The Travail of the Gypsies

September 1, 1999 Topic: Society

The Travail of the Gypsies

Mini Teaser: A long-suffering people braces for more of the same.

by Author(s): Guenter Lewy

A recent U.S. State Department report on human rights around the world noted that Gypsies, often also called Romani or Roma, "suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, interethnic violence, discrimination, illiteracy and disease." In Hungary, Gypsies number between half and one million, and they are routinely subjected to harassment and intimidation by skinheads and other extremist elements; many have been attacked physically. Romania has about 2.5 million Gypsies, and there, too, anti-Gypsy violence is rampant. According to a recent poll in the Czech Republic, almost one-third of its population is opposed to coexistence with the Gypsy minority, who number between two and three hundred thousand and constitute an impoverished underclass. Assaults on Gypsies by Serbian neo-Nazi gangs are frequent; in October 1997 a pregnant Gypsy woman was beaten to death in Belgrade. The Gypsies of Kosovo have been accused of collaborating with the Serbs during the recent ethnic cleansing of the province, and those who have not fled to Serbia have been severely harassed. A 1994 survey done for the American Jewish Committee in Germany found that 68 percent of those questioned did not want Gypsies as neighbors and 40 percent judged the behavior of Gypsies to be "provocative." In September 1994 two Gypsy refugees from the former Yugoslavia died in an arson attack in a small town in Westphalia, Germany. In February 1995 four Gypsies in Austria were killed by a pipe bomb. All this comes after a wave of Nazi persecution during the Second World War that claimed the lives of more than a hundred thousand Gypsies.

Why do Gypsies incur so much hostility? Who are these elusive people who have their own language, but no written or oral history? Estimates of the number of Gypsies in the United States alone range between one hundred thousand and one million, but why do they not appear in any census?

The people known as Gypsies speak a multiplicity of dialects derived from Sanskrit, with borrowings from Persian, Kurdish and Greek. Analysis of this language, known as Romani, and other evidence has established with considerable certainty that the Gypsies left the Indian subcontinent more than a thousand years ago, probably in several waves, and gradually migrated through Persia, Armenia and Turkey to Europe. We do not know what brought about this exodus. For the fourteenth century, their presence is documented in Greece, where they were known as Atzinganoi; the German Zigeuner, the French Tsiganes, the Italian Zingari and similar names in other languages derive from this Byzantine appellation. From the year 1417 on, chronicles mention their movement through Germany. That same year, the German Emperor Sigismund issued a group of some one hundred Gypsies a letter of safe conduct.

Presenting themselves as pilgrims and penitents, Gypsies at first were well received in Europe and were the recipients of both private and public alms. The story they told of their origins, sometimes referred to as "The Great Trick", is handed down in several versions. According to some accounts, they claimed to hail from Egypt and were doing penance for having abandoned Christianity. Others relate that they claimed to be expiating the sins of their forefathers who had refused to help the Blessed Virgin and the Christ child on their flight to Egypt.

The Gypsies were therefore frequently called "Egyptians"; the names "Gypsies" in English and "Gitanos" in Spanish are distorted forms of this word. Very soon, however, tensions developed between indigenous, sedentary populations and these foreign-looking nomads, who made their living by repairing kettles, sharpening scissors, trading horses, performing music and dances, and telling fortunes. Their dedication to a life of penance was frequently called into question, and Gypsies were often denounced as heathens. Many accounts mention that they were excessively given to thievery. There were charges of sorcery, witchcraft, child stealing and spying for the infidel Turks. Gypsies were said to be noisy, dirty, immoral and deceitful. Their self-proclaimed ability to see into the future both attracted and terrified.

The theme of the stealing and dishonest Gypsies appears regularly in medieval chronicles. Jealous craft guilds, seeking to maintain local monopolies, sought to limit traditional Gypsy occupations such as metalworking and the manufacture of baskets. As a result of these restrictions, Gypsies increasingly resorted to begging and stealing, reinforcing a stereotype that had accompanied them from the time of their arrival in Europe. With the spread of the Reformation, pilgrims lost their earlier lofty status, and begging, too, came under sharp attack. While local parishes were prepared to support their indigenous poor, foreign beggars were routinely sent away.

