What we don’t know about them would fill a book.
“The Romani have no heroes, no myths of origin, of a great liberation, of the founding of a nation, of a promised land.” ~ Isabel Fonseca*
And for that, they are reviled.
I was taken to task following a March 2021 column for using the word “Gypsy” in a piece on nomads.”
I am guilty of employing that particular word instead of the politically correct, Roma or Romani. However, few readers would have recognized those terms contextually considering the topic of the article.
The column focused on people who were forced to abandon their homes. Considered, were the simultaneous effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Combined, the two disasters set over a half-million Americans out on the road in search of work.
We also examined a recent subculture member who finds it financially advantageous to live full-time on four wheels. In this context, I related a story about a young woman who lives in a camper and parks it wherever she finds suitable work.
She described herself as a free spirit and reflected this romantic notion of being unanchored from a conventional home by referring to herself as a Gypsy.
Today, most sources, including the Roma themselves, consider the word Gypsy as an ethnic slur. The problem with the continuing use of this offensive label may lie with the fact that the majority of us do not know the history of the Romani – A people who consider themselves outsiders wherever they are found in the world, even today.
Adding to the mystery of the Roma is their almost unanimous resistance to assimilation. This fact makes them highly vulnerable to the presumptions and biases of the mainstream culture.
It is no wonder that the Roma lifestyle is cloaked in false suppositions and half-truths.
The very word “Gypsy” reflects a certain ignorance on the part of Europeans who mistakenly believed these mysterious dark-skinned people came from Egypt. In fact, they originally came from the Punjab region of northern India.
Author’s note: A similar mistake was made by Christopher Columbus, who called the inhabitants of the western hemisphere “Indians,” as in India.
DNA analysis provides evidence that the ancestors of the modern Roma left India around a thousand years ago. The prevailing theory is that their departure from India was to escape the Muslim invaders, led by General Mahmud in the 11th Century.
Furthermore, elements of the contemporary Romani language contain Sanskrit, which points to their origin in northern India.
An earlier theory was that the people who would become the Roma were elite mercenary soldiers who traveled, with their families, wherever they were needed. Although, the two speculations are not mutually exclusive.
Popular image and stereotypes of Gypsies. (Romani or Roma)
People who lived in the 1970s formed an image of Roma based on popular culture, literature and rumor. In 1971 you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing Cher’s hit, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.
Put the three words of the song’s title together, and you have an inkling of the unearned stereotype of the Roma in most of the world. They are not tramps and according to statistics, their rate of crime is no higher than the average. Yet, that is how they are perceived.
Caution: Prepare for a multi-day Earworm attack if you dare refresh your memory of this tune – I am presently on day three.
The truth is that Romani were skilled craftsmen and artists for hundreds of years. One source describes them as standing apart from both communism and capitalism in that they work hard, but not for someone else.
Such an approach to work should garner some admiration, particularly from Libertarians.
You can bet that those who sang along with Cher in their Volkswagen Beetle knew little to nothing about the real Gypsies, let alone that they are called Roma.
And that same Beetle may have been following behind a Gypsy Queen travel trailer on its way to the grand opening of Disney World in Florida. Gypsy was a brand name for nearly anything related to travel, including specific makes and models of motorhomes and camping trailers.
The word gypsy has been co-opted commercially and in popular culture to elicit the romance of a nomadic lifestyle, the call of the open road.
I, for one, have felt this enticement on and off throughout my life. Perhaps I should do a little genealogy research.
It is fitting that when the Roma finally obtained their own flag in 1933, sans a country to go with it, it had a background of blue and green overlaid by a wheel, a wagon wheel to be precise.
So, on the one hand, the use of the word Gypsy bespeaks of being footloose and fancy-free. On the other hand, Gypsy, for some, describes a group of people who steal children, tell fortunes and are all trained as pickpockets.
But such simplicity does not even come close to describing the travails and challenges of being Roma.
