“It’s not just an Arab neighbourhood,” the tour guide told the crowd assembled around her. Pointing to a woman wearing a brightly coloured headscarf, asking passersby for change, she said: “Many Roma live here too.”
It was an awkward moment. In the midst of all the diversity in the neighbourhood, she had to single out one of its weakest members. Why the Roma stood out, given the similarity of her clothing with Muslim women’s couture, when they could have flagged one of the growing number of Central Africans here, only the guide would know.
Such is the fate of one of Germany’s longest-standing minorities, who, like the Jewish community, have been a part of the national fabric for millennia. Despite that, Roma and Sinti still signify outsiders to whites in ways in which more recent migrants, of West Asian and African origin, do not.
There’s no avoiding the sense that there is something racist about it, in keeping with the mistreatment of Roma in the country, most significantly during the Second World War. “Hitler’s other Jews,” as a human rights activist I know once described them, the Nazis liquidated nearly half a million in the death camps.
As a member of the more commonly recognised victims of the Nazi genocide, I’ve always felt ashamed at the extent to which our misfortune clouds the persecution of the Roma. That they suffered fewer losses than us does not in any way mean they had it any easier. The hatred was equal. It was the perception of their threat that was different.
“Outsiders within the bourgeoisie,” as the sociologist Max Horkheimer once described Germany’s Jews, we’d encroached the country’s so-called Second Estate, barging in on turf that had historically been monopolised by white, God-fearing Catholic and Protestant Germans.
The growing Jewish presence in the professions and government, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was a harbinger of contemporary German diversity, one which has far fewer Jews to speak of. Our substitutes are Arabs and Turks, and southern Europeans, all of whom arouse the same kinds of antagonism, without the same results.
The only community that continues to exist in the country in a similarly marginalised role, routinely discriminated against by local governments and media, are the Roma and Sinti. The sheer numbers of them sleeping rough, begging on the streets, on public transport, even in restaurants, suggests little has changed.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, newspapers have been rife with stories about unfair quarantining of Roma, as well as discriminatory actions taken against them, out of fear that they’re super spreaders. The fact that some Roma communities, including in my neighbourhood, have been struck hard by the virus, has not helped.
The idea that certain ethnic and cultural groups are symbolically unclean, prone to infecting others with debilitating illnesses, is vile. But, if you were already at-risk before the pandemic, due to poverty and to racism, it makes sense that your marginality gets held against you when public health goes south. Hence, the Roma.
Germany has a special obligation to compensate the Roma, in all the same ways it has tried to redress the plight of other communities who suffered under the Nazis. But that doesn’t mean that the Germans are the only responsible party. Wherever else you go in Europe, their plight tends to be the same. It’s only the history of their mistreament that varies.
As is the case with many minority communities, women tend to signify diversity in ways that men don’t. Part of that has to do with more traditional forms of dress, or the relegation of women to labour roles on the street like begging. Roma men don’t stand out in the same way, and, depending on where in Europe they come from, are often mistaken for Middle Easterners.
The photographs in this article are of Roma women, in the heavily Arab and Turkish Berlin borough of Neukölln. Their framing reflects the ways in which I encounter them as I go about my daily affairs, shopping, walking my dog, taking the U-Bahn. There’s always something that speaks to their inequality in what they’re doing and how Roma appear.
Often derided for staging their marginality, and hustling their oppression on purpose, I make a point of ignoring these kinds of criticisms. Staged or not, the inequality that’s being communicated is still objective. No one likes to look at poor people. It’s hard to imagine anyone would pay attention if there wasn’t something truthful about it.
Being discriminated against is dramatic, after all. Especially to minorities who’ve experienced the same.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.