After the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, which uprooted thousands, vagrant hordes of dispossessed peasants and disbanded soldiers strode through the land, stealing for their sustenance. Some Gypsies, too, formed robber bands. In response, local rulers enacted a flood of punitive legislation, some of it specifically directed against Gypsies. About three-quarters of the more than one hundred anti-Gypsy measures enacted in German lands were issued within one hundred years of the Thirty Years War. Sometimes Gypsies were declared to be outlaws by definition, who, if found, could be put to death without trial. In other places they were to be flogged, branded and expelled. Only gradually did the forces of enlightenment sweeping through Europe in the eighteenth century temper the cruelty of the law and bring about an amelioration in the status of the Gypsies. Their musical talent often was an important factor in winning a measure of tolerance.

Under the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) and her son, Joseph II (1780-90), Gypsies in Hungary and Austria were forced to settle. The result was that Gypsies lived a precarious existence on the fringes of villages; the more fortunate found work in construction and as farm hands. In Romania Gypsies were held as serfs and slaves, and their full emancipation did not come until 1864. As European society was becoming more urbanized and industrialized, Gypsies had to abandon some of their old trades and many became impoverished. Still, they resisted as best they could becoming wage laborers. Industrial production rendered the making of articles for hawking an endangered trade; instead, many peddled machine-made goods from wholesalers. Moving from village to town, they were sedentary during the winter months, but following seasonal occupations they continued their independent and nomadic way of life during the summer. This lifestyle raised in their hosts a mixture of fascination, fear, distrust and rejection.

There can be little doubt that much of the enmity and outright persecution experienced by the Gypsies throughout their history has been due to prejudice and xenophobia. The Gypsies were different and that fact alone caused them problems. Their nomadic way of life was often romanticized; they were said to lead a carefree existence, noble in spirit and close to nature. At the same time, the Gypsies also drew the suspicion and hostility of their hosts. As in the case of the Jews, Gypsies were accused of every conceivable misdeed and crime, and this stereotyped view of Gypsy life is reflected in our language. In English, to "gyp" is to swindle or cheat, a gypsy moth is a parasite whose larvae feed on the foliage of trees, and a gypsy cab driver is someone who picks up passengers without a proper taxi license.

Yet prejudice alone is not a sufficient explanation for the hostility that Gypsies have suffered over the centuries. Whether the result of exclusion, poverty or other factors, the fact is that certain characteristics of Gypsy life tend to reinforce or even create hostility amongst the populations they encounter. These traits, customs and attitudes are reported not only by their enemies but also by well-meaning observers, sympathetic anthropologists and, at times, by Gypsies themselves. Such reports appear in the earliest accounts of their appearance in Europe, and they can be found in the most recent works dealing with their way of life.

As a result of a long history of persecution, Gypsies harbor a deep-seated suspicion of non-Gypsies, referred to as the gadzé (or gaje). Through centuries of experience in avoiding the prying questions of curious outsiders, notes the American anthropologist Anne Sutherland (who professes her "admiration and respect for the Rom people"), Gypsies "have perfected the technique of evasion to an effortless art. They delight in deceiving the gajo, mostly for a good reason, but sometimes just for the fun of it or to keep in practice." The Belgian Jan Yoors, who lived with Gypsies for many years, relates that they practiced the art of the falsehood without self-consciousness. Gypsies, wrote another self-described friend, Martin Block of Germany, are "masters in the art of lying and pretending innocence, when there is a question of misleading a 'gadzo' or non-Gypsy. The police know this at their cost." Among other things this means that in addition to their Romani name, Gypsies very often have several non-Gypsy names. In Germany these names were usually created when a Gypsy eloped to marry, when he was stopped by the police, when he escaped custody, or deserted from the army. In the United States, too, to this day many Gypsies are known to have numerous birth certificates, driver's licenses and social security cards, each with a different name.

