Sunday, December 20, 2009

Roma/Gypsies in Literature

I have known Gypsies, as they were then called, since my early childhood
- the ones who, like us, were hiding in the forests trying to survive
the genocidal Nazi War. Moments with Gypsies, Roma is their rightful
name, followed me along the circuitous course of my life. I never
recognized these people in the writings of non-Gypsies. The Roma, so
different from each other across the world, yet similar at the core,
mostly appear as strange distortions of the ones I have known, in
fiction as well as in most sociological studies.

Roma culture for hundreds of years was an oral culture, leaving no
trace behind. The Roma expressed their feelings in crafts, in music and
in poetry. These poems were written for special occasions, left buried
along with their dead, or tucked away with memories of more joyful
occasions. I am sure, like their music, these poems were expressions of
sadness and beauty. When Papusha, a poet from a Polish tribe, broke that
tradition and published her poetry, she became famous and – ostracized
by her tribe. Mateo Maximoff, a Russian Roma who lived in France,
thankfully self-published a slew of novels and non-fiction depicting the
true spirit of these ancient people

When I humbly approached the difficult task of trying to describe their
culture, seen through Roma eyes, I actually prayed to God to give me the
power of the word. I hope "Dosha", coming out in June, will allow you
to step into the culture and spirit of these ancient people, for whose
fundamental human rights within the new European Union many Roma and
non-Roma are now uniting to fight.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A New Kind of European Freedom Fighter

December 10 of this year was the 61st anniversary of the adoption of the
adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.
Yet Europe's discrimination against Roma has grown if anything worse.
And those who do the persecuting are more than matched in numbers by
those who stand by with indifference and watch, at times applaud, this
visible abuse and neglect of their fellow Europeans, the Roma.

There is however a change, a small change, hopefully one that will take
over and turn the tide. Groups of idealists and activists: there is the
Everyone Group in Italy, Rencontres Tsiganes in France, I have read that
Romani Women have gathered in Committees and even staged open marches of
protest. These are just a few that I have followed from across the
ocean. These groups not only fight for equal rights, but for the right
to be different. The Romani culture is one of beauty and love of peace.
It is part of Europe's history, and should be honored and preserved. We
over here, living in safety in the United States, should support these
groups; join this fight for justice and equality that nobody can morally
afford to lose.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Ancient Art of Romani Healing

After years spent among partisans and other people on the run during
World War II, my mother collapsed, mentally and physically. She could no
longer manage daily life. As soon as some kind of order was
re-established in post-war Germany, doctors and hospital started to
experiment with various injections and drugs to get my mother back on
her feet. After the first injection of something I believe was called
Strophantin, my mother turned blind for several days. She regained her
eyesight, but slowly the other attempts at conventional healing made her
drug dependent. Desperate, I was a girl of nine, my mother lay dying, I
threw all of her drugs into the toilet, flushed and, alone with her, I
witnessed the horrible effects of drug withdrawal. That's when I ran for
my godmother, who knew a lot about herbs. She in turn sought the help of
a Gypsy herbalist healer, a partragria.

Never leaving my mother's side, my aunt started brewing the herbal teas
of the Gypsy woman. My emaciated mother not only survived the withdrawal
symptoms, but within a matter of a few weeks started to rejuvenate. Her
emotional trauma from the war would never heal completely, but her
physical being returned to normal, and she was able to live, reasonably
happily, to the age of eighty-six.

That experience is now over sixty years ago. It was brought back home to
me when, very recently, I watched a close friends suffer non-stop pain
with Shingles. Traditional medicine gave very little improvement. Again
I sought the advice of a Roma herbalist healer. When I told her the
story of my mother, she told me "a real Rromani healer would never just
cut out pharmaceutical medication. Today's partragria would first work
with teas compatible with traditional medication, and then slowly wean
her off, before starting the actual healing." I reminded her that in
fact, I had thrown out the medication, before seeking the help of an
herbal healer.

Herbal medicine is an ancient art among Gypsy/Roma and other people of
ancient cultures. When Roma were still purely nomadic, they enjoyed
great health and longevity. The art of herbal healing in many tribes has
been handed down through the generations to those with talent. In a
world where many suffer from the side effects of powerful synthetic
drugs, this ancient art, practiced within many other ancient cultures
should be brought to the attention of and made more readily available to
those whom 'traditional' medicine failed.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Europe’s Last Remaining Wall

It's a wall that was started 500 years ago. It's invisible. It is the
wall that separates Europe from her largest minority –the Gypsy people.
Ever since they first set foot on European soil, they were stripped,
layer after layer, of the essence of their harmonious culture – the
freedom to travel, which in turn curtailed the plying of their trades,
the performing of their ancient crafts and the display of their talents
in music and dance, their art.

