A jazz musician from Germany's centuries old ethnic minority group, Janko Lauenberger says he and his community once again feel vulnerable in the face of militant far-right.
To many around the world, Germany's far-right problem was borne out of the migration of over a million people mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2015, and a perceived threat to freedom, Christian values, social cohesion and the welfare system. But to many who live in the country, Germany's far-right problem goes back to much earlier times and is more widespread than usually thought.
On the night of September 9, 1938, in a small town on the Baltic coast, 91 Jews were killed as the then German authorities looked on. The Kristallnacht got its tragic name from the shards of broken glass which littered the streets after Jewish owned businesses and synagogues were smashed by the Nazis. That night, in the eyes of many historians, was the soft beginning of what later became the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Many offer their grief and condolences on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. What is surprising is there are some who don’t, and speak with a far right counter narrative. It’s quiet, with carefully chosen words, but its very presence should be ringing alarm bells to professors of social cohesion.
This year the Berlin state government banned a planned rally on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, organised by the far-right Wir fur Deutschland party, only to see it reinstated following an appeal.
And it is this, thinly veiled anti-Semitism, as much of the country marked a very solemn night – this far-right rally comes as a slap on the face. While Germany has moved heaven and earth to teach its future generations the horrors of the Holocaust – at the same time, anti-Semitic attacks across the country have risen sharply.
So to kill a wrongly placed perception, that Merkel's open door policy was the reason for the rise of Germany's far-right is absolute claptrap.
Ede und Unku
"Look, look, look," Janko Lauenberger says, "look it’s a little blonde boy, playing with a dark haired child."
It was this cursory glance, while on his way to buy cigarettes from his local corner shop, which took Lauenberger back three decades.
"I very clearly remember," he says, "I was as young as these boys, and I had a good friend who I used to play with in my apartment building, who was a blonde boy with blue eyes, and I was a young boy with dark hair and brown eyes."
"One day we were playing, when it started to rain, and we decided to go to his house to play, so when we got to his door, he knocked, his mother opened the door, and asked him to come in so that she could talk to him – I was waiting outside," Janko continues, "I will never forget this. I remember it very clearly, I heard it, his mother told him, I don’t want you to bring these brown boys to our house, and I was politely told by the mother that my friend couldn't play with me that day and that I should go to my house."
Lauenberger is a 42 year old accomplished Jazz musician from the Sinti community; his community has roots in Germany going back nearly 600 years. Janko has also authored a book about the travails of the Sinti Roma community, from the time before the Nazis till now. The Sinti used to be a community of travellers, tracing their roots back to India, more specifically the Punjab, Rajasthan, Thar and Sind region.
Lauenberger isn't the first; his story comes much later in the long list of grievances of the Roma and Sinti community. Just a few weeks after Kristallnacht, November 26, 2018 marked 75 years since the start of the Nazi genocide against the Sinti and Roma peoples.
In 1943, soon after the Sinti and Roma were deemed racially inferior by the Nazi regime, they were sent in their thousands to concentration camps.
Today, like Lauenberger, Germany's 70,000 – 100,000 Sinti and Roma people have stories which would bring a tear to many an eye.
Lauenberger's mother raised him and his siblings narrating them macabre stories of the Holocaust, of all those people in their community who were killed or deported. From the stories of distant relatives who got separated from their families (and no one ever heard from them again) to stories of those who were forced to hide and live undercover to escape mass murder--he heard it all.
While the Holocaust and the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews is well documented and constantly remembered, there was an attempt to whitewash the Nazi crimes against the Sinti and the Roma.
And now in an attempt to highlight those very crimes, the Holocaust of the Roma and Sinti has its own name, 'Porajmos' – means 'the devouring'.
During the Nazi regime, nearly 23,000 German Roma and Sinti were sent to Auschwitz alone, of which 19,000 died. Thousands more were sent off to other concentration camps across Germany.
In total, historians estimate, up to 500,000 Roma and Sinti people were killed during the Holocaust. It was only in 1982 that West Germany recognised that the Nazis had conducted genocide against the Roma people. Today, a few plaques dot the country in memory of Roma and Sinti, who were killed in the Holocaust.
Dr. Karola Fings, a historian and author of the book 'Sinti and Roma: History of a minority' says that the belittling of the Roma and the Sinti started immediately after the fall of the Nazi regime. Dr. Fings wrote in her book that before the Nazi regime, the Sinti and the Roma lived an assimilated life with relatively better income and living standards, but all this soon disappeared after the rise of the Nazis.
"You can see it in their eyes," says Lauenberger, "it’s a disdain that many wear across their faces. But he's quick to point out that of course not all of them are like that. But it’s the disdain which affects their daily lives, their sense of self-worth."
A Pew Research Center study, conducted in 2016 of German public opinion, suggested higher unfavourable views existed towards the Sinti and Roma than any other minority group.
It was tragedies like these, which made many of Lauenberger's kin to present a more assimilated look to the wider community; his family adopted a new 'familienname', or family name, Lauenberger, in an attempt to escape discrimination.
Lady in the window
Lauenberger's book, “Ede und Unku, a true story”, takes its inspiration from another story told 70 years ago. Ede and Unku were two children very similar to those Lauenberger came across near the corner store.
Their story is based on the observations of an older woman, peering out of a window. Grete Weiskopf, used to watch a Sinti boy play with an ethnically German boy from her window.
She was so fascinated at the sight that she decided to write a story about the children.
It’s important to note here that Ede and Unku grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or more commonly known as the former East Germany.
And the reason for old lady's fascination was that the GDR was perhaps one of the most isolated territories with social, political and cultural links only with the former USSR and other communist countries.
And till today, majority of those who grew up in former East Germany, have political leanings towards the right or even the far-right.
A vast majority of Germans understand that many of their countrymen suffer from the racism problem. A report by Infratest dimap, a highly reputable polling institute in Germany, suggests nearly 64 percent of Germans think that their country either has a problem or a major problem with regards to racism.
In the middle of his rant, Lauenberger recalls another anecdote, this time from deep in Brandenburg, heartland of the right-wing Alternative for Deutschland party, "I was playing guitar as part of a band at a Christmas party, we were playing a very famous old song, and after we finished, a middle-aged couple came up to me and asked me about the song, and when I told them that it’s an old song, by a very famous singer, they very casually remarked – "oh, Adolf Hitler must have heard it too."
Comments like these reveal cracks in German society. Lauenberger was shocked by the couple's remark, as any mention of the former Nazi leader in Germany is seriously frowned upon. It’s almost as if the collective guilt of a nation is threatened by the mere mention of a name.
Germany is going through an identity crisis, where an overwhelming majority of Germans live in constant fear of which way minority far-right voting Germans are taking the country. And now, with Chancellor Angela Merkel deciding against staying in political office any longer than the current term, a deep uncertainty has set in with most here.
And this uncertainty and anxiety lingers more so with ethnic minorities than any other.
Lauenberger is just one in a community of nearly a million in Germany; many others have their own stories.
But, had it not been for every counter far-right wing protest and an untiring effort by left-wing campaigners and anti-fascist groups, ethnic minorities in this country would have been living in absolute desolation.