I knew he was acting. But, as the Roma panhandler precariously balanced himself, with one-foot covering two Stolperstein, I handed him four euros, and spoke to him in Hebrew. “Kol hakavod” (‘All of the respect’) I said, as I put the coins in his open, albeit crippled-looking hand.
Of course, he didn’t understand me. I didn’t expect him to. He said something equally unintelligible, in Romansch, from what I gathered, in gratitude, and we went our separate ways.
Few European minorities share more profound ties than Jews and Roma. Yet, there, in the heart of Little Gaza Strip, AKA Neukölln, an increasingly Levantine neighbourhood of Berlin covered in brass sidewalk memorials to its onetime Jewish community, we could at least agree he was in need.
This was Karl-Marx-Straße, after all. We had to indulge some pretence of income redistribution. That Marx was a Jew placed an added ethnic overlay to the transaction, as though it was incumbent on minorities to look after each other, when the dominant white culture could not.
The two largest ethnic groups targeted by the Nazis for liquidation during the Holocaust, Europe’s Roma community has not recovered in the same way that its Jewish population has, irrespective of the persistence of racism directed at both communities. Roma continue to suffer from state discrimination, whereas what we experience tends to be tied to Israel.
Living in neighbourhoods like Neukölln can serve as an especially harsh reminder. Drawn to the borough by its cultural familiarity – many are Muslim and Turkish-speaking, hailing from both Bulgaria and Turkey – Roma are consistently the poorest members of the community.
On my street, for example, every rubbish collection day, Roma women can be found digging deep inside our bins, as they wait to be emptied. Like clockwork, they appear as the trash is wheeled out, taking advantage of the few minutes at their disposal before the trucks arrive, to cart the refuse to the dump.
Its an especially dramatic display of inequality, which inevitably refers back to a state of European existence Jews knew before we became members of the middle class. The Shoah was about turning back that clock, in retrospect, and making us equals again. If not economically, at least in death.
Living in Europe the last decade, I have often found myself confounded by such realisations, as the experience of discrimination that Roma remain subject to informs our family histories and the religious rituals we practice. I am particularly sensitive to this as someone who spent half their life in the United States.
American Jews tend to identify such parallels in their tradition of solidarity with African Americans. It is this latter connection that I find particularly prescient because it helps illuminate the fact that there are no parallel communities of solidarity, ethnically, for Jewish Europeans, of the same scale and significance.
We are more alone as a community than American Jews are. That doesn’t mean to imply that there aren’t solidarity relationships we could have with other minority groups in today’s Europe. But, largely as a consequence of the Holocaust, and community inveighing against the threat of Muslim anti-Semitism, we are cooler to other European minorities than we should be.
I have sought to come to terms with these issues as a journalist, oftentimes photographing the Roma I encounter as a means of reflecting on what it is about their situation that feels so familiar. Europe has an underclass, which Jews were once a part of. We remain related through memory, which we discern through the discomfort we feel when we come together.
That’s why I wasn’t angry when the Roma man I gave the euros paid no mind to the commemorative Holocaust plaques underneath his feet. It wasn’t anti-Semitic. They were just visual cues encouraging me to understand what tied the two of us together. His begging was an act of historical continuity, a link to a genocide that once targeted us both.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.