Increasingly they were pushed into the shadows of Europe's many
cultures, without in return according them the most basic human rights.
They received no schooling to adjust to cultures that were foreign to
them. They were not protected by the prevailing laws of the land. Often
their only means of survival was theft and other petty crimes. This in
turn, reinforced the mediaeval perception of the Gypsy as thief, as
lazy, as untrustworthy. Contrary to many racist misconceptions, Roma are
not criminal by nature, even the Nazis admitted there was no crime among
nomadic Gypsies. Crime among Roma themselves is extremely rare, and
severely condemned and punished by their own.

The time has come for the new United Europe to tear down this last
remaining wall, give the Romani culture the same respect it offers all
other European cultures, reverse this trend of pushing the Roma into
abject poverty and thereby petty crimes in order to survive. The Roma
are an intelligent, peace-loving people. Many have long since integrated
into the majority population. After centuries of marginalization, abuse
and humiliation, the rest of them, the poorest, the most vulnerable
deserve to be helped with patience, education, love and understanding to
join the dignity and right to a decent life accorded to all other

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

By Criticizing Madonna For Not Doing Enough, Are We Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth?

"Welcoming Madonna for supporting Roma people, Hindus have urged her to
'wholeheartedly' undertake Roma cause and do substantially more than
just donating a used pair of shoes for Roma charity." [Roma Daily News],
Friday, November 6, 2009.

It is not about the $ 16,600 Modanna raised for Roma children by
auctioning a pair of her shoes, it is about the fact that Madonna did
what few do – rebel openly against the centuries-long injustice and
inhumanity committed against Europe's Roma people. As those of us, who
for decades now have tried to raise awareness to the continued
persecution and/or marginalization, know – the majority of non-Gypsies
either doesn't care, or looks the other way. I have no idea whether
Madonna was or is a Gypsy activist, or whether she is simply a human
being who cares and has the guts to make her feelings known. To me the
question is not, should the famous pop-star do more, but rather how do
we attract more people like her?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


During Fascist times of World War II, Italy’s racists were definitely a minority. Her Jews, although persecuted by Italy’s racist minority, never felt hated by her people. Many scientists and intellectuals who fled the persecution, after the war returned to what they still considered their homeland and the people they loved. Now Gruppo Everyone and the anti-racist networks, from where I stand sound like a tiny chorus in a tumultuous sea of racial hatred backed up by indifference.

“The situation of Roma citizens in Italy is getting more and more desperate every day,” writes Gruppo Everyone. “A persecution taking place among the indifference and silence of the media.” Of course most newspapers and TV stations are controlled by both Right and Left Wing political parties. Berlusconi is the boss of many.

In the Germany of World War II, the extent of the genocides were made possible by the overwhelming numbers of Germans turned persecutors and the indifference of the rest of the population. Opposition was almost non-existent.

Has Italy’s once human heart turned into a heart of darkness?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


That condemns roughly 10,000 Roma to a life of daily threat, harassment, and a life of fear in a segregated community.

Roma rights Organization Chachipe states:

“Contrary to what is said by the German authorities the situation of Roma in Kosovo has not improved drastically. Roma continue to be victims of widespread discrimination and violations of their human rights.”

In 2002 I stayed with a Roma family in Kosovo. They lived in ramshackle houses with out- houses and water from a communal pump. Some lived on toxic dumps, where children were born deformed, all children tested extremely high on blood levels of lead. Parents were afraid to send their children to school. Roma who sat on the backseats while some of us Westerners drove through towns, ducked so as not to be recognized and attacked. There was fear of attacks during the night. There was very little food, lack of firewood for the cold winters. Gasoline was purchased on the black market in one-liter wine bottles.

As always Gypsies do the best with what they’ve got: The inside of their shacks were clean and cozy, their children unfed but well looked after, as is their custom, they were protective of their guests

Having grown up in Europe during the war, I know for a fact that attitudes in Europe change slowly, if at all. The resurgence of racism 60 years after the holocaust seems prove that the same hatred has kept on smoldering under promises of modern-day democracies. Activist over here in the U.S., human rights activists from all over the world,

have to unite to prevent this new version of a previous genocide. Kosovo would be a good start to keep an unrelenting vigil, because when I was there, NATO soldiers seemed to look the other way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Having known Gypsies or Roma for most of my life, I have always looked upon fortune-telling as a form of entertainment, to my eyes harmless entertainment. I myself, whenever life dealt me a dirty blow and I needed my spirits lifted, rather than seeing a psychiatrist, who would approach my problem by digging it up and spreading it wide, I personally did not hesitate to visit a fortune-teller instead. Placed in cozy surroundings, it is in such a person’s interest to make me feel better, otherwise no return business. By the way, I never sought out a Gypsy for that sort of service, knowing how they feel about it, and afraid that with their keen eyes they would read what I knew about them, namely that those with the true gift would hardly steep down to the entertainment business.

