Roma holocaust remembered in rural Dorset

This year’s annual memorial event comes at a time when the police Bill is taking similar steps to those at the start of the Nazi genocide, warn BETTY BILLINGTON-SMITH and REVD JONATHAN HERBERT

IN AUGUST 2016 proud Romany Gypsy Betty Billington-Smith accompanied a group of Gypsies and Travellers to Auschwitz-Birkenau, for the Dik Hai Na Bister (Look and Don’t Forget) event — it was the 72nd anniversary of the Night of the Gypsies.

The day and night of August 2 1944 saw 2,897 Roma and Sinti, the remainder of the Family Camp, annihilated by the Nazis.

Billington-Smith was so affected by her visit that on her return she vowed to hold a Dorset Roma Holocaust Memorial Service event each year.

Romany people have been in Dorset since the mid-1500s and are the county’s biggest ethnic minority. As in other parts of the country, they experience high levels of racism, which is being ramped up by a government seeking electoral popularity by scapegoating Travellers.

At the annual Dorset event, held in Kingston Maurward College on August 2 2021, where many local dignitaries, led by the Lord Lieutenant, local Gypsies, Travellers and supporters, watched, listened and learned when footage courtesy of the Drive2Survive campaign, was shown.

In the film, Romany man Billy Welch, organiser of the famous Appleby Horse Fair, spoke out against the vilification of his people at a demonstration in Parliament Square opposing the proposed criminalisation of trespass by the Tory government.

Welch told the story how 25 years ago, while travelling in Germany, he had met German Sinti who told him how in the 1930s the Nazis had begun their persecution of the Sinti and Roma by first issuing fines, then confiscating vehicles and then imprisoning Gypsies. He had said to them then that such things would never happen in Britain — but now that’s exactly what is proposed by section 4 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Revd Roger Redding MBE, former Chaplain to Travellers, sang an old folk song — the Hawthorn and the Clover — which described the decimation of a former nomadic way of life and government policy that has led to forced settlement of virtually all Travellers.

It is now almost impossible to lead a nomadic way of life with so few of the old stopping places left.

Those who travel nowadays are often harried from pillar to post by the police and council officers, simply because safe and suitable stopping places are few and far between. What’s needed is not more police powers, but more provision.

Poems written especially for the service by Ray Wills, Jess Smith and Gillian Green were recited by Karen Packman and Sue Miller.

Billington-Smith who chairs Kushti Bok, a Dorset Traveller-led charity and campaigning group, said: “It is important to remember the Holocaust because the conditions and attitudes that led to it in Nazi Germany are present in British society today.

“As I always say, Auschwitz is only sleeping — we must all make sure it never wakes. That’s why it’s so important for Travellers and everyone to oppose racist hate crimes and this terrible Bill going through Parliament.”

Betty Billington-Smith is chair of Kushti Bok, DIACT and Dorset Council Gypsy and Traveller Forum and Revd Jonathan Herbert is a Kushti Bok member and chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset and Wiltshire — – from Morning Star 9 Aug 2021.