In a ceremony on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech to mark the unveiling of a brand new memorial for the Roma: a round pool of water edged in black stone, with a stone in the middle where each day’s flower will lie.
“This memorial remembers a group of victims that was too long ignored,” said Merkel.
The Roma -- also referred to as “Gypsies,” though many consider this a derogatory term -- have endured centuries of marginalization all across Europe. Even today, their standard of living is far below national averages wherever they live.
Wednesday’s ceremony is an important step for recognition and reconciliation, but it was marred by the reality that the problems facing Roma people today are still very dire.
One Roma in attendance, Zoni Weisz, 75, told Agence France-Presse that his family narrowly avoided incarceration in death camps during the Holocaust. Though that period has ended, he is disappointed with the pace of progress over the past seven decades.
"Society learned nothing, almost nothing. Otherwise they would treat us differently,” he said.
The cultural identity of the Roma people is understood only hazily by outsiders. They are widely considered shiftless, unmoored and mysterious, but this stereotype is incapable of characterizing a people as diverse as the myriad countries they inhabit.
The Roma originated in India -- linguistic evidence suggests the Punjab -- but the bulk of their exodus took place centuries ago. Some left as early as the sixth century, some later, probably in an attempt to escape repeated incursions by Islamic warriors. “Sinti” is a term used to describe the Roma people who settled in and around Germany following this exodus.
Contrary to popular belief, Roma are not inherently inclined to roam. Except for the necessary shifts that go hand-in-hand with poverty and homelessness, large numbers of Roma have established a homestead wherever they were able.
Today there are at least 12 million Roma living in Europe, with the bulk residing in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria and Romania, they account for at least 10 percent of the population.
After centuries of wandering, separate Roma groups have adapted to their home countries so that they no longer constitute a homogenous group. Some have dark features; others have light skin and blond hair. Some speak Romani, while others speak the lingua franca of their home country. Some are Catholic, some are Muslim, and some are Orthodox Christians.
But the Roma are still collectively identifiable as outsiders, unified by their shared marginalization. For centuries, widespread discrimination was a constant barrier to their gainful integration into society.
A recent report from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights found that Roma people everywhere face poor living standards compared to their neighbors. Across Europe, about 90 percent of all Roma live below national poverty lines.
The discrimination that persists today was at its worst during the 1930s and 1940s, when Adolpf Hitler's Germany attempted a “final solution” for this long-struggling population. Like Jews and people of African, Slavic and other foreign origins, most of the Roma in Germany were considered racially inferior by the Nazis who came to power in 1933. They and other minorities lost many of their rights when the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935.
According to a report from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “In German-occupied Europe, the fate of Roma varied from country to country, depending on local circumstances. The German authorities generally interned Roma and deployed them as forced laborers in Germany or transported them to Poland to be deployed at forced labor or to be killed.”
The Roma Holocaust is much less well documented than the extermination of the Jews, but some historians estimate the total Roma death toll in Europe during the period was as high as 600,000.
About 100 elderly survivors, including Weisz, attended the dedication ceremony in Berlin on Wednesday.
Speaking to them, Merkel said the memorial “commemorates the unspeakable injustice that was inflicted on you.”
But for many, this memorial was a reminder that all across Europe, the Roma are still caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, marginalization and petty crime. They are frequent targets for deportation and incarceration. In Germany, recent proposals to implement stricter visa requirements for Macedonia and Serbia would primarily affect Roma migrants, deterring them from entering the country.
Merkel addressed the ongoing problems facing German Roma only vaguely during her dedication speech.
“Sinti and Roma still suffer from ostracism and condemnation," she said, according to Agence France-Presse. "Protecting minorities is our duty, today and tomorrow.”