Witnessing and the Failure of Communication

Sandra Ristovska. The Communication Review. Volume 17, Issue 2. 2014.

This article examines the Romani Holocaust experiences by mapping out the silences that haunt this question. As a case study, the article uses the testimonial documentary Porraimos: Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust and argues that the Romani Holocaust question is entangled in a moral discourse described in Lyotard’s Le Differend. Bearing witness to the differend can give new insights into the understanding of the Holocaust, the conceptualization of Romani identity, and the framing of media witnessing. The article concludes with a discussion of the face and its relation to witnessing arguing that the affective feel of the differend that interpellates one as a witness is delivered through the face.

Although the past two decades have witnessed a steady growth in research and policy discussions about the Romani people, Roma’s cultures and societies still present what Gunter Grass (2011) calls “a blind spot in the consciousness of Europe” (p. 25) and Kevin Robins (2010) names “code unknown” (p. 637). Because perceptions of them move between romanticism and racial paranoia, Roma fulfill either the “happy-go-lucky” or “gangsters and barbarians” tropes. Such renditions of Romani culture and identity overwrite the ongoing struggles of this group: poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, social exclusion, forced evictions, and deportations. Katie Trumpener’s (1992) view that the romanticized interest in Roma deprives them from a place in Western modernity and contributes to a problematic politics of cultural amnesia have been challenged by a number of scholars (Gay y Basco, 2001; Rosenhaft, 2004, 2008; Stewart 2004; van Baar 2008, 2011). However, her argument resonates with regards to the Romani Holocaust remembrance, an issue that still remains out of proper public recognition. According to Huub van Baar (2008):

Despite the increasing visibility of Romani monuments, exhibitions, commemorations, films and various testimonies of Romani Holocaust survivors, European audiences are largely ignorant of the Romani Holocaust, at times even resistant to recognition (p. 374).

Moreover, earlier writings about this historical moment, such as Inge Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust, conform to beliefs about Roma as people with no history. These conceptions enable widespread circulation of ideas that Roma are people who prefer “not to bother with history at all” and “who seek no meaning beyond those relevant to immediate survival” (as cited in Steward 2004, p. 568). Therefore, forgetting has been understood as the Romani way of living. Yet, as Michael Steward (2004) argues, “the idea of people finding a way to live without reference to a burdensome past may be so appealing … that the troubling implications of such a claim may not be recognized” (p. 568).

Configuring as a “code unknown,” Romani history has been subject to a collective silence. This article examines the Romani Holocaust experiences by mapping out the silences that haunt this question. Furthermore, it shows how the idea of “people with no history” not only relates to the repression of the Romani Holocaust remembrance but it also impacts Roma’s place in contemporary politics. As a case in point, the article uses the testimonial documentary Porraimos: Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust (Isles, 2002), which is discussed comparatively with the landmarks of the Jewish Holocaust commemoration—Claude Lanzmann’s testimonial documentary Shoah, the Eichmann trial, and the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. This article argues that the heart of the Romani Holocaust question contains a moral discourse described in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Le Differend (1988). Echoing Wittgenstein’s conception of heterogeneous language games, Lyotard argues that there are multiple genres of discourse whose heterogeneity can enable a dispute called differend. A successful communication occurs when the person who speaks, the addressor, is being listened to and understood by the addressee—they use the same genre of discourse. The differend is a type of failed communication—the addressor withdraws in silence, or the addressee fails to listen to and/or understand the communicative attempts of the addressor because their genre of discourse is different.

Bearing witness to the differend of the Romani Holocaust experience can give new insights into the understanding of the Holocaust at large, the comprehension of Romani history, and the ethics of (media) witnessing. The article concludes with a discussion of the Other and its face—in Levinasian terms—as well as their relation to witnessing. It argues that the affective feel of the differend that interpellates one as a listener and witness is delivered precisely through the face. Since the face is the way through which we encounter the Other, its ability to speak and interrupt is central to an ethics of witnessing.

