Roma and Jews in Solidarity: the Ujpest Roma Centre

4 November 2014
Roma and Jews in Solidarity: the Ujpest Roma Centre

Above: At the Ujpest Roma Centre in Hungary


By MARGARET GREENFIELDS (with thanks to Ms Katya Dunajeva, PhD student, OSF Advisor and friend of the Ujpest Roma Centre who kindly introduced me to the people featured in this article, and translated from Hungarian to English).  

IN Ujpest, in the 4th District of Budapest, there is quiet but powerful example of binter-community Jewish-Roma solidarity in action, where two communities who experienced shared persecution under Nazi rule of Hungary and who are now both facing racism and discrimination from the emergent far Right, are working together to challenge social exclusion and enhance the life-opportunities of young Roma.

At the small, physically run-down but bustling Ujpest Roma Centre, two remarkable gentlemen, one Roma and one Jewish, work side by side to bring opportunities to the Roma youth and their families experiencing unemployment, housing and benefit problems, and threats of racism. Laszlo Rozner (a concentration camp survivor, who is now in his 80s) is a retired lawyer and head of the Ujpest Jewish Community. His friend János Pál Csóka, is President of the Roma Self-Governing Body of Újpest. Their friendship, built upon a life-time of living locally in an area which before the Second World War was noted for the close co-existence and inter-twined lives of Jewish and Roma communities has led to the development of a community space dedicated to ensuring that the coming generation of young Roma have more to look forward to than unemployment, early criminalization, and a lifetime of lost opportunity.

János Pál Csóka explained to me (through Ms Dunajeva) that he didn’t want to see the youth of the community ‘hanging around on the street’, getting into trouble and losing hope for their future as a result of inadequate skills to enable them to seize opportunities to build a better life. In seeking to bring education and training to the large number of Roma living in Ujpest, János has a determined ally in his close friend Laszlo, who delivers legal advice and undertakes casework from his tiny office in the Centre, a room which is heaving at the seams with files, papers and books.

Laszlo Rozner (known to one and all as "Laci Bacsi"; or ‘Uncle Laci’ the short, affectionate form of Laszlo) is equally passionate about ensuring that young Roma have access to the life chance which other communities within the EU take for granted. He explained that as a direct result of his own experience as a Holocaust survivor he had seen how after the horrors of the War, the Jewish community had been well represented and attempts made to provide support and reparation to survivors. In his own case he had been able to make a “good life”, achieving an education and accessing training through Hungarian State support for bright students, and spending his working life as a Trade Union lawyer. Despite his success, he was haunted by the fact that Roma had suffered alongside Jews, and were equally victims of Nazi terror who died in the death camps, but their life chances seemed “no better” than before the War. In fact, in post-Communist Hungary, Roma are significantly less likely than during the Communist era to have access to a decent education or to be employed.

Laci Bacsi’s concerns for the future of the Roma date back however, to much earlier than the recent economic crisis, as he had always been deeply worried that whilst Jewish organizations were able to help support and resettle Jewish survivors, and worked to ensure that financial reparations were paid to Jewish victims; for decades, nobody had been particularly concerned with helping Roma survivors of Nazi persecution. Moreover, whilst Jews have a home state of Israel, for Roma experiencing racism or who feel that Hungary no longer has anything to offer them, migration to countries such as Canada or Western Europe may be the only option. All too often (as I saw amongst the clients of the Roma centre and Laci Bacsi’s pro bono legal advice service) post-migration life may prove far harder than expected and return deportation to Hungary may leave families back where they started, only now destitute, in debt to moneylenders for the price of their fares, and with no access to accommodation which was given up in search of a new life abroad.

Laci Bacsi’s attempts to ease the plight of elderly Roma survivors and that of their children who were caring for them, had first begun in the 1980s, when aware of the meticulous record keeping of the Nazi administration he first began his painstaking search for evidence to assist victims of the Porajmos in obtaining recognition for their suffering. He explained that his training as a lawyer and knowledge of archives meant that he had been (rightly) convinced that he could follow through the maze of documentation to ensure that victims “had a name” and that the destitute or forgotten survivors would receive some financial restitution. Since that time, Laci Bacsi had dedicated a large part of his life to seeking out the records of Roma victims of persecution and demanding compensation for them. He explained that in his search to uncover the records he travelled to Vienna, Berlin and Tel Aviv to explore archives which could be used in evidencing claims.

During the time Laci Bacsi when worked so passionately to support Roma survivors, the friendship between the somewhat younger János Pál Csóka (who spoke too about the brutalities he had witnessed as a child under Soviet rule of Hungary) grew stronger, as the friends laboured together to seek to support the local Roma community in a variety of ways.

