Saint-Germain-les-Arpajon, France – Raymond Gureme steps over the low electric fence to enter one of his many fields and attend to his ponies.
One is just two days old and feeding from its mother. Gureme will turn 92 years old this coming August.
“I don’t name them,” he says. “I leave that to my grandchildren.”
Born in 1925, in France, to Roma parents who had a circus and travelling cinema, he was the third of eight children – none of whom have outlived him.
As was practice, he did not attend school but instead joined the family business as a teenager, travelling with them from France to Belgium.
“The circus passes down from father to son. My mother and father loved the circus, the cinema,” he says, smoking a rolled cigarette.
In August 1943, French police rounded up his mother, him and his father – who had served in the French army in the first world war – and sent them to an internment camp for Roma.
The Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime was in power – the common name of the official French state headed by Marshal Philippe Petain during World War II.
He managed to escape from the French camp, but his parents remained trapped there until the end of the war, emerging unwell and having lost their business.
“They lost everything, including their cattle. All of their equipment disappeared, they never got it back. We have never been reimbursed. To build a circus you need money,” he says.
After escaping, he was later deported by train in a cattle car to a German concentration camp, where he was forced to do labour for the Nazi regime.
“We did everything. During the day, we worked, at night the Americans and English were bombing German cities. We had to go to the sites of attack and find the dead and pull bodies from basements.”
In the camp, he saw fellow prisoners killed. He was beaten and tortured himself.
“You don’t forget those images. I saw three young Russians hung at the entrance of the camp. They kept them there for three days. Do you know why? They stole a bit of bread. Another time, we saw a man killed and eaten by dogs while the guards stood by and laughed.”
After managing to escape again with three friends, he spent eight days without food.
“We lost ourselves in the Black Forest. One day, we were sitting down and saw some reindeer. We saw them eating leaves. We thought, ‘Let’s do that as well’. That cut our thirst and hunger.”
Caught by a group of Hitler Youth, the friends were thrown back into a concentration camp.
For a third time, he managed to flee again and eventually found his way to the railway. He was helped onto a train by a French resistance fighter. When he returned, Gureme, too, joined the French Resistance.
“He put me inside the coal. He made a little hole and put wood around it, hid me inside so I could escape,” he says.
Historians estimate that 220,000 to 500,000 Roma were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. Ian Hancock, a British Roma historian, says that figure could be as high as 1.5 million. More than 70 years since the end of World War II, Roma still face persecution in France.
Between 15,000 and 17,000 Roma live in poor conditions with little access to water and electricity in makeshift, illegal camps across France, according to the country’s national census and NGOs.
“Of course, the situation has not improved. Look at the demolitions, the hatred towards people. Discrimination is still alive and well against Roma and travellers.”
The minority is subject to intense racism, even from an early age.
“We are accused of everything bad that happens, they blame us for everything that goes wrong in this country. We are scapegoated. Look at the kids,” he says, pointing at his grandchildren playing in the garden. “They are very nice, they go to school, and they are put at the back of the classroom. Many are not even accepted into school.”
In February, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right National Front (NF) party and father of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, was ordered to pay a 5,000 euro ($5,300) fine for insulting the Roma, describing them as “smelly”.
The fine extended a long list of convictions against the older Le Pen, who made it to the second round in 2002, but ultimately lost to the right-wing Jacques Chirac.
Now, with the decisive second round of the French election on the horizon, Gureme is livid that the far right is again eyeing the presidency.
“If she wins, it will lead to a civil war,” he says, raising his voice and banging the table. “A lot of people don’t understand that. Look at what’s happening. Look at what happened during the demonstration,” he says, referring to a May 1 protest in Paris that turned violent when police fired tear gas on crowds.
It took 53 years for France to recognise its role in the Holocaust.
In 1995, Chirac apologised on behalf of the French policemen and civil servants who served in the raid. Until that moment, the official line was that France or the French Republic bears no responsibility and all blame should be directed at Vichy.
Now, as she bids for France’s top job, Marine Le Pen has recirculated this argument.
“It’s really hurtful to hear her saying these things,” says Gureme. “She’s worse than her father.”
Reflecting on how Le Pen has made it this far, he said: “When you are a good liar, there are always people to believe you. If you brainwash someone, they don’t know. They listen to what you say, and when they realise what you have done, it’s too late.”
Nowadays, Gureme spends his time visiting schools and giving talks about the horrors of racism and discrimination.
At 91 years old, he is lucid and funny. When asked who he will vote for on Sunday, he jokes: “Le Pen!”, sending his relatives and friends into fits of laughter. He is sharp, hears everything, does not wear glasses and despite having had three surgeries, moves quickly.
“God wanted for me to live a long life. I can’t say more,” he says.
With additional reporting by Naima Bouteldja