Witnessing, History, and Film

Porraimos: Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust is a 57-min documentary film comprised of first-hand testimonies of one Jewish and five Romani Holocaust survivors. Although a highly editorial film that weaves together short survivors’ testimonies with archival footage of Roma taken by the Reich Department of Racial Hygiene, it is nevertheless a rare public record that gives voice to the Romani participants in the historical experience of the Holocaust. Porraimos moves between the exploratory realm—of Romani culture, the discriminatory policy against this group in place well before World War II, as well as the various medical experiments Roma were subjected to during the Nazi regime—and the testimonial realm. The name Porraimos is, in fact, the Romani reference for the Holocaust. Frequently encountered in its longer form, Baro Porraimos, the phrase can be translated as “a great devouring of human life” (Hancock, 2002, p. 34). According to Ian Hancock (2002), a renowned Romani scholar and activist, “Porraimos is an ugly word, well chosen for the ugliest event in our history. It can also mean rape, as well as gaping in shock or horror. People hesitate to say the word out loud” (p. 34). The horrific experience indicated by the name is so overwhelming, that even the word itself is a disgrace to be spoken out loud. Although both Holocaust and Shoah are also infused in a spectrum of memories and implications— historical, political, or emotional—they became widely accepted and used. Porraimos, on the other hand, exists in silence. Therefore, the documentary film of the same name is a step towards addressing and breaking the will-to-silence.

In her analysis of Claude Lanzman’s testimonial film Shoah, Shoshana Felman (1992) writes about the relation between film and witnessing and asks: “What does a testimony mean, if not simply (as we commonly perceive it) the observing, the recording, the remembering of an event, but an utterly unique and irreplaceable topographical position with respect to an occurrence?” (p. 206). Witnessing is more than just a testimony to a first-hand experience. It enables the process of acknowledging the traumatic experience both by the person who experienced it directly and for the person who bears witness to the testimony. According to Dori Laub (1992):

The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to—and heard—is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the “knowing” of the event is given birth to. The listener, therefore, is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo (p. 57).

For that reason, listening to the survivors’ testimonies makes the viewers of Shoah and Porraimos participants in the emergence of a public cognizance of Holocaust trauma. At present times, when Romani Holocaust memory oscillates between denial and poor recognition as a result of direct or indirect Holocaust denial, hierarchization of victimhood, inadequate war crime restitution or Romaphobia (van Baar, 2011), film has a great capacity for breaking the silence, commemorating, and witnessing.

The Romani Holocaust as a Differend

The silence about the Romani experiences in the Holocaust is perhaps marked by the name but it extends vastly. While the history of the Roma genocide is a developing branch of scholarship (Hancock, 2002; Kenrick & Puxon, 1973, 2009; Rosenhaft, 2004; Tyrnauer, 1991; van Baar 2008, 2011), there is not a wide public recognition of this history. Kenrick and Puxon (1973) write, “In the many books written describing the Nazi period and the persecution of the Jews, Gypsies usually appear as a footnote or a small section” (p. 88). The Romani victims were mentioned only marginally at the Nuremberg trials, and they have never seen adequate war crime restitutions. After the war, the harassment of Roma has continued. Hancock (2002) notes that in parts of Germany, anti-Roma laws were in place until 1970. The United Nations did not help the Romani people after the Holocaust. They were not listed in the documentation of the United States War Refugee Board, although the War Crimes Tribunal in Washington knew the Romani situation in 1946 (Hancock, 2002).

In 1984, American Roma demonstrated in Washington, DC, to demand an inclusion of a Roma representative on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. They wore stripe suits reminiscent of the Holocaust uniforms and carried banners “Gypsies and Jews died together in Auschwitz. Let us serve together.” At first, Seymore Siegel, executive director of the council, appeared to devalue the magnitude and significance of the Roma experience by responding to the protests with the following statement: “There should be some recognition or acknowledgment of the Gypsies people, if there is such a thing; I guess there is. There was a suffering element under the Nazis” (as cited in Grove, 1984, p. C1). Three years later, President Reagan made the first Roma appointment, but in 2002 it was revoked by the Bush administration, an act that was perceived as “a denied recognition of Romani history in the Holocaust” (Hancock, 2002, p. 50). Roma also continue to demand inclusion of their story during the commemorative ceremonies of the U.N. Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 every year.

There is a silence about the Porraimos and Romani struggles beyond the historical, political, legal, and memorial spheres. A Romani musician and participant at a symposium organized by the Institute for Romani Music and Culture at New York University explains why her band never performs Holocaust inspired musical themes:

We are always asked not to include Holocaust songs in our repertoire even though we sing in Romani language and very few people would be able to understand the songs anyway. Everybody expects the happy Gypsy trope.

