Kickass Women in History: Philomena Franz

This month in Kickass Women, let’s talk about Philomena Franz, a Romani author and activist. The Romani have a complex history and culture. I am not an expert on Romani history and I’ve noticed that even among Romani writers there isn’t always consensus about certain words.

According to Time Magazine,

Roma and Sinti people, often derogatorily referred to as “gypsies,” are members of an ethnic group with deep roots across Europe. While Sinti are of Western and Central Europe origin, Roma are those of Eastern and South Eastern Europe origin. The term Roma is often used to describe this community as a whole.

TW for genocide and racism.

The term Romani (or Romany, or Roma) refers to an Indo-Aryan group of people who traditionally live a nomadic lifestyle. Within this large group there are many sub-groups and of course countless variations in beliefs, customs, and lifestyles. Philomena Franz was a member of a Sinti group which, during Franz’s lifetime, lived in Germany and Northern Italy.

The Sintis, as well as other Romani, were targeted for genocide by the Nazi regime. Romani people were subjected to repressive laws and practices including forced sterilization and deportation as well as murder and imprisonment. Many of the Sinti were imprisoned in a special camp inside Auschwitz-Birkenau, where on August 2, 1944, 4000 Sinti and other Romani people were murdered in a single night. Calculating the total number of Roma killed by the Nazis is difficult but it is estimated that between 25% – 50% of the total European Roma population was killed, and some estimates are much higher.

One of the Auschwitz survivors was Philomena Franz. She was born in 1922 to a family of musicians. She sang and danced with her family’s group until their passports and instruments were confiscated. Romarchive.eu describes her wartime imprisonment and escape:

This life of creativity and freedom ended in the late 1930s when her family’s passports and later their instruments were confiscated, and in 1943 Franz was deported to Auschwitz. After one failed attempt to escape from Ravensbrück, Franz succeeded in escaping from a camp near Wittenberge in 1945 and, with the help of a German farmer, managed to stay alive and hidden.

When the war was over, Philomena returned to performing and married Oscar Franz. They had five children. Franz suffered for years from nightmares, claustrophobia, and depression. Romani people continued to be discriminated against in Germany after WWII, and while the atrocities against Jews were well known, very few people spoke of the genocide against the Romani. Their experience is referred to as “The Forgotten Holocaust.” As Rachael Bunyan writes in Time Magazine:

It wasn’t until 1982 that Germany officially recognized the persecution against Roma as a genocide based on race. France apologized for its collaboration in Nazi crimes against Roma and Sinti in 2016.

Franz was silent about her own experiences until her son became a victim of racist bullying for being Sinti. Franz began speaking out at schools and elsewhere about her experience and the persecution of the Roma. Educating the public about the Nazi’s attempts to eliminate all Roma became Franz’s full time passion and mission. Here is what she wrote about telling her story to children:

And the children grasped that immediately. Their eyes immediately, I saw how their eyes and their faces changed. And then they said: but why, why did they do such a thing, no, they shouldn’t have done that.

Franz wrote her first book, a book of fairy tales for children, in 1980. It was full of original stories written to introduce children to Sinti culture and history. She also wrote poetry and essays. Franz’s memoir, Zwischen Liebe und Hass – Ein Zigeunerleben (published in English as Winter Time) was the first memoir about the Holocaust to be published by a Romani.

Philomena Franz looks, smiling, at camera

In her book, Franz describes her experiences during WWII, the loss of almost all of her family members, and the power of writing to heal trauma.

She also talks about her life before and after the camps, and her own ideas and beliefs about Romani identity. In the words she chooses, she claims a marginalized cultural heritage with pride:

We all have a right, even today, to talk about our suffering. In order to find ourselves again, to honour the victims, to tell the younger/growing up generation: this is how it was. So that such a thing can never happen again. I have written this book as a Gypsy; as a gypsy woman from the Sinti tribe.

Philomena Franz is famous for her writing as well as her speaking about the Romani Holocaust in schools and other locations. She is still speaking out today, and has won many awards for her writing and her activism. As a Romani Holocaust witness, she speaks of painful things, but also of hope, of people who helped her, and of the ability art to heal trauma. In her words:

If we hate, we lose. If we love, we become rich.

I went down a lot of rabbit holes for this post, but in addition to sources linked to above, the most helpful sources were:

Rachael Bunyan, “The Persecution of the Roma Is Often Left Out of the Holocaust Story. Victims’ Families Are Fighting to Change That”

Philomena Franz, Wikipedia (thank you, Google translate!)

Forgotten Victims

Marianne C. Zwicker, Journeys into Memory: Romani Identity and the Holocaust in Autobiographical Writing by German and Austrian Romanies

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Karin says:

    My ex-mother-in-law was half Romani, and back then the word Gypsy was not necessarily derogatory, that was what she called herself. She spent the war years in Vienna, and maybe because her father was Austrian, and she didn’t dress in traditional clothes or follow the nomadic lifestyle, she avoided getting sent to a concentration camp. But she did get kicked out of her job(she was ballet dancer with the Vienna Opera) after the Anschluss for not being Aryan enough.

  2. 2
    Kareni says:

    Thank you, Carrie, for your informative post. And thank you, Karin, for your comment.

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