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  Performance in Gypsy Autobiographies from Austria and Germany
Michaela M. Grobbel

Most of us know very little about the Romanies or Gypsies in German speaking cultures. Yet both Austria and Germany are multicultural societies and for many centuries have been composed of a diversity of ethnic groups, including the Romanies. In both countries, the Romanies still represent the most marginalized ethnic group, and continue to suffer discrimation and even violent attacks. A 1990 Emnid survey conducted in West and East Germany revealed that Germans positioned Jews, Poles, Turks and the Romanies at the lowest social stratum. However, this survey--with its misleading title "Fremde als Sündenböcke" since most Romanies have lived in Germany for centuries and have German nationality--demonstrated that the Germans expressed much more antipathy toward the Romanies than toward any other ethnic group [1]. There exist many negative and unsubstantiated images about Gypsies; yet little is known about these ethnic groups that have been part of Austria and Germany since the Middle Ages.

Recently an increasing number of Romanies have started to represent themselves in public to counter prevailing attitudes of hatred and discrimination against them by sharing their life experiences with the gadjes, the non-Gypsies [2]. This seems to me to mark a fascinating historical turning point in Rom culture. Since the 1980s, we have witnessed a growing number of autobiographies written by Romanies themselves. Given that the Romanies have relied primarily on oral traditions to pass on historical information and cultural knowledge, and that illiteracy among them is still very high in most countries where they reside, this sudden shift to the public non-Gypsy realm and to the printed word is striking indeed. Thus, it is enlightening and enriching to listen to the Rom voices recounting their experiences of persecution, especially from the German Holocaust to the present. This new literature by Romanies challenges traditional dualistic images of Gypsies as either asocial criminals or as a romantically idealized people close to nature.

As Susan Tebbutt points out in her recent book Sinti and Roma Gypsies in German-Speaking Society and Literature "[s]ince Romani is an oral language and there are very, very few works in Romani accessible to German readers, it is important to examine in detail the few autobiographical works which were written in German after 1980 by writers from the Sinti and Roma minority in Germany and Austria" [3]. In addition to those who have written books, such as Ceija Stojka, Karl Stojka, Alfred Lessing, Philomena Franz and Otto Rosenberg, we might perhaps also consider authors from Eastern European countries writing in German such as Rajko Djuric from Serbia.

There also exist several oral self-portraits transcribed by German scholars. Here I will focus on Ceija Stojka's two books, one from 1988 called Wir leben im Verborgenen. Erinnerungen einer Rom-Zigeunerin and the other one published in 1992 entitled Reisende auf dieser Welt. Aus dem Leben einer Rom-Zigeunerin. I will also touch on the recently published autobiography Das Brennglas by Otto Rosenberg. Whereas Rosenberg is a Sinto from Berlin, active politically as a member of the Vorstand des Zentralrates Deutscher Sinti und Roma, Stojka is a Lovara Romany from Vienna whose writings should be considered a political act. Stojka and Rosenberg survived a number of Nazi concentration camps, where most of their family members were killed. Their narratives afford us an inside perspective into the most marginalized ethnic groups in Germany and Austria.

My emphasis here will be on the intersection of memory and performance in these autobiographical narratives. This focus is closely linked to contemporary issues in cultural studies. I am interested in the relationship between writing, memory and performance, and how these issues are related to the multicultural societies of Germany and Austria. Stojka, for example, stresses the power of storytelling and the continuous act of re-telling stories and historical events, as well as the physical performance of memory through dance and song. Many moments of performance in her writing involve traces of other performances which continue yet rewrite past experiences. This emphasis on the prefix "re-" (as in re-embody, revision, etc.) seems to me essential in performance discourse, because these 'repetitions with a difference' allow for the possibility of transforming meanings of the past in the present or future. In this sense, the focus on the connection between memory and performance forces us to acknowledge the materiality of the memory process and, by extension, of the construction of history. It also encourages us to consider memory's potential for disruptive (re-)play and thus resistance to oppressive power structures.

A performance is a "doing" and an "un-doing" at the same time. Very much like philosopher J.L. Austin's notion of the performative utterance (1962), which does not refer to some extra-linguistic reality but rather literally enacts and produces that to which it refers, this "it" of performance only exists in the precarious moment of the Here and Now [4]. Thus, it is historically and culturally defined as part of a specific time and site, and- very importantly--bound to an individual body. Research in contemporary performance and ethnographic studies has taught us to see how culture is created and how it grows through various instances of local performance which contest assumptions and conventions [5]. Performance, then, as a "doing and a thing done, drifts between past and present, presence and absence, conscience and memory," as Elin Diamond says [6]. With these reflections in mind, let us turn first to the texts by Ceija Stojka.