Furthermore, there are ongoing expulsions, fingerprinting, discrimination, hate crimes, and anti-Roma sentiments throughout Europe and the United States. In 2009, Italy fingerprinted Romani people; in 2010, France expelled 200,000 Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria; in September 2011, there were anti-Roma protests throughout Bulgaria, and the United States has special “Gypsy crime units” in Alabama and Florida (Silverman, 2011). Recently, BBC News (“Roma face persecution,” 2012) reported Amnesty findings that Roma “score lower on all key social measures of unemployment, earnings and access to healthcare” and “that one in five of all Roma in Europe had been subjected to racially motivated crime in the previous year.”

The Romani Holocaust and the ongoing suffering are still signified by multiple silences that have been fostered over time. These silences indicate a moral conflict called a differend, which “is born from a wrong and is signaled by a silence” (Lyotard, 1988, p. 93). According to the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard (1988), “the differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be put into phrases cannot yet be” (p. 22). Language, as an instrument of communication, is limited. There are things that exceed verbalization, and we are aware of them either through the pain of having to withdraw in silence or through the pleasure when new idioms become part of language—fortunately, language is organic and subject to constant reinvention. The moral dispute, which Lyotard writes about, occurs when we do not have the means to articulate something that needs to be communicated and acknowledged. The differend occurs when communication fails because of competing genres of discourse. The linguistic toolkit of the person who ought to speak does not provide the means through which the wrong that has been experienced can be articulated; thus, the addressor remains silent. Yet, as a victim of a wrong, the addressor has to speak because reality is not a given; it “is always the plaintiff’s responsibility” to testify and create awareness of the wrong suffered (Lyotard, 1988, p. 8). However, the victim’s break from silence does not automatically prevent the occurrence of a differend. Even if the addressor speaks, the addressee might be deaf to the message because his/her framework for understanding language does not contain the means to comprehend the speech act of the addressor/victim. Therefore, Lyotard (1988) writes:

The plaintiff becomes a victim when no presentation is possible of the wrong he or she says he or she has suffered. Reciprocally, the “perfect crime” does not consist in killing the victim or the witness (that adds new crimes to the first one and aggravates the difficulty of effacing everything), but rather in obtaining the silence of the witness, the deafness of the judges, and the inconsistency (insanity) of the testimony. You neutralize the addressor, the addressee, and the sense of the testimony; then everything is as if there were no referent (no damages) (p. 22).

The “perfect crime” indicates the failure of both communication and ethics. The addressor [the plaintiff, the victim] is silent; the addressee [the receiver of message in the traditional conceptualization of communication] is deaf; there is no possibility of putting into phrases the wrong that has been suffered; the referent is destroyed.

Romani Holocaust witnessing exemplifies the “perfect crime” scenario, and it clearly illustrates the utter necessity of bearing witness to the differend. The traumas experienced exceed linguistic potential; the victims preferred silence in order to forget the past and move on with their lives; and, for a long time, no one was there to listen. Through the Eichmann trial, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, and Lanzmann’s Shoah, the process of bearing witness to the Holocaust differend was initiated. They enabled the survivors to transform the wrong suffered into publicly acknowledged damage. In addition, in the case of the Eichmann trial in then the newly formed State of Israel (and through the Nuremberg trials after the war), the differend was translated into legal action. However, in the case of the Romani Holocaust, although steps have been taken to commemorate the Roma victims—as evident, for example, by the opening of Roma Holocaust memorial in Berlin in October 2012—the victims remain silenced and the discriminations against Roma continue. Thus, the Romani Holocaust is still at the crossroads between the need to break the silence and the need to assure listeners capable of listening and witnessing so that the differend can be translated into publicly acknowledged history and legal action.

According to Dori Laub (1992), trauma victims prefer silence to protect themselves from being listened to both by others and themselves. Silence is considered safer than speaking. He writes:

While silence is defeat, it serves them both as a sanctuary and as a place of bondage. Silence is for them a fated exile, yet also a home, a destination, and a binding oath. To not return from this silence is a rule rather than exception (p. 58).

