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The Roma - a historical background
- a lecture given at the Khamoro festival in Prague May 2000.

The 9th century witnessed the start of a period of migration from north-west India. By the 10th century the first groups of migrants had reached Constantinople. Others remained in the regions previously conquered by the Arabs and were able to maintain a contact with their native India.

They were not welcome in Asia Minor so they continued their wanderings. One path took them through Russia, all the way up to Finland and Scandinavia, another via Greece and the Balkans to Central and Western Europe reaching as far as Ireland, while a southerly route passed through Palestine to Egypt, North Africa, Spain and Portugal.

They called themselves "atzigan", a word which has various explanations. According to one theory it stems from the Byzantine word "atsinganoi" - untouchable - which would refer to their casteless status in their native India. Another theory is that it is derived from the Persian "cinganeh" - musician and dancer, and a third postulates that it means "dark-skinned" in their original language, which today contains many borrowed words from Persian, Armenian, Turkish and Greek. In the latter two languages the term became "tschingian", and the corresponding designation is "tsigan" in Romanian, "gitano" in Spanish and "Zigeuner" in German.

However, most gypsies call themselves "Roma", which simply means person, and their language "Romany". An exception is those living in the German-speaking parts of Europe, who have chosen to call themselves "Sinti" after the Sind province, now in Pakistan, from where they believe they originate.

Wherever they went they adopted the local religion, be it Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, not through religious conviction but rather out of an instinct for survival. It made their difficult lives somewhat easier. In the parts of the Balkans that were longest under Ottoman rule over Europe, especially in Bulgaria, the majority of Roma are still Muslims today and in areas that have traditionally been under Christian control they are Christians. In Bosnia and Herzegovina they are, like the rest of the population, divided into Christians and Muslims.

Roma were first observed in Germany in 1407. They were said to have come there from Bohemia. The official records from Stockholm note that Roma first set foot there on St. Mikael's Day in 1512 and that they called themselves the "children of Little Egypt".

At the time their strategy appears to have been to call themselves pilgrims but they gave a variety of reasons for having set off on their journeys of penance. One was that they had been driven out of Egypt because they had failed to provide shelter for Mary and Jesus during their flight. According to another account they had refused the Infant Jesus water a crime they now had to atone for. A third story was that, after converting to Christianity, they had apostatised from the true faith and now had to fare from country to country in penance.

In England they came to be called "gypsies", from the word "Egyptians", since they were taken to be speaking the truth when they claimed to have originated from the Nile region. In 1430 the king of Scotland was so moved by their fictitious fate that he wanted to set up an army to help them recover their country "the Little Egypt" in a new crusade.

Unfortunately their religious adaptation gave no guarantee against persecution. As early as the 15th century the wandering Roma fell victim to persecution and discrimination in Western Europe. In 1471 the town of Luzern in Switzerland passed a law prohibiting them from entering the town gates and similar laws were introduced in almost every larger European city within the space of a century.

Soon the Roma were more or less outlawed. They were forced to lead a nomadic existence as tinkers, knife-grinders, smiths, basket weavers or musicians and performers. In the Middle Ages and well into modern times they were regarded as fair game in some German principalities. In Pfalz regular hunts were organised against these "traitors to the Christian countries". For example, the following comment can be found in one landowner's records of the victims of one day's hunting: "a gypsy woman and her sucking child". In several other parts of Europe local princes offered a premium for the shooting of Roma and in the 17th and 18th centuries large groups were deported to North and South America.

Catholic Roma were expelled from the church. In Elizabethan England, on the other hand, they were threatened with death, accused of being "Vatican spies".

Rumours were spread that Roma smiths had forged the nails for the crucifixion of Christ. Like the Jews, they were charged with various malpractices. Charges included accusations of kidnapping children and then killing or even eating their victims. As late as the end of the 18th century Roma were sentenced to death for such charges of cannibalism. These examples illustrate the extent of the prejudices against this nomadic race. In the late 18th century 25 Roma were executed in Austria, accused of such offences, and as recently as 1906 in Hungary a Roma man was nailed by his ear to a tree for criminal deeds until the police arrived. In the Netherlands they were generally known as "heiden" - heathens - not more than 100 years ago.

Neither do we as Swedes have anything to be proud of in our behaviour towards the Roma. In 1637 an ordinance was issued which can be described as an extermination strategy. It repeats almost word for word the provisions announced half a century earlier by King Christian IV in Denmark and Norway. Roma men were to be hung without sentence and searched wherever they were found and women and children expelled from the kingdom. However, by 1642 these provisions were relaxed somewhat