So what about the true gift? Not only born to it but born with the patience to develop and belief in their natural abilities? Urania Boswell, was born in 1852 in England and became famous for her special sensitivity to the approach of danger and/or death. She was able to predict not only the time of her son’s and brother’s death, but the year of Queen Victoria’s death, four years before it happened. Such power not only impressed non-Gypsies, or gadje, but it is a power that frightens fellow Gypsies.

I myself, ever since I was a child growing up with partisans and people on the run in the woods of Germany and Poland during World War II, had this horrible sensitivity to feel either the actual moment of death of people close to me but fighting at great distances away, or foresee the early death of people I love. Something to think about.

Friday, October 9, 2009


[Roma Daily News] Romania: Roma, between tradition and law

“The marriage is one of the characteristic elements of the Roma culture, tradition and way of life, and the subject of early marriages attracted international attention. Adapting to European legislation determined significant changes inside Roma communities, which try to adept their traditions to the modern law provisions.”

Roma/Gypsies have always considered children to be the true wealth of their culture. Early marriage not only kept the young women virginal till marriage, thereby assuring true bloodlines, but assured a great number of offspring. The number of children was also the greatest trump card in the Roma fight for survival. And these children are brought up to survive the harshness of Gypsy life. They receive much love, but from early on they are taught to contribute to their family means of survival. In the past they earned their living within traditional Gypsy trades, arts, and craftsmanship. Unfortunately modern life has eliminated the need for many of these traditional occupations. But as far back as Roma history is recorded in Europe, the rulers of the majority population have focused on attacking this greatest wealth of Roma culture, their children. Already under Maria Theresa of Austria children were taken from their Roma families and placed into Christian foster homes, Roma women were and to this day are sterilized against their will, and on and on. This has never met with ultimate success. The Roma family is a warm circle of life. It was and is the culture’s core strength.

Unfortunately on this more and more overcrowded planet, we all have to compromise, stick to laws that apply to all. I have no doubt that, once those Roma will be presented with the equal rights and the protections that go with those laws, to which they have a right as citizens of Europe, they will bend their laws to conform. Chaucer had a saying: The stick that bends doesn’t break. The Gypsies are masters at flexibility; it is how they have survived on their long trail of tears.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Friday, October 2, 2009 [Roma Daily News]:

“Gypsy women consider themselves as inferior to men and vulnerable because of lack of education, a Soros survey has revealed. Gypsy women have low self-esteem and are vulnerable to poverty, lack of social assistance and illnesses provoked by repeated early pregnancies.”

A society where leadership is balanced by male and female input is proven to serve its people best. Women will add the necessary caution for survival to male leadership which may exhibit too much aggression. Studies of dealing with juvenile delinquency have shown that the girls in young men’s life are often the best means to bridle their lawlessness. There are indeed among Gypsy tribes, namely the Lovara, the horse-dealers, where leadership at the top was divided between a male and a female leader. Unfortunately, among today’s Roma majority, the women are indeed kept suppressed and illiterate. If this is subconsciously maintained to enhance the confidence of Roma men, and as a result they have a lot of self-interested, divisive male leaders, these leaders are not only cutting their own flesh, but that of their people. Roma must unite. Their women’s voices have to be heard. They have to stand as equals, side by side, to avert the disaster that is brewing all over Europe, and if successful there, will spread like a virus to Roma over here as well.

Friday, October 2, 2009


As per except from Policy Center for Roma and Minorities [Roma Daily News]:

“The Roma community’s leadership is weak. The Roma suffer from bitter infighting. Successful, integrated Roma are either afraid to admit that they are Roma or care little about the conditions less-fortunate, and more visible maligned Roma suffer.”

