Cher Was No Gypsy

“If I am fancy free and love to wander, it’s just the gypsy in my soul . . .”

“Embrace me, you sweet embraceable you . . .You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me. . .”

I knew nothing about the gypsies when I was a kid in the 1950s, and I heard Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland singing those songs that my parents enjoyed so much. I did know that if those two famous entertainers were gypsies, than a gypsy must be someone very elegant, indeed. Some years later when Cher sang about a young woman and her gypsy band of “Gypsies, thieves, tramps and thieves”, I was well aware that gypsies lived and traveled all over Europe. They never stayed in one place, they were exotic, and they were dangerous.

In the James Bond film, From Russia With Love there is a scene in a gypsy camp that is menacing yet alluring. Two gypsy women had to settle a dispute by fighting to the death. Bond intervened to prevent the winner from killing the loser, and was then presented with both women — olive skinned, dark-haired, and scantily dressed even before the fight — for the night. Soon after their night together, Bond and the gypsies fight side by side against an attack on the camp. Lucky James Bond. Even the wild, and beautiful, gypsies fall under his spell.

My first experience with gypsies was not nearly as exciting as Mr. Bond’s. In the fall of 1992 I went on my first trip to Russia with a group of students. Only a year the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia was not a safe place. Street crime and mob violence was rampant. I wonder at our willingness to lunge into this unstable country, especially during winter. Our group met with colleagues and students who were veterans of travel in Europe and the old Soviet Union. While they warned us to be wary of common street criminals, pickpockets and such, they also were particularly concerned to warn us about the gypsies. Foreigners, especially well dressed Americans, were prime targets for these common thieves.

One day, while exiting an Exchange Bureau, I was immediately confronted by a young woman. She was dark, short, and clothed in what seemed to be scarves and clothe wrappings. She thrust in my face an appalling baby, obviously sick, covered with sores and scabs. I was stunned. I thought that she wanted money, I couldn’t understand what she said.

Suddenly a student behind me shouted “Watch out, Dr. Thompson!” and I was surrounded by a band of children, some very young, some older, all circling around me and going for my coat, my pockets, anything they could grab. Gypsies! Distracting one’s attention with a terribly sick child was a ploy that we had been warned about. I quickly recovered from my shock, pushed them away, and, with the help of my students, chased them away. The gypsies quickly turned and fled down the street.

My groups stood there as snow fell, panting, stunned, but feeling fortunate. No one had lost anything. Yet the very next day one of our students was walking with her Russian host (each night we all stayed with families and met at a central city point every day) to our meeting place at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. She had gotten ahead of her companion and while passing by an alley was she set upon by a ragged band of gypsies who tried to drag her into the alley. Her host was a short but stocky woman. She was solidly built and wore thick boots. She barged into the group of gypsies, kicking and swinging her fists with all her might, and pulled the student, scared but unharmed, to safety.

So those stories about gypsies were true: they were thieves and beggars, always ready to assault, possibly even kill, and quickly move on. They infested Europe and were viewed by many Europeans — and we could only agree based on our experience — as a blight on the continent. And yet, as I returned to Russia and visited other countries in east Europe during the ’90s and saw (managing to avoid further trouble) more groups of gypsies, I became aware of the extent of their persecution. As Isabel Fonseca writes in her book Bury Me Standing, The Gypsies and Their Journey, “Since the revolutions of 1989 (which overthrew the communist regimes in Romania and other east European nations, there) has been a sharp escalation of hatred and violence directed at them. There have been more than 35 serious attacks on settlements in Romania alone, mainly in remote rural areas, and mostly in the form of burnings and beatings, although some gypsies have been murdered and children have been maimed.”

I also saw that their culture was no less complex than any other. Some Roma (“Roma” being the proper term) prefer to wander, while others, as I eventually discovered, settle, educate their families and go on to the university. Indeed, there are now many Roma scholars. This latter group advocates diligently for their persecuted people; but there is no one group which speak for the Roma. For some the Roma want to assimilate, others do not. They have no single charismatic leader, no governing body, no one speaking to the world in the name of all Roma. And, unlike other persecuted minority groups, the Roma do not come together to ask for a state, or homeland. Those who assert Roma rights can only work for an end to their harrassment; and, an end to their poverty, whether they travel or stay put.