Even the much-beloved children’s author, Shel Silverstein, was apparently unaware of Roma’s long history of discrimination when he wrote “The Gypsies Are Coming.” This poem starts with, “The Gypsies are coming, the old people say, to buy little children and take them away.”
To his credit, Mr. Silverstein did change the title’s Gypsies to Googies in the early 2000s.
Our beliefs are influenced by the media and popular culture, often erroneously. To compound and congeal our ignorance, we as individuals, who have probably never met a Romani in our life, do not feel obliged to investigate further.
Author’s Note: With the entire accumulated knowledge of the whole world at our literal fingertips, there is little excuse for not obtaining the facts. We can all be researchers with our current state of technology, provided we think critically and retain a modicum of credulity.
Take the 1937 film Heidi, played by child star Shirley Temple.
I remember sitting cross-legged in front of a black and white television in the 1950s watching this movie. Near the end, the nasty Fraulein Rottenmeier attempts to sell Heidi to a Gypsy in a darkened alleyway. But Heidi was saved from certain slavery by her reclusive, but loving grandfather.
I can remember parents telling their children that they would be sold to the Gypsies if they were not good. We shouldn’t be surprised that most of today’s adults know the Gypsy only in a derogatory way.
Such things do not instill, in a child, an openness to groups that fall outside of our shared culture. This kind of brainwashing narrows our way of viewing those whose lives do not mirror our own.
If we are not careful, we can begin to think that anyone who does not share our own values is the “other” and is, therefore, evil.
There is one constant in the history of the Romani that is their legacy. Their history is one of being purged from every place that they ever attempted to call home.
Over time and out of necessity, their culture incorporated the role of traveler. In Europe, the gaily-painted wagons once symbolized this. The wagons were replaced with trucks, campers, and mobile homes through the years.
Romani traits often rub outsiders the wrong way. Their reluctance to assimilate into mainstream culture only garners suspicion. They seldom allow their children to attend school out of fear that they will be influenced by the mainstream culture. This results in high rates of illiteracy.
Many marriages in the Romani culture are arranged, sometimes in the early teens. This may result from their almost obsessive concern with the woman’s purity at the time of marriage. What is normal and essential to the Romani, is scandalous in many other societies.
It is as though there is a consensual wall between the Romani and the outside world. They are segregated to some degree of their own volition in an attempt to maintain their culture. And, more often than not, the mainstream culture is more than happy to oblige.
What hate and fear can conspire to do.
Nazi Germany employed the pseudo-science of eugenics to nearly obliterate the Romani from Europe. To rid Europe of the Roma, it was necessary to dehumanize them. This process started by officially documenting their physical and mental traits.
Using the sham principles of eugenics, the Romani were declared to be racially inferior. This was followed by forced sterilization of Romani women. And then came the horrors of the death camps.
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazis and their collaborators carried out the planned genocide of somewhere between 300,000 to a half-million Romani in German-occupied Europe.
In a 2018 documentary called “The Forgotten Genocide,” a survivor of Auschwitz describes being forced to drink water from a ditch that ran through the camp. This contaminated water contained the corpses of Romani children.
Unlike most other groups persecuted by the Nazis, the Romani fought back in a May 16, 1944, revolt called the Romani Resistance Day. Warriors that they are, they “did not go gentle into the night.”
Despite the Romani being the second largest group murdered in the Nazi gas chambers, the loss of the Romani was not mentioned at the Nuremberg Trials. Even a simple acknowledgment of this horrendous act by the Nazis had to wait until 1982.
While anti-Semitism is rarely tolerated today, not so the vilification of the Roma. Post-war France is still attempting to oust the eastern European Romani from their country.
“The Romani have never waged a war, tried to enslave or otherwise subdue other people, imposed their beliefs on anyone else, or planted a flag on someone else’s land and called it their own.” ~ Martina Petkova
Until next week,
Author’s footnote: The Romani of Europe during the Nazi regime were, by and large, fervently Catholic. When they were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps, their desperate appeals to the Church were ignored. **
*Bury Me Standing – The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonesca.
** The Forgotten Genocide: Gypsies in World War II.