Mariella Mehr — Poet, Memoirist, Acivisit, Survivor
Not many Roma divulge their experience of the Holocaust. Unlike the many Jewish organizations which provide documentary evidence, speakers’ bureaus, and interviews about the extermination of six million European Jews, the Romany do not talk about the Porrajmos, Hilter’s execution of 500,000 Roma. In Romani culture, to mention that horror is to re-experience it. To invite its return. So it is only the bravest among them who recount and publish episodes of their peoples’ destruction. Here is one such account. Not from the Nazi regime, but from the history of the Swiss.
Poet Mareilla Mehr is a Yenish-Romani writer now living in Italy. Her work describes the sixty-year kidnap campaign enacted by the Swiss state to “reform” migratory people. From 1926 to 1972 the youth from her community were hunted down by the Association for Assistance to Traveller Children. Along with hundreds from her extended family, Mehr was seized and placed in an orphanage for re-eduation. Not until the 1990s did Switzerland come clean about the barbaric history of the Pro Juventute. In her own words, Mehr recounts the years spent in state confinement. Her memoirs, journalism, and poetry now stand as a moving testament to the Roma’s power of survival. Mehr’s literary acolades include the Swiss Schiller Foundation award (1996), the ProLitteris Prize (2012), the Literary Prize of the canton of Graubünden (2016), and a Recognition Prize from the city of Zürich (2017). Here is a translated excerpt of her 2018 collection, Words of Resistance.
Words of Resistance
Excerpt translated by Ruth Martin
“NIGHTMARE OF THE EMBRYOS”
Night then, in sheets that weren’t ours, curled up like
embryos, was another world. Dormitories, embryos in
beds, craving a womb. A blue nightlight (the eye of
justice, judging), every breath a meagre measure of
affection for the stranger’s embryo beside you. Night: it
was hands groping in the dark, moth-like thoughts,
dreams cast out into an inhuman emptiness, screaming
children’s prayers, ice-cream, icebergs, unconsciousness. Night: it was the children’s great no-man’s-land.
We too were lovable. But we didn’t want to live. Night,
and it was the matron’s metallic voice. Trembling, we
waited for her call, and all the embryos crept back to
their own strange beds. Each child was an only child
– we weren’t a family!
The nights in these rooms, those cursed nights of
Lucerne 1950. A children’s home at the edge of the
woods. Its own large garden, chickens in the backyard,
nuns from the Seraphic Love charity. The front steps, a
children’s Matterhorn, enormous in my memory, unclimbable. Don’t go down into the street with the people,
where children played with balls, where there were
parents and strong boys. Don’t go down, danger lurked
on the bottom landing. And there it was, a woman who
wanted a pretty child, shouting and waving at me in my
invisible cage, waving with red fingers, my mother, who
wanted a pretty child and stank of alcohol. Her laugh
seemed to have slipped to the corners of her mouth and
clung on there, just a cold grin. She wanted a doll child, a child to play with. I was ugly and squinted. A nun’s hand gripped my arm, lifted it up. So I waved too
broken-winged fingers, waved to my mother, who always celebrated Christmas without me, who stood there on the bottom landing, lacking all tenderness.
December 1951. St Nicholas, you good man, they
sang, because he loved the well-behaved children. They
hung on his red, padded coat and touched his beard.
They all laughed. I was a bed-wetter, I was ugly and
squinted. I broke the other children’s toys, dive-bombed
their sandcastles and tormented chickens in the yard. I
stole. And so I spent Christmas Eve in a well-sewn jute
sack “out in the cold.” The saint’s love was reserved for
the others, the “dry” children, the “honest” ones. I could
hear the muffled shouts of two hundred joyful children
in the decorated hall. I dreamed of mandarins and was
filled with hate. Adult footsteps. They stopped by the
sack, this lumpy brown sack with the child tied up inside, hesitated, then resolutely moved away. In the hall, at the party, they were eating vanilla pudding and syrup. I was a bed-wetter and I squinted, and they called my mother a drunken slut. She never came again. They called it alcoholic psychosis now and put her away in a sanatorium. It sounded less disreputable, alcoholic psychosis. I had a sick mother now.
Altendorf 1953. As I was being beaten I could hear
his dry sobs. If you love your child – even a foster child
– you punish her. Screams from beneath the leather
belt. He lost two fingers in the factory’s plate-cutting
machine; he came back from America with dust-damaged lungs. I apologised to him for my existence. A tall, thin woman laughed. In revenge I stole a pair of skis. From Santa Claus, I said, and believed it. After that the psychiatrist called me a notorious liar.
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