Bury Me Standing describes the complexity of a persecuted people. The Romas are, indeed, a distinct culture. In newspapers during the 1990s, I read about the increasing number of violent attacks against them all across Europe. Dangerous encounters such as my group experienced were used to justify the anti-Roma violence. Due to their reputation and heritage, the Romani community had become a convenient scapegoat for much of the crime and the feelings of uncertainty and dislocation in post-communist east Europe. Fonesca writes:

Gypsies, everywhere in sight, are the focus of a more robust hatred-made fresh by the new openness of democracy, which in the Eastern bloc, in comical contrast to the American variety, still means never having to say you’re sorry. Walls across Eastern and Central Europe are sprayed with Death-to-Gypsies slogans, too many to be the work or sentiment of a small group.

One of my students, Elena, transferred to my school to complete her B.A. degree. I would later stay with her family during my visits to Romania in 2000 and 2002. Growing up in Bucharest, Romania’s capitol, Elena had felt the animosity that was so typical of her countrymen. This animosity goes back, as Fonseca notes, at least to the 15th century and the time of Vlad Dracul and his son, the historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes. Father and son used the Roma as slaves and soldiers.

The Roma population in Romania is large; and, many Romanians resent the fact that people believe that the Roma, because of the name, come from Romania. Elena did her senior thesis on the Roma, and graduated in 1999. Before her senior year, she returned to Romania. While there she read widely, and discussed the complex issues involving the Romani community with Romanian politicians she met through her father’s involvement in Romania’s politics. She also spoke with her aunt who worked with the Roma. She was able to develop a deeper understanding of the people so many still disparagingly call “Gypsies.”

In June of 2000 when I visited Romania to study its post-communist politics, we traveled north, up and over the towering beauty of the Carpathian Mountains to Transylvania. I wanted to visit the stomping grounds of the historical Dracula. But I also had a chance to observe the Roma, away from urban areas and in a more natural rural setting. We stayed with Elena’s aunt in the Transylvanian city of Sibu.

North of Sibu we were surrounded by mountains and lush valleys. It seemed almost another planet with sublime views in all directions. The only ugly blots we passed were the still grimy industrial towns like Copsa Mica, once called Europe’s most polluted city. They were remnants of the communist era imposition of heavy industry on the formerly pristine rural countryside.

Away from the small cities and towns we began to see more Roma in small villages, encampments, and in caravans traveling along the roads. We left a small Romanian village, driving slowly around a sharp curve in a narrow road which began to climb up a steep hill. We came to a sudden stop at the curve — we were surrounded! All around us flowed a group of at least a hundred Roma. Some were walking, some riding mules, some riding in carts made of large pieces of rough hewn wood and with huge wheels. And they were surrounded by cattle and oxen they were slowly herding up the mountain.

It was as if we were a rock in a river of people and animals which flowed around us on all sides. I was at first apprehensive, we were stuck, at least for the moment. But the carts were filled with young children and women dressed in a wide array of brightly colored shirts, blouses, and scarves. They laughed and waved, and our cars seemed immersed in a wave of brightness and sunshine. The men and young boys driving the animals nodded and waved as they passed. This was a different experience of the Roma. I was seeing their life, their sheer joy in wandering and moving freely from one place to another. No longer fearful, I actually envied their freedom. Maybe the “gypsy in my soul” was touched.

I talked later with Elena’s aunt, and was brought back to the unhappy reality of the poverty and persecution that, besides the freedom, is part of the life of the modern Roma community. She is a teacher and has been part of a Romanian government program to bring Roma children into schools. Her interest is the evolution of varieties of language in Romania. This program enables her to both further her study and help the Roma. It hasn’t been easy. Roma language is complex, and only recently have some Roma scholars begun to compile dictionaries.

Also, the Roma are apprehensive about the impact of education, along with the changes in post-communist Romania, on their way of life and culture. Should the future generations of Roma settle down and farm, or move to towns and cities and take conventional jobs? And, of course, those outside the Romani community still view the Roma with suspicion and distrust. There are not nearly enough people like Elena’s aunt. She is willing to work with the Roma children, help them build a new life in democratic Romania, and somehow not entirely loose the freedom of their essentially nomadic culture.

