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Josef Mengele was a physician stationed at concentration camps during the holocaust. He performed operations without anesthetics. Mengele forcibly inserted metal rods into fragile bodies for the sake of experimentation. Mengele operated on children. Some of those children are now adults with heartbreaking stories of survival. The horror story of Mengele is just one aspect of the holocaust.

When we hear of someone like Mengele, it’s mind boggling that we live in a world where Holocaust jokes are the norm. Distasteful isn’t a word that does justice to the Anne Frank jokes that circulate the Internet. We have come to the point where Hitler memes are considered clever, rather than a disturbing normalization of a monster. This casual attitude toward human execution is telling of our understanding of the past, which is just as significant in the present.

“The problem isn’t someone who would laugh at a joke like that, the issue isn’t necessarily that they think the holocaust was an insignificant event – it’s more that they place it as historic in the past,” says Aaron Yeger, director of A People Uncounted. “They don’t think about it in terms of this is something that could happen again. It’s like, “this is just history, a horrible thing that happened in the past and it’s obviously never going to happen again.’”

However, above the nonsense, imperative insight still remains. Yeger’s A People Uncounted is not just a documentary about the persecution of Roma people, but an overall example of why our society today is desensitized to racism. Yeger focuses on the Romas, commonly referred to as the gypsies, who were also executed in the Holocaust amongst Jewish and homosexual people. They are considered a people uncounted because their presence in the holocaust, and society in general, is still overlooked today. The documentary is told in three acts, the first focusing on a modern day understanding of what a Roma person is. Yeger emphasizes that this present idea is a combination of “the disconnect with what the average person might think a gypsy is versus the actual roman culture.”

The word “gypsy” carries the weight of centuries of persecution and racism. When we watch movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or listen to songs like Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” we are exposed to an untrue, racist stereotype of the Roma people. A People Uncounted thoroughly explains why such thinking came about, how Roma people were treated as a result, and how such racism still exists today.

“I see Roma as one of the last vestiges of being treated with politically correct and socially acceptable racism,” Yeger says. “For this group, it’s still considered the norm to talk about them either as this romanticized image of storybook characters, or they’re all criminals or something like that, or the inaccurate representation that they’re completely nomadic which isn’t true.”

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Filming of A People Uncounted

500,000 Roma people were executed in the Holocaust. A People Uncounted takes place in 11 different countries, interviewing those who remain with beautiful and tear-jerking insight to what happened both inside and outside the concentration camps. A People Uncounted goes beyond the untrue and often racist depictions we see in mainstream media, and showcases the beautiful and artistic truth of the Roma people.

“Our society is structured in a way where we are inherently raised to trust certain sources for guidance and information. We’re supposed to trust teachers in school, we’re supposed to trust the media,” Yeger says. “[The Roma] are a culture of people just like any culture of people, and they should not be seen as one homogenous group of people. There’s diversity within their culture, just like any other culture. They’re better than to be created as a stereotype.”

A People Uncounted illustrates that the present day stereotyping of Roma people contributes to the racism in our everyday language, jokes, and misinformation. We believe what we see, but there are endless resources available to us to discover truths and form opinions for ourselves. In the case of the Roma people, it’s imperative to look beyond shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which not only fails to show a distinction between Irish Travellers and Roma people, but it also incites hatred against Roma people as a whole. With shows like this, Roma people are deduced to forms of entertainment in which their history of social exclusion is overlooked.

“Any of us are capable of being victimized in this movie, but also any of us are capable of being perpetrators of that kind of hate and violence if we’re not careful to educate ourselves and our children and our society about these things,” Yeger says. “The key messages [of the documentary] are [that] the tragedy like the holocaust can happen again if we don’t study history and we don’t take notice of these things and we don’t look at these negative trends that occur in present.”

A People Uncounted opens at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, August 2, 2013. Check their website for details and showtimes.

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