"When it came time for the Gypsies to die," says Nicholas Tene, "they cursed the Nazis and spit in their faces. You could hear the cries of the Gypsies at Auschwitz over the cries of everyone else."
Yesterday, 40 years after the Nazis "liquidated" the Auschwitz Gypsy Camp, Tene and a dozen other American Gypsies gathered in a tiny park across from the Holiday Inn at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW. They wore the uniforms of concentration camp prisoners, and stood at the base of a tall statue. Then two of them conducted the Gypsy ceremony for the dead.
Tradition called for pouring whiskey over the earth, but these mourners used pitchers of water from a hotel meeting room.They had rented their striped pajamas and caps from a theatrical costume shop. The statue, facing away from the ceremony, was the figure of Daniel Webster.
The whole affair, like most things Gypsy, was done in the spirit of improvisation.
The mourners, ranging from 12-year-old Adam Tene, Nicholas' nephew, to 78-year-old Steve Bimbo, the reputed King of the Gypsies, came hastily for the ceremony, from as far away as Washington State. They had also come to demand representation on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which has been planning the $100-million Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall.
The council has 65 members, most of them presidential appointees, including Jews, Armenians, Poles and blacks -- but no Gypsies. Some of the Gypsies blame the council for not inviting them. Others blame themselves for not asking to be included.
Seymour Siegel, executive director of the council, says there are no openings, in any case. "They have some cockamamie idea, which I would not support, of asking certain members of the council to leave. Or else getting legislation passed to add members. The council is too unwieldy as it is."
Siegel added, however, that he would not object to a Gypsy appointment in the event of a vacancy. "There should be some recognition or acknowledgment of the Gypsy people," he said, "if there is such a thing; I guess there is. There was a suffering element under the Nazis."
The Nazis killed half a million Gypsies in the death camps of World War II. They sterilized thousands more, reviling them as Rassengemisch -- racial mixtures. The Zigeuner, as they were called in German, were classified by the Bureau of Gypsy Affairs as "criminals, asocials, parasites and sub-humans." The Jews wore a yellow star; the Gypsies wore a "Z."
According to one eye-witness account of the liquidation of the Gypsy camp, "We were within easy earshot of the terrible final scenes as German criminal prisoners using clubs and dogs were let loose in the camp against the women, children and old men. A desperate cry from a young Czech-speaking lad rent the air. 'Please . . . let me live.' Blows with a club were the only answer."
Little has been written or told about the extermination of Gypsies in Europe. Least of all by the Gypsies, most of whom don't read or write. Nicholas Tene, 33, of Boston, said he knew about the cries of the Gypsies from a show he'd seen on TV.
John Tene, 37, Nicholas' brother, said, "The cries and whispers of our people in Europe have been floating in the air for 40 years."
John Tene, president of Romania of Massachusetts, Inc. -- Gypsies call themselves "Rom" and speak "Romy" among themselves -- said American Gypsies, of whom there are anywhere from 10,000 to 250,000, live lives of noisy desperation.
"We have people living in cars, sir, sleeping in cars, living in the ghettos," Tene said. "Nobody wants us in their neighborhoods. They say gypsies thieve, gypsies rob, gypsies steal. We go out selling flowers, we do some body work, the women tell fortunes, we do a little bit of roofing. Nothing professional. We're jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none."
At the ceremony, the Gypsies held up makeshift signs. Some of the signs were conciliatory: "Gypsies and Jews died together in Auschwitz. Let us serve together." Others were aggressive: "Why No Gypsy Representative? Racism Betrays Ideal of Holocaust Memorial Council."
Their official delegation, the U.S. Romani Holocaust Council, was put together minutes before their meeting. They were 35 minutes late, owing to a disoriented bus driver. And at the ceremony, "Lucky" Leo Evans, from Miami, and Kathy Stanley, from Los Angeles, couldn't help giggling as they emptied their pitchers over the ground.
"The Gypsy nation is a poor nation, said Jimmy Marks of Spokane, who passes out cards identifying himself as a Gypsy Nation Senator, "but it's a happy nation."
Steve Bimbo of Boston, the Gypsy King, a toothless old man with a pencil mustache, confirmed that assessment. "We have big parties. We play the violin. We tell stories. And we dance. The Gypsies are great dancers. Who's that new black fella? Yeah, Michael Jackson. We were dancing like him 70 years ago -- only better."