Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust 

By – March 20, 2023

Ari Joskow­icz, a bril­liant young pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry, Jew­ish stud­ies, and Euro­pean stud­ies at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty, grew up in Vien­na in the 1980s with four Holo­caust sur­vivor grand­par­ents. While they told him so many sto­ries that he devel­oped a vis­cer­al under­stand­ing of the grav­i­ty of their suf­fer­ing, he dis­cov­ered only years lat­er that pop­u­la­tions besides the Jews were vic­tims of the Nazi geno­cide as well.

Schol­ars esti­mate that between 250,00 to 500,000 Romani peo­ple were mur­dered on the killing fields and in the con­cen­tra­tion camps along­side the Jews in the Holo­caust, ful­ly one-quar­ter to one-half of the Romani pop­u­la­tion in Europe at the time. Yet though they were sin­gled out for per­se­cu­tion, forced ster­il­iza­tion, depor­ta­tion, and mur­der at the hands of the Nazi regime, their wartime suf­fer­ing has remained a large­ly untold story.

Now, through metic­u­lous research and an out­stand­ing pre­sen­ta­tion, Joskow­icz has brought us a book that presents a clear, flow­ing por­trait of this under­stud­ied but deeply vio­lat­ed pop­u­la­tion that fun­da­men­tal­ly alters our per­cep­tion of the Holo­caust, enlarg­ing it to include the Romani vic­tims and bring­ing to the fore their quest for his­tor­i­cal jus­tice and self-representation.

Roma is a term used to describe all Gyp­sies” who came to Ger­many from Hun­gary and oth­er parts of East­ern Europe, begin­ning as far back in his­to­ry as the Mid­dle Ages. It includes the Sin­ti pop­u­la­tion, who are con­sid­ered a sub­group. Euro­peans feared the Romani peo­ple, and they were nev­er accept­ed into Euro­pean soci­eties; many did not set­tle in spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ties but instead remained nomadic, which served only to strength­en their image as outsiders.

Joskow­icz demon­strates how schol­ars, politi­cians, and edu­ca­tors can all look at the same geno­cide but see some­thing dif­fer­ent. In his view, it is the inter­ac­tion between the Jew­ish and Romani vic­tims, two groups that had lit­tle in com­mon before the Holo­caust, that offers a sig­nif­i­cant change in both how we under­stand what hap­pened in the Holo­caust and the way we deal with the com­plex rela­tion­ship between his­to­ry and memory.

The simul­ta­ne­ous per­se­cu­tion under Hitler of the Roma and the Jews gave these two dis­parate groups some­thing that bound them togeth­er. And this, Joskow­icz posits, gives them a crit­i­cal com­mon­al­i­ty that can pro­vide strength and uni­ty in the fight against racism and anti­semitism in today’s world. 

Under­stand­ing the geno­cide of Europe’s Roma pop­u­la­tion — how it is entwined with the destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jews, and how each group found a way for­ward — pro­found­ly effects not only com­mem­o­ra­tions of the Holo­caust, but also how we define the Holo­caust itself. Both points are great­ly enhanced by this illu­mi­nat­ing new book.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

Dur­ing the Holo­caust, Jews and Roma were tar­get­ed for geno­cide. Beyond their simul­ta­ne­ous per­se­cu­tion, lit­tle teth­ered the two minor­i­ty groups togeth­er dur­ing the Nazi peri­od. The sub­se­quent decades, how­ev­er, can be char­ac­ter­ized by deep­en­ing entan­gle­ments as Jews and Roma engaged in efforts to achieve jus­tice and memo­ri­al­ize the Holo­caust. In Rain of Ash, Ari Joskow­icz exam­ines the over­looked his­to­ry of this entanglement. 

Joskow­icz offers a time­ly and pro­found reflec­tion on com­par­i­son and com­pe­ti­tion between vic­tims of per­se­cu­tion. Hard­ly only an aca­d­e­m­ic mat­ter, Joskow­icz explores the real-life con­se­quences of such com­par­i­son and com­pe­ti­tion. While much debate and dis­cus­sion of Jews unfurled after the Nazi epoch, the per­se­cu­tion of Roma was usu­al­ly side­lined or silenced. 

One result of this imbal­ance is, per­haps para­dox­i­cal­ly, greater entan­gle­ment between the two groups as Roma looked to Jew­ish insti­tu­tions and sources of fund­ing to gain recog­ni­tion. Jew­ish mem­o­ry projects have also become mod­els of memo­ri­al­iza­tion for Roma and oth­er eth­nic groups. Joskow­icz offers a rare win­dow into the eco­nom­ic aspects of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry for­ma­tion, as well as the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge and archives that forms the basis of our memory.

Rain of Ash is a deeply mov­ing and thought­ful book. Through breath­tak­ing prose, Joskow­icz pro­pos­es a new and orig­i­nal way to con­sid­er the fraught but press­ing mat­ter of com­pe­ti­tion and com­par­i­son with­in mem­o­ry studies.