Lev Student Research Fellow Sydney Crowley Presents on Roma and Sinti Faith After the Holocaust

On Thursday October 26, 2023, Sydney Crowley (Undergraduate student majoring in International Relations and Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Change, University of Southern California), a 2023 Beth and Arthur Lev Student Research Fellow at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, delivered a lecture entitled “Finding Faith and Losing Religion: Romani and Sinti Religious Transformations After the Holocaust” about the research she conducted while spending a month in residence at the Center in Summer 2023. During her residency she explored the oral history testimonies of Roma and Sinti Holocaust survivors in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA) to explore how their experiences during the Holocaust affected their attitudes towards their faith. Crowley wanted to take a social scientific approach to focus on empirical evidence. In the lecture, she described how the complex experiences and narratives she encountered in the testimonies required her to develop a deeper approach to the questions she set out to explore.

Crowley opened her lecture with a story about the 1936 Berlin Olympics that is not well known: about 6 miles outside of Berlin, German authorities erected the Marzahn internment camp to imprison Berlin’s Roma population ahead of the Olympics. The German Roma and Sinti, explained Crowley, were the first population to be interned en masse this early in Nazi Germany.

Crowley then offered a background on Roma and Sinti people in Europe. Religion was a large part of the community structure of Roma, but so was their nomadism. By the 1930s, Roma communities in Germany were predominantly established or only quasi-nomadic in nature. Roma communities practice many different kinds of religion, mainly Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox) and Islam. The Nazi genocide of Roma and Sinti disrupted multiple aspects of Roma communities, which meant that their belief systems became less coherent as anti-Roma violence escalated, Crowley argued.

Anti-Roma violence began before the Nazis even came to power, explained Crowley. German Roma and Sinti were surveilled in Weimar Germany under 1926 anti-Roma legislation. After the Nazi rise to power, Roma and Sinti were interned in 1936 in the Marzahn internment camp near Berlin, the first camp of its kind for Roma and Sinti prisoners. In June of 1938, the first major round up of Roma occurred. As the violence escalated, the Roma were the victims of the so-called “Holocaust by Bullets” in Eastern Europe and were imprisoned and killed in Nazi concentration camps and killing sites.

When exploring survivor testimonies in the VHA, Crowley found that making generalizations about simple questions regarding faith and God was not fruitful. Rather, given the ways survivors were talking about these topics, Crowley decided to more deeply explore different dimensions of faith in order to create a fuller picture of what faith and religion meant to Roma and Sinti survivors. Orienting her research around a few central themes and questions, Crowley endeavored to assemble what she called “profiles of faith” of the survivors whose testimonies she explored. From these profiles, she could more reliably extrapolate details of Roma belief systems before, during, and after mass violence.

Specifically, Crowley explored three aspects of faith that she deemed central to Roma survivors’ religious beliefs: faith in God or a higher power, faith in religious institutions, and faith in humanity. When focusing on how survivors talked about God, Crowley illuminated the ways in which God took on various roles for survivors: as a savior, a perpetrator, a stranger, as nonexistent, and as a passive bystander. When looking at the ways in which humanity is viewed by Roma and Sinti survivors, Crowley argued that humanity can be thought of as good and as wicked, and both of these formations can be modified or remain static. Crowley then argued that humanity is observable and God is not, so then religious institutions fall in the middle. Indeed, explained Crowley, these institutions represent both the mortal and the supernatural.

In her lecture, Crowley shared her analysis of the narratives of four Roma and Sinti survivors, detailing her findings about the “profiles of faith” for Otto Rosenberg, Franz Rosenbach, Karl Stojka, and Ella Davis. These profiles include what Crowley coined as “pivotal moments of faith,” which she defined as the incidents, relationships, and interactions that occur that reinforce, challenge, or transform individuals’ views on religion and spirituality. Examples of these pivotal moments of faith include spiritual encounters with American soldiers, interactions with nuns in camps, resistance, and learning about the role of religious institutions in the perpetration of the genocide of Roma and Sinti.

Through these analyses of survivors’ profiles of faith, Crowley determined that faith in Roma and Sinti communities was splintered as a result of genocide. Faith was transformed and no longer understood as a coherent belief system. Rather, faith in God, humanity, and religious institutions in the post-violence era were understood as separate but entangled belief systems. Through her analysis of pivotal moments of faith, Crowley demonstrated how generalizations about Roma and Sinti religious belief systems are no longer possible after mass violence. Lastly, she argued that researching the ways in which community structures were irrevocably transformed as a result of genocide and mass violence offers pathways for the necessary post-violence support and recognition.

Crowley’s lecture was followed by a lively discussion period. In the Q&A, Crowley answered questions about how she navigated the VHA and her impressive use of English, German, and Russian testimonies. Crowley also discussed differences amongst the Roma survivors, such as in gender and age, that may have affected the survivors’ relationships with faith. She also touched on the postwar historical conditions that impacted testimonies, such as the Soviet Union’s policies surrounding faith and continued anti-Roma racism.

Read more about Sydney Crowley here.