Betty Smith-Billington MBE speaks at Dorchester Holocaust Day event

12 February 2024
Betty Smith-Billington MBE speaks at Dorchester Holocaust Day event

Betty Smith-Billington MBE was at the Dorchester Holocaust Memorial Day event to speak about the deaths of up to a million Roma and Sinti at the hands of the Nazis.

The event was well attended, with the Mayor of Dorchester introducing the event, which this year was based around the theme of ‘the fragility of freedom’.

“How easy it is to lose our freedom,” said Betty Smith-Billington, who is the CEO of Dorset-based Gypsy and Traveller charity Kushti Bok. “None of us know the future, but we know the past, so we try to learn from the past,” she added.

Betty Smith-Billington then explained that, like Jews, Romani people had been persecuted for over 1,000 years, from the start of their migration from India including right up to the present day.

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“In 1514 Gypsies were first mentioned in England,” said Betty Billington. “They had arrived in England free men and women, carrying papers from the Pope to say they were on a Pilgrimage. King Henry VIII, who was then trying to set up a Church of England for Protestants, believing that they were Papal spies fined any ship’s captain bringing Gypsies into the country £40,” added Betty Smith-Billington. “The Gypsies who were free - or so they thought - were hung.”

Betty Smith-Billington then referred to a recent survey that reported that many of the public thought that the Travelling community where a threat “to Britain’s success and prosperity.”

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“Tell that to the hundreds of Gypsies and Travellers who fought for this country,” said Betty Smith-Billington. “My father, Caleb Smith, was a Royal Marine EX1469. His uncle, Mark White, was badly injured at Monte Casino in Italy. My uncle, Samuel White, was in the Royal Navy, as well as his dad Isaac White. And let us not forget the young Gypsy soldier hero Jack Cunningham, who won the Victoria Cross, and my great uncle, Sam Burton, who gave his life in WW1.”

Many of us come together every year to say never again,” added Betty Smith-Billington, “but as someone once said; Auschwitz is sleeping and we must never forget the fragility of freedom.”

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(All photographs © Eszter Halasi)