University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Oral Sources; Recovering the History of the Roma Holocaust

Aron Fridvalszky, second year history student at Portsmouth, wrote the following article on the Hungarian Roma holocaust for the Introduction to Historical Research Module.  The module is coordinated by Dr Jessica Moody, Lecturer in Modern History and Heritage at Portsmouth.

Using Oral Sources: Recovering the history of the Hungarian Roma Holocaust

In a speech in 2014, the Minister of Human Capacities of Hungary, Zoltán Balog claimed that none of the Romany people were deported from Hungary during the Holocaust [1]. Challenging this, the Hungarian Roma Press Centre published extracts from six interviews with Gipsy Holocaust survivors, citing these from a book, Porrajmos, which includes recollections of the survivors. In addition to the tangible function of the interviews to repudiate such immensely flippant allegations as Balog’s, they represent valuable data for oral historians. Considering the Roma Holocaust, an event of which official data and records could either be destroyed or blurred by the Hungarian and German authorities of the regime, the participants’ oral testimonies can be extremely useful in researching the topic.

The methodology of oral history has opened up new perspectives, especially from the viewpoints of groups who were traditionally ignored by the conventional discipline. However, critics have argued that since oral testimonies, as primary sources, rely on memory, they are not trust-worthy origin of information. Other historians objected to the strong subjectivity of the recollections, which, according to them, is substandard compared to the fetishized neutrality of written official sources. [2]. However, memory lies in the centre of interest within the oral history field. As Portelli argues, memory is “not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings.” [3] Lynn Abrams similarly clarifies that a memory is not a simple calling back of past processes and events, it’s rather remembering: recalling stories, pictures, experiences, the analysing of these and arranging them in a narrative. In other words, memories are “not pure, they are contingent.” [4]

When Michael Stewart was gathering information during the 1980s for his fieldwork in Hungary on Roma memory of the Holocaust, he found that many horrifying memories of the survivors were compressed into images, which had mostly been kept buried in their remembrance throughout the years after the Second World War. His impression of the recollections was that these shattered memories, although illuminated occasionally, lacked a gradual narrative of remembering. [5] In the extracted interviews, we can also observe shared, recurrent images of fragmented memory: the women, mostly because they were young at that certain moment, can recall dynamic, but individual images of the process of them being taken, the journey in the cattle wagon or the camp in Komárom. The mention of Komárom is particularly important, because according to Szabolcs Szita, who has researched the labour camp there, there are no official records surviving about the internment camp, ergo our most valuable sources are the testimonies of those who were there. [6]

It is important to acknowledge that memory, which emerges during an interview, tells the oral historian about not only the individual but the larger social sphere of the person as well: their community, or nation. Memories are produced within a wider social context, thus we can see them as socially shared experiences; they are part of a common remembrance. [7] Paul Thompson argues that the information which the interview evidence gives us is filtered through social expectations. According to Thompson, the evidence of relatively close or present events is situated between the factual behaviour and the social norms of the present time. However, if the oral historian wants to gather information about an event further back in time, there is a possibility that the evidence is distorted, because of the changes in norms and values during the time span. [8] It was interesting to see in Stewart’s work, how he put the emphasis on the lack of a shared remembrance among the Romany people about the Holocaust, due largely to the Hungarian socio-sphere. In his summary of Gypsy folk heritage of the Holocaust, Károly Bari points out how Lager songs about the concentration camps, of which formula was adapted from the traditional Romany dirge, miss detailed elements like the tortures, as if memories were compressed into an amorphous lyrical form of bitterness. Bari argues that, besides the fact that the sufferings of the survivors were indescribable, the passages transformed from the dirges to the Lager songs had a function of depicting inexpressible feelings of pain “in such a way as to make them acceptable to the conventions of the community.” [9] This also shows that an oral historian should take communal filters into account when analysing an oral source.

In a country like Hungary, which still tends to gloss over its active contribution to a mass genocide in relatively recent history, or even partly deny it, as it we can see it in Balog’s statement, these oral testimonies have a vital importance not only for the oral historians, but to help remembering for the wider social scope.

Further Information

For more information, see Pharrajimos, edited by Ágnes Daróczi and János Bársony. It’s a remarkable collection of essays about the Roma Holocaust in Hungary, the articles provide information on different aspects of the topic and it also contains interviews with the survivors. If you are planning to visit Budapest and are interested in remembrance, you might want to visit the Roma Holocaust Museum. The museum itself is a valuable source of information and it also offers permanent as well as seasonal exhibitions.

Aron Fridvalszky is a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth


[1] See http://nol.hu/belfold/balog-ilyen-meg-egyszer-nem-tortenhet-meg-1477905; interview with Balog here http://nava.hu/id/1971370

[2] Lynn Abrams. Oral History Theory. Routledge, 2010 p. 5

[3] A. Portelli. ‘What Makes Oral History Different?’ in A. Portelli. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991 p. 52

[4] Abrams. Oral History Theory. p. 79

[5] Michael Stewart. ‘Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma’ in The Journal of Anthropological Institute, vol. 10, issue 3. 2004 p. 564

[6] Szabolcs Szita. ’One of the Roma Killing Fields: Komáromi Csillagerőd, Autumn 1944’ in Pharrajimos: The Fate of the Roma During the Holocaust, ed. by János Bársony, Ágnes Daróczi. International Debate Education Association, 2007 p. 102

[7] K. Plummer. Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to Critical Humanism. London, 2001 p. 235

[8] P. Thompson. The Voice of the Past. Oxford, 2000 p. 128

[9] Károly Bari. ‘The Holocaust in Gypsy Folk Poetry’ in Pharrajimos: The Fate of the Roma During the Holocaust. ed. by János Bársony, Ágnes Daróczi. International Debate Education Association, 2007 p. 118

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