Friday, 8 March, 2013

To mark International Women’s Day 2013, we are looking at the life of the inspirational Ceija Stojka, who died earlier this year. Ceija used writing and art to raise awareness of the attempted annihilation of Roma people by the Nazis.

Ceija was born in 1933 in Austria into a Roma family of the Lovara tribe, a Roma group traditionally consisting of horse traders, which meant she travelled throughout Europe, she was one of six children. However, 1933 was also the year that Hitler rose to power in Germany which meant that things were about to change drastically for the family.

In 1941, Ceija’s father was deported to the Dachau concentration camp. He was then transferred to the Hartheim Euthanasia Centre where he was killed. The rest of the extended Stojka family was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where most were murdered straight away in the gas chambers. Out of 200 members of her extended family, only five survived; Ceija, her mother and four of five brothers.

When her family arrived in Auschwitz, her mother lied to the SS, telling them that Ceija was 16 but small for her age, when Ceija was actually 10 years old. This meant that she was old enough to work in the forced labour section of the camp, and saved her life. Months later Ceija, her mother and her sister were chosen as part of a group who were to go to Ravensbrück, a women’s only camp. Ceija’s mother again risked her own life to help another woman in their barrack, by disguising the woman’s son as a girl so that the mother and child could stay together. Ceija’s mother greatly influenced Ceija’s life both during their time in the concentration camps and throughout the rest of her life.

After the war, Ceija returned to Austria with her brother and sister and made her living selling carpets. In 1986 at the age of 56, she began to paint; and her experiences were central to the themes of her work. She said,

I remember Auschwitz every waking moment of my life.

Her work focused on the trauma of her experiences, whether through written stories or visual representation, as a way of facing the past and creating a dialogue to challenging discrimination and hatred today. The images often depict the camps but also of pre Holocaust, Romani life.

She also wrote one of the first Roma autobiographical accounts of the Porrajmos, which means ‘devouring’ and is the term used to describe the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) population. Ceija’s book We Live in Seclusion: The Memories of a Romani, released in 1988, helped to raise awareness in Europe of the attempted annihilation of the Roma by the Nazis. Her autobiography and her paintings brought to light these previously unknown experiences in what was an innovative way at the time. Ceija’s autobiography was forward thinking in another way too: in traditional Lovara society her writing was a breach of a taboo. Drawing other’s attention to oneself was considered a man’s job and was only accepted for women if they were asked to do so. However, Ceija felt that it was fundamentally important that others were made aware of the persecution experienced by herself, her family and many other Roma Gypsies, at the hands of the Nazis.

Ceija’s art work has been exhibited throughout Europe, in Japan and the U.S. In 2005 the Jewish Museum of Vienna organized an exhibition and in 2010 her artwork was exhibited in America. The Budapest-based, European Roma Cultural Foundation described Ceija Stoika, as

An outstanding Austrian Romani woman, and a key figure for the history, art, and literature of Romani culture in Europe.

Ceija herself said;

If the world does not change now, if the world does not open its doors and windows, if it does not build peace – true peace – so that my great-grandchildren have a chance to live in this world, then I cannot explain why I survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Ravensbrück.

On International Women’s Day 2013 we can read Cejia’s story and reflect on a woman who experienced terrible trauma during her childhood and went on to utilize her life experiences to help us challenge contemporary discrimination today. Cejia was a woman who broke taboos in her own community because she was impassioned by the importance of the world knowing about the persecution of Roma people. Her story reminds us of the importance of honouring survivors who have lived through these terrible experiences and regimes of hatred. It is through understanding their stories that we can try to learn from their experiences, in order to take action to create a more open and tolerant society today and a safer future for us all.

Photograph © By Manfred Werner – Tsui GNU