Part of the survival technique of Gypsies/Roma while still nomadic, was the wise choice of a leader. Leadership was not hereditary, but elected by the tribe. A leader had to be intelligent, a shrewd manipulator and tradesman, most of all he had to set the interest of his tribe high above his own. He took care of his people first and foremost. In certain tribes, like the Lovara, leadership at the top was divided between a male and an elder female leader. They brought different sets of insights to the art of survival. Roma leaders of today, and I am referring to Europe, are often lured by government agencies and NGO’s to step forward as spokesmen and leaders of their tribes to negotiate with the outside world. This usually brings to these chosen individuals advantages and privileges, i.e. easier access to work and money grants. Mostly such opportunities turn into self-interest, corrupting these chosen individuals from the start into offering lip service to the donors and leaving the neediest Gypsies more and more isolated to fend for themselves. Although in this world of shrinking living space Gypsies will have to adjust, they must return to some of the valuable qualities of their former way of life. Theirs was a beautiful, harmonious culture.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reports from Budapest, Hungary:

“There are believed to be a quarter of a million street children in Europe, although officials cautioned that figure may be higher because as many as 1.5 millions young gypsies, also known as Roma, are ‘unregistered.’”

These children have no voice to speak up for them, no defenses, no food. They are the unprotected targets of crimes and vices of the most debasing kind. Many come from Romania, a country where Roma were traded as slaves for 550 years, and where under Ceausescu’ s nazi-like regime, women were denied birth control, and rewarded to have children they could not afford to keep.

When they steal to survive, these victims of our society are declared criminals and undesirables. Where is the hope, the help for these martyrs of our culture.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gypsy/Roma children at the biggest crossroad in the history of their ancient culture. No hope for Roma in Czech ghetto. Rosie Dimanno writes:
“KLADNO-It is the first day of school. The children are well-scrubbed and neatly dressed. Some, the littlest and most excited, have their mothers in tow as they wait at the bus stop.

The bus pulls in. The doors fold open. The driver glares. And forbids them from boarding. ‘I don’t take gypsies.’

Moms, incensed, start to yell. Kids, confused and frightened, begin to cry. The driver, unmoved, slams shut the door and the bus rumbles off, leaving the youngsters stricken and adults seared with shame.

Many of these children have just had their introductory lesson in what it means to be Roma – reviled and excluded-in this so-civilized country.”

The above applies with slight variations to many countries of the former East-bloc States, as well as some states of Western Europe’s new so-called democracies. By contrast:

[Roma Daily News]: Roma Parents Sent to Jail in Hungary Because Their Kids Skip School.
“Two Roma parents in the village of Sajokaza have received 16-month prison sentences because two of their children stopped going to school, the Budapest daily “Nepszabadsag” reported on September ll. The paper cited a child-protection officer who said that it is unprecedented in Hungary that both parents, who have six children including an infant, have been given simultaneous prison sentences. While three of their other children regularly attend school, the two oldest children have dropped out.”

Of course those children drop out because they are put at a disadvantage from the time they set foot into a non-Roma school, they remain apart, and they often meet up with bullying by the majority kids that in turn often leads to brutal violence.

So what about Roma children right here in the U.S.?
Like every group of people, minority or majority, we educate our children for a life we deem worthwhile. For the majority, even most of the minority groups, we believe that a formal education, from school to college and beyond, will achieve this. For craftsmen and tradesmen it’s often a hands-on education to excel in whatever trade or craft their children want to pursue. For the Gypsy/Roma here in the United States it has been for the continuation of their culture, for which every Roma I have ever met has a strong love, pride and loyalty that exceeds even the loyalty to his own family. That culture has been under threat ever since they set foot into Western culture for nearly 550 years ago. Yet their culture has survived In America mostly by going into hiding as they arrived in waves since hundreds of years ago. They have since mostly educated their children at home, like many other groups who felt that public schools couldn’t meet their objectives and instill the values they feel strongly about.

Enter the age of the computer. If you can at all generalize about an ethnic group’s intelligence, I would say the Gypsies would rank high. Their quick thinking, the ability to adjust to and survive highly dangerous passages is definitely a proof of their mental capabilities. So now, the Roma took to this new tool, whereby the Roma can enter and communicate with this new digital world without letting strangers into their front door, like ducks to water. Even in Kosovo, where Roma are afraid to send their children to school for fear of them being murdered, the men found ways to get access to computers and link on in internet cafes. Imagine the impact it has on Roma over here, where there is prejudice but no persecution?

