate.
Fate of Jews, Gypsies haunts Holocaust survivor
She weaves their stories and hers into a new novel
‘Here are two European minorities. They are almost opposite in their culture. But they were both persecuted, albeit for different reasons, and both continued to be viewed as outsiders.’
Sonia Meyer today and as a young woman in Israel.
By Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate
When children her age in the United States were at their desks in elementary school, 6-year-old Sonia Meyer was on the run in central Europe. Meyer camped out in forests and abandoned buildings, while learning from her father how to throw a hand grenade.
But rather than block out her childhood ordeal, Meyer chose to explore it – and to advocate for the Gypsies who helped hide her. She drew on her experiences for a semi-autobiographical novel, “Dosha,” to be published this spring.
Born in 1938 in Cologne, Germany, Meyer witnessed the Holocaust from the perspective of two of Hitler’s chief targets: the Jews and the Gypsies.
“My mother and her siblings were Germans who were very vocally and openly anti-Nazi,” she recalled recently at a Cambridge cafe. Fearing they would be sent to a concentration camp, the family – 1-year-old Sonia, her parents, an aunt and two uncles – fled town in the middle of the night, leaving everything they owned behind.
The toddler rarely saw her father as the presence of men risked drawing attention to the fugitives. Meyer’s father would occasionally bring the family game he had shot. “He was fearless,” said Meyer. “I remember him once walking toward a pointed gun.” Peasants who secretly opposed the Nazis also brought them food. But potatoes and berries were the mainstays of their diet.
“In those early days we used trains, and actually crisscrossed the hinterlands of Germany, never staying long enough to be questioned by authorities,” Meyer said. Heading east, they traveled on foot through the forests, joining up with partisans, some of whom were Gypsies.
“We crossed borders at night, always staying deep within the forests. In winter, we spent time in abandoned or burned-out buildings, or out-of-the-way excursion inns that could only be reached by foot.”
* * *
In 1944, they were caught between two forces, as the Russians drove into Poland. Russian soldiers, drunk on alcohol and age-old hostility toward the Poles, attacked the partisans, killing the men and raping the women, Meyer said. Meanwhile, the retreating Germans dropped bombs indiscriminately.
“Camps were opened, all sorts of camps, labor and concentration,” said Meyer. “We started to now escape from the Russians by walking back from the Czech border, toward Cologne.” Meyer’s father managed to find a bicycle and head home ahead of them.
Meyer recalled encountering liberated Jews and being struck by how they responded when her mother gave them potatoes. Though emaciating and starving, they washed their hands before eating.
Mother and daughter walked for weeks, averaging more than 15 miles a day. “Often we arrived at a village only to find the water poisoned, and there was typhus everywhere,” she said. “We were very hungry; we often stole food, and slept in barns.”
Fortunately, it was summer, and they could forage in gardens and forests.
They found Cologne leveled to the ground. “I hooked up with Gypsy kids, and together we stole potatoes from the railroad cars, and coal briquettes for heating,” Meyer said.
A year after their return, makeshift schools opened. Teachers singled her out as mathematically gifted and, against her mother’s wishes, pushed her ahead to high school. But Meyer wasn’t interested in pursuing math. Meanwhile, her home life was in turmoil as her parents broke up and her mother had a physical collapse. “I experienced great anger, and by age 12 had turned suicidal,” she said.
At that point, she was brought to the United States by her mother’s eldest sister, who had married into an old Sephardic family in Italy before immigrating to the United States in 1940. Her Jewish uncle was a scholar who studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and wrote wide-ranging history books.
Meyer married at 17, lived in Finland, divorced and then traveled extensively. She worked as a fashion model, translator, marketing researcher and an actress on stage and radio. After helping refugees through the American Joint Distribution Committee in Geneva, she went to Israel for six months.
“I’ve lived much of my own life like a Gypsy,” said Meyer, who eventually landed in Cambridge, where she married Richard Meyer, who has since retired as a Harvard Business School professor. The couple have three sons, and many Jewish relatives, some observant. Today, they split their time between homes in Vermont and Florida.