Reality is acknowledged as such once spoken out loud. However, when reality is seen as an overwhelming traumatic shock, silence offers an illusion of reconciliation because it is perceived as capable of making the past go away. As one Holocaust witness explains in Shoah, “He’s only a human, and he wants to live. So he must forget. He thanks God that he can forget. And let’s not talk about that.” As trauma victims, Roma Holocaust survivors also withdrew in silence. Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon (1973) write, “only a small number of Gypsies could read or write, so they could not tell their own story. But they also were unwilling to tell their own stories to others, and few were interested anyway” (p. 88). The silent victim seems to be the normative pattern when dealing with trauma. The Jewish survivors who moved to Israel were silent, misunderstood, and perceived as social outcasts by mainstream society for at least a decade after their liberation from the concentration camps. The fear that nobody would listen to or believe the stories from the Holocaust is quite familiar. In his book The Drowned and the Saved, a collection of essays on life in the extermination camps, Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (1988) noted that the biggest nightmare for the inmates of the concentration camps was the fear that if they managed to survive, nobody would believe their stories. He wrote:

Almost all the survivors, orally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of the imprisonment, varied in its detail but uniform in its substance: they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved one, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and cruelest) form, the interlocutor turned and left in silence (p. 12).

Traumatic experiences have an endless impact on life. Therefore, Cathy Caruth (1996) writes that at the core of traumatic narratives is the crisis best captured by the question: “Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing experience of having survived it?” (p. 7).

While the crime against humanity was established with the Nuremberg trials of 1945–46 through vast evidence, almost no living witness/survivor appeared before the court. First person survival testimonies were rendered unreliable and hearsay. The Holocaust was presented as a historical incident of genocide that should never happen again. However, the legal system did not provide the necessary means for the survivors to work through, deal, or at least be reflexive about the overwhelming trauma. Therefore, the hearings of over 100 victims’ testimonies during the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961 not only added a complementary narrative to understandings of the Holocaust, but it also acknowledged and humanized the victims. According to Shoshana Felman (2000), in exceeding its legal function (there was enough evidence to find Eichmann guilty of the crime without bringing the witnesses to court), the trial translated the private and suppressed trauma into public cognizance that enabled the recovery—at least through language—of the victims who were initially deprived from the means to express their vast sufferings. She wrote:

The quintessence of the Eichmann trial is the acquisition of semantic authority by victims. It was the newly acquired semantic and historical authority of this revolutionary story that, for the first time, created what we know today as the Holocaust (p. 2).

Thus, witnessing to the personal testimonies in the Eichmann trial was of ethical and historical significance. Of similar importance is the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University that documents the personal memories of survivors. By contributing “to the collective memory of a time passing away together with the eyewitness generation” (Hartmann, 2001, p. 116), the archive adds a human voice and sentiment to the historical record of the Holocaust.

The Romani Holocaust history, however, does not only lack an equivalent of the Eichmann trial or the Yale archive, but it also frequently ceases to exist in the remembrance of the Holocaust at large. It is instead interwoven in a differend scenario where the Romani experiences—the preferred silence of the victims, or the attempts to speak when no one is willing to listen—is excluded from the general public discourse. Therefore, the documentary film Porraimos: Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust makes a significant contribution to historical knowledge by interpellating the viewers as witnesses to the differend and initiating the translation of the experienced wrong into a publicly acknowledged damage that the Romani people have suffered. In doing so, Porraimos acknowledges the differend, reverses it through witnessing, and dignifies the Romani Holocaust history.

Witnessing the Differend

The documentary film Porraimos: Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust—even though highly editorial—presents a rare attempt to establish and humanize the Romani victims by providing them with a possibility to articulate their sufferings and by offering an audience who would listen, even if at the minimum level of a filmmaker-interviewer and a camera. As such, Porraimos, in a similar fashion to Shoah, enables the process of bearing witness to the victims’ testimonies, to the process of witnessing, and to the process of witnessing through film. By giving the Romani survivors a forum to speak, Porraimos bears witness to the differend—to the reality of the wrong suffered, to the discursive conditions that have prevented Roma from articulating their traumas, and to the previous deafness of the academic, legal, and political circles, as well as the general public.

