Gypsies: The last nomads, the free-spirited, passionate bohemians with their mysterious rituals and powers. This romanticism is nearly as unfair as the fear and hate distracting us from recognizing the hardships and persecution these “carefree” people have undergone for centuries. In Europe, the Roma (as they wish to be call) have been cast out, burned at the stake, sterilized, ghettoized, forced to give up their traditional way of life, caught in other people’s wars, and more than half a million were slaughtered in the Holocaust.
Roma misfortune can be attributed to the vicious cycle of poverty that paralyzes so many minorities situated in an unforgiving society. This cycle of poverty began and still exists today due to the discrimination that the Roma face because of, among other things, their skin color and unorthodox ways of making a living. Through out history the largest complaint about the Roma, however, has been their wandering lifestyle. What is interesting though, is that the Rom are no longer nomads. The few that do move from place to place are migrant and are forced across boarders by the very authorities that complain about their way of life.
While some sources speculate that gypsies originally migrated from Egypt, it is usually agreed upon by most scholars that the gypsies came from India to Eastern Europe about a thousand years ago. The true reason for this move remains a mystery but many theories exist that they my have moved as a result of changes in the government, the economic situation or perhaps they have always been wonderers. Whatever the reason for their move, we will probably never know the truth. One gypsy lady learned during her childhood that “We were being punished for stealing the fourth nail that was needed in Christ’s crucifixion. That’s why his feet are crossed and nailed together. We were forced into wondering for taking this nail.”
Whether gypsies were responsible for Christ’s missing nail one thing is certain: the gypsy’s dark Indian skin has made them the subject of ridicule for centuries; for it has been a European tradition to detest the non-ayrean. The Persian poet Firdausi is said to have written, “No washing ever whitens the black gypsy.” Even within religion the gypsies are not free from contempt. In his writings a German monk described gypsies as having “the most ugly faces, black like those of Tartars.” And an old Yiddish proverb states: “The same sun makes the linen white that makes the Gypsy black.” In a recent interview published in National Catholic Reporter several Bosnians commented that the gypsies were “their blacks.”
Racial discrimination does not stop with people’s nasty remarks. In Checklosloviakia job discrimination because of skin color is commonplace. The Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny recently disclosed that the government employment agencies were secretly marking Roma job applications with an “R” to alert potential employers.
Unemployment has always been a problem for the Roma and through out history has caused friction between the gypsies and their host countries. Being nomads, farming has never been an option so by relying on their “gypsy skills” such as dancing, singing or animal training and of course non-gypsies have always found this type of alternative work to be “lazy and distasteful.” There were those few gypsies who went the more conventional route by taking up blacksmithing, basket weaving, shoe making or metalworking, however this put them in direct competition with non-gypsy workers and needless to say created tension.
Centuries of discrimination in the work place have shaped Roma culture. With no land to farm and without the necessary skills to get a job, the only way for the Roma to escape poverty is for the government to address education. Several attempts have been made to integrate gypsy children into schools, however they are constantly ridiculed once they get there. A 1939 account of a gypsy child who attempted to attend school shows the consequences:
Then on day, in front of the whole class, he said to me, you filthy gypsy! You don’t belong here. You belong with filth. Turn your face to the corner; we don’t want to see your ugly gypsy face.’ 15
Incidents like this one are what shaped the gypsy tradition of refusing all government assistance, educational or otherwise. Because they have always been excluded from formal educational institutions the Rom have learned to rely solely on the knowledge that their elders could transmit to them. Gypsy children were taught to obey their elders and rely on them. Today when young gypsies are asked about their plan for the future common responses are “I want to pass my driving test,” or “to leave the family and get married.”
It is possible-to an extent-for a minority group to shrug off racial discrimination but genocide is another story. In 1935 Nazi party spokes person Johannes Behrendt called for the “elimination without hesitation” of the Romani population and by 1943 over ten thousand gypsies were incarcerated in Sancheshausen and later exterminated. Thirty thousand Gypsies were deported to Poland and eventually perished in the death camps of Belzed, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek. On August 1, 1944, four thousand Roma were murdered in Auschwitz in one single night.
After the war no Promised Land awaited the survivors; no government or humanitarian organization attempted to help them. The Roma had no choice but to resettle in the same nations that had destructed them. The first trial for wartime crimes against the Rom did not take place until December 1990 and few victims were ever compensated. Compensation however is not what the Rom want, simply acknowledging the fact that half a million of them were slaughtered-a number proportionally comparable to the amount of Jews murdered-is all they ask. There is a popular saying that “The Jews never forget but the gypsies never remember.”
While it is disturbing that no one recognizes that gypsies were victims of the holocaust, what is equally disturbing is that as late as 1976 a government proposal in Czechoslovakia “recommended sterilization of the Roma as an act of socialistic humanity.” One eighteen-year-old gypsy woman recalls the birth of her second child:
I had just given birth, and I was unconscious after a Caesarean. A few weeks later I met my doctor on the street and he asked me, Did I do a good job?’ I sad, “What do you mean?” He said So that you can’t have anymore children.’
And as recently as 1981 police systematically rounded up and expelled Roma from Poland, taking all necessary papers needed to return.
The government in Eastern Europe tends to see their nomadic lifestyle as the core reason for Roma backwardness and sought to restrict their movement through legislation and the police. The problem with this legislation though, is that the government refuses to understand their nomadic lifestyle as the central element of gypsy culture. While their nomadic lifestyle could be understood in the context of centuries of mistreatment by Eastern European governments, gypsy movement evolved far before and government intervention occurred. The government’s failure to recognize why gypsies move has proved to be the main reason for their failure to invent a workable reform.
But there is clearly a difference between being migrant and being a nomad. Traditionally the Roma have been nomads, moving to keep up a form of social organization according to weather and religious holidays. Today, few gypsies’ travel and if they do they migrate out of fear or force.
Hundreds of gypsy families have left the former communist countries to head for Western Europe where they hope to receive refugee status. But in these countries increasing state intervention into the lives of the citizens is also affecting them as the government becomes more and more strict about where gypsies can camp.
Casilino 700, also known, as “Little Calcutta” is on of the few camps the government has set aside for the Rom in Italy. With 1,600 inhabitants Casilino 700 is by far the largest Rom camp in Western Europe and is scheduled to be dismantled due to complaints from citizens in surrounding areas. For most residents of the camp the closing will be followed by expulsion which means a one ways ticket back to their countries of origin. But expelling a large group of people from anywhere “breaks every rule in the book,” according to Claude Cahn, the publications director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. The rule he speaks of is the one that prohibits mass expulsion. While city officials call Casilino “a breeding pot for thieves” and a “twentieth century plague in the making,” most of the Roma feel that to exist in a ghetto is preferable to expulsion.
As with non-European citizens in Italy, Roma have been given the label of extraexcommunitari, meaning they come from outside of the European Union, although most Roma have lived within the Union all their lives. The reason for this title is because the government still considers them nomadic. “Not even my grandfather was part of the traveling culture,” say Luigi Lusi a Rom. “It is obvious that we no longer harness up the horse and move from place to place daily,” he continued.
Forcing gypsies to integrate has always failed because it is impossible to force a group of people who have spent their entire lives on the fringes of society to adapt to new educational and social environments, especially when they are very poor. Aside from their dark skin, the gypsy life that many Europeans find distasteful stems almost completely from the poverty that they have forced the gypsies into. The government will never receive their desired results from education programs and housing projects unless the deeply rooted discrimination against the Roma stopssomething that will be very difficult to undo.