* * *
Meyer’s interest in the Gypsies never waned. In the bowels of Harvard’s Widener Library, she discovered “The Ursitory (Those are the Fates).” She was so taken by the book that she traveled to Paris to visit with its author, Mateo Maximoff, a pastor in the Evangelical Gypsy movement. Several years later, she went to Macedonia to visit Esme – who had been dubbed “Queen of the Gypsies” after adopting 40 orphans – and to Kosovo and Hungry to visit other Gypsy conclaves. Meyer believes her mother’s father may have been a Gypsy.
The Gypsies, thought to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, now mainly live in Central and Eastern Europe. They are actually the Roma and Sinti people – the term Gypsy a misnomer coined in the Middle Ages when it was believed they had come from Egypt. “Many Gypsies feel that the word Gypsy is derogatory,” said Meyer. “They prefer Roma, but not all do. It’s complicated and touchy. So I personally switch between Gypsy and Roma in order not to offend them.”
Perennially living on the edge of society – subject to discrimination because of their distinct culture – the Gypsies have often been reduced to making their living in shady, often illegal ways.
Meyer said the Gypsies tend not to be materialistic. “Their work – family-based and in arts and crafts, entertainment, music – is fulfilling to them,” she said. Their culture stresses the importance of family, the intermingling of generations and a strong role for women.
Next to the Jews, Gypsies suffered the greatest proportionate loss of any group during the Holocaust. Estimates of the number killed range from a quarter of a million to more than a million.
“Here are two European minorities,” Meyer said. “They are almost opposite in their culture. But they were both persecuted, albeit for different reasons, and both continued to be viewed as outsiders.”
“Jews and Roma were the only populations slated for annihilation in compliance with a ‘final solution,’” noted Ian Hancock, who directs the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas in Austin. Hancock cofounded the Romani-Jewish Alliance; its motto: “Our ashes were mixed in the ovens.”
Thrown together by the Nazis, some Jews and Gypsies married, with many of the mixed couples moving to Israel after the war. Others Gypsies immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union and Bulgaria. “All the Roma in Israel with whom I am familiar have either great sympathy toward Zionism and the Jewish State, or a tolerant attitude toward both,” said Valery Novoselsky, a Jewish-Romani resident of the Galilean town Kiryat-Shemona and editor of Roma Virtual Network.
Gypsies continue to feel ostracized. Applause turned to boos in Bucharest last summer when Madonna, accompanied by the Roma-Jewish Kolpakov Trio, spoke out against discrimination against Gypsies in Eastern Europe. With six Roma killed in Hungary and Roma caravans torched in Italy over the past year, Gypsy blogs are filled with fears of a second “Gypsy Holocaust.”
Sonia Meyer’s “Dosha” will be published by Wilderness House Press of Littleton.
Original, longer version:
Gypsy scholar brings longsuffering persecution to light in new novel:
Notes parallels with Jewish history
by Susie Davidson
While children her age in the United States were at their desks in elementary school, 6-year-old Sonia Meyer was on the run in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, living in forests and abandoned buildings, while learning from her father how to throw a hand grenade. But rather than block out her torturous early childhood, Meyer has explored it – and advocated for the mysterious, nomadic Roma who helped hide her. She draws on her experiences in her semi-autobiographical novel, “Dosha,” to be published in the spring (Wilderness House Press of Littleton; publicized by Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville).
Born in 1938 in Cologne, Germany, Meyer witnessed the Holocaust from the perspective of two of Hitler’s chief targets: the Jews and the Gypsies. “My mother and her siblings were Germans who were very vocally and openly anti-Nazi,” she recalled recently at a Cambridge cafe. Fearing they would be sent to a concentration camp, her parents, aunt and two uncles left overnight, leaving everything they owned behind. She rarely saw her father, since having men around increased the risk of being hunted down. He had been working at a Ford factory near Cologne, and either had to join the party, or lose his job. While he was also anti-Nazi, he basically acquiesced to their activities.
