It’s never good form to speak ill of the dead, especially when the dead is a Nobel laureate whose words, more than anyone else’s, gave the generations a witness to the worst evil in human history. But for all of its power and all the immeasurable good it has done through the years, Wiesel’s witness was an imperfect one. Wiesel dedicated his incomparable literary and rhetorical skills, along with his undeniable ethos, not just to making sure the world never forgot the Holocaust for its own horrors, but also to guaranteeing that the world would remember those horrors with purpose. It’s not exactly clear who coined the phrase “Never Again,” but if you had to put a face to the phrase, that face would most likely be Wiesel’s. For Wiesel, “Never Again” meant never again anywhere, whether it be Bosnia, Rwanda, or Darfur. And that’s why Wiesel’s legacy with regards to the Roma is so confounding, if not troubling.
Back in 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy decided to collect and deport several hundred Romani men, women, and children from France as an anti-crime measure, Wiesel spoke out against it. This might have been a turning point in Wiesel’s complicated relationship with the Romani community. Except that he made it a point to express his solidarity with those Romani migrants only in the most general terms, going out of his way to dissuade any comparisons between the 2010 deportations and those of the 1940s. It was obvious, as Wiesel made clear, that Sarkozy would not be sending those Romani families to the gas chambers. But it should have been just as obvious that the failure to connect the racial hatred that sent a million Roma to their deaths in the twentieth century to the hatred they face in the twenty-first century is precisely what allowed Sarkozy to think he could do what he did without political cost.
And Wiesel’s actions in the years prior to the Sarkozy incident—I’m afraid to say—made it clear that this was not just an isolated moment of political naiveté. In the 1980s, Wiesel fought hard against including any Romani representation on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. What motivated this fight was the all too commonly held belief that the Roma were merely tertiary victims of the Nazi death machine and that, unlike the Jewish people, the Nazis had not targeted the Roma for extinction based upon their race. Mind you, Wiesel’s opinion on the matter was by no means the prevailing opinion in the Holocaust memorial community. Simon Wiesenthal, for instance, was particularly vocal in his support for Romani inclusion. And, anyway, documentary evidence from the Nazis themselves (Himmler’s own words included) makes it overwhelmingly clear that the Roma were to be eliminated as a race. To be sure, the Jewish people were the Nazis’ first priority, but the received historical narrative about the Holocaust continues, erroneously, to relegate Romani victims to a tertiary status, as if the near destruction of the Romani people in Europe was opportunistic and not meticulously planned. Most of the references to the Holocaust in history books read something like this: “The Nazis murdered six million Jews, as well as gypsies and others.” Besides not being the preferred nomenclature, the word “gypsies” rarely gets even the dignity of a capital “G.” And often, “gypsies” simply disappears from the text into “others.” Elie Wiesel cannot be blamed for this blind spot in the historical narrative, and it’s certainly not the product of some massive Jewish conspiracy on behalf of the state of Israel. If there is a conspiracy, it’s a conspiracy of laziness and convenience. Americans don’t see much point in history generally, and so if they have to remember something, they’d prefer to keep it simple. Many Europeans, on the other hand, find it convenient to maintain a dissonance between their past treatment of Roma and their present attitudes towards them. Whether it be laziness or convenience, the failure to understand that the Roma too were murdered for their racial identity continues to have real political consequences and human costs.
A few commentators have argued that Wiesel had some sort of axe to grind with the Roma, noting the descriptions of the Gypsy man in Night who acted as an underling for the Nazi guards at the camp. This goes too far, and I cannot believe that Wiesel would have associated himself in anyway with collective blame of this kind. But the Roma have been on the receiving end of collective, racially based punishment not just in the distant past, but as late as the 1990s, when Kosovar militants raped and/or murdered scores of Roma for their perceived collaboration with the Serbs. To this day, thousands of Kosovo Roma endure the worst conditions in refugee camps both inside and outside of Kosovo, as nine out of ten were effectively cleansed from the region at the close of the war. As far as the international community was concerned, this was no doubt a frightful business, but no chorus of “Never Again” would be joined. The same is true in Wiesel’s homeland of Romania, where Roma are being evicted en masse from the very squatter settlements first occupied by survivors returning from the camps. Not only was there no financial compensation allotted to those few Romani survivors, but what little scrap of dirt they found after the horrors is now being stripped from their descendants.
Historical narrative matters. And as long as the Roma are denied their status as special victims in that narrative, acts of hatred, violence, and discrimination visited upon them will continue to be seen merely as regrettable but isolated events rather than the extension of an unchecked legacy of antiziganism stretching all the way back to the Holocaust and beyond. And with Brexit and Europe’s sharp turn to the Far Right, I suspect things will get worse before they get better. Once again, I do not want to blame Wiesel for any of this. We should celebrate his life and his achievements. But I think we should also pay tribute to his memory by taking that one, glaring contradiction in his legacy as an opportunity to reexamine what we really mean by “Never Again.”