In September 2014, Raymond Gurême, an 89 years old survivor of the persecutions of Roma in France during World War II, was physically assaulted in his home by a French policeman. The incident was reported in international media. He is still waiting for justice. When he visited Brussels, invited to talk at a conference in the European Parliament at the occasion of the forthcoming International Roma Day on April 8, The Brussels Times met with him for an interview.
Q: Please tell us first about yourself and your family?
A: I was born in 1925 in France, in a place about 25 km south of Paris. My parents were also born in France. We call ourselves “travelers” because in the past we used to travel around in France with an itinerant cinema and circus that my parents owned. During the Second World War our normal life came to an abrupt end. We were all arrested by the French authorities and placed in internment camps which were guarded by French police. There were only Roma prisoners in these camps. They were located in France but personally I was also deported to a disciplinary camp in Germany.
My parents and the rest of my family remained in the camps during the whole war. When they were liberated they were very ill. They had lost all their property. I managed to escape nine times from different camps and joined the Resistance. I participated in the liberation of Paris in August 1944 and still have scars in my arm from a bullet. After the war I married and raised a family. I have 15 children and many grandchildren. I have a house but prefer to live in a caravan which stands on my own private land. As a small business, I used to breed pony horses and travel around in France with them for people to ride. I still work a bit with horses.
Most Roma who were interned in the camps survived the war. But a few hundreds French Roma were deported to the Nazi transit camp in Mechelen, Belgium. From there they were sent, together with more than 25 000 Belgian Jews, to their death in Auschwitz.
Q: How did you manage to escape from the camps?
A: I think that it was because I was so acrobatic since I started to perform in circus as a small child. I always managed to squeeze out from cells. Once I was locked up for one month in an isolation cell in total darkness with my hands handcuffed behind. It was a punishment for trying to help a little boy asking for food in the food queue. A gendarme hit me and broke my nose. I managed to free myself from the handcuffs and escape from the isolation cell, bleeding as pieces of flesh had been ripped off. I was hiding in a tree the whole night when the policemen were looking for me. There is statue in Bretigny showing a boy hiding in a tree. That’s me.
Q: As a Roma, how were you received by the other members of the Resistance?
A: There was no difference. We all fought against the Nazi occupation of our country.
During the Second World War, French police cooperated with the Nazi-German occupiers in rounding up Jews and sending them to the death camps. It took many years for France to come to grips with the Holocaust perpetrated on French soil and to recognize its responsibility.
When it comes to recognizing the Roma suffering there is still a long way to go. Only in 2009 did Raymond start to receive a small pension from the French authorities for his imprisonment during the war, 26 years after he had applied for it. A proposal for EU recognition of August 2, the memorial day of the Roma genocide, will be submitted to the vote in the European Parliament in April.
Q: After the war, did things change to the better for Roma in France?
A: No, on the contrary, things are getting worse all the time.
Q: In September 2014 you were assaulted by a French policeman in your caravan. Can you tell us what happened?
My caravan is located just opposite the previous internment camp which is still a closed military area. There is no sign there informing about what happened during the war. Maybe my presence is seen as a provocation. During the years I have been constantly harassed by the police. In the first years it was the same policemen who had been guards in the camp. It then became a kind of habit among the local police to come and harass me and my family. But what happened on 23 September last year was the most violent incident. I was physically attacked and beaten by a policeman belonging to BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminality).
Q: Has the French police apologized?
A: Not at all. The police think that I “insulted” them by publishing a book about my life two years ago with the help of a French journalist. The book is called “Interdit aux Nomades”. In the book I wrote that “Vichy is coming up again”. They didn’t like that, but what I’m saying is the truth. For this book I received the medal ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ by the minister of culture.
Vichy was the capital of the French puppet state during the Nazi occupation of France.
Q: Has there been a trial and what was the verdict?
A: The process is dragging on. It’s difficult to get justice. Immediately after what happened, I complained to the gendarmerie. I was refused an examination of my injuries by a police doctor. I went to my own doctor and received a certificate confirming the injuries I had suffered. Only a month later was I examined by a forensic doctor who confirmed that I had been injured. But the public prosecutor decided that there was no proof to indict anyone. My sons, however, who tried to protect me, were sentenced. They have appealed the decision. Now we are considering turning to an independent investigating judge. We’ll also complain to the Ombudsman (Défenseur des droits).
Raymond is a lively and courageous man who doesn’t give up easily and is prepared to fight against the French judiciary. From where does he get his strength? “After I have survived so many times during the Second World War, what is happening now cannot scare me. I believe I’m protected by a divine power. Although I have lost my faith in justice, I must fight for the sake of the young generations.”
Q: Police brutality happens in every country. What happened to you, could it happen to any French citizen or was it because you are Roma?
A: It can happen to everyone, not only Roma. But people belonging to minority groups are more vulnerable. We need the police to protect us and fight crime – but they should do their job properly within the law and without using excessive force which cannot be justified.
In recent years, France has a dismal record of brutal destruction of Roma camps and evictions of Roma immigrants.
Q: On a more positive note, do you have a good advice for living a long and healthy life?
A: In short: Act morally and keep your integrity. Be positive to life. Dare to do things. Never give up. If you fall down, get up on your feet again and stand up-right.
By Mose Apelblat