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Tensions Simmer Over Holocaust Payments

Romanian Gypsies await compensation for years spent as slave laborers in World War II. Many failed to apply in time and will miss out.

June 13, 2004|Anca Teodorescu | Associated Press Writer

MUNTENI, Romania — Things quickly got out of hand. Dozens of Gypsies clamored to meet with human rights activists helping them win compensation for being forced into slave labor under Romania's Nazi-allied regime during World War II.

Windows were broken and angry words shouted before the crowd realized its mistake: The visitors were journalists, not lawyers who had come to document their claims for compensation.

That a rumor could nearly touch off a riot underscores the tensions simmering in Gypsy communities in Romania as people wait for money -- or at least news on whether they qualify.

The program, paid for by the German government and private industry, is the first to compensate Gypsies, or Roma as they are known, for their suffering in the Holocaust. Payments are only now starting to arrive.

Those waiting -- like Diamanta Stanescu, 77, who lives in the nearby village of Liesti, 140 miles northeast of the capital, Bucharest -- fear that they may remain forgotten.

Sitting with 15 other members of her clan in a room illuminated by a single light bulb, she wept at the memory of a youth lost in wartime concentration camps. Her father, a brother and a sister were shot by German soldiers near a river in Ukraine.

"We left as beautiful as roses and we came back naked, starving and full of mud," she said.

Stanescu was among 25,000 Gypsies deported by the Nazi-allied Romanian authorities to what was then the German-occupied part of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Romanian Jews also went to the camps.

Most of the deportees died, mainly from hunger and typhus, but executions and other brutalities also took a heavy toll.

The Gypsies were used as slaves by the Nazis and their allies, forced to work on farms, fix roads, dig trenches and fell trees behind the front lines.

About 5,900 Romanian Gypsies applied for compensation, says the International Organization for Migration, which handled applications for non-Jewish victims in most European countries. Only survivors and heirs of deportees who died after Feb. 15, 1999, were eligible.

A relatively modest amount by Western standards -- less than $10,000 in most cases-- the compensation looms large for impoverished Gypsies living on less than a few dollars a day.

But, although decades had passed, the trauma of the experience was so pervasive that some survivors feared they could be persecuted again if they were to be identified by applying for compensation.

"Many of them were afraid," said Viorica Gotu, a social worker who helped process claims. "They thought we came to make lists to deport them again."

Some didn't apply for the funds. Now that payments have begun arriving, they regret their reticence and have been trying to make claims. But it's too late, the International Organization for Migration says.

The German law establishing the program set a 2001 filing deadline, said Marie-Agnes Heine, a public information officer for IOM's compensation programs in Geneva. Even though the organization sympathizes with those left out, she said, "at a certain point of time, you have to close the door."

Rancu Stanescu, 84, who is not related to Diamanta Stanescu, is one of those anxious to live his remaining days in peace.

He was deported to the camps when he was 22 and worked as a slave for 2 1/2 years. Telling of the beatings and the starvation, his voice dropped and tears flowed. "Out of hunger, when we saw someone die, we would run over and cut a piece of meat out of him and eat it," he said, clutching a walking stick.

He's one of the lucky ones, having received a first installment of $7,000 toward his compensation. He said he used the money to buy food.

Diamanta Stanescu is just hoping that something comes to her family before she dies.

"This is funeral money, because I am old," she said. "Without the money, when I die, no one will help me."

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