He opted to go with them, but he moved from place to place, bringing them meat he had hunted. “He was fearless,” said Meyer. “I remember him once walking toward a pointed gun.” Peasants who secretly opposed the Nazis also brought them food. But potatoes and berries were the mainstays of their consistently inadequate diet.] “In those early days we used trains, and actually crisscrossed the hinterlands of Germany, never staying long enough to be questioned by authorities,” Meyer said. They traveled on foot through the forests, hooking up with partisans, some of whom they knew to be Gypsies. They headed toward a less populated region near the Polish border, homeland of her father’s parents. “We crossed borders” – Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia intersect in a near triangle at one point – “at night, always staying deep within the forests. In winter, we spent time in abandoned or burned-out buildings, or out-of-the-way excursion inns that could only be reached by foot.” Meyer and her mother mainly stayed with women and children of other partisans, who continued to change frequently. The rest of her mother’s family hovered around them.
“My mother was the youngest of the first seven children of my grandfather’s first wife,” Meyer said. “She was delicate, but fearless in her opposition to Hitler. Her siblings were likewise powerful; one aunt hid many people on the run – there may have been Jews among them, but we never differentiated between ethnicities – our only prejudice was against the Nazis.” Her aunt fed these refugees with smoked eel that her husband fished from the river Rhine. Another uncle, an artist, was drafted into the German army, but defected as soon as they reached France. “Once we survived a massacre when we reached a railway tunnel ahead of a contingent of soldiers hunting women and children who were stealing potatoes,” Meyer said. They knew what was going on around them. “We sometimes were able to listen to clandestine BBC radio broadcasts,” she said. “And from distances, we witnessed the Germans humiliate people of all ages and genders.”]
In 1944 Russian soldiers entered Poland. On a wanton pillage fueled by deep-seated Russian-Polish hostility and alcohol, they killed Polish partisans and raped their women. Meanwhile, the Germans, realizing their war was lost, dropped bombs indiscriminately. “Camps were opened, all sorts of camps, labor and concentration,” said Meyer. “We started to now escape from the Russians by walking back from the Czech border, toward Cologne.” She came upon American soldiers who helped the fleeing women and children. During this chaotic time, Meyer met her first Jewish people in the woods, walking westward on their own. “I don’t know who liberated them, or which camp they came from,” she said, recalling that her mother shared their potatoes with them, and that despite their hunger and emaciation, they washed their hands before eating.
“When the Russians arrived, the men were the most endangered,” said Meyer. “My father would have been shot on the spot.” He somehow procured a bicycle, which in those days was true wealth, and left ahead of them. Meyer and her mother walked for weeks, an average of 30 kilometers per day. “Often we arrived at a village only to find the water poisoned, and there was typhus everywhere,” she said. Thousands of others were walking as well. “We were very hungry, we often stole food, and slept in barns,” she said. Fortunately, it was summer, and they found some food in gardens and forests. There was no transport, no railway. Many people died along the way.
They found Cologne leveled to the ground, and the only way to survive was to steal and smuggle. “So I hooked up with Gypsy kids, and together we stole potatoes from the railroad cars, and coal briquettes for heating,” she said. A year after their return, makeshift schools opened, and she was forced to attend school with people she had been brainwashed to hate by grown-ups around her who relentlessly condemned the Germans. But this was only one additional challenge. Her parents were told that she was mathematically gifted; she skipped elementary school grades and against her mother’s wishes was forced to enter high school. But she was not interested in a career in math, and her parents’ marriage did not survive the war. Her mother had a physical collapse. “I experienced great anger, and by age twelve had turned suicidal,” she revealed.
Her mother’s eldest sister, who had married into an old Sephardic family in Italy before the war, rescued Meyer from Germany. They had left Italy in 1940 for the U.S., and had an eight-year-old boy and a baby. They sent care packages, as money wouldn’t have helped. “There was nothing to buy until 1948,” said Meyer. Her Jewish uncle was a papyrologist who specialized in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and also wrote books comparing inflation during the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition to the present. He had spent the war years in the U.S. with his wife and children, but lost his mother to the Nazis. At age 12, they came and took Meyer to the States. She married at 17 and lived in Finland, and, following divorce, traveled extensively between Florence, Italy and the States.