Over time, as the older generation of survivors gradually passed away and as a result of his deep embedded-ness within the Ujpest Roma community, Laci Bacsi‘s workload changed, so at the present time he holds a daily legal surgery at the Centre, providing support to families on a wide range of areas including housing and immigration problems. During my visit I met a number of young Roma who had recently been deported from Canada with their families. I was able to converse with these young people about the shock of finding themselves in Budapest when they had spent several years growing up in Canada, speaking English and living in a completely different cultural environment.

Alongside the much needed legal advice facility, the Ujpest Roma Centre provides a wide range of services which lie dear to János Pál Csóka’s heart. Both as an individual, and as the elected Head of the self-governing Roma community of Ujpest, he is passionate about the need to “give young people a future”. The small, overcrowded, single story Roma centre in the middle of a housing estate with a large Roma population is evidence of the passion which the two old friends bring to this mission. On the day I visited, the Centre was bustling with after-school activities run on an absolute shoe-string by a small number of Roma volunteers (teachers, community workers, and local parents).The Centre survives from financial crisis to financial crisis, with the dedication of János Pál Csóka and Laci Bacsi keeping it going against all odds, supplemented by staff and volunteers running classes which utilise donated equipment, and innovative and heroic stretching out of occasional financial donations from NGOs, or individuals who recognize the value of their work.

Despite the financial struggles of the Centre and the need for more up to date equipment, local youth make good use of the facilities. These include a gym/boxing room with punch-bags hanging from the ceiling and a highly skilled Roma woman PE trainer (Melinda) who provides lessons in boxing to the overwhelmingly male attendees at the classes.. Another room of the centre is set out with desks and rows of elderly computers on which young people and their families are able to access IT training; and Roma staff offer after-school English lessons and a homework club.

Artwork and photographs hang on the walls of the centre and Laci Bacsi and János Pál Csóka speak with pride of the exhibition of the history of shared Jewish-Roma co-existence and the painstakingly traced histories (some tragic, other triumphs of survival) which the friends and their communities created to show the ways in which Jew and Roma lived and died together in Ujpest under Nazi rule. At present there is no room to show the exhibition which is stored in the local Town Hall, but they are keen to find space to ensure it is permanently displayed and were eager to talk with me about the possibility of touring it in the UK and other parts of Europe to show how closely the two Ujpest communities existed before their destruction in the Holocaust.

Whilst the Ujpest Community centre is a beacon of hope for the future amidst a rising tide of hostility towards Roma in Hungary, and parents are enthusiastic about knowing that their children are safe and “keeping out of trouble” in a culturally acceptable environment which helps them to learn valuable skills for the future, inter-ethnic and inter-faith solidarity such as exist in this setting are still relatively rare. Where Roma and non-Roma (anecdotally often Jewish activists) do work together in local community settings, such activities are largely driven by dedicated individuals who see similarities of history, or who are horrified by the increasing Anti-Roma racism which is so common in Budapest as the Jobbik party routinely uses anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric to whip up support for their party, and to seek scapegoats for the country’s economic ills. Concerns over the rise of the Right and the shared risk of targeting by racist parties means that now more than ever, the need for Jewish and Roma solidarity is plain, not only in Hungary but also across Europe.

The local Jewish community in Ujpest is small (never having recovered from the absolute devastation wrought by the Holocaust) and the Rabbi is supportive of the work at the Roma Community Centre, but as he and his wife explained, they struggle to maintain their own tiny population, needing resources to support the elderly people who returned to Ujpest after the War. The community has shrunk, and is ageing, and it is only on the High Holy Days that they receive more than a small number of attendees at their large, beautifully restored synagogue as few moments walk from the Roma Centre. As such, there is a limit to the support that the Ujpest Jewish Community can offer to the equally struggling Roma population amongst whom they live.

Where the two communities have continued to work together however, is in sending a message of shared experience as victims of terror, attending rallies jointly against fascism, and celebrating through their work that they are, and were historically, neighbours and friends; both before and after the shattering experiences of the War. In a remarkable coincidence and marking public recognition of the value of their shared work in achieving social justice for Roma people, both Laci Bacsi (in 2010) and János Pál Csóka (in 2013) have been awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation medal for their work in selflessly improving the life and wellbeing of their local communities, with Laci Bacsi being nominated by the Ujpest Roma Community in recognition of his decades long dedication to their cause.

Although the exhibition which details the lives and deaths of the close-knit communities lies packed away in the basement of the town-hall until such time as it can be shown again, the local residents (Roma and Jews) haven’t forgotten their history, their friendships and their sorrows – working together to bring about a better future for the young of Ujpest, the children whom both János Pál Csóka and Laci Bacsi agree, represent “hope, for a better way of life, where we are all equal”.

Margaret Greenfields January 2014