Two of the testimonies heard in the documentary complement the stories about Roma’s experiences in the Holocaust that have been discussed or memorialized elsewhere, though marginally. The permanent exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, includes a small section on the Roma, which tells the story of the Reinhardt and Winterstein’s German Roma families persecuted by the Nazi regime. In 1936, the Criminal Police began registering all Roma. Among them was Romani musician Gabriel Reinhardt, who was a “full-blooded Gypsy” and was allowed to marry Theresia Winterstein, “half-blooded Gypsy” under the condition that she be sterilized. Already pregnant with twins, Theresia was permitted to give birth provided that she would turn the babies over for experimentation. Her twins Rina and Rolanda were subject to eye-dyeing experiments. Only Rina survived, even though she suffered from severe blackouts throughout childhood. The museum story ends with the subsequent sterilization of Theresa and the death of the sibling; the documentary, on the other hand, provides a unique representation of Rina’s previously unheard and unknown testimony. She remembers, “there was a bathtub and my little sister laid in there in white gown and her head was full of band aid … but on the dead certificate it said she died from a stomach disorder.” Entwined with silences, Rina’s testimony continues throughout the movie, and towards the end, she confesses:

I have a scar on the left side of my head … behind my eye about an inch long. That would stop the blood flow and the oxygen to go to my brain, and that’s what caused a lot of my eye problems and a lot of passing out … After six-seven weeks in a hospital, I was released from school duty because I wasn’t able to continue like a normal person … And this all went back to the time when we were children.

Rina’s personal story illustrates how Porraimos does not simply repeat what little exists as a historical record of the Romani Holocaust; rather, it generates new knowledge by letting the trauma victims break their silence and by providing a space to carefully and respectfully listen to a Roma testifying. By providing the victims with “semantic authority” (Felman, 2000, p. 2), Porraimos exceeds its cinematic contribution to historical documentation. It humanizes a history that has been frequently ignored. For Dori Laub (1992):

The victim’s narrative—the very process of bearing witness to massive trauma—does indeed begin with someone who testifies to an absence, to an event that has not yet come into existence, in spite of the overwhelming and compelling nature of its reality and occurrence (p. 57).

Testimony creates new knowledge. It bridges the gap between silence and speech, between personal and social remembrance, between memory and history. At the heart of the testimony is not only the narrative of a violent event, but also what may resist and exceed representation and comprehension. Shifting between silence and loud and angry voice, Karl Stojka, an Austrian Sinti, whose family was exterminated in Auschwitz, testifies:

In 1940, Himmler ordered all Gypsies in Austria to be registered, to be categorized and numbered. They were perverse … They were perverse … They took us freeborn people … freeborn people and measured our noses, mouths, eyes, like we weren’t human … They were perverse …

This testimony does not simply articulate Stojka’s experience of the violent events. His angry and loud repetition of the phrase “they were perverse” also hints to the limitation of the discursive practices to transmit trauma into a narrative about a graspable violence of the past. The testimony is so powerful that it makes the viewer and listener participate and perhaps share, at least linguistically, Stojka’s struggles.

Similarly to Felman’s (1992) analysis of Lanzmann’s Shoah, Porraimos is also a “story of the liberation of the testimony through its desacralization” (p. 219). The personal experiences that the testimonies give voice to, offer a human dimension to the Romani Holocaust and resist a simple canonization of an unspeakable horror. Julia Baecker, a German Romani woman, explains how three of her brothers were in the Army, but they were discharged in 1943 when her entire family was sent to Auschwitz. Her brothers were subjected to freezing experiments and died together with her mother. However, Baecker’s deeply engraved and disturbing memory of the incarceration in Auschwitz is the moment when her mother was stripped and forced to stand naked in front of her children. She notes:

They shaved us completely in the nude. I’ve never seen my mother like that. Up to this day, I can never forget that picture of her. I think that took the spirit from her, her moral … Put the two little ones in front of her, and she was still saying stay in line.

Baecker’s testimony challenges the sacred status of the extermination camp. What matters most is not the unspeakable death, but the painful humiliation of being naked in a culture with a strict sexual code that emphasizes modesty.

Antonia Krokova, from a Czech Roma circus family, was the only one in her family to survive Auschwitz. She remembers her arrival to the camp:

When they transported us, my little sister cried. She said she was hungry. I told her, “stop crying, they are already cooking salami for us. We won’t be hungry anymore. They’ll feed us.” But it wasn’t food we were smelling. It was fumes from the crematoriums. That’s what I mistook for cooking meat. That’s what I thought was salami.

