Healing Hidden Identities : The Lost Romani Generation by Imogen Di Sapia
Imogen Di Sapia is a British-Romani and director of Bright Moon Weaving Studio. The craftswomen presented 'Healing hidden identities - The lost Romani generation' as part of Look and Don't Forget an online commemoration event that took place for Roma Genocide Remembrance day. The uplifting and thought-provoking reading explores the wider impact of cultural trauma perpetrated on Romani people. She shares her own story in the hope that by remembering the horrors of the past the seeds that lay dormant in time can begin to flower.
To bear witness on Roma Genocide Remembrance Day this year is especially poignant for me, after finally discovering my family’s secret, born out of this moment of cultural trauma perpetrated upon the Romani peoples in 1944. I share my story with you to show that in remembering the horrors of the past, the seeds that lay dormant in time, are now flowering.
I cannot give you any anecdotes of a Romani childhood, nor can I give you much in the way of first-hand accounts from family elders who have long since passed, because the truth was hidden from me, and my mother before me. What I can share with you today are precious fragments and personal details of a hidden cultural identity, ever-present, patiently waiting, now at last finding voice.
My mother was born in 1940, and the family story is that during my mother’s early childhood, her matriarchal Gran Cooper was found in the kitchen one day, feeding all the families papers, photographs and records into the flames at the stove, remembered in the wider family as “the fire in the kitchen” episode. This was around 1944, after the entire family of young siblings, parents and grandparents had been relocated from Bristol to Wolverhampton.
This domestic bonfire scene, I was more recently informed by a Romani historian and genealogist who was assisting me, was a repeating scene recounted by those looking for their possible Romani heritage, people like me who had also heard a rumour that began with a fire in the kitchen in the 1940s... It seems that (in my attempt to imagine what happened) the Grandmothers of Romani Britain had gotten word that their wider family and community members were being taken and ultimately murdered under the Nazi regime around this timeframe...
This is my own personal conclusion, and I have no doubt that this event in my family story is the same event we are commemorating today, and that it was the Roma Holocaust, the genocide, that created the break in the awareness of where we came from, for safely and for protection. I cannot be alone in this episode of Romani history, and I propose there is a Lost Romani Generation in the UK today, perhaps so dislocated from the original separation and act of forgetting there is no memory left to attempt healing and find a resolution. I am lucky, I am able to discover a thread back in time to bear witness to part of my own history, and this is powerful medicine and holds much respect for the past generations of my family line; the Drapers and the Cooper’s.
To burn one's identity and to assimilate into the dominant culture, for reasons of safety, hiding and passing, I can understand, was not made lightly, and I can only imagine the fear that drove such a choice. However, it has left an intergenerational scar that is only recently able to receive the attention, healing and care it rightfully deserves.
In a single moment, the racial and cultural identity of my motherline was severed, a wall of denial was constructed and an entire familial context; a history, a language, a way of relating, simply stopped. Seventy-six years is a long time for a secret so fundamental to one’s cultural identity to be dislocated, and my own experience tells me it has been painful, confusing and created many emotional dead-ends that many never fully heal, particularly for elder family members, and also myself.
I have experienced cultural difference without knowing it even had a name, knowing that my family culture differed in subtle yet meaningful ways from the settled culture of my friends growing up, but never quite understanding why, and so I internalised much of this dissonance between worlds, and committed to passing between the two worlds with as little disturbance as possible. I worked very hard to fill the void I felt in my own self-identity, to provide a sense of self-based on my work and academic achievements, mainly because I didn’t know what was missing, I just knew something was deeply amiss. I must also add, I have never experienced racism in the way visible Roma have, I have benefited from assimilation and passing within the dominant culture. I can also share that passing and assimilation in my experience is unhealthy on all levels; it causes a break in one's identity that is so fundamental, it affects mental well-being and core integrity, it exacerbates feelings of un-belonging and unwelcome difference.
I am lucky, I have been guided into discovering, processing and go some way in healing this lost family truth, to call it back from the shadows, no longer hidden, and I can begin to quite literally put the pieces back together and integrate. It has been a huge process of simultaneous joy and grief, putting the confusing parts of my lived experiences into a context that finally makes sense. To claim my Romani identity is enormously empowering, mainly because it was almost lost to me.
I’m coming to understand that a culture, our Romani culture, cannot be extinguished by putting history to the flames, not really, and certainly not permanently. Truth finds a way to express itself. A culture is so much more than a historical account, in fact, the historical account is only a vehicle to convey the information, it is not the full truth of what cultural inheritance really is. We hear a lot about “intangible heritage”, those aspects of a culture that are not easily defined, can’t be taught or learnt other than by virtue of having first-hand, embodied, lived experience; this is unwritten knowledge, this is inherited wisdom. Which is why, as the community have so warmly welcomed me home and supported my healing process, we each become a living record keeper of what it is to have Romani heritage, to belong to a people, a race and a culture.
Hidden identity seeks to find its relational level; “it takes one to know one” becomes the adage, and it is true. There are things of such subtly that I would struggle to find the words to even make sense of them enough to communicate what they are. It is a bone-deep knowing, wisdom borne of experience, of something more profoundly etched into our genetic DNA that means you belong, no matter how or when or why, because the cultural belonging came first.
The hidden parts simply need the light of compassionate attention to be seen, appreciated and listened to. The stories of our people are as many as the individuals that make up the community across all generations; it is an evolving story, rich in collective diversity, with shared pain and shared joy. Through the creative arts and crafts is how I have found a way to express my therapeutic journey into healing my identity, and when one member of the community begins to heal, the whole community benefits automatically, as a collective. I wish to encourage everyone today to seek out the ways to find healing and peace in these moments of remembrance, loss and witnessing the darker sides of life; how can we make something beautiful with what remains.
To be proud is to be accepting of one’s culture, and to accept is to honour those who went before. In solidarity and respect, on Roma Genocide Remembrance Day, and every day. Opre Roma!
Imogen Di Sapia, Roma Genocide Remembrance Day, August 2nd 2020