Ceija Stojka (1933-2013) was a Roma (Gypsy) Holocaust survivor, writer, poet and self-taught artist who raised awareness of the plight of Roma people under the Nazis and in Europe today. Her paintings are vibrant affirmations of life.
Ceija was one of six children born to Roman Catholic Gypsy parents. The Stojka family wagon travelled with a caravan that spent winters in the Austrian capital of Vienna and summers in the countryside. The Stojkas belonged to a tribe of Gypsies called the Lowara Roma, who made their living as itinerant horse traders.
“I grew up used to freedom, travel and hard work. Once, my father made me a skirt out of some material from a broken sunshade. I was five years old and our wagon was parked for the winter in a Vienna campground, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. The Germans ordered us to stay put. My parents had to convert our wagon into a wooden house, and we had to learn how to cook with an oven instead of on an open fire.”
Hundreds of thousands of Roma were rounded up and killed during World War II. As a young girl, Ceija was interned in concentration camps from which only five members of her extended family of over 200 survived.
“I was 8 when the Germans took my father away; a few months later, my mother received his ashes in a box. Next, the Germans took my sister, Kathi. Finally, they deported all of us to a Nazi camp for Gypsies in Birkenau. We lived in the shadow of a smoking crematorium, and we called the path in front of our barracks the ‘highway to hel’” because it led to the gas chambers.”
Aged 12 when she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she bore her identification number tattooed on her arm for the rest of her life. Returning to Austria with a brother and sister, she lived for many years selling carpets before taking up painting. Most of her work depicts the death camps, but there are also idyllic pictures of family life before the War.
Ceija’s autobiography, We Live in Seclusion (1988) drew international attention to the plight of the Roma in the past and present. She also features in the film documentary Forget Us Not, to be released in 2013, which recalls the persecution and deaths of the millions of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust – from the Roma and Sinti people who were targeted for complete annihilation to hundreds of religious people killed for speaking out. These lesser known voices are brought to life through historical footage and the stories of survivors.
The Budapest-based European Roma Cultural Foundation, describing Stokja’s concentration-camp themed paintings as reflecting “entrenched sorrow in the bodies and spirit of the victims”, called her a key figure in the history, art and literature of Romani culture in Europe.
In 2010, after a spate of Roma hate-killings in Hungary, Ceija asked a gathering of Hungarian university and high-school students, “How is it possible at the beginning of the new century that the Roma population is still humiliated and maltreated – and sometimes killed – for the sole reason of being Roma? Let my grandchildren live!”