Raymond Gurême, holocaust survivor, resistance fighter and lifelong antifascist died on Sunday, May 24, at the age of 94. His passing is mourned by thousands of young Roma across Europe, who were inspired by his commitment to fight for the rights and dignity of Roma and combat all forms of racism; and his relentless struggle for recognition of the Romani Holocaust.
Right up to the end, Raymond travelled to commemorative events, conferences and meetings to engage with young Roma activists, share his own testimony about wartime persecution and resistance, and inspire them to fight back against 21st Century antigypsyism with the rousing imperative: “Résistez! Résistez! Résistez!”
“To escape to be free at any cost, that was my way of resisting”
Raymond Gurême was born in 1925, south of Paris, into a French Manouche family. He spent his childhood with his father’s small travelling circus and mobile cinema, travelling around rural France. Until the age of fifteen, Gurême recalled “I was a clown, an acrobat and a film projectionist”.
This way of life came to an abrupt end early one morning in October 1940, when “two French police officers dragged away my father, his family, his circus, and his cinema business. They put us in an internment camp near Rouen, in Darnétal, for two months. Then livestock wagons were used to transport us to another camp, at Linas-Monthléry, in the south of Paris. Cold, hunger, sickness, death, everyone who’s been through the camps know how it was.” Raymond managed to escape twice and would smuggle food to his family, until he was arrested in August 1943 for stealing German food supplies, and deported to Germany to do forced labour. In an address to young Roma at Dikh He Na Bister - Roma Genocide Remembrance in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 2 August 2016, Raymond recounted:
“From all the places where they locked me up, I escaped. Six times during this war: from the camp of Linas, from the camps where I was deported in Germany, from a juvenile detention center in Angers.... To escape to be free at any cost, that was my way of resisting.”
Resistance, liberation and inégalité
As a forced labourer, Raymond recounted how he had to pull dead bodies from basements in the aftermath of allied bombing raids on German cities; how he was beaten and of the killings of inmates he witnessed in the camps: "You don't forget those images. I saw three young Russians hung at the entrance of the camp. They kept them there for three days. Do you know why? They stole a bit of bread. Another time, we saw a man killed and eaten by dogs while the guards stood by and laughed."
After a couple of escape attempts, Raymond finally succeeded to return to France: “It was railway workers who were working for the resistance who helped me to escape from Germany, hidden in the coal fuel compartment of a steam engine. My duty was to rejoin the resistance to continue the fight.” He duly made contact with the Resistance and joined French Forces of the Interior (FFI). His unit, posted in the North of Paris, was responsible for sabotaging German arms, transport and tanks. Between 19 and 25 August 1944, he actively participated in the liberation of Paris.
Not only did the action of Raymond and other ‘Nomads’ in the Resistance go unacknowledged, but the internment of Roma prisoners in camps was prolonged until the end of 1946, and many were subjected to savage reprisals in the extrajudicial purges that followed the Liberation. Far from providing assistance to Romani families who survived the war but lost all their possessions, post-war governments revived and enforced earlier laws confining and controlling the movement of ‘Nomads’, and officially revived the perception of them as a threat to national security.
The shame of the Republic
For decades, Raymond said little about the camps and the persecutions. In the early 2000s, he began to publicly recount his experiences in survival and resistance; and it was only in 2009 that the French authorities began to pay Raymond a small pension for his wartime incarceration. After the publication of the book Interdit aux Nomades, he was appointed Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture in 2012.
However, this prestigious award for his contribution to the struggle against anti-Roma racism would not prevent him from being brutalized once again by law enforcement agents of the French state. In 2014, police beat him with batons and used tear gas when they stormed his caravan without a warrant during a violent mass raid. As Raymond explained, his caravan was located just opposite a former internment camp, and it had become “a kind of habit among the local police to come and harass me and my family”, but this was the most violent incident, “I was physically attacked and beaten by a policeman belonging to BAC (Brigade anti-criminalité).”
This violence occurred against the backdrop of a ‘hostile environment’ policy, initiated by the right-wing President Sarkozy, whose policy of racist rhetoric, dawn raids and demolitions of Roma camps followed by swift mass deportations prompted international condemnation. The ‘Sarkozy approach’ was enthusiastically embraced by the left when it came to power. In 2013, Interior Minister Manuel Valls, stepped up the punitive actions and declared that the majority of Roma “could never integrate” into French society, that Roma lifestyles were “clearly in confrontation” with French ways of life, and that “the majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.”
As for wartime persecutions, seventy years after the closure of the largest internment camp for so-called “nomads”, the French state finally accepted its responsibility. In 2016, President Francoise Hollande stated that the Republic acknowledged the suffering of travelling people who were interned, and admitted that it bears “broad responsibility”. He said that the time had come to face the truth that his fellow-countrymen had collaborated in a manner that is a source of national shame.
This belated reckoning with the past demands confronting antigypsyism in the present, and right up to the end, Raymond Gurême was relentless in combating state racism. Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, himself a survivor, paid tribute to Raymond’s life of resistance and struggle, saying that “Sinti and Roma throughout Europe have lost a very special personality through the death of Raymond Gurême". Something of what made Raymond so special shines through in his closing words at the 2016 Dikh He Na Bister event in Auschwitz-Birkenau:
“My testimony is for young people. Don’t leave your future to the hands of bloody fools. You must resist. You must resist the discrimination, racism, violent evictions to which the Roma and Travellers are falling victim across all of Europe. We, the old ones have lit the flame. Now, it is up to young people to feed it, make it grow, and so that we become stronger. Young people, stand up! Stay standing, and never fall to your knees!"