The Gypsies' easy resort to, and highly developed skill in, stealing has been another source of strong enmity. "Stealing from other Rom is wrong", observed Sutherland, "but it is not necessarily wrong when it is from the gaje; although one should not be too greedy." His friend Putzina explained to Yoors that "stealing from the Gaje was not really a misdeed as long as it was limited to the taking of basic necessities, and not in larger quantities than were needed at that moment. It was the intrusion of a sense of greed, in itself, that made stealing wrong." Hence, picking up some wood from the forest was no misdeed, for if not gathered it would rot; putting a few horses to pasture overnight in someone's meadow was not that bad, for grass would continue to grow.

Gypsies consider the world of nature as a kind of public domain, and this includes the "stray" chicken encountered on the village path. An English Gypsy, Manfri Wood, recalls how as a youngster before World War II he regularly poached with grown-ups:

"We all believed that three things belonged naturally to all men: the wood that lies on the ground, the birds and beasts that live in the forest and on the heath and the fish in the water. They were all free for the taking and no man had any right to deny another the privilege of the taking."

Wood owned a dog trained to catch chickens. "Wherever we traveled and whatever part of the country we were in, we always had chicken for dinner as long as that bitch was alive." According to a Gypsy legend, told in many different versions, before the crucifixion of Jesus a Gypsy stole the fourth nail intended for Jesus' heart. In gratitude, God gave the Gypsies a heavenly license to steal from the gadzŽ. Regardless of whether this story is considered an authentic Gypsy narrative or an invention of their enemies, the legend reflects accurately a widespread attitude among Gypsies toward the non-Gypsy world.

Another way of extracting money from non-Gypsies was fortune-telling, driving out spirits from sick cattle, or praying for the health of a sick person. The simple-minded mentality of the rural population, in particular, enabled Gypsies to obtain large sums of money with the help of the most basic and crude tricks. Some routines appear to be timeless and not bound by geographical boundaries. Both Jan Yoors, writing about Gypsies in France during the 1930s and 1940s, and Isabel Fonseca, who during the late 1980s spent time with Gypsies in the Balkans, describe the "scratching scheme": Several Gypsy girls, badly dressed and unkempt, would enter a butcher shop while scratching their scalp and arms as if for lice. Continuing this demonstrative scratching with vigor, they would then touch meat, hams or sausages with their dirty little hands. Sometimes they would be chased away, but more often they would be given the soiled articles at a very low price or for nothing. Once out of the store, the scratching stopped abruptly, but by then it was too late for the merchant to retrieve his goods.

Gypsies observe numerous taboos that guard against contamination by what is considered marime or unclean. Dishes are not washed in the same vessel used for washing clothes; there are strict rules about washing various parts of the body. Many of these rules are more concerned with maintaining ritual purity than with actual cleanliness. Polluting dirt can be visible, but it must be a clear distance from the clean. Thus the sight of feces outside a home is acceptable while indoor toilets, close to food, are shunned; the chemical toilets in modern caravans often remain unused for the same reason. Fonseca tells of a rich Gypsy in the newly independent Republic of Moldova who had built himself a palace. There were nine turrets, three grand salons and balconies over an inner court, but there were no bathrooms or toilets. Not surprisingly, non-Gypsies who do not know why Gypsies prefer a hedge to a communal lavatory or flush toilet interpret this conduct as filthy and a violation of all sanitary principles.

The same goes for other aspects of housekeeping. Gypsies take excellent care of the inside of their wagons or caravans, which often show dazzling displays of china, mirrors, carpets and elaborate formica ceilings. The outside, on the other hand, is generally indescribably dirty. Rubbish is tossed out the windows or is simply swept out the back door. Likewise, the backyards of houses inhabited by Gypsies frequently overflow with litter and junk. Gypsies are of course aware of the sanitary norms of the societies in which they live, but simply do not share them. Neighbors and health authorities naturally take a dim view of such practices, which confirm the prevalent stereotype of Gypsies.

These, then, are some examples where stereotypes and reality are not far apart. On the other hand, many of the accusations leveled at the Gypsies are the products of myth and simple prejudice. Gypsies are not promiscuous; indeed, their sexual mores are quite strict. They do not steal children, a charge that probably arises from the fact that the generally dark-looking Gypsies sometimes have a light-skinned and blond offspring. There is an occasional killing as a result of a tribal feud or blood revenge, but Gypsies generally do not commit murder. Though highly skilled at stealing, few commit burglary. Open houses might be victimized, but Gypsies have a superstitious fear of closed doors and windows as well as of evil spirits that wander about at night. Hence most thefts are carried out at daytime and without the use of burglary tools or force.