However, this new tool endangers Roma culture like nothing has ever done before. For now, there is no way to control or limit the exposure of Roma children to a culture not their own. I sense among many a great hunger for higher education, and a wish for their children to excel in this world of the written word, versus the oral culture that has been theirs for so long. So how can Roma preserve the culture they so value and love, as well as their beautiful, secretive language? Only Roma can solve this newest threat. The best we can do is help not hinder. But just as the computer has invaded their lives, so their culture has long been part of ours: through music and dreams of a freer, more independent life, unfortunately the darker side of prejudice and the need to enforce sameness as well. But there is no doubt in mind, the loss of their ancient culture would be ours as well.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Roma Community Facing Forced Eviction


This would destroy yet another community of 200 Roma people, leaving them without possessions or place to live as families. I wrote the following letter to the Mayor of Milano, Italy, with cc. to the Newspaper ‘Corriere della Sera’ in Milano, and the ‘International Herald Tribune’ in Paris.



This would destroy yet another community of 200 Roma people, leaving them without possessions or place to live as families. I wrote the following letter to the Mayor of Milano, Italy, with cc. to the Newspaper ‘Corriere della Sera’ in Milano, and the ‘International Herald Tribune’ in Paris.

Re: Eviction of Roma/Gypsies from Rubattino area

Dear Dott. Lombardi,

My name is Sonia Meyer. I grew up after World War II in a very distinguished Jewish family of highly distinguished scientists. One of my uncles (by marriage) earned a Nobel Prize in physics. I had the honor of meeting in person Italy’s greatest physicist Enrico Fermi, a poetic man in person. In the States I met many distinguished Italian Jewish refugees from Italy. All these people, despite fascism, never lost their love for the Italian people, who they felt were not their true enemies. Many of them returned to the country they loved to spend their last years of life.

I am afraid these same people would turn in their graves, if they learned what is happening to their beloved country. The Gypsy people are not strangers on European soil. They’ve lived among us for over 600 years. They are our highly artistic, maybe at times stubborn and hard to manage, European brothers and sisters. I was born in Germany and, although my family went underground during the Hitler regime and my blood is very mixed, I feel shame for whatever little German blood flows in my veins. Don’t leave that same heritage to your children.

It is not too late, stop the eviction of your fellow Europeans from the Rubattino Camp. I could personally try to get Roma leaders here in the United States to send their own people over to try and work out possible solutions. In fact Gypsies have no reason to trust non-Gypsies, their lives have had nothing but tragedy since they arrived on European soil. I believe, and I have dealt with Roma for a great part of my life, it would be best to start involving Roma to deal with Roma. It would be an effort that would show very positive results in a short time.

I am available to you if I can be of help. I realize the economic situation everywhere makes life difficult for many countries, but let’s try to solve problems in a way that makes us proud to be human.


Sonia Meyer

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


In an Editorial from The Slovac Spectator, under the title - The danger of instant solutions –it includes the following statement:

“SNS deputy chairwoman Anna Belousovova rushed to suggest that children from ‘socially inadaptable families’ [i.e. Gypsy children] should be placed in boarding schools. She said that in this way children would be given a choice about what type of life they would like to choose.”

In reality this method of ethnic cleansing, namely to deprive a child of its own cultural background in order to deny its cultural identity and hopefully live like the rest of the majority, goes back centuries. Children were brutally removed from their Gypsy parents in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, in order to ‘civilize’ them. Marie Therese of Austria and the leaders of many other European countries pulled Roma children from their parents and placed them with peasant families, to grow up ‘proper’. Now in present-day Europe they are forced to attend schools that discriminate against them and revile them. Not a “proper” learning environment for any child. The other method is to place them into schools for the retarted.

I have known Gypsies or Roma for most of my life. Fact is Roma love their culture, it is a beautiful culture. Roma love their children, most consider their children their biggest wealth. They bring up their children to live their traditional lives as much as possible. As intelligence goes, Roma children have plenty of it. They would not be able to survive without.

So what is the solution? According to Roma I talk to, schooling has to be a mix of traditional and academic. They need at least some Romani teachers. We have these schools for other ethnic groups in the U.S., why not have one for Roma here as well? Set an example for Europe. Morally and idealistically, this country stands for human equality. Here is another chance to prove it.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Madonna was the first major star to use her fame to open Europe’s Pandora box of ancient prejudice and racial divide. She is bravely exporting principles from our own beloved United States, where no matter how many problems we face, freedom and equality for all will always remain at the top of what we fight for. Now echoing from those Eastern European countries, 20 million voices of Europe’s persecuted to this day, and I quote:

From: “Roma Virtual Network”, August 29, 2009:
“Sofia, Bulgaria – Today is Michael Jackson’s birthday, and today the worldwide Roma community is pleased to launch an online tribute to their all time favorite entertainer, the King of Pop.

