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A modern Gypsy folktale

Nearly half a century after we met in Germany, Philomena, the first to write about the Nazi persecution of the Roma people, is still going strong at 100
'Zwischen Liebe und Hass - Ein Zeitzeugen-Interview mit Philomena Franz.' (screenshot, YouTube, uploaded by Rheinisch-Bergischer Kreis, January 26, 2021)
'Zwischen Liebe und Hass - Ein Zeitzeugen-Interview mit Philomena Franz.' (screenshot, YouTube, uploaded by Rheinisch-Bergischer Kreis, January 26, 2021)

My eye caught the unusual headline: Gypsy speaks to German schoolchildren.

Spread across two lines, informing the reader of a Gypsy woman who was visiting schools, narrating her people’s folk tales to German pupils. No more details — oh, yes, a telephone number.

We were living temporarily in Bonn. At the time, the charming small town was still the capital of West Germany. This was in the ’70s, before the unification with East Germany, before Berlin was crowned the capital. My husband was an emissary at the Israeli embassy and I was sending features to the Paris edition of the International Herald Tribune.

This sounds like a story for me, I thought, losing no time to dial the printed number. I told the voice on the other end, speaking in unaccented German, that I wanted to interview her. She surprised me with, “Sind Sie juedisch?”(Are you Jewish?) Ja, I replied, and a rushed voice beckoned: “Then come over.”

We set a date. I took two local trains to arrive at her village, located not far from Cologne, a city noted for its cathedral, its rich musical life, and its destruction during World War II. A total of 34,711 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, in 262 separate air raids by the Allies.

Arriving at my destination, I rang the bell of a small two-story building. A tall, handsome, 50-ish woman welcomed me into a modest living room filled with antique furniture and faded portraits. Large windows opened on a generous garden full of flowers and fruit-bearing trees. “We Gypsies — Sinti and Roma — need to live near nature. I regret that we adopted the habit of living in apartments, squeezed into four walls. We need open air to breathe, to live.” [NOTE: Instead of the generic term, “Gypsy,” which today may connote something derogatory, the term Roma is used. Both the Sinti and Roma tribes (collectively called Roma) trace their origins to India; Sintis, to which this woman, Philomena belongs, settled in Western Europe, including Germany, in the 15th century, while the Roma had reached Hungary and other Eastern European countries earlier, and remained there. The language of both is called Romany].

Philomena Franz showed me to a seat, offered coffee, and spoke about her stormy life. She recalls the happy years of her youth — as a child, she traveled with her parents and seven siblings to entertain European spectators. They were a theatrical troupe — her father, a cellist; her mother, a singer; her siblings played the drums and various other instruments. Philomena sang in her native language, Romany, and danced. The large troupe included her mother’s eight siblings, all of them married, all parents of musical children. En route, they wound their way, in 20 or 30 wagon caravans.

“We traveled the length and breadth of Europe, performing tragedies or operettas with life-size marionettes.” They appeared on the famous stages of, among others, the Paris Lido and Winter Gardens in Berlin.

“We were then totally free, seeing the world, developing our artistic know-how, meeting various people in different countries.”

That total freedom of her youth ended for Philomena in the late ’30s, when, returning from a performance in Paris, the group was stopped and all of the musical instruments of the entire company were confiscated. Shortly thereafter, the family’s passports were taken away. She was expelled from her Stuttgart high school. Deportation to Auschwitz followed. Her parents, five of her siblings, as well as an uncle, aunt, and nephew were murdered by the Nazis.

She points to the indelible number grafted in her skin “by the little men of Auschwitz.” She was 21 when she was incarcerated, in March 1943. Her first attempt at escape earned her a beating and four weeks in an isolation cell existing on water and one piece of bread a day.

The second attempt was more successful.

Philomena managed to escape with the help of a concentration camp worker who gave her special pliers to cut the electric fence. She spent the night walking in the fields to get as far away from the concentration camp as possible. In the morning, a farmer found her and gave her a temporary shelter, saving her life. “This, too, must be said,” she stresses. “There was very little humanity in those days. But you could still find some who had compassion and a sense of decency.”

As she tells me all this, she picks up some typed-up sheets. “This is where I describe all that in writing. My autobiography. I am looking for a publisher.”

* * *

The meeting with this vibrant extraordinary woman took place almost half a century ago.

I often wondered what happened to Philomena. I wondered whether she was still alive.

So I pressed the magic Google search button, looking for her name. Surprise! She was alive. Her name was all over the page. She had become famous! One-hundred years-old and still going strong! She was an author — a Gypsy author! The first to describe the Gypsy concentration camp experience. In 1982, her collection of stories appeared under the title, Gypsy Tales.

Three years later, she found a publisher for her autobiography called, Between Love and Hate – A Gypsy Life. Philomena wrote in German, “We do not want to write down our language.” She declared with unexpected vehemence, “We do not want to share it. It is a kind of secret language that helps to protect us.”

She lost her parents in Mauthausen and three of her brothers in other concentration camps. Her husband, who died some years after liberation, succumbed to an illness contracted in a concentration camp. He had lost his first wife and five children in the gas chambers. Altogether, an estimated 500,000 Gypsies were slain by the Nazis.

“When my ancestors came [to this area] in the 15th century, we came not as poor people. We were musicians and artists.” But the Germans were suspicious of these unknown swarthy people who lived outdoors and spoke a strange tongue. In German-speaking Europe, no fewer than 68 edicts persecuting Gypsies were passed between the years 1701 and 1750. (I began to understand why she asked whether I was Jewish).

Philomena’s friends today are people from the academic world in Cologne “and all the Gypsies in this area.” Not a day goes by, she says, without friends coming to her large house with the huge garden, where she grows all sorts of flowers and herbs without which she “could not breathe.” “We are easy, informal, one big family,” she says. “When our friends come, they go to the kitchen and help themselves to anything in the refrigerator. We value the human far more than the material. Above all, we love our children – they are the holy of holies. We let them grow up freely, without restraints. And we get respect from them. A Gypsy family will never send an elderly mother or father to an old age home. We stay together.”

A young man enters the room. “My son,” she says proudly. “He lives on the floor above. He builds organs and plays many instruments. “I have thought of emigrating to Australia,” he confides. We have well-to-do relatives there. But my mother is not yet ready to leave. She feels her mission is not yet fulfilled.”

In Germany today, Philomena Franz, aged 100, is a veritable media celebrity, frequently interviewed on radio and television stations. A story-writing Gypsy of a people known for its oral tradition. The first to have recorded her people’s plight in a Nazi concentration camp. A phenomenon.

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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