Through Krokova’s testimony, one is able to see the Holocaust as “unwitnessed,” as an occurrence whose overwhelming evidence of genocide also makes it a proof-less history since there are no witnesses left to witness. This testimony makes the viewers of the film witnesses of the differend whose referents have been annihilated since all its witnesses have been eliminated. Anybody who could eyewitness what truly went on in the crematoriums is already dead. Following Felman’s (1992) examination of Shoah, the documentary Porraimos also takes the stand that “the age of testimony is the age of prooflessness, the age of an event whose magnitude of reference is at once below and beyond proof” (p. 211).

Trauma is about past events that exceed narration, that are beneath history proper. To testify to a traumatic experience is to expose oneself to “the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of survival” (Caruth, 1996, p. 7). It is precisely in this intertwined narrative of life and death that the historical witness emerges (Caruth, 1996). By giving voice to the trauma victims, Porraimos creates a new history, perhaps a historiography, that not only attempts to compensate at least symbolically for the losses, but it also establishes a new historical witness. Therefore, Porraimos breaks the silences of the differend about the Romani Holocaust.

Witnessing and the Face

Cathy Caruth (1996) conceptualizes trauma as more than just a horrific experience, a pathology, or a wounded psyche. Trauma, for her, is “the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available” (p. 4). It constitutes a voice that performs what is concurrently known and unknown both to the self and to others. For an overwhelming traumatic shock to be translated into a testimonial narrative, one needs to be able to listen to oneself and to find another who is willing and capable of listening. Trauma, then, exists in relation to a self and to other, and as such it is entangled in silences and imprisoned in differends. How, then, can we assure that we are present to bear witness to traumatic testimonies and to differends? How do we search for new phrases and new genres of discourse that can express the differend we have witnessed? What do we do if trauma survivors never break their silence? Where do we locate our responsibility? Ultimately, how do we recuperate our moral ability to respond?

Communication has its limits, and it is at the point when communication fails that ethics in the spirit of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas begins (Pinchevski, 2005). According to Levinas, ethics is the first philosophy; it is an ethics of the Other person, or an infinite responsibility towards the Other, who always has something that is incomprehensible—the Other’s alterity. The face is the surface of the Other’s alterity—what we see, hear, feel, and experience when we encounter the Other. The face challenges any conceptualization and representation. “The face is signification, and signification without context. The face is meaning by itself” (Levinas, 1985, p. 86). The relation to the face is ethical precisely because the face introduces the infinite responsibility towards the Other. “The face speaks … it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourses” (Levinas, 1985, p. 87). In this sense, face and language are interwoven. The face addresses, questions, and challenges by evoking infinite responsibility; one responds to the face. According to Piotr Szpunar (2012):

The true face is found in the entry, in the essence beyond the simple representation, one that interrupts you, that leaves you searching for words; that “thing” that is difficult for you to explain. It is a shock to your system and its most profound characteristic is its interruption of your symbolic word (p. 280).

In this sense, the face is important for an ethics of witnessing because it is the face that delivers the affective feel of the differend and of suffering. The face introduces that which is incommensurable with language, what language leaves out. When the face interrupts, a testimony can be told and heard. Thus, the interruption of the face can break the deafness of the addressee and enable witnessing.

In Porraimos, there is an interesting interplay of faces. Most of the interviews are shot in close ups that focus on the face of the survivors. Numerous faces address the viewer of the documentary as if they demand ultimate attention, as if they tell the audience that it is their responsibility to listen. The film also shows several Romani portraits that Dina Gottliebov, a Jewish artist and a Holocaust survivor who testifies in the documentary, made in Auschwitz under the direction of Josef Mengele. After Mengele’s assistant discovered her painting talents, she was asked to make a series of portraits of Roma in the so-called “Gypsy camp” in Auschwitz that would assist Mengele in his research about the Romani facial features. Her testimony in Porraimos includes a long discussion of the faces she painted in the camp. Gottliebov explains how she chose Saline, a French Romani woman, as her first subject because her “beautiful, yet pale face” impressed her. Gottliebov and Saline could not understand each other through language because one spoke German, and the other knew only French. Yet, Gottliebov gave all her lunches to Saline and tried to keep her as long as she could because, in her words, “I dreaded the day that I finish I wouldn’t see her anymore. We became friends.”