Michael Jackson is no longer with us, but he is fondly remembered by 20 million Gypsies. As a gesture of love and respect for their King of Pop, Roma around the world are invited to submit videos of their own best Michael Jackson song and dance performances.
‘The Roma of the world have one opinion,’ stated Vadim Kolpakov, who is currently performing in Sofia, Bulgaria, with Madonna’s worldwide Sticky and Sweet tour. ‘Madonna is our Queen of Pop, and Michael Jackson will always be our King of Pop.’”

Sometimes art will succeed, where politics and bureaucracy fail. Music of course goes straight to the heart, art to the eye, literature to the brain. We need all three of these art forms to slowly change prejudice that divides us and make the world a better, more interesting place for all of us to share.

Monday, August 31, 2009


Under the czars pogroms were launched against Russian Jews to relieve political tension. Now, in the new United Europe economic troubles are unleashing pogroms against Roma, also known as Gypsies, her largest and most defenseless minority. Of 16 million Roma some 10 millions live in Europe. Most have long been hauled off their ancient nomadic treks, many for centuries, and forced into a life not their own. Trapped in countries where they were born, but denied documents to prove that they exist, they have struggled to survive outside of any form of basic social protection or inclusion.

Those who have survived these centuries of persecution and marginalization have done so mostly by withdrawing into invisibility. Even the famous ones will not admit to being Gypsy. Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brunner, Elvis Presley, Django Reinhardt, to name a few in the entertainment world. In the political arena there were Juscelino Kubitschek, former President of Brazil, and our own Bill Clinton, who is of Romani descent. Mother Teresa was an Albanian Gypsy. In 1984 Sonya Kavalesky, became the first female professor in the world, teaching mathematics in Sweden. There are countless successful Gypsy athletes and dancers. Gypsy music and musicians have influenced great composers such as Bizet, Haydn, Brahms and Ravel. They are undeniably part of Western culture. They have been for over six hundred years. Since they are a peaceful people, (Gypsies are, nor ever have been, killers) instead of retribution they have always opted to quietly disappear into the background in order to survive. In fact the choosing of peace over war and conflict, life over death, is at the core of Roma history.

They originate from the Indian Subcontinent and began their migrations around the 11th Century. They were drawn from different tribes to fight the brutal Muslim invasion of Northern India. Instead they decided to flee its terror, and in Diaspora became one people, a nation without borders and without written records to leave behind.

What they took from India was the language and respect for animal life, not only those that shared the space they were about to cross: the wily bear, the wolf with his human eyes, but most of all the horse, symbol of freedom, power and beauty. Like many nomads the Gypsies followed the cult of the horse. The eating of horse-flesh became the most ignoble of crimes, banishing a Rom from his tribe forever, to a Gypsy a fate worse than death. For the culture that emerged almost at once was built around strong family ties, absolute loyalty, honesty, self-reliance and strict rules of cleanliness. It is not clear at what point these refugees split into different tribes, as would their traditions, cultural habits and dialects. The split occurred along the lines of their livelihood. There were the iron-workers, the horse-dealers, the bear-trainers, the basket-weavers. All of them had the knack for trade, the talent for music and poetry. And whatever the differences, they remained united in their search for a peaceful existence and the enjoyment of life, which pursuit found renewal and revitalization by taking to the open road. Travel also served to keep in contact with the various extended families, and the finding of brides, thereby preventing inbreeding, and a weakening of the basic mental and physical health of the tribe.

Roma to this day are proud and very protective of their culture. What the few non-Gypsies who step beyond the prejudice that cloaks the Gypsy people, the few who actually have the opportunity to get to know them, will find are tightly knit communities with strong women, protective men, and children who grow up fast. The notion that Gypsies steal children, who they know would never survive the harshness of Gypsy life, aside from the fact that Gypsies have numerous children of their own, is one of those enduring prejudices that make the least sense of all. Gypsies always have and still work as a family unit. They work hard, but a Gypsy works to live; he does not live to work. And yes, if pushed into a corner, where the choice is stealing or die, the Gypsy will steal in order to survive. Like among all other groups, wherever there is poverty and despair there is crime and of course begging. To a Gypsy stealing is a means of last resort, because if he is caught, he will be taken away from his own people, to a Gypsy a punishment worse than the jail he will be condemned to.

They arrived in Europe in the early 14 hundreds with great panache, like eccentric dukes and counts, with colorful and lively entourages of musicians, dancers, fortunetellers and talented craftsmen. Some arrived as pilgrims traveling for penitence. They were erroneously called Gypsies, because they were believed to arrive from Egypt. Right from the start these dark strangers evoked strong feelings and prejudice that split in two, from the beginning that prejudice ran along lines of class. The poor regarded them with suspicion and hate, some of the wealthy and more educated with longing and romanticism, enjoying their art.