Stojka's writings focus on the life of her family and the Romanies in Austria. In her book Wir leben im Verborgenen, Stojka vividly recounts the years from 1939 to 1945. We learn how her life changed drastically with the onset of the repressive Nazi restrictions against Gypsies. Although her family attempted to stay in hiding, the Nazis deported all family members to concentration camps. Ceija Stojka describes in detail her everyday life shortly before the war, during her internment in the camps of Auschwitz Birkenau, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen, and after her return to Vienna in 1945. In her second book, Reisende auf dieser Welt, she focuses on her life from 1945 up to the present. As in her first book, she illustrates the great importance of the Rom family as a tightly knit social and cultural unit. Additionally, Reisende auf dieser Welt deals with Rom music, and deconstructs the myth of "original" Gypsy music by emphasizing its multicultural elements. Both books include a preface by editor Karin Berger, and end with interviews between her and Stojka. Additionally, both books present family photos as visual elements in the autobiographical project.

In contrast to Stojka, Otto Rosenberg recorded his memories on tapes in 1995 which Ulrich Enzensberger wrote down and published in 1998. Like Stojka, it took Rosenberg decades to feel the urge to record his life story. His colloquial and sometimes laconic tone, often recounting a series of events in an associative and sometimes abrupt manner, is mirrored by the sequence of eleven untitled chapters. The book concludes with informative notes containing specific historical information. In striking contrast to Stojka's accounts, Rosenberg offers relatively little information about Sinti everyday life but focuses more on survival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Mittelbau Dora and Bergen-Belsen. Both Stojka and Rosenberg describe the continuation of racial intolerance after 1945 [7].

Stojka's public identification of herself in the late 1980s and early 90s as a Romany, and her personal accounts of the Nazi period, need to be seen as a daring intervention in the history of silence surrounding the persecution of the Gypsies in Austria. She writes that many Romanies, including her own children, hide their ethnic identity for fear of discrimination. Stojka describes her decision to write down her memories of her life as a form of resistance, stating that she felt the urgent need to "talk to somebody about her experiences" but nobody, including her family, wanted to listen [8]. Originally, she wrote down her personal experiences for her children so that they would never forget the past [9]. Her decision to publish her life story and to perform music and poetry publicly with some of her family members goes directly against her people's survival strategy of remaining inconspicuous and invisible [10].

Stojka's memory performances represent an important strategy to give her culture voice through the use of the Romani language, which at times interrupts the German text of her narratives, songs, and poems [11]. Traditionally, most Romanies have refrained from speaking their language among the gadje, and certainly most Romanies have not been willing to translate it. For Stojka, the language is bound up with her mother. Almost everything her mother says in the two books is represented in Romani and then is translated. The return of her mother's voice represents the return of a silenced witness, and gives voice to the muted historical experience. Very much as Shoshana Felman discusses the return of the voice as a form of resistance and a "performative imperative" in Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985), the mother's voice and songs in Romani constitute a movement from the inside to the outside via the daughter's translation [12]. Both Rosenberg and Stojka stress the importance of women in their life. For Stojka, the mother serves as a central figure of resistance who not only provides emotional strength for her children but also teaches them strategies of survival. She is the one who teaches her children to make themselves "invisible" ["nicht auffallen," (Leben 107)], so that they do not draw attention which might lead to death.

More than fifty-five years later, Ceija Stojka risked an undertaking, which goes directly against her own people's cultural tradition of secrecy and silence about the Nazi persecution, by going public with her individual and her people's life stories to ensure the survival of Rom culture today. Talking to Karin Berger about the potential danger for her involved in publishing her first book, Stojka stresses the need to share Rom culture with non Romanies: "[W]enn ich als Romni von Wien mich der österreichischen Öffentlichkeit präsentiere, dann ist es für mich ein großes Wagnis, ein Risiko, denn es ist klar, daß man die Rom und die Sinti unter dem Volk seit Jahrhunderten drückt. Aber wir müssen uns öffnen, sonst kommt es noch so weit, daß irgendwann alle Romani in ein Loch hineinkippen" (Leben 154). Her implied reference to the Nazi genocide poignantly emphasizes that history must not repeat itself. The ambiguity of the quotatation also points to the potential of self-destruction of the Romanies as a distinct cultural group in Austria if they do not open up to the gadjes' world. Stojka further states the need to record Rom history in written form now since the Nazi murders have radically eliminated Romanies who in the past have helped ensure the oral continuation of their traditions:

Aber irgendeiner muß es machen, es muß geschichtlich etwas von uns festgehalten werden. Von jedem Volk sind Aussagen darüber da, was zum Beispiel vor zweihundert Jahren passiert ist. Aber über die Geschichte der Roma vor zweihundert Jahren, oder der Sinti, weiß man sehr wenig. Ihre alte Kultur ist fast unbekannt. Es ist in der heutigen Zeit notwendig, daß sich einer raustraut und sagt: 'Ist ja egal, wie du fühlst, wichtig ist, daß es festgehalten wird und daß man irgendwann, vielleicht in hundert Jahren darauf zurückgreifen kann. Es soll präsent sein in der österreichischen Öffentlichkeit. Wir sind ja auch geschichtlich mit diesem Land verbunden. Man hat uns für Vielerlei gebraucht....Und das seit hunderten Jahren, aber kein Mensch kennt und weiß etwas von den Leuten .... (Reisende 172).

Stojka's desire to record Rom history in written form and to publish her own experiences points to a fascinating moment in Rom history. I believe the arrival of published autobiographies and testimonials by Romanies in the last fifteen years suggests a caesura in Rom cultural tradition and history. For centuries, the continuation of Rom cultures has been based on oral transmission of historical experiences and on cultural exchange primarily among the Romanies. Stojka uses elements of her culture's tradition, such as singing, in order to save her own culture, which she perceives to be at the threshold of cultural disintegration. Her critical re-writing of some of the traditional songs, for example, helps her to find new forms of expression that will promote an understanding between the Rom and gadje cultures.

Certain kinds of memory performances, songs which transmit historical information, may also figure as instances of resistance. In Stojka's writings, the double nature of singing is clearly expressed as both continuing the Rom tradition and as a means to resist and disrupt the tradition of Rom repression and persecution. Stojka emphasizes singing as one of the major cultural expressions of the Romanies, and vividly paints scenes of her pre war past in which family members, especially the women, told stories through singing. Songs also embody and perform individual life histories. Because of the absence of a written tradition, they function like epic poems, and transmit experiences in a communal manner. They also teach the children moral laws of the group. Stojka remembers the communicative function of singing in everyday life; instead of talking to each other, people would sometimes respond to each other through singing. Traditionally, the songs have drawn on past experiences, and have thus performed an act of memory. For instance, a number of songs commemorate those who were murdered in the camps. Stojka emphasizes the changeability of Rom songs, and states that they are frequently revised during the actual performance, which may take hours to complete (Reisende 139-44; Rosenberg interview 19). Again, according to Stojka's memories, singing as a performance of memory is mostly tied to women (Reisende 145, 146) [13].

Given its cultural importance, it is not surprising that Romanies used singing as a form of resistance in the Nazi camps. Besides songs which express pain and despair in clear and direct language, Stojka also discusses a form of solitary singing that was barely audible:

Ich habe auch im Lager gesungen, viele von uns haben das gemacht, nur für sich, leise in sich hinein, ohne Töne, im Geist. . . .Oft ist man neben einer Frau gestanden und hat gehört, sie summt in sich hinein. Das war wie eine Überbrückung von diesem ganzen Dilemma, von diesem Elend. Das war kein Singen, das war eher ein Weinen. Aber zusammensitzen und singen, sodass jeder es hört, das wäre unmöglich gewesen (Reisende 150).

This form of singing continued a comforting habit and cultural tradition in a fundamentally subversive way. Other times, songs used melodies of well known popular songs, but the text was drastically changed to reflect the situation in the camp. Stojka also writes about one exceptional instance, in which loud singing served as a daring and public expression of resistance. She describes her sister Kathi singing a famous popular song but changing the end by explicitly expressing hope of leaving the camp of Auschwitz Birkenau and returning home. Despite the beating that her sister had to endure afterwards, Ceija Stojka notes the quality of proud resistance on Kathi's part who dared to sing the song in the presence of the Nazis (Reisende 151).