Her education was nomadic as well. In Florence, she was taught to be a young, upper-class woman, schooled in the arts and in languages. “Since I was now the poor relative of a wealthy, well-known family, I was groomed to marry rich, which I refused to do,” she recalled. She worked as a high fashion model, interpreter, translator, marketing researcher for embassies, and also acted on stage and for radio programs. She worked with refugees for the American Joint Distribution Committee in Geneva, and through them, went to Israel for six months. “I decided to settle in the States after my best friend, an American, committed suicide in Geneva,” she said. They had both been part of the Geneva jet set.
She then met her husband at Harvard. Meyer had taken a summer job at the University, mainly in order to obtain a library card for its libraries, because she had decided she would attempt to write her story in some form. “I had written all my life, but mostly as a cure for my past, the war and the after years in Cologne,” she said. She met and married Richard Meyer, now a retired Harvard Business School professor, and between his family and her aunt’s, has many Jewish relatives, some observant. These days, her traveling spans the couples’ homes in Palm Beach and Bondville, Vermont, where she is a horse breeder. Her interest in the Gypsies never waned, and she hunted for Gypsy literature with little success. One day in the late 1990s, she discovered Mateo Maximoff’s “The Ursitory (Those are the Fates)” in the bowels of Widener Library. With her husband’s support, she then traveled for a few weeks with a journalist from the Voice of America who was a specialist on Balkan Gypsies. They visited the Paris-based Maximoff, a pastor in the Evangelical Gypsy movement, traveled to Macedonia to visit Esme (the “Queen of the Gypsies,” who adopted 40 Gypsy orphans), and stayed in the Gypsy section of Skopje, and in Kosovo and Hungary. “I’ve lived much of my own life like a Gypsy,” she said, adding that she believes her maternal grandfather was Roma. She began speaking publicly on the Gypsies, and writing her forthcoming novel.
The Gypsies, believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, are mainly found in Central and Eastern Europe, with an estimated 500,000 to two million living in Romania today. "Gypsy" is a composite term, referring to Roma and Sinti, and is actually a misnomer, as it was mistakenly thought in the Middle Ages that they had come from Egypt. “Many Gypsies feel that the word Gypsy is derogatory,” said Meyer. “They prefer Roma, but not all do. It’s complicated and touchy. So I personally switch between Gypsy and Roma, in order not to offend them.” Perennially on the edges of the societies in which they have lived, shrouded in mystique, socially and culturally indefinable, and reduced to making their living in shady, often illegal ways, the ethnic group has been subjected to negative perceptions and resultant discrimination throughout their existence.
During the Holocaust, Gypsies suffered the greatest proportionate losses of any group, save the Jews.According to the Berlin-based educational organization Learning from History as well as the Jewish Virtual Network, 250,000-500,000 Roma and Sinti (a Gypsy population in Europe) perished in Nazi gas chambers, concentration camps, ghettos, and mass executions (The late Dr. Sybil Milton, who was senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute in Washington, placed the figure at 500,000 to 1.5 million.) They were branded “antisocials unfit for civilian society” under the Nuremberg Laws, and “racially distinctive minorities with ‘alien blood’" under Reich Citizenship Laws.
“The Holocaust devasted my people,” said Shay Clipson, a Welsh native living in Lincolnshire, England, who runs “PeshasGypsyBlog” on Blogspot and lights a candle every Yom HaShoah.
It can often be difficult to pinpoint underlying causes that lie beneath historic targeting, and sometimes, the most plausible reason is simple fear of “the other.” Says Meyer: “Here are two European minorities. They are almost opposite in their culture. But they were both persecuted, albeit for different reasons, and both continued to be viewed at outsiders.” She notes that in the former Soviet Union, Jews and Gypsies were quite close, and their music was so similar that they exchanged musicians, as still occurs today in Roma-Klezmer and other such fusion groups.
"Himmler's 1938 ‘Endtgultige Loesung der Zigeunerfrage,’ or "Final Solution of the Gypsy Question,” led to the ultimate destruction of 75 percent of the Romani throughout Nazi-occupied Europe,” said Ian Hancock, an English, linguistics and Asian studies professor and Romani scholar at the University of Texas in Austin, where he directs the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (The descriptive term Romani is often used by academics and organizations). Hancock, who has represented the Roma before the U.N. and was appointed by President Clinton in 1997 to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, told the Advocate that “Jews and Roma were the only populations slated for annihilation in compliance with a ‘final solution.’” (The motto of the Romani-Jewish Alliance, Inc. he co-founded in 1994 reads: “Our ashes were mixed in the ovens.”)
