Roma musician Tcha Limberger, of Belgium, says “I Silenti,” which translates from Italian to “the silent ones,” is about giving a voice to the Roma people who died in the Holocaust. 

'I Silenti' gives a voice to those who died in the Romani genocide

The performance piece features musician Tcha Limberger, who is Roma, and pays homage to the hundreds of thousands who died in the Romani genocide during the Holocaust, whose stories often go untold.

The World

Editor’s note: Tcha Limberger, the featured musician in "I Silenti," uses the word “Gypsy” to refer to his community — some find that term offensive and recommend “Roma” or “Romani” instead.

Violinist and vocalist Tcha Limberger is deeply connected to the subject matter of “I Silenti,” a performance piece that features his Romani heritage.

The work, which translates from Italian to “the silent ones,” pays homage to the hundreds of thousands who died in the Romani genocide during the Holocaust — their story is often left out of history.

Related: 5 websites to help educate about the horrors of the Holocaust

Limberger, who lives in San Sebastian, Spain, has been having vivid dreams about having to flee the Nazis, and facing death.

“I can’t really explain this. It’s like some collective memory or consciousness that is there.”

Tcha Limberger, Roma violinist and vocalist, Belgium

“I can’t really explain this,” 44-year-old Limberger said. “It’s like some collective memory or consciousness that is there.”

Limberger and his collaborator, composer and saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, of Belgium, were to premiere the piece this month in Europe, but it was postponed amid the pandemic. Other performances are tentatively planned for the coming months.

“I Silenti” mixes opera, theater and dance, all carefully staged. The composer, Cassol, drew from a collage of madrigals — poems or musical pieces — written by Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi.

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Cassol hopes the resulting work will be cathartic. It’s about expressing emotions around the plight of the Roma people, “which is not discussed in Europe.”

There is a sort of discomfort around that community, he said.

“They were used by Nazis as ‘experiments’ in the camps, too. No one talks about that.”

Fabrizio Cassol, composer, saxophonist, Belgium

“They were used by Nazis as ‘experiments’ in the camps, too,” Cassol said. “No one talks about that.”

Limberger said the Roma, unlike the Jewish people, haven’t learned to talk about the trauma of the Holocaust. The Roma are bound by the limits of their language, he said, which doesn’t have a concept of the past or future.

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“Our word for ‘yesterday’ and “tomorrow” is one and the same word,” Limberger said. “In our dialect, it’s teisa. And the only way you can know if it’s yesterday or tomorrow is by the conjugation of the verb — whether it’s in past tense or present. We don’t even have a future tense, really.”

The past and future are too painful to dwell on because “there is misery. People were poor, and they were just struggling to survive,” Limberger said. “And then, there’s this Second World War with all the dramatic experiences of concentration camps and all that, and you don’t want to remember that. You just want to forget it.”

Limberger, who was raised by musicians in northern Europe, uses his musical talents to open up a difficult conversation.

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He can easily switch between traditional music from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, and jazz, and that versatility is threaded throughout “I Silenti.”

In addition, Limberger was born blind — when he was growing up, while the other kids played soccer, he taught himself to play numerous instruments.

Limberger’s blindness becomes a sort of metaphor in the piece for people “not wanting to see” the atrocities done to the Roma.

“I Silenti” brings this painful history to light in suggestive ways — through the sound, story and the polyphonic arrangement; it uses a device called counterpoint, with a variety of melodic lines happening all at once (typical of madrigals).

This technique is a way, Limberger explained, in “I Silenti,” to restore and capture the plurality of voices silenced by the tragic events of the Holocaust.

The Roma have an impressive oral tradition. “Mê Schounowa," a song from Limberger’s family, became part of “I Silenti.” It was probably written by Limberger’s great-uncle and was handed down through the generations.

The song’s lyrics are simple, but it is sung twice. “It goes as follows: ‘I hear or I listen [it's the same verb]/ I hear the little river in the forest/ I see the flowers that are fading/Good God give me the opportunity to see my people once again.’ That’s all. It’s a powerful song,” Limberger said.

Ultimately, the song — like “I Silenti” itself — is about loss and separation and the necessity for what was hidden for so long to finally come to light.

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