Stojka's writing explicitly stresses the power of storytelling and reconstructing historical events through dance and song. In Reisende auf dieser Welt, she talks about her performances with family members. She performs to continue the tradition of passing on Rom history and stories- this time, however, in a public space shared by both Romanies and non Romanies. Besides composing new songs, Stojka also rewrites old ones, creating an unusual blend of traditional and modern music (Reisende 171). Thus, Stojka's life as a songwriter and singer is also part of her revisionist memory work.

Both Stojka and Rosenberg are concerned with the exorcising of stereotypical images of the "Gypsy," which represents a form of resistance against further discrimination against their people. Stojka, however, is more explicit than Rosenberg. For example, she intentionally sets out to deconstruct the popular folk song "Lustig ist das Zigeunerleben...," and comments on the discrepancy between imaginary collective conceptions about Rom cultures and the life experiences from a Rom point of view [14]. By performing cultural images of the "Zigeunerin" yet simultaneously subverting them, Stojka's self-writing turns into auto-performances which create and un-do themselves at the same time. The act of doing and undoing, continuously enacting her cultural tradition yet reshaping it in the moment of performance and writing, demonstrates Stojka's memory work as a critical intervention in the history of silence surrounding the Rom cultures in Austria.

Rosenberg, too, is very much concerned with presenting the clash between imaginary collective conceptions of Gypsy cultures and actual life experiences. Yet his style of narration and choice of narrative content is quite different from Stojka's. The performative work of memory is missing in his autobiographical narrative. However, Rosenberg's book also reveals a keen awareness of the self-critical and performative nature of his memory project. The book cover shows a disturbing photo of himself and two of his Sinti friends shortly after the war. This photo re-enacts a life-threatening scene that Rosenberg recounts in his narrative in which he is almost shot by a Russian shortly after his liberation from Bergen-Belsen. His gesture of proudly identifying himself as a Sinto, and displaying his bare chest and heart to the soldier, saves his life. The post-war photo stages precisely this scene, but positions his Sinti friends, smiling and in civilian clothes, as the potential killers with their rifles aimed at Rosenberg. This uncanny photo raises the problem of distinguishing the supposed good people from the bad, a concern central in Rosenberg's reflections.

This kind of self-conscious and critical mode of self-representation is also central in the film Latcho Drom ("Safe Journey," 1993), directed by Tony Gatlif, himself of Rom descent. The film represents a musical travelogue through the various countries the Rom settled in after leaving India [15]. Gatlif's highly choreographed staging of the Rom singers and musicians is striking, and also highlights the construction of "Gypsiness." Like Rosenberg's and Stojka's autobiographies, the film uses and critically subverts stereotypical images of "Gypsies" frequently held by non-Romanies. However, by allowing the Rom bands to represent themselves in their own right and by presenting them cinematographically as ethnic groups that are clearly performing in the film (Gatlif is not "documenting" the supposed naturalness of the musicians, singers, and dancers in their everyday lives), the film also foregrounds the fascinating ways of Romany self representation that is noticeable in autobiographies written by German speaking Romanies.

In conclusion, both Stojka and Rosenberg make us re-see stereotypical images we might have about the Gypsies. They also make us revise our relationship with the Romanies who have been part of most European countries. Furthermore, their writing may stimulate us to rethink our notions of culture and nation, and what constitutes "us," because our relationship with Gypsies is inextricably bound to our own sense of who we think we are. Writing and performing from an insider perspective, the memory performances of Otto Rosenberg and Ceija Stojka call attention to the differences and ethnic diversity already at the heart of German and Austrian culture.


[1] See Susan Tebbutt (ed.), Sinti and Roma: Gypsies in German-Speaking Society and Literature (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998). This much-needed book offers an excellent collection of scholarly articles, and fills a void in German Studies on the Romanies in Germany and Austria.

[2] "Gadje" is the Romani word for "non-gypsy" or foreigner, with the connotation of peasant and dumbkin. See Susu Jeffrey, Songs of the Gypsy Women (St. Paul, MN: New Rivers Press, 1979) 89.

[3] Ibid. xxii.

[4] J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (Cambridge/Massachussetts: Harvard UP, 1962).

[5] Cf., for example, the work of Victor Turner and Richard Schechner. Contemporary ethnographers, such as James Clifford, do not speak of culture as "social drama" anymore which assumes culture to be organic in its development. Clifford, for instance, talks about culture as "local performances from (re-)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages." He stresses that "'culture' is not an object to be described, neither is it a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitely interpreted. Culture is contested, temporal, and emergent." See Elin Diamond (ed.), performance & cultural politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) 6

[6] Ibid. 8.

