Katz Fellow Clara Dijkstra Presents on Roma and Jews in French Internment Camps

On September 28, 2023, Clara Dijkstra, PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge, Christ’s College, and the 2023-2024 USC Shoah Foundation Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies, delivered a lecture entitled “‘Entangled History’: Jewish and Roma Families in French Internment Camps, 1940-1946.” Dijkstra focused her lecture on the research she conducted during her monthlong residency at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the challenges of studying these internees in the archives.

Djikstra opened her lecture with an explanation of the phrase “entangled history” and its significance when studying Roma and Jewish experiences during the Holocaust. It is an entangled history because Jews and Roma were persecuted and imprisoned together and the sources that documented Jewish and Roma experiences are also side-by-side in archives. However, there is a wide disparity between sources documenting Jewish and Roma experiences, with most archives housing more documents and accounts of Jews. To overcome this source disparity, Dijkstra reflected on the ways in which researchers like her read through Jewish-created documents in order to reveal the daily realities of Roma during this period.

After a reflection on terminology and offering a brief introduction to the history of occupied France, the policies of internment of Jews and Roma groups, the camps she focuses on in her research (Drancy, Poitiers, and Montreuil-Bellay), and how these groups shared the experiences of being imprisoned in the same camps, Dijkstra spoke about her experience conducting research in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA). In the VHA, there is only one testimony from a French Roma person. Dziga Tanacs was a French Roma born in 1938 who was interviewed by the USC Shoah Foundation in 1997. Throughout his testimony, he spoke about the four camps he was interned in and the criminal medical experiments that he was victim of. Dijkstra explained how his testimony can teach us about the broader Roma experience and also revealed the limitations of Holocaust archives more generally when studying French Roma experiences.

Dijkstra went on to explore what testimonies by Jewish survivors reveal about their perceptions of the Roma when they were interned in the same camps as Roma prisoners. She discussed omissions and gaps in the testimonies, as well as the anti-Roma prejudice and stereotypes that emerge. She reflected on the reasons for the prevailing lack of interest in finding out more about the Roma and shared that interviewers rarely asked about the Roma in French camps. Dijkstra touched on potential interactions between French and Roma families in these camps and accounts of mutual aid. Ultimately, Dijkstra spoke about the ways in which she studied Roma experiences as being refracted through Jewish lenses.

During her time in the archive, Dijkstra expanded her search beyond France by comparing how the Roma in Auschwitz are discussed in testimonies. She discovered that interviewers were more likely to ask Jewish interviewees about the Roma in Auschwitz, but persistent anti-Roma prejudices marked many of these interviews as well. Dijkstra discovered that in other interviews, some of the Jewish survivors brought up the Roma themselves, even when not directly asked about them, pointing out that the Roma suffered as well. In reflecting on why the presence of Roma in Auschwitz was a more prevalent topic in testimonies than the Roma in French camps, Dijkstra asserted that the murder of the Roma in Auschwitz was more well-known. Auschwitz II-Birkenau housed the so-called Zigeunerlager where the SS murdered almost all Roma inhabitants in August 1944. Interviewees and interviewers raised the topic of this event in many testimonies about Auschwitz.

After the end of the Second World War, France continued the Nazi-period internment of Roma until 1946. France did not acknowledge their role in the persecution of the Roma until 2016. Research on the persecution of the Roma in France is a relatively new topic. While some scholars have investigated the topic over the past two decades, research has especially flourished in the past five years.

Dijkstra concluded her lecture with reflections about the benefits and limitations of the approach for examining Roma experiences as it was filtered through Jewish testimonies, the importance of ongoing testimony collection projects capturing Roma voices and their firsthand accounts, and the necessity of bolstering the voices of marginalized groups.

In the lengthy and lively Q&A that followed her lecture, among many topics, Dijkstra shared more about her methodology and answered questions about the experiences of children in French internment camps after their parents, particularly their mothers, had been deported, and the kinds of visual sources that remain about Roma deportations and internment experiences.

Learn more about Clara Dijkstra here.

Read an interview with Clara Dijkstra here.