This seems like attempting to square the proverbial circle. And yet, during June of this past summer, I visited Romania, Hungary, and the Czech Republic and saw that, though not squared, a new circle is taking shape. As government programs in Romania make progress in easing the relations between the Roma and non Roma, Hungarians and Czechs have also made much progress in working with the Roma. In Budapest, the professorial colleagues in my traveling group guided me to the Roma Press Center. It is not large, but since 1995 has worked diligently through newspapers and radio programs to publicize the culture, and the travails of the Roma. They also have a website: http://www.romapage.c3hu/rskhir.htm.

At the Press center we viewed an exhibit, simple yet powerful. Photographs, posters, and news accounts tell the story of the Roma in Hungary under communism. During World War II, the Roma, along with Jews, homosexuals, socialists, intellectuals, and other “undesirables” were exterminated in great numbers by the Nazis. After the war the communists worked to forcibly settle the Roma. They were brutalized, forced into settlements, and their cultural mores destroyed. For example, in the name of hygiene, government physicians came to disinfect Roma villages and forced all, men and women, to be hosed down with chemicals. They violated vital Roma taboos about female nakedness; and, the cleaning chemicals caused, ironically, disease and even death.

In Hungary the Roma Press Center provides the Roma a chance to tell their own story. Yet, considering my first experience with “gypsies” in Russia nine years ago, it was in the Czech Republic that I realized how far I had come from that encounter. Our group of professors met with Professor Milena Hubschmannova, who teaches at, among other places, Charles University in Prague. She also founded the political party of the Roma Citizen’s Initiative. The Professor works for Roma human rights; and, to help the Roma collect and preserve their folklore and cultural customs. Though short, her bearing is distinguished, set off by her traditional Roma scarf, blouse and wrap.

Professor Hubschmannova accompanied us on a visit to Kolin, a city 60 kilometers east of Prague. There we were invited to the Romani Secondary School of Social Work. The bus ride took us over bumpy roads, in east Europe “highway” travel still leaves much to be desired, through farmlands green with crops, which gave way to rolling hills off in the distance. Kolin is not especially picturesque, but the Romani School itself is a bright and friendly spot. An old apartment building has been turned into a school, with classrooms, dorm rooms, kitchens, cafeteria and recreation rooms. With desks, wall maps, pictures, Czech language charts, science charts, blackboards-it seemed not unlike the high school where my daughter goes to school.

But it was the Roma kids at the school who made a powerful impression. As an article about the school points out, the school aims to provide a secondary school education for fifty Romani children a year. The goal is to “provide a full secondary school education. . .install a sense of the importance of education. . .(and) install a sense of pride in the students’ ethnic identity. . .” The young Romani then return to the Romani community to work within it to help other Romani. The Romani boys and girls, about twenty in the group we met, talked with us over a huge and tasty lunch of bread, meat, and cheese (and some very spicy stuff I stayed away from).

They dressed as teenagers everywhere seem to dress these days, in jeans and a wide variety of t-shirts. Shy at first, their enthusiasm and excitement about their school and studies soon erupted. They study math, science, history, and the Czech language. Their excitement belies the demanding path they tread. The students have experienced in Kolin, and on field trips elsewhere, the prejudice towards “gypsies.” Celebrating at the end of the last school year, the graduates, like all Czech kids who finish high school, made a happy march around Kolin. Usually, town residents join in the boisterous celebrations. But this time many residents turned out to revile and harass the joyful graduates. The students stopped their march and returned to their school. They knew that if the locals’ rancor turned more ugly, or violent, they would take the blame for what happened.

These young Romani students are truly pioneers. They do not want handouts, but the chance for an education with which they can help their people. Can these young people prosper in the dual worlds of European and Roma culture? Can they leave behind the “tramps and thieves” stereotype and enable others to see the richness and uniqueness of Roma culture? Their optimism is encouraging. Indeed, the “gypsy in my soul” now encompasses the pride, dedication and courage of these young Romani.