Kings and feudal lords, even a Pope gave the Gypsy caravans letters of safe passage upon their arrival in Europe. In Russia the nobility valued them like cherished pets. Great Russian lords were proud to house their own orchestras of tziganis. Aristocrats married Gypsy women, as did Tolstoy’s brother. Ana Karenina was based on his Gypsy sister-in-law. Even Hitler, among all those he was about to eliminate, showed a weak spot for the Gypsies and wanted to preserve some of the still purely nomadic Gypsies, falsely believing them to be ur-Aryans, in a zoo-like enclosure, for young Germans to visit on their day of rest. Dr. Mengele, uncle Mengele to the Gypsy children to whom he gave candy, in one of his death camps kept a little Gypsy boy with a haunting singing voice, all dressed in white, at all times by his side. But just before the door was thrown shut after the last interned Gypsy child had been led into a gas-chamber, he shoved the little boy in after them, last minute, almost like an afterthought. It was what most other persecutors of the Roma did and do to this day: in the end they feed these dark strangers as scapegoats to riled-up hate mobs. Except for the Russian aristocracy, most remained loyal to their Gypsy friends, till they themselves were devoured by the Great Revolution. But in Russia, even most of the peasants loved their tziganis, and when Russia’s freedom was threatened by the Nazis, theirs was the only war the Gypsies joined to fight. It was the one country in Europe that had treated its Gypsies as fellow human beings.

In the rest of Europe, soon after their spectacular entry, the Gypsy trail turned into a trail of horror that in its endurance and persistence has no equal anywhere else in the world. The fate of the Gypsies was about to turn into Europe’s true and enduring Heart of Darkness.
I can only imagine being a Gypsy upon entering medieval Europe in those days. By then these nomads had several centuries of freedom under their belt. They had been famed musicians and entertainers at the luxurious courts of Persia. What they now crossed where feudal lands that looked more like places of confinement for the many peasants and serfs, who worked these plots they did not own from dusk to dawn. And whereas the Gypsies keep the interiors of their tents or caravans spotlessly clean, these peasants seemed to live in squalor. And each little hamlet had its lords, and overlords, to enforce obedience and religion, one religion to the exclusion of any other. For these masses of peasants and serfs there was lots of punishment by rod and no sight of a carrot. Yet whenever these feudal territories came under attack, these dictator feudal lords would order their serfs and peasants to go and kill for the land, and they would rush to kill and be killed. The Gypsies naturally moved out of the way of these killer wars, and became even more protective of their culture of non-violence. Gypsies are like all other people, they have their good and their bad apples, but rarely will a Gypsy kill, and never in cold blood and on a massive scale. Certainly not for a plot of land with a shack that to him looks like a cage.

But soon that killer righteousness turned on these dark strangers, who refused to settle in and called them pariahs and intruders. Open hunts were declared on Gypsy men, women and their children, as they were chased from place to place. When caught, they were mutilated, flogged and hung. Whole tribes were massacred. In Austria, children were taken systematically from their parents and placed in Christian households or with nuns. Gypsy women were forcibly sterilized. Gypsies were traded as slaves by lords and clergy in Wallachia up to 1865, when Gypsy slavery was finally abolished. Once again Gypsy culture closed in on itself, and retreated into invisibility.
No hiding place could save the Gypsy from the political upheaval caused by National Socialism in Germany. Again the hunt was on for those who were different. Like those Gypsies were either murdered straight out in forests or in hinterlands, with nobody close-by to witness, or lured from their caravans or the settled ones from their living quarters, almost lovingly, with promises of work. They were told to just come along to receive the necessary permission papers for these new opportunities, no need to worry about the animals they were leaving behind. They would return within the hour. No smashing of windows, no brutal grabbing of persons or property. The Nazis never separated their families. They knew, that was one thing the Gypsies would have resisted till death. National Socialism resulted in the murder of 1.5 million Gypsies, some estimate that constituted 70% of European Roma population. Yet of all those killed, their genocide is the least recorded, forgotten by all, except by their own.

In the aftermath of these dark times of European history, the resulting resolution was that from then on Europe would be immune to such heartless pursuits. Yet, almost sixty five years after the victory over National Socialism, anti-Gypsyism is as vibrant as before, is indeed resurging. In many of the countries that collaborated with the Nazis, Roma houses in their shanty-towns are fire-bombed: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Italy. When in Hungary a terrified father with his five year old son, tried to flee his burning home, both were killed by waiting gunmen. Hard-working law abiding Gypsies are killed out in the streets for no reason at all. Teen-age girls attack Gypsy women carrying babies out in the streets of Belfast, Gypsy encampments are grazed down by bulldozers, leaving its inhabitants, old and young, with no place to go. One story that got out and shocked the world, was when two Gypsy girls selling trinkets along the shore, Cristina 12, and Viola 11, drowned in rough seas, were pulled ashore and covered with beach towels, with beachgoers showing no more respect or feeling than they would toward dead fish washed ashore.

