The Roma people — commonly called Gypsies — have long been relegated to the margins of European society. As outsiders, they were targeted during the Holocaust, but the number of victims remains little-known. Filmmaker Aaron Yeger tells their story in the documentary A People Uncounted, and he joins the program to explain more.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How many Roma were killed in the Holocaust? Well, estimates vary. The Roma people, commonly called Gypsies, have long inhabited the margins of European life. They are descendants of migrants from India who arrived in Europe a thousand years ago. Always outsiders, pariahs, they were targeted along with the Jews for extermination by Adolph Hitler and they were sent to camps.
So how many died? Well, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says one-in-four European Roma died; almost a quarter of a million people. A new documentary film says half a million people. Why do we know so little? Well, in the documentary, Ronald Lee, a Romany Canadian writer, says the Roma lacked the social infrastructure to make the world aware.
RONALD LEE: We had no professors. We had no journalists. We had no writers. We had no filmmakers. We had only begun to enter mainstream society when Hitler came to power.
SIEGEL: The film that Lee appears in is appropriately titled, "A People Uncounted: The Untold Story of the Roma." Aaron Yeger, who made the film, joins us from New York.
AARON YEGER: Good afternoon.
SIEGEL: You should explain that this film crosses many national borders and is told in many languages, because that's where and how the Roma live.
YEGER: Yes, that is correct. It's a very large diaspora. And in "A People Uncounted," we featured stories in 11 different countries.
SIEGEL: Eleven different countries and, of course, with the aid of subtitles we hear people speaking in German and Hungarian and Russian.
YEGER: Russian, Romanian, Czech, and English as well
SIEGEL: Your film describes what happened to the Roma who survived the Holocaust. It also describes some accounts, horrible accounts of what happened in the camps themselves. But there were children who had never gone to school, people who didn't have passports or records of citizenship, people who had been stripped of their assets. What happened to the Roma after the Nazi defeat in the end of the Holocaust?
YEGER: Well, what happened is it was an enormous struggle. And Roma preferred to live in their countries of origin rather than emigrate to North America, for instance. Or there are even cases of Roma who became friends with Jewish victims of the Holocaust during the course of being in the camps and, in some cases, were invited to emigrate what then became the new state of Israel.
But in most cases, they preferred to stay in their place of origin. But unfortunately, with a loss of papers and a loss of rights, and their homes gone, their assets gone, it was a huge struggle and we see that struggle continually reflected today.
SIEGEL: The Holocaust Memorial Museum says that you can't really figure out how many Roma were killed by the Nazis. But they say experts settled somewhere around 220,000. How is it that the people in your film come up with a number twice that big?
YEGER: Well, what's interesting is that the academic consensus on the European side of the pond is about 500,000. And the estimates range quite substantially, so I am familiar with the number of 220,000. I'm also familiar with a number as high as 1.5 million. And at the end of the day, in the process of trying to tell this story, one conclusion we came to is that the number - the absolute number is not really what matters but more the destruction to communities, particularly on a local level.
And to that end, we can see how communities were affected in particular regions or countries, such as one that we highlight in the film, Austria, where approximately 90 percent - nine zero percent - of the Romany people perished.
SIEGEL: The Canadian man whom we heard in the introduction, Ronald Lee, says that one reason we know so little is that the Roma people just didn't have those kinds of professionals who would be there to advocate and also to describe.
YEGER: It's certainly a useful theory and I think there's probably some substance to it. And another point that Ronald Lee has made, outside of the course of the film, is that the resources and the most integrated Roma who existed before the Second World War were likely the first to perish and in the largest numbers.
Because, sadly - and this is one of those strange ironies that comes out of a tragedy like a genocide - the Roma who were most integrated into mainstream society, living in cities like Berlin, for instance, they were the easiest to find and round up by the Nazis and by other Nazi collaborators. So those who survived were the ones who were least integrated into society and lived more in rural communities, rather than big cities.
SIEGEL: Aaron Yeger, thanks a lot for talking with us about your film.
YEGER: Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: The documentary film that Aaron Yeger has made is called "A People Uncounted: The Untold Story of the Roma." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.