After the devouring

The Romany people are the nearly forgotten victims of the Holocaust. A wintry visit to a wartime camp inspired Louise Doughty to tell their story in her new novel
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As mass graves go, the site above Hodonín Camp in Moravia is small and unimpressive. There is a clearing in the pine forest with a memorial – a cross with a painted wheel nailed to it – and an inscription in Romani: Ma Bisteren. Do not forget.

As mass graves go, the site above Hodonín Camp in Moravia is small and unimpressive. There is a clearing in the pine forest with a memorial – a cross with a painted wheel nailed to it – and an inscription in Romani: Ma Bisteren. Do not forget.

It is still a ghostly place. Visit it in winter, and the snow-laden trees seem to trap the cold. The air is misty. The ground beneath your feet crackles with the dead leaves and pine needles trapped in the ice.

In August 1942, the German forces rounded up the Romany people (gypsies) in occupied Czechoslovakia and interned them in two camps; Lety in Bohemia, and Hodonín. During the following year, 207 of them died in Hodonín Camp, out of a total number of 1,396. Bodies were initially buried in the cemetery of the nearby village of Cernovice, until it became full and a hole was dug above the camp. Two hundred and seven. It doesn't sound many by the murderous standards of the Second World War. Hodonín was not a death camp. There were no ovens, no mass shootings. The camp authorities preferred slow methods: malnutrition and disease. Hodonín wasn't even called a concentration camp. It was a "work camp", then a "reception camp". In modern parlance, one might call it a detention centre.

The biggest killer was typhoid fever, which began in December 1942 and, in the unsanitary and over-crowded conditions of the barracks, spread rapidly. In August 1943, the camp was closed. A few inmates were released. The vast majority were transported to Auschwitz into which they vanished, merely a few of the estimated 250,000 Romany people killed by the Nazi regime and its willing helpers.

A quarter of a million? I have read one historian who referred to that figure as "tiny". He meant, of course, in comparison with the six million Jewish people who were killed, the 20 million Soviet dead, the estimated 50 million total. "One death is a tragedy," goes Stalin's famous phrase, "a million deaths is a statistic." Historians are fond of statistics. They argue furiously over them. They bat them to and fro, like shuttlecocks.

I visited Hodonín in March 1999. At the time, I was living in Brno, the Czech Republic's second city, and working as writer in residence at the Masaryk University. I knew before I went that I wanted my next novel to be about the Romany people – I have distant Romany ancestry and an abiding interest in the topic. I had a vague idea that it would be some vast, pan-millenial project covering the Romanies' departure from India in the 12th century and their migration westward across Europe, up to the present day.

A professor at the university told me about Hodonín Camp and suggested I visit the site. Standing in front of the memorial, I felt one of those cathartic moments that novelists sometimes feel at the start of a new book, when ideas crystalise, when they think: yes, this.

How does one begin to write fiction about such a place? In her book, Reading the Holocaust, Australian writer Inge Clendinnen has a fine phrase to describe the difficulties of fictionalising human extremity. "At such times," she writes, "language loses its modest competence to convey and configure experience."

Frighteningly little has been written about the Romany Holocaust. O Porraimos, it has been called; literally, the Devouring. Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, there exists a mere handful of first-hand survivor accounts, so my educative process necessarily involved reading about the Jewish experience. The Journey Back From Hell, by Anton Gill, consists of interviews with a wide range of Holocaust survivors, divided into three parts: the individual's experiences before, during and after the war. The result is revelatory for anyone who thinks they already know about the Holocaust. Set in the context of their wider lives, victims become people. The boy who argues with his best friend about marbles goes on to witness his parents and sisters being pushed into a gas chamber. A woman who has survived unimaginable suffering ends up living in a semi in Basildon. The reader is forced to acknowledge that such horrors occurred to people who were just like them.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty has a simliar theme at the heart of his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Solidarity between human beings, he says, is achieved not by the intellect but by the imagination. "It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people." In other words, we need facts but also stories.

Fires in the Dark begins before the war, in 1927, the year that Czechoslovakia introduced a law called Law 117. This law was similar to many which existed across Europe at the time, requiring Romanies to be registered and to have identity cards. (When the Nazis invaded several of their European conquests, they found the existing legislation regarding Romanies most useful.) In the novel, on the same day that the law is announced, a boy is born in a barn in rural Bohemia. He is Emil, the first and long-desired child of Josef Maximoff and his wife Anna. For the benefit of the gadje (non-gypsies) he is also given the Czech name of Frantisek. But his real name, known only to his mother, is Yenko.

In traditional Romany society, it is common for a man or woman to use several names throughout their lives: a name for family members, another for the wider circle of friends, yet another for any dealings with the polluted, and polluting, gadje. In some groups – there are approximately 60 different ones across Europe – there still exists a naming ceremony. On the third night after a child's birth, the mother will place three pieces of bread and three glasses of wine in a circle around the child, for the Ursitory, the three Spirits. Then she will whisper the child's real name. Sometimes, she doesn't even tell the child's father; the children themselves may not know until adolescence. A real name is power.

The main character in Fires in the Dark is referred to by his common name of Emil for most of the book. In Part Five, set in 1942, he and his family are interned in Hodonín Camp. It is only when he escapes that he adopts his real name: Yenko. The rest of the novel concerns his subsequent survival.

It was important for me that the family should be seen as having ordinary lives before they are engulfed by the calamity of war. Only then would the novel be about them, and not about the war itself. Yenko's kumpánia, or tribe, suffers from the same human problems as any group of people. There are rivalries over its leadership, daily petty arguments, unacknowledged heartbreak. By having a child, Yenko's mother Anna has improved her status within the group. She is no longer a bori, or daughter-in-law, but a romni, a fully-fledged Romany woman. Her sisters Eva and Ludmila and her cousin-in-law Tekla must defer to Anna's wishes. It is up to her who takes the blankets to the river to be washed and who stays behind to cook the potatoes. Of such small stories are all our lives made, regardless of skin colour, nationality or custom. These stories are our common currency.

This currency remains legal tender even during the extremity of imprisonment. Read Primo Levi, and you realise that the loves and rivalries of human interaction are not dissolved by such experiences but amplified. As I stood in front of the memorial at Hodonín, what made me certain I wanted to write a novel about it was the sight of fresh footprints in the snow. It was mid-morning on a freezing March day, in a deserted pine forest in the Moravian highlands, but I was not the first visitor that day. The local Romanies still tend that cross with its wheel. Real people died in that camp. People with stories.

After those who survived the typhus epidemic were transported to Auschwitz in 1943 and the camp was closed, it was fumigated, then re-opened as a billet for soldiers of the Wehrmacht. It was later used to intern civilians who were being forcibly repatriated to Germany. Under communism, it housed dissidents.

One might imagine that since the advent of democracy, the camp would finally have fallen into disuse. Not so. It has been refurbished. Concrete dormitories have been built, and a swimming pool. It is now a holiday camp. Only one of the original concentration-camp barracks remains. Today, it houses a table-tennis table.

'Fires in the Dark' by Louise Doughty is published by Simon & Schuster (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.99 (+ £2.25 p&p per order), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 800 1122.