[7] For more information on the post-war continuation of discrimination and violence against Romanies see Roland Schopf (ed.), Sinti, Roma und wir anderen. Beitr…ge zu problembesetzten Beziehungen (Münster und Hamburg: Lit, 1994) and Katrin Reemtsma, Sinti und Roma: Geschichte, Kultur und Gegenwart (München: C.H. Beck, 1996). Reemtsma, for example, discusses the "Zigeuner-Hysterie" in Goldberg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in October 1992. The town citizens, supported by their mayor, tried to stop the buses which brought 104 Rumanian Gypsies who had applied for political asylum in Germany, and threatened them. The deep-seated, profound aversion against the Gypsies as trouble-makers, asocial nomads or criminals has also been reflected in a number of articles and editorials on the Gypsies in major German newspapers and magazines. These public media statements reveal the fact that even after 1945 (in contrast to antisemitism, which has been considered tabu after the war) anti-Rom sentiments and outright discrimination against Gypsies has continued to be an integral part of German social and political culture. An Emnid survey for the American Jewish Committee found that 68% of Germans do not want to have Gypsies as their neighbors (Reemtsma 164-73). In Burgenland, Austria, where Roma have been settled for more than three hundred years, five Roma were killed by a pipe bomb in February 1995. The bomb went off when the men tried to remove a sign that read 'Gypsies Go Back to India.' See also Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) 222. Other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, have been relentlessly persecuting Romanies. In Rumania, for example, twenty brutal pogroms were directed against Rom villages within one year from 1990-91.

[8] She took to writing despite a fair amount of ridicule and lack of support within her own family, and even had to hide her manuscript in the kitchen where no one would find it (Wir leben im Verborgenen, conversation with K. Berger, 97-98).

[9] See the interview between Karen Rosenberg and Ceija Stojka: "They couldn't take our thoughts: A conversation with Ceija Stojka." The Women's Review of Books XII/6 (March 1995) 18.

[10] One might be tempted to talk about an "art of forgetting" among the Gypsies in contrast to a "monumental industry of remembrance" in regard to the Jews. Cf., for example, Isabel Fonseca Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey 276.

[11] Romani or Romanes is the basic form of Gypsy language. It is of Indian origin, and still spoken today as one of India's dialects in Northern India. Sanskrit and Hindi are part of its roots. For more information, see, for example, Jean-Paul Cl&Mac218;bert, The Gypsies. Trans. Charles Duff. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967 [1961]), 235-243.

[12] As Felman writes in reference to the film, "the haunting repetition of an ill-understood melody ... make[s] the referent come back, paradoxically, as something heretofore unseen by history; to reveal the real as the impact of a literality that history cannot assimilate or integrate as knowledge, but that it keeps encountering in the return of the song." See Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, M.D., Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York and London: Routledge, 1992) 204-83; quote from 276.

[13] Judith Ingram also stresses that it has been Rom women "who have consistently held the community roles of conveyors of tradition and nurturers of the family." See her "Hungary's Gypsy Women: Scapegoats in a New Democracy." MS. 2/2: 19.

[14] "Ich weiss nicht, wer das komponiert hat, 'Lustig ist das Zigeunerleben'. Mir gef…llt es nicht, wenn sie das singen. Was ist da lustig? Für den, der kein Rom ist, ist es lustig. Aber für mich, die ich dieses Leben habe führen müssen, für mich ist es nicht lustig." And: "Immer habe ich mich ge…rgert, wenn sie dieses Lied gesungen haben. Lustig ist es [nur (M.G.)], solange alles funktioniert" (Reisende, conversation with Karin Berger, 131 and 134). This song has been part of the German-speaking folk culture since the second half of the 19th century. Stojka discusses this song whose title has become a notorious, clichee-ridden phrase about Gypsy life. Her descriptions of everyday-life deconstruct populist myths of supposedly carefree, blissful Gypsy life. Her family as well as most other Romany clans were already well integrated in the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stojka also wonders whether there is a "real" Austrian: "Aber der Österreicher, der echte Österreicher--ob's einen echten überhaupt gibt, einen reinrassigen?--der ist ja, wenn man so denkt, nicht bel…stigt worden" (Wir leben im Verborgenen 103).

[15] Latcho Drom, dir. by Toni Gatlif (103 min., French with subtitles, 1993)

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