This is not your average gypsy story. Rather, this tale is about the authentic European Gypsies of Romany, nomadic farm workers caught up in Hitler’s reign of terror as he strove to purge the impure from his homeland. Beginning in 1927 in the Moravian countryside, where an infant is born in a dilapidated barn, the gypsies are slowly forced into a census program -- a method of tracking their movement that ends in a mass assignment to an all-gypsy labor camp. The swarthiness of their skin is enough to seal the fates of these families.
Although much has been written about the Nazi death camps, Fires in the Dark specifically addresses the decimation of the gypsy population of Eastern Europe. The story follows a number of families, one in particular, as the novel chronicles the gradual movement of fascism across the country, beginning with mandatory registration and specific “rules” that govern the gypsies’ mobility.
Moving from one gypsy camp to another, the men work at odd jobs for any farmers who are still willing to hire them, able to maintain the illusion, at least for a while, that they won’t be caught in the vast web that draws them inexorably toward their doom. But when the Germans commandeer their wagons and animals, the gypsy families are restricted to proscribed areas, later transported to special labor camps and told they will be safe as long as they work hard.
Unfortunately, no distinctions are made in the death camps, and the gypsies are thrown into the nightmare they hoped to escape. The primary family in the novel, of distant relation to the author, is subjected to the rigors, starvation and humiliation of the camps, many dying in a massive typhus epidemic. Only one family member escapes: the boy born in 1927 at the beginning of the story. This young man makes his way into Warsaw, where he joins a group who move black-market goods, passing as a gadje, or white man, with his fair complexion.
Describing these terrible years of human annihilation, author Louise Doughty devotes many pages to the suffering of individual family members, their travails echoing throughout the labor camp. The details are explicit and depressing as such a light-heated and joyful people are destroyed by ignorance and evil.
The writing shines during the closing days of the war, when the young man spends his days avoiding notice and an ignoble end just when relief is finally in sight. Groups of German soldiers cluster together, skirmishing with the Resistance while people run through the streets in anticipation of the arrival of the Allies or the Russians. I wish the whole novel could have had the energy of the last chapters, but the pages were frequently tedious until I reached the excitement of the ending. In any case, this is an important story, one that should be told. For all the human tragedy of those years, Fires in the Dark adds an important chapter to a history that cannot be forgotten.