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Roma History: Summary


There is little evidence in the historical record to explain why the Roma abandoned their homeland. War or famine are the likely culprits, but, much like the question of why the Scandinavian tribes suddenly began raiding Europe’s coastlines a thousand years ago, the concrete reasons have been lost. Romanes only became a written language a half century ago; the little we know of early Romani history was always written by others.

Unfortunately for the Roma, their first appearances in southeastern Europe coincided with the Ottoman Turkish invasions of the 13th-15th centuries; the stereotypes began on their entry. Roma were associated with non-Christians; they were dark-skinned, dark haired nomads of no fixed address, traveling according to their professions and the seasons. They were divided into bands- Kumpania- comprised of many families, ruled by Voivodes (Serbian for chieftain), a lifetime-elected position. Their caravans crisscrossed Europe; they left signs of their travel for other groups; bouquets of sticks tied with ribbons, and notches carved on trees.

Rom men were donkey-drivers, bridle-makers, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, sieve and brick-makers, livestock traders and animal trainers. Roma musicians played instruments their ancestors had first picked up in Armenia and Persia. They led dancing bears on chains. Their women wove baskets, told fortunes, begged, read palms and sold herbal remedies. They were nomads- a suspicious lifestyle for settled European communities used to invasions, be it from the steppe or other lands. The Roma found business among Europeans; the animal traders knew about cross-breeding and the health of livestock. The blacksmiths worked cheap and well. The musicians were always welcome.

And slowly the European idea of Gypsies formed- that they were heretics, lazybones, thieves, beggars, kidnappers and vagrants. Europeans called them Heiden (heathens), Tatarre, Saracens, Turks, Jews and Pharaones- the Pharaoh’s people. They spied for the Turks; their women were witches. Many of the racist stereotypes heaped upon European Jewry found their way to the newcomers. Isabel Fonseca, relates, in Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and their Journey, a tale, told by a Macedonian Romni, of how the father of all Roma inadvertently forged the nails that were used to crucify Christ. They became cursed; a discarded fourth nail, glowing hot, haunted them. They could never escape it, no matter how far they traveled.

Europeans told similar tales, the inadvertently was omitted.

Since their appearance in medieval Europe, Roma have been ghetto-ized, expelled, branded and enslaved. Roma were human livestock in Romania until 1864; it was fashionable for Romanian aristocrats to have a Romni slave-concubine. Roma were collectively hung, simply for being Roma; in 1710, Frederick I of Germany had an inscription carved on a gallows: ‘The penalty of thieving and Gipsy riff-raff.’ A decree issued in Prague in 1740 made lynching policy throughout Bohemia. Nineteen years before, King Charles XI of Germany ordered that the Roma within his territory be put to death. The Roma called these dark historical turns Porrajmata- devourings.

And then came the holocaust- the Baro Porrajmos, or great devouring. A badly wounded German soldier, recipient of the Iron Cross at the battle of Stalingrad, convalesced in his hometown in Germany while the Roma attracted greater SS interest; the soldier’s grandmother, it emerged, was Roma. The man was promptly dispatched to Auschwitz. Roma had their own Zigeunerlager at Auschwitz III- Birkenau: the ‘Gypsy family camp.’ That decorated soldier and 21,000 other Roma died there; at least 400,000 Gypsies were murdered during the Baro Porrajmos.

"He is a gypsy, a thing without cross or soul, one cannot call him either friend or brother, and one cannot take his word by anything in heaven or earth."

Ivo Andric, The Bridge Over the Drina, 1946

Roma are no longer lynched- in an organized, state-sponsored manner. The Second World War’s end saw Eastern Europe’s Roma barred from traveling, bartering and plying their trades. They were forced by the new communist authorities to reside in fixed locations. New Mahalas grew outside the capitals and major cities of every east European state. Šuto Orizari, Macedonia- Shutka to those who live there- began as a refugee camp for Roma when Skopje was leveled by an earthquake in the 1960s. Shutka is the largest of these Mahalas, with a population of 40,000, and is the only Roma ‘town’ in the world.

Some nations tried to assimilate them. Others tried to eliminate them by passive means, such as (then) communist Czechoslovakia’s Roma sterilization programs. The fall of communism has given rise to nationalist, right-wing movements that find natural targets in the Roma among them. Economic stagnation makes it easy. Attacks on Roma grow, by both skinheads and ordinary citizens enraged by the idea of gypsies- ‘petty criminals’ and ‘welfare recipients’ among them that are not of their blood. From Germany to the Czech Republic, from Slovakia to Romania, Roma have been beaten and killed. Their settlements have gone up in flames, often under the eyes of police who don’t care to stop what they see. Ideas of the rights of minorities find little resonance in those that commit these acts against a people who do not even possess a native word for war. Roma borrowed the word from Turkish.

Roma unemployment in Europe averages 30-40%. This is the direct result of Roma educational levels; most Roma who are employed work as menial laborers. In Eastern Europe’s new states, Roma are the last to be hired and, in times of economic downturn, the first to be fired. Traditional outlets for grievances related to hiring and firing practices- complaint boards and civil courts- are often off-limits for Roma due to the institutionalized racism found in these outlets. Roma illiteracy and lack of proficiency in the state language doesn’t help. In countries where racism directed at Roma is much more extreme, legal bodies take no action against abuses directed at Roma, and police sometimes actively condone or even participate in those abuses.

The Roma situation in Europe led a Macedonian Roma political party to write a letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, urging the creation of a Roma country, to be called Romanistan. The Macedonian media regarded this as a joke.

It wasn’t; it was a naïve, last-ditch attempt to rectify generations of exclusion and abuse. Roma are the only nation that has not even the semblance of a country. They are strangers in every land they were born in. The Kurds can define Kurdistan; the Roma cannot even say with absolute certainty where, in India, they are from.

In Kosovo, the Roma were always better assimilated. Unfortunately for them, the Albanians viewed them as being assimilated into the Serb side; their children attended Serbian schools after the Albanians were banned in 1989, when Kosovo’s autonomy was revoked by Belgrade, and when Albanians were fired en masse throughout Kosovo, the Roma weren’t.

After the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia ended in June of 1999, a new Porrajmata began there. It continues.

Roma emigrated from the northern Indian subcontinent in successive waves of migration, beginning roughly 1100 years ago; the first records of Roma in Persia appear in the 11th century. The linguistic evidence shows the route Roma traveled to Europe by the quantity of loan-words they adopted from other languages on the way, and Romanes now uses many words of Farsi, Armenian, Turkish and Greek origin. Romanes bears distinct similarities to the Indo-European Punjabi, Dardic and Gujarati languages of northern India. Romanes is closest to ancient Punjabi/ Hindi.

Roma are very similar to the Dom group of Indian tribes: Dom is a Sanskrit term for an achuta (untouchable) sub-caste whose members traditionally made their livings as musicians. Dom now engage in the cremation of dead Hindus; untouchables have cornered this market due to higher caste prohibitions against touching the deceased. The Hindu castes are, from high to low; Brahmans, the priests; Kshatriyas, the kings and warriors; Vaisyas, the commercial classes; and the Sudras, or menial workers. All castes are further divided by sub-castes. Hindu mythology states that each caste was born from the body of a legendary being, except for the achuta, who came from nothing.

The most striking linguistic link between Dom and Rom are their names, both meaning ‘man,’ or ‘us.’ Most Roma accept the Indian link; a minority of Roma claim other origins, including the Egyptian theory put forth by puzzled medieval Europeans. Still other Roma theorists accept their Indian origins, but claim that they are the descendents, not of achutas, but of migrating warrior Kshatriyas.[6]

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