Gottliebov and Saline’s friendship exemplifies the Levinasian ethics. Their language was facial. When encountered with Saline’s face, Gottliebov was disturbed; she felt addressed by her. With no language besides the silence of the faces, she felt responsible towards Saline. She gave her food, as if Saline had asked for it; indeed, it was the face speaking. For Levinas, responsibility demands proximity, which is irreducible to spatial distance. In Pinchevski’s (2005) views:

The proximity of the Other, of the face, is drawing near and making near. In proximity, one is exposed, vulnerable, sensitive to the Other who appears as a face. Proximity is the realm wherein one can be affected by the Other (p. 78).

The proximity of Gottliebov and Saline made them vulnerable and sensitive to one another. They were able to talk to each other without speaking the same language. Even though both of them were inmates of Auschwitz, Gottliebov selflessly shared her lunch with Saline because she felt affected by the powerless face.

When she was done with the paintings, Mengele was on vacation. Therefore, Gottliebov decided to do one more portrait. She remembers how she ended up painting a little boy:

And the little boy looked at me when I said “I guess I’ll find somebody else,” and he said, “why don’t you do me?” And I said okay. “You wanna sit, can you sit still?” He said “sure.” And I started painting him and as I was painting him, I noticed that his face was set in a rather angry way. I wondered whether he did that on purpose. I don’t know. He was obviously very angry, and he wanted it to show on the picture.

The angry face speaks louder and clearer than words could ever do. The little boy’s angry face demands justice, addresses anyone who encounters his portrait. Even though it is angry, the face is vulnerable and powerless. It evokes responsibility. The angry face is still a vivid memory for the painter-survivor precisely because the demand of the face was never answered. The little boy died in the camp. Not long after Gottliebov was done with the portraits, “the Gypsy camp” in Auschwitz was all gone—the Romani people were gassed and the camp was liquidated.

The story of the little Roma boy is reminiscent of Primo Levi’s story of a little orphan called Hurbinek, who was probably born in Auschwitz and died in March 1945 “free but not redeemed” (Levi 1965, p. 26). Hurbinek, about three years old, was paralyzed and bore the tattoo of Auschwitz. Incapable of speech, he approached the other inmates as a face that demanded response. Primo Levi (1965) describes him:

The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgment, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish (p. 25).

The face reveals itself. It approaches the other defenselessly. It commands in an inflamed necessity. It is infused in suffering. It needs an audience capable of perceiving the voice of the crying wound that the muted face seemingly suppresses. The face’s order is to bear witness. It urges us to reclaim our responsibility by being sensitive to the differends buried in silences. Even if nothing remains of the person—both the Roma boy and Hurbinek died—it is the power of the face that imposes an endless responsibility to those who saw it to bear witness to the silences that the face broke.


The article has argued that the public configuration of Roma as “code unknown” has enabled the differend as silence in the case of the Romani Holocaust past. The frequently used metaphor of the Romani people as “people with no history” has had troubling implications for the Romani present, which is characterized by ongoing marginalization and discrimination. Moreover, the exotic and vilified portrayal of Roma, which Trumpener (1992) addressed, has left no room for the Other (in Levinasian philosophy) to speak, disrupt, and unsettle. Therefore, the testimonial documentary film Porraimos: European Gypsies in the Holocaust, is an important public record that not only breaks the silence of the Romani Holocaust victims, but it also creates a space for ethical witnessing and recognition of the trauma suffered by Roma. The testimonies in this film achieve an important temporal mediation between the faces of the survivors in the present moment of recollecting the past and the faces of the survivors in the past that are remembered. We see and feel the past face of the Roma woman and angry boy, for example, through the present face of the survivor painter who testifies. In this sense, Porraimos’s plea to bear witness unfolds itself as a threefold constellation. It breaks the silence of the Romani survivors who bear witness to their own experiences. It breaks the deafness of the public who has to bear witness to the survivors’ testimonies when watching the film. It ultimately exposes the differend and commands moral responsibility because no silences can mask the endless accountability one feels to the face of the other.