As an Allied soldier, Ellsworth “Al” Rosen of Brookline, who later helped found Facing History and Ourselves, stumbled upon burning barracks outside Dachau, with prisoners locked inside. “They made it known they were ‘Roma, Roma,’” he recalled.
The Joshua Project, a ministry of the U.S. Center for World Mission, counts 11,000 Gypsies living in all of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and there are nearly 11 million throughout the world. Valery Novoselsky is a Jewish-Romani resident of the Galilean town Kiryat-Shemona who is editor of Roma Virtual Network, a member of the Parliament of International Romani Union, and a supporter of the Society of Domari Gypsies in Israel. He explained that Roma in India were originally called “Dom,” which means “man,” and in the Byzantine Empire, this became “Rom.” Domari Gypsies, who migrated to the Middle East and North Africa from India, are based in East Jerusalem. According to Novoselsky, the Domari are part of the Palestinian population, where the European Roma tend to be members of Jewish families, or foreign workers. There is no official policy toward the Gypsies in Israel, and true to typical Roma covert fashion, no discernable Roma political involvement. “All the Roma in Israel with whom I am familiar have either great sympathy toward Zionism and the Jewish State, or a tolerant attitude toward both,” he notes, adding that some practice Judaism. “Some people of Romani-Jewish background are defined as Jews according to Halacha, some others not,” he said.
According to Jennifer Peterson, writing for the Dom Research Center in Jerusalem, Byzantine historians documented a migration of Gypsies from India to Persia around 227 AD. Some went from there to the Middle East, some to Europe. Donald Kenrick, in his 2009 book Gypsies Under the Swastika (Grattan Puxon), states that there had already been intermarriages between Gypsies and Jews before they were placed together in concentration camps, and more friendships developed between them there. “After the liberation from the Fascists,” he writes, “most of these mixed couples married and migrated to Israel.” Other Gypsies came to Israel from Bulgaria, some in postwar D.P. camps or simply pretended to be Jews to receive Zionist assistance, and others immigrated from the former Soviet Union. They tend to assimilate into Israeli society, though some pass Romani language on to their Hebrew-speaking, Israeli descendents who live as Jews.
The Roma are not about accumulating possessions, says Meyer. “Their work, family-based and in arts/crafts, entertainment, music, etc., is fulfilling to them.” She says their sociology, in which ages comingle, women have strong roles, and families are closely bonded, has enabled the Gypsies’ unlikely survival, despite suppression of the culture that has included taking children from their parents (under Maria Theresa of Austria, as well as at other times), and the forced sterilization of women. Meyer also notes that while peoples, including our own as Jews, have been relentlessly persecuted, the Gypsies have never had any power, financial or educational advantage. Further, as their culture is oral and they are often unregistered, they have always been totally unprotected. However, Meyer cites a distinction regarding the U.S., as opposed to Europe: Roma have suffered prejudice here, but not persecution.
While historic prejudice against many ethnic groups has lessened, ostracization of the Gypsies remains in force. Applause quickly turned to boos this August when Madonna, accompanied by the Roma-Jewish Kolpakov Trio on her “Sticky and Sweet” tour stop in Bucharest, commented on ongoing discrimination against Roma and Gypsies in Eastern Europe. Johnny Depp, who played an Irish Gypsy in the 2000 movie Chocolat and lived with them while shooting the same year’s The Man Who Cried, has defended the Roma publicly, and wrote a letter to a Gypsy soundman’s family in which he praised their heritage.
Yet with six Roma recently killed in Hungary, Roma caravans torched in Italy this summer, and a recent eminent domain attempt against a Romany church in Florida (which ended in compromise last month), discrimination appears to continue unabated, so much so that online Gypsy blogs are filled with fears of an imminent, second “Gypsy Holocaust.”
While Meyer has written another novel and also an earlier version of “Dosha” that was much more political and experimental, it is her first published book. She will speak at area venues upon its release.