Sunday, January 17, 2010
Interview with Gypsy Scholar Sonia Meyer: An activist and novelist with a dramatic past.
Interview by Doug Holder
Sonia Meyer was born in 1938 in Cologne, Germany. Her first memory is not of some beatific childhood scene. It was of her mother dressing her to flee her home after fellow opponents of the Nazis had been strung up by a nearby neighborhood overpass and left dangling for all to see. Mother and daughter vanished into the forests of Germany to escape the Nazis. As a child she learned to throw grenades—she carried messages to Partisan men, who were camped out to fight the Germans.
Meyer has witnessed the Holocaust from two perspectives: the Jews and the Gypsies. During World War 11, in her time in the forests hiding from the Nazis, she witnessed the mysterious Gypsies. They were proud, defiant, and outsiders—perfect targets for the Germans. She remembers a wizened, sage-like Gypsy woman who told her and her mother that they would survive the war. She has drawn on her fascinating experiences in a new novel that she has penned: “Dosha.” It is to be released by the Wilderness House Press in the spring of 2010. I spoke with Meyer on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Sonia—you have told me that you have lived much of your life like a Gypsy, how so?
Sonia Meyer: Well first of all during the War we constantly moved. And afterwords I was rescued from Germany by an Italian uncle. We moved constantly between the States, Italy, and the rest of Europe. When I was first married I lived in Finland. And when I divorced I really travelled all over the world. I had enough knowledge to make a living. I was able to go to one country to another. I had many different professions.
DH: In an article by Susie Davidson in “The Jewish Advocate” you talk about the Gypsies and the Jews during the Nazi era: “Here are two European minorities. They are almost opposite in their culture. But they were both persecuted, albeit for different reasons, and both continued to be viewed as outsiders.”
Describe how the Nazi’s viewed both groups---how are Gypsies and Jews almost opposite in culture?
SM: Jews are a very literate culture. The whole culture revolves around the Torah. Education plays a major role in Jewish life. The Gypsies are an oral culture.—right from the beginning. They never left any traces of their past. They are great poets. But their poetry is for one particular occasion, and then forgotten. There was one famous poet, a Polish Gypsy by the name of: Papuzsa. She was the first Gypsy poet to actually publish her poetry. She became famous but then discarded by the Gypsies. The Gypsies don’t want non-Gypsies to know any part of their lives.
The Nazis viewed the Jews with envy. This is the worst of all hatreds. The Jews were powerful—they were famous in academia—they had famous artists, and frankly I think Hitler needed money for his War. I think this was an excuse to kill the Jews.
The Germans had a romantic view of the Gypsies. They viewed them as free and footloose. They were artistic and their music went straight to the German heart. They especially liked the nomadic Gypsies. The partially integrated Gypsies were persecuted more rigorously. So it was a love/hate relationship with the Gypsies. They lured them—gently-into concentration camps. At first they lured them with call for employment—there was no work.
DH: How many Gypsies were killed?
SM: Estimates vary. Of course many were not registered as citizens. Estimates were everywhere from 250,000 to a million and a half. That was 75% of the whole Gypsy population. There seems to be 12 million Gypsies living in Europe. So they really came back as a population. They have a very high birthrate.
DH: Why is that?
SM: Well, to the Gypsy children are the greatest wealth of all. So they marry very young. The girls used to marry as young as age 12. To the Gypsy, children are everything.
DH: The Russians were liberators—but they were often no better than the Nazis, with rape and pillaging, etc…
SM: The Germans did what they did in a very, cold and calculating way. The Russians had lost 25 million people in World War 11.
DH: You are releasing a novel “Dosha” published by the Wilderness House Press in the Spring of 2010. Can you tell us about it?
SM: Dosha is the story of the Lovara, a nomadic Russian Gypsy tribe of horse dealers. They were considered the aristocrats of the Gypsies, because the horse is holy to the Gypsies. And the Gypsies lived freely in the Soviet Union up to the time of Khrushchev. The book first tells the story when the tribe was roaming freely. Later they were trapped and standardized into the Soviet system by Khrushchev. They planned to escape. This is the story of the tribe. And Dosha is the granddaughter of a powerful Lovara king. By legend she is supposes to be the next leader.