Holocaust survivor Ivan Bilashchenko has died

The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, together with the Documentation and Cultural Centre, mourns the Holocaust survivor Ivan Bilashchenko, who passed away in his Ukrainian homeland shortly before his 97th birthday.

“I had to live three lives: the Holodomor, the genocide and the war front,” Ivan Bilashchenko summarised his fate a few years ago. And the Ukrainian Rom, colonel and World War II veteran added: “If you ask me what was the worst, I would answer without hesitation, the genocide. Because we always lived in the expectation that we would be shot, if not today, then tomorrow.” Ivan Bilashchenko survived the cruelty and spoke of his horrific experiences in numerous conversations – especially with young people.

A member of the Roma, he was born in 1926 in a village in the Cherkassy region. At the age of 16, he was to be deported to a German forced labour camp. However, he managed to escape by jumping off the train and to return home.

There, a little later, with the support of the village headman and other comrades-in-arms, he was able to prevent the deportation of 40 young people – among them one of his cousins.

After the invasion of the Red Army, he was drafted for military service at the age of 17. After completing accelerated training at a military school with other Roma, he was assigned to monitor military communications. This took him from Ukraine to Belarus and Poland.

After the end of the Second World War, Ivan Bilashchenko graduated from the Technical College of Civil Engineering and started a family, becoming the father of a daughter and a son. Until the end, he actively participated in public life, contributed to several historical exhibitions and encouraged young people again and again to deal with the past and to remember the horrors they experienced as well as the injustice they suffered. He did so again in August 2019 at the international remembrance event “Dikh he na bister” (Romanes for “Look and don’t forget”) on the occasion of the European Holocaust Memorial Day for Sinti and Roma at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. This annual meeting is co-organised by the Heidelberg Documentation and Cultural Centre.