Moreover, many of the negative traits and social practices described above have not held true for that part of the Gypsy population that has become sedentary and occasionally prosperous. In Germany, some Gypsies assimilated, practiced ordinary crafts or trades, and not a few intermarried or lived with German partners. Still, the fact remains that during a time when large numbers of Gypsies still followed a semi-nomadic way of life, many aspects of their social organization and lifestyle clashed with the values of their hosts. By and large, therefore, Gypsies constituted a highly unpopular, not to say despised, minority, and when the Nazis stepped up the harassment and persecution practiced by earlier regimes, most of their neighbors remained superbly indifferent.

The assumption of power by the Nazis in Germany in 1933 had far-reaching consequences for Europe's Gypsies. To the Nazi leadership and Hitler's government, Germany's small Gypsy population of about 26,000 was at first of no particular interest. It was in large measure as a result of pressure from local and state officials as well as party rank and file that the regime began to address the "Gypsy problem."

Beginning in 1937 Gypsies were targeted as part of the Nazi program of crime prevention. This led to the arrest of Gypsies without a regular occupation, their being labeled asocial, and their incarceration in concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Dachau. From 1938 on, the fight against what was termed the "Gypsy plague" made explicit use of racial criteria. Gypsies were referred to as persons "of alien blood" and subjected to the racial provisions of the Nuremberg Laws. This meant the denial of citizenship and restrictions on marrying "Aryan" Germans. Unlike in the case of the Jews, however, Hitler himself played practically no role in the course of persecution, which unfolded in a disorderly manner and without a clear intent or plan.

The onset of the war brought a tightening of the net. Gypsies were no longer allowed to itinerate or leave their place of residence without special permission. They were subjected to compulsory labor, dismissed from the armed forces, and generally treated as social outcasts. A program to "resettle" all the Gypsies in the newly acquired territories in the east had to be abandoned because of the logistic logjam created by the resettlement of large numbers of ethnic Germans. Still, in May of 1940, 2,500 Gypsies were sent to the General Government, the occupied part of Poland, and 5,000 Gypsies from the Ostmark, the former Austria, who were considered particularly "asocial", were deported to Lodz in November 1941. An indeterminable number of those "resettled" in the General Government died due to harsh living conditions. All of the deportees from the Ostmark perished in a typhus epidemic or were murdered in gas vans to prevent the infection of their German guards.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, Gypsies there were targeted as a blanket category--like Jews and communist functionaries--for destruction. Yet since the main reason for killing the Soviet Gypsies was their alleged tendency to spy, in practice most of the victims were itinerant Gypsies. Sedentary and "socially adjusted" Gypsies in many instances were able to survive the Nazi occupation. In German-occupied Serbia, local military commanders included male Gypsies among the thousands of Jews shot in reprisals for the uprising organized by the partisan movement. Large numbers of Gypsies were also killed by the Ustasha regime in Croatia.

Despite the fact that the Gypsies hailed from India and their language related to Sanskrit, Nazi "race experts" refused to recognize the Gypsies as Aryan. However, the renowned scholar of Indo-Germanic languages at the University of Munich, Walther WŸst, argued that Gypsy fairy tales were told in an idiom that was "Indoaryan" and thus manifested "unadulterated Aryan thinking." For Himmler, who had an insatiable curiosity about everything Aryan, this finding became the source of his belief that pure Gypsies were descendants of the primordial Indo-Germanic people or at least closely related to them. Hence, in October 1942 he gave orders that "racially pure" Gypsies were to be allowed to live according to their customs and mores. Gypsies of mixed parentage (Zigeunermischlinge), whom the "racially pure" Gypsies considered good and upright, could be accepted into the "racially pure" clans and be assigned the same status as "racially pure" Gypsies.

