The Roma Holocaust Memorial That Wasn't Built in a Day

Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan has left no stone unturned in his efforts to build his gypsy Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

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Ofer Aderet
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BERLIN - "You're asking for a smile? Here you need sadness and seriousness!" said Dani Karavan, scolding the photographer in a small clearing in the woods of the Tiergarten earlier this week. The shouts of the sculptor were swallowed up in the hubbub. Karavan, soon to turn 82, scurried among the German workers, the heavy crane and the professionals like a man of 28.

This week was one of the most important in the life of the Tel Aviv-based sculptor. After 12 laborious and exhausting years, at long last his project is almost completed: At the end of October, the monument that Karavan planned in memory of the gypsy holocaust during the World War II will be dedicated.

"This is the most problematic project I've ever had," says Karavan, in the German capital. "I started it before I turned 70. This year I will be 82. Because of it I was in a hospital in Israel. We thought it would take three years. Who ever imagined it would continue so long? Who even thought that I'd live that long?"

The site is made up of a pool of water, in the center of which is a triangular stone with a flower at its heart. Once a day, the stone will descend to below ground level and come back up with a new fresh flower every day. The pool will be surrounded by stones inscribed with the names of several dozen camps where gypsies - Roma - were murdered. The project's cost is 2.5 million euros.

The water in the pool provides a reflection of everything that surrounds it - including both the German flag and the European Union flag flying on the nearby Reichstag building. "A person who stands here will see a reflection of any person who is standing next to him or opposite him - and it will look to him as if he were buried in a pit," Karavan explains.

In the background, visitors will hear the voice of a violin, recorded by a gypsy musician for the purpose. "One note, not a melody. Like a train creaking on the tracks. The sound will be very weak, to the point where you think it doesn't exist except inside your head.

"This isn't a monument," he continues, "but rather a memorial site. An homage. A monument is for wars and generals." In any case, like the large memorial for the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe - and a smaller one, for the persecution of the gays and lesbians in the Holocaust - Karavan's gypsy memorial is located in the heart of Berlin. More precisely: at the edge of the Tiergarten park, at the place closest to the most central and important building in the city: the Reichstag, the main building of the German parliament.

The memorial's operations room is situated beneath the pool, at a depth of several meters. "This is the infrastructure. Here they take care of heating the water so it won't freeze in the winter. Here is where the flower will descend to once a day and be replaced with another flower," says Karavan.

It is hard to stop his flow of speech. His joy and satisfaction over the fact that the memorial has finally been constructed is mingled with his frustration and dissatisfaction at the long process involved. "This is the gypsies' great memorial. Since 1965 [the German authorities] had been promising them a memorial, but only now they are implementing it. I said to the Germans: 'If it were for the Jews you'd have completed it long ago. But because it's gypsies, you're allowing yourselves to procrastinate. For me as a Jew, it's easy to say this. The whole attitude here was one of scorn. 'Why spend any money on this. What for? It's just gypsies,'" he says.

Pressured by 'crude people'

"The genocide of the gypsies was carried out by the Nazi regime, sometimes in the same places and by the same murderers who perpetrated the Holocaust," wrote Prof. Gilad Margalit, of the University of Haifa, in the book "Nazi Germany and the Gypsies" (Open University, 2006 ). "Despite the centrality of anti-Semitism and the puddles of anti-gypsy attitudes in the Nazi worldview - there are definitely some similarities in the policies toward both these groups."

The new memorial will be another - and key - stage in the rectification of the historical injustice and the commemoration of the gypsy genocide. The memorial faced many crises in the 18 years since it was first approved, and the 12 years that elapsed between the start of construction until today. The Germans' blind and insensitive bureaucracy, along with Karavan's obsessive and uncompromising perfectionism, had their effect. "I was constantly under pressure from those crude people who always tell you 'No,'" says Karavan.

Karavan came to the site on Monday wearing a suit, and immediately began to issue orders and make comments to the crew around him. Suddenly, the truck driver who was bringing the memorial's central stone to the site stopped for a moment. He went up to Karavan, hesitated for a moment and then pulled out his smartphone and documented the artist and the memorial as it was going up. He too, apparently, recognized its historical importance.

Romani Rose, head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma (the Sinti and Roma are subgroups of the gypsy or Romani population in Europe ), commissioned Karavan to plan the memorial, back in 2000. Karavan was busy at the time submitting a proposal - which was not ultimately accepted - for the large Holocaust memorial in Berlin. He was the only Israeli artist invited to compete for the memorial design, but says now he is "glad they didn't accept my proposal. It didn't suit them, the Germans, to put flowers there the way I proposed."

