Sofia Taikon was twelve years old when she was separated from her parents and taken to a special section of Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Polish Roma gypsy, Sofia had only been dimly aware at first that she might be considered different from others in her village — until casual discrimination rapidly transformed into an organised campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide under the Nazis. Liberated in 1945, Sofia was taken to safety in Sweden by the famous ‘white buses’ of the Red Cross. There, she married and had children, but failed to find her missing relatives.
A starkly-designed graphic novel based on Sofia’s experiences and survival, titled Sofia Z-4515, was published just before her death. Written by Gunilla Lundgren and illustrated by Amanda Eriksson, the story unfolds as Sofia discusses her past with her grandson. It’s a simply narrated tract - understandable for children - and often focusing on the tiny acts of kindness which made life in the camps bearable. But Sofia remained haunted by the horror of the death mills she had narrowly escaped, and by her inability to find her parents.
The ‘Porrajmos’ - translated from Romani as ‘the devouring’ - is the name given to the Holocaust by the Roma and Sinti people. An estimated half a million gypsies were murdered - though due to poor pre-war record keeping, it’s difficult to know for sure. The Roma people had lived in central Europe since the 1300’s, but their dark appearances and vagrancy had always been suspect to Germans. They were perceived as work-shy thieves and pagan mystics. Even before the rise of fascism, gypsies and travellers were often forced to register with local councils or restricted in their allowance to travel. By the 1930s, the Nazi ‘Race Hygiene' Institute deemed Zigeuner - as they were pejoratively referred to - worthy of forced relocation and sterilization for ‘crime prevention’ purposes.
Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1982 that the German government recognized the Roma genocide, arguing that the murders had not been racially-motivated, but due to ‘criminal and antisocial behaviour’. Such a disgraceful lack of acknowledgement suggests the extent to which Roma and Sinti are still denigrated and feared in modern Europe. Recent reports have revealed efforts to control the birth rate of Roma women in Slovakia and the Czech Republic - including cases of forced sterilization as recently as 2005. This chilling throwback to Nazi Eugenics is keen evidence that the road to equality is still a long one.
Near the conclusion of Sofia-Z4515, Sofia’s husband chides her for telling their grandson so much. ‘You’ve only made him sad,’ he says. The implication is that sadness, for the Roma, is an inherited necessity. It comes hand in hand with knowledge of the past — and the awareness necessary to combat long-standing bigotry.