When, in December 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of the allegedly asocial Zigeunermischlinge to a special Gypsy family camp in Auschwitz, "racially pure" Gypsies were exempted. Martin Bormann, the head of the party chancellery who also carried the title "Secretary to the Fuehrer", objected on the grounds that this special treatment represented "a fundamental departure from presently applied measures for fighting the Gypsy plague", but his objection was overruled. A memo prepared in the Ministry of Justice on February 27, 1943 noted, "New research has shown that among the Gypsies are racially valuable elements." Hence, as a result of Himmler's fascination with the Aryan race, several thousand "racially pure" Gypsies were allowed to stay in Germany and survived the Nazi regime.

The end of the war found the Gypsy communities of Europe in a seriously weakened condition. Tens of thousands had died in German concentration camps or been killed by Quisling regimes. The large concentration of Gypsies in Eastern Europe was now under communist rule, and this meant severe restrictions on nomadism and a demand for integration. All citizens were expected to hold a steady job; entrepreneurial activities were declared illegal. A few Gypsies benefited from improved opportunities for education, but the large majority encountered a further deterioration of their lot. Host populations were unsympathetic to the officially decreed policy of assimilation, and Gypsies ended up in ghettos and shanty towns. Their high birth rate created antagonism, and in Czechoslovakia thousands of Gypsy women were pressed to be sterilized. Romania's Ceausescu did his best to destroy Gypsy culture; Gypsy children in Bulgaria were forced into special schools in which the speaking of Romani was forbidden.

Since the downfall of communism their situation has often worsened. In the more open societies of Eastern Europe, people feel freer to express previously hidden animosities and deeply ingrained prejudices toward Gypsies. Those living in prosperous towns resent the presence of Gypsy shanty dwellers in the surrounding outskirts. Unemployment among the Gypsies of Hungary is more than 60 percent; during the economic reorganization of 1989-90, Gypsies were the first to be fired from their jobs. Most of the approximately 700,000 Gypsies in Serbia are poor, barely literate and work in menial jobs. The large majority of about 35,000 Gypsies who lived in Kosovo before the NATO air campaign have fled the province, fearing retaliation for real or imagined crimes against Albanians. The future of both groups of Gypsies--those who fled as well as those who decided to stay in Kosovo--is bound to be bleak.

The situation of Gypsies in the Czech Republic is also precarious. A new citizenship law enacted in 1993 has had the effect of denaturalizing an estimated 20,000 Gypsies, about a tenth of the country's Gypsy population. Those without citizenship are barred from voting or holding public office and are routinely denied social benefits. These restrictions further penalize a largely impoverished group, often living in ramshackle ghettos. Under prodding from President V‡clav Havel, the Czech government in October 1997 adopted a plan for improving the social and economic situation of the Gypsies, and a change in the citizenship law has been announced. However, the results of these measures are uncertain because of the hostile environment in which Gypsies find themselves. The European Center for the Rights of Gypsies based in Budapest has reported 1,250 attacks against Gypsies in the Czech Republic since 1990--10 of which resulted in deaths. Several thousand Czech Gypsies have left for England and Canada where they have asked for asylum.

According to the un High Commissioner for Refugees, Europe now has 8 million Gypsies, but as a result of their history many of them are reluctant to acknowledge their ethnic identity, and such statistics are notoriously unreliable. For the same reason we do not know how many Gypsies live in the United States, though some authors estimate that they number up to one million. American Gypsies no longer wear golden earrings or head scarves, and because of their dark complexion they are often mistaken for Hispanics. The earliest arrived here as deportees from Europe, and between 1801-03 Napoleon exiled whole shiploads of Gypsies to Louisiana. About 50 percent are thought to have come from Eastern Europe since the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Today American Gypsies are a hidden minority, though police departments in cities with substantial Gypsy populations are aware of their presence. Many of these cities have special squads assigned to handle Gypsy crime gangs. The activities of these gangs include phony home repair schemes, welfare and insurance fraud, and sweetheart scams. The elderly in particular tend to be the victims of various time-honored confidence tricks. In 1990 a mother-daughter team of Gypsy fortune-tellers in Hartford, Connecticut was convicted of swindling seven victims out of more than $270,000, usually by purporting to rid their gullible clients of various curses. A seven-month effort of the New York City police department's special frauds squad in 1998-99 against illegal fortune-telling led to thirteen arrests. Not a few of New York's Gypsy fortune-tellers work out of their own apartments in expensive neighborhoods, drive luxury cars, and make an average of about $200,000 a year. Many police officers claim never to have encountered a Gypsy who held a legitimate job. This does not mean that there are no honest persons among the Gypsy population. It does mean that most of the Gypsies in America who follow regular occupations and live a perfectly normal, law-abiding existence hide their ethnic identity because of the reputation acquired by their dishonest congeners.

