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Profile: Dr. Petra Gelbart
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.  In particular, OSCE agreements address issues relating to the human rights of Roma, Holocaust remembrance, and preserving sensitive sites of remembrance.

During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, an internment camp in the Czech village of Lety became a concentration camp for Roma. Around 1,300 people were imprisoned there, including many children.  Some died in Lety as a result of the horrible conditions in the camp.  Many more were deported and perished at Auschwitz. An estimated three hundred survived.  In some ways, Lety is as emblematic of the experiences of Roma both during the and after the Holocaust.

During the communist period, a pig farm was established on the site of the former concentration camp.  After the fall of communism, the existence of the pork processing facility became an enduring controversy, generating progressively more frequent protests. In recent years, Czech officials moved closer to a decision to remove the pig farm.  In August, the Czech government announced agreement had been reached with the owners of the site on a purchase price, paving the way for the farm’s removal.

The United States subsequently welcomed the progress made by the Czech Republic.  Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker observed, “[t]his achievement is the culmination of decades of work on the part of survivors, human rights groups, members of the Helsinki Commission, and others. It paves the way for a dignified and appropriate memorial for the thousands of men, women, and children who suffered and died there.”

At the opening of this year’s OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Czech Republic – the only European Union country to speak at the opening in its national capacity, in addition to supporting a joint EU statement – drew attention to this breakthrough:

“Against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the OSCE, heightened attacks leveled at civil society, media and persons belonging to minorities, it remains crucial to continue promoting and protection fundamental OSCE commitments and principles.  In this context, we would like to highlight the recent positive developments in the implementation of the Czech Republic’s Roma Integration Strategy 2015-2020.  I have in mind the issue of the former Gypsy Concentration Camp in Lety u Pisku.”

In light of these developments, the Helsinki Commission had a conversation with Dr. Petra Gelbart.  Dr. Gelbart is a Romani ethnomusicologist who uses music and academic research to advocate for the remembrance of Romani victims of the Holocaust.[iv] She frequently speaks to a wide range of audiences about Romani music, culture, and their persecution during the Holocaust.  She has also served as a Public Member on a U.S. delegation to an OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.

Born in Czechoslovakia and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Gelbart was introduced to Romani language, music, and culture at a young age. Her personal background drove her passion to study Romani culture further and to become an educator in Romani music, history, and other socio-political issues.

“My family’s experience during the Holocaust was the primary motivator in my decision to become involved in commemoration efforts,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Increasingly, I am also coming to terms with how much this background has shaped my personal identity and psychological makeup, so continuing the work is important for my mental wellbeing.”

She first studied musicology at UC Berkeley. Shortly after finishing her degree, she went on to pursue her postgraduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Harvard University.

Dr. Gelbart co-founded the Initiative for Romani music at New York University and is currently the music curator for RomArchive. She has also taught ethnomusicology, music psychology, as well as Romani music and language at the university level.  Her research has focused on interethnic communication, the Holocaust, music psychology, and institutional ethnography.

“I try to take what people think they know about so-called ‘Gypsies,’ and replace it with something that's much more based in reality,” she explains.

Dr. Gelbart passionately advocates for the use of music to not only educate about Romani culture, but also to reflect upon the difficult aspects of this community’s history.

“Oral traditions and personal memoirs have kept the memory of the Holocaust alive among Roma and Sinti even in the absence of sympathetic institutions,” she observes. “The song Chajori Romani, for example, is considered an anthem of both Czech and Slovak Roma. It has a generic, happy text about a Romani girl, but also an alternate text that recounts the conditions of a concentration camp. Thus, even though the Holocaust-related text is sung less frequently, it looms in the background of this popular memory, which has come to be known as ‘the Romani lament’ regardless of which lyrics are being sung.”

“When people pay close attention to Romani music, they can learn not only things they may not have expected to find out about Roma and Sinti, but also about themselves,” Dr. Gelbart notes. “For example, many people associate Manouche (French Romani) people with Gypsy Jazz, and Gypsy Jazz with emotive passion. On objective analysis, however, it turns out that strong sentiments tend to be projected onto Gypsy Jazz and its performers, based on stereotypes of ‘Gypsies,’ rather than being inherent in the music itself. Also, some of the composers and performers who may be perceived as wild musicians have in fact produced decidedly tame, deeply reflective musical pieces, including a few with Holocaust-related themes.”

She continues, “Students and lecture audiences are surprised by the existence of Romani Holocaust songs, and as a consequence some of them ask why they were previously never exposed to the voices of Roma and Sinti in Holocaust education. At that point, it is useful to point out that just as Roma and Sinti expressed their grief and ongoing fears for their safety in songs during and after World War II, some of them also wrote memoirs or formed organized commemoration narratives. The image of Romanies as unschooled or illiterate is persistent, and yet Holocaust-related education shows Romani traditions in a rather different light.”

Dr. Gelbart works to educate her students and colleagues about the discrimination Romani face in Europe and to correct the offensive misconceptions many hold about them. One challenge she faces in educating people about the Romani experience during the Holocaust is undoing the erasure of Romani victimhood from historical narratives. Throughout much of Europe, the Romani were formerly not a legally recognized ethnic group and thus were excluded from regional Holocaust memory and discouraged from speaking out about their experiences.

“It is absolutely true that the continued, state-sponsored shaming of Romani cultures made surviving Romani families very unlikely to speak out about their wartime experiences,” Dr. Gelbart explains.

“There is an enduring misconception that Romani Holocaust remembrance is typically private,” she continues. “In reality, Romani attempts to give public testimony about genocide have largely paralleled post-war developments in Jewish families, albeit at a slower pace.”

In August, the Czech government agreed to remove the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site. Dr. Gelbart believes that this decision is symbolic of the gradual inclusion of Romani Holocaust experiences in mainstream discourse.

“The pig farm at Lety, along with the recreational complex on the site of the Hodonin camp (where my great-great-grandmother was murdered by a Czech guard), are symbolic of not only the imperative to include Roma and Sinti fully in mainstream discourse on the Holocaust, but also the need to examine why the Romani Holocaust tends to be relegated to footnotes,” she says.

Though she sees improvement in the perspectives and treatment of Romani communities and history, Dr. Gelbart argues that the Romani experience during the Holocaust is understudied and that this trend reflects itself in lasting discrimination towards the community.

“In my opinion, the most important part of remembrance is making connections to present-day perils,” she explains. “We can honor the work of the Roma and allies who have fought for the dignity of the Lety victims, but we must not stop publicly pointing out the larger context of this struggle.”

Dr. Gelbart is committed to expanding the study and inclusion of Romani history and culture in the public sphere. She urges governments to take greater care in promoting Romani rights and society to learn more about the Romani, while elevating their memory above mere victimhood.

“Every book, every college course, every school curriculum and every ceremony commemorating the Holocaust should strive to make its audience aware of the difference between how Romanies are assumed to be and how they actually live their lives. It can be as simple as saying that ‘Roma and Sinti are a highly diverse ethnic group, with many communities striving for social integration. The same ideologies that labeled Romanies as subhuman in times of genocide are hindering their education, employment, and even physical safety in the twenty-first century.’ If nothing else, we need to show Romani students in both Europe and the Americas that their existence and their heritage are worth as much as any other group’s,” she says.

Dr. Gelbart’s activism within the Romani community extends beyond the classroom. She works with Czech families who foster or adopt Romani children. She is also interested in the role music plays in therapy, specifically in rehabilitative and developmental therapy. She is based in New York.

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