When asked what he thinks about the large memorial that was finally built, Karavan replies: "The proposal that was chosen is good, but the site is too big and too central."

However, there is another thing that bothers him: "That memorial should have been for everyone, not just the Jews. Look, the Germans are orderly, right. At least that's what everyone thinks. But they didn't distinguish among Jews, gypsies and gays when they murdered them. They did them all in. So why separate?"

It seems that not a day has gone without dramas in the history of the memorial. Every issue was the source of an argument. For the inscription on the memorial, the gypsies didn't agree to be called zigeuner - a German term rife with negative connotations, and one that the Nazis used. "For them, it's like calling the Jews zhid here," says Karavan. The German officials had to comply with their request to use the term "Sinti and Roma."

Another, even worse disagreement had to do with a basic question: How many gypsies were murdered in the war? "The Germans," says Karavan, "at first claimed the number was 100,000. We found that they had killed more. In the end we agreed on about half a million."

A disagreement also erupted surrounding the main inscription inside the pool at the heart of the memorial. Karavan originally intended to adorn it with a single sentence, written by the German president, Roman Herzog, in March 1997: "The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was motivated by the same obsession with race, carried out with the same resolve and the same intent to achieve their methodical and final extermination as the genocide against the Jews. Throughout the National Socialists' sphere of influence, the Sinti and Roma were murdered systematically, family by family, from the very young to the very old." This proposal, however, was rejected, and Herzog's sentence will be displayed on a wall opposite the memorial.

Another of Karavan's proposals - to use Avraham Shlonsky's poem "The Vow" - was also rejected, to Karavan's disgruntlement. "This is a poem that vows to remember - and to forget nothing," he says. He relates that when Romani Rose heard it for the first time, "His hair stood on edge." However, when he discovered, two weeks after that, that the poem was already quoted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the idea was abandoned.

The alternative proposed by the gypsies was a poem by a young poet from the community, Santino Spinelli. However, the poem was about Auschwitz specifically, and Karavan was concerned the memorial would become identified with the death camp and not with the gypsy genocide. The compromise was that the poem would be inscribed on a the floor of the pool, without the word Auschwitz, and with the remark: "Dedicated to [remembering] all the camps where gypsies were murdered."

Catastrophic choices

Last year work on the memorial was stopped for about half a year after the German culture minister decided to replace the crews responsible for its construction. "It took them five months to transfer 10 pages of contracts from one organization to another," Karavan complains. And then it turned out that the first organization had made a number of bad mistakes during construction. "Once we started working, it turned out that we had to remove all the paint they had applied and repaint."

Later, Karavan discovered, to his astonishment, that "the Germans had made holes where there shouldn't have been any," that "the floor was crooked," that "the screws hadn't been welded properly," and that "the stones they had chosen were catastrophic." And water was leaking. "It took us four more weeks to dry it out, and only then were we able to start painting," he recalls.

"Today, everyone understands that Karavan is not crazy and he doesn't have unreasonable demands, but rather there were unprofessional people here," he adds.

At the height of the process, the German weekly Der Spiegel published a report in which senior German officials were quoted as saying that Karavan was demanding a lot of changes in the project in order to increase his fee and jack up his expenses. Karavan rejected these accusations outright and even threatened to sue the newspaper. "The Germans - they, and not I - are responsible for all this delay," he states.

Regarding any foot-dragging, the German authorities released a statement to this writer stating that only matters of procedure lead to a delay in construction. Now all parties see with confidence that the memorial's inauguration will be October 24th.

Not far from the new gypsy memorial is another of Karavan's works, on the outside wall of one of the buildings that today serve the German parliament. The work is called "Basic Law 49" and commemorates provisions in the German constitution passed in that year, which have to do with human rights. Karavan also has an outdoor sculpture on the subject in Nuremberg, entitled "Way of Human Rights," built in 1993, and running along the length of a street.

But all's well that ends well, and after 18 years of planning, 12 years of construction work, and four different German culture ministers who dealt with the topic, the sides finally did arrive at an agreement. For that, much credit must go to Bernd Neumann, the serving culture minister, who took a personal interest in seeing the project through.

At the end of October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will walk the few steps from her bureau to the inauguration ceremony for the capital's newest memorial. "I will say only good things," Karavan promises. "I'll tell her I have done everything to pay respect to the memory of the gypsies' holocaust."



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