In April 1971 the first World Romani Congress convened in London, and since then most European countries have seen the emergence of Gypsy organizations lobbying for better treatment and equal rights. One of the most vocal and influential of these is the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma (Zentralrat deutscher Sinti und Roma) in Heidelberg, which acts as an umbrella for a series of local and state-wide organizations and receives financial support from the Federal Ministry for Youth, Women and the Family. The group has been successful in having memorials for Gypsies erected on the sites of several concentration camps, including Buchenwald and RavensbrŸck. It has also sponsored publications aimed at educating both Gypsies and non-Gypsies about the history and culture of the Gypsy people.

Regrettably, the Zentralrat has promoted a simplified and often false picture of the fate of the Gypsies under the Nazis, and the organization has displayed a highly hostile attitude toward any person or account likely to call into question the officially sanctioned version of events. For example, in 1984 Joachim S. Hohmann, the author of several studies written with great sympathy for the Gypsy people, published a volume of Gypsy stories collected by Engelbert Wittich (1878-1937). The work was published by the well-known Fischer publishing house, but the Zentralrat was apparently displeased by the accounts of Gypsy daily life portrayed in these stories and launched a vigorous campaign of protest. Wittich was accused of having been a Nazi informer--an entirely baseless charge--and the publisher was threatened with the occupation of its premises and a suit for damages unless the book was withdrawn. This campaign of intimidation was successful. The publisher recalled the six thousand printed copies from the bookstores and had them destroyed. In an account on this affair published two years later, Hohmann expressed the fear that, henceforth, publications in this field could become "subject to the self-appointed control exercised by a small circle of Gypsy representatives."

Fortunately for the cause of disinterested scholarship, Hohmann's concern proved to be excessively pessimistic, as illustrated by another more recent attempt by the Zentralrat to enforce its version of political correctness. The international committee of survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp had planned a conference on the camp's history for early October 1996, and had invited to this conference Dr. Michael Zimmermann, a historian and author of the first comprehensive scholarly work on the persecution of the Gypsies by the Nazis. Romani Rose, the chairman of the Zentralrat, thereupon protested the invitation to the minister for science, research and culture of the state of ThŸringen and asked for its cancellation. Zimmermann, he charged, denied the program of genocide planned against the Gypsies and defamed the survivors by using and accepting as reality Nazi categories such as "asocials" and "preventive crime fighting." These allegations were put forth without any substantiating evidence and indeed were completely unfounded. To his credit, the minister rejected the request of the Zentralrat as an interference in the freedom of teaching and research, as did the directors of the Buchenwald memorial, co-sponsors of the conference. "History in a democratic society", they declared, "is not the property of individual persons or organized interest groups. . . . The victims of National Socialism deserve our special respect. [However], the associations of victims do not have a special right to determine what is historically true or false." The conference took place as planned; the Zentralrat declined to participate.

The future of the Gypsies remains uncertain. They continue to live as a beleaguered minority in many countries, but show no interest in returning to their place of origin, India, or even an awareness of being a national group with a distinct identity. The various Gypsy tribes have different religions and ways of life and often do not share much in common. In Germany tensions have emerged between the Sinti (Gypsies who have been in the country since the fifteenth century) and the Roma (who arrived from the Balkans during the second half of the nineteenth century). Similar to the attitude of German Jews toward the Ostjuden (Jews from the East) during the pre-Nazi years, the Sinti favor helping the persecuted Gypsies in southeastern Europe wherever they find themselves, while Roma organizations champion a more liberal asylum policy for their brethren refugees. It is likely that as long as Gypsies are discriminated against and harassed by their hosts, they will continue to stick together and resist assimilation. That seems to be the outlook for the foreseeable years ahead.

Essay Types: Essay