Yet for a while there was hope. After the Break-up of Soviet Union, the establishment of the EU and the inclusion of more and more former satellite countries now independent, frontiers opened that had been closed to the Gypsies before. Like the opening of the American West this spelled new opportunities. Ion Cioaba, self-declared King of the Gypsies, before his death in 1997, warned the Gypsy people against simply leaving behind whatever little security they had. But the independent Gypsies, with the everlasting hope and optimism of nomads, no matter how long they have been trapped in dirty cages, would not listen. So, totally unprepared for modern life, their numbers soon swelling by Gypsies escaping ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the poorest of the poor Gypsies swept across this new Europe, that despite its vastly differing people from North to South, after centuries of territorial war fare, was reluctantly pretending to be one. Only one barrier remained firmly in place, the solid wall of prejudice that separates non-Gypsy from Gypsy, Gadje from Roma. That wall is over 600 years old and shows no signs of crumbling. So now the poorest of the poor, the sick and elderly, women with babies, find themselves without papers, without human rights, out in the streets and almost no one to speak up for them.

Vaclav Havel, human rights campaigner and the former Czech president declared the fate of the Roma would be a litmus test for the new democracies of Europe. A friend and Gypsy activist, who had the opportunity to see neo Nazis from up close, says Europe has already failed that litmus test. I am more optimistic as to the fate of the Roma than I have ever been. For the first time Roma are uniting to stand up for their rights. Romani women are forming activist groups to back up their men. Besides, I believe there is a little bit of the Gypsy in all of us; the part that loves freedom, loyalty and togetherness, all the good stuff that we are in the process of diminishing. Maybe, after centuries of maligning their culture and trying to shove ours down the Gypsies’ throat, we should ask ourselves whether there is something we could learn from them, such as authentic human values: to Gypsies children are the center of their lives, their greatest wealth, they take care of their elders, their sick, wealth is to bring happiness and to share, highly valued are family love and togetherness, friendship and loyalty. The time has come to stand by our human brothers and sisters, whose only true crime has been that they look at the world with different eyes. The right to be different is one of the essentials of true democracy, one that enriches us all. The time has come for all of us to tear down this ancient wall of prejudice and intolerance.

Madonna on her ‘Sticky and Sweet’ World tour shines a light on Europe’s dark secret.

Alina Wolfe Murray, (AP), 27/08/2009, writes:

“BUCHAREST, Romania - At first, fans politely applauded the Roma performers sharing a stage with Madonna. Then the pop star condemned widespread discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies and the cheers gave way to jeers.
The sharp mood change that swept the crowd of 60,000, who had packed a park for Wednesday night’s concert, underscores how prejudice against Gypsies remains deeply entrenched across Eastern Europe.”

In a [Roma Daily News] Press statement, 28/08/2009:

“The three members of the Russian Romany music Kolpakov Trio, Sasha K. Arkadiy G and Vadim K mentioned, in a press conference organized by Romani CRISS on August 28 at Uzinexport in Bucharest, [that] the audience’s reaction to Madonna’s impulsive statement against discrimination was the most hostile they ever met during their tour with Madonna, but also within their whole career.”

There is reason for this. Since their arrival in Europe, more than 600 years ago, the persecution of the Gypsies/Roma has been the most brutal and persistent of any minority in Europe. Nowhere has this been more brutal and long-lasting than in Romania, where they were traded as slaves until 1865, when slavery, not prejudice and marginalization, was finally abolished. By contrast In Russia, where the Kolpakov Trio originated, Gypsies were respected, loved and celebrated as great artists by the aristocracy and even by most of their peasants. It is only when Nikita Khrushchev forbade nomadism in 1956 that conditions rapidly deteriorated for Russian Gypsies. That is why I chose this period as a backdrop for my novel DOSHA.

Madonna has been praised by Hindus and Jews for her Roma comments. Those who love freedom and democracy should hail her as an Ambassadress, carrying the torch for those values. The Gypsies/Roma have been part of Western Culture for all those centuries. Integrating them fully, including their right to be different, just as other cultures within the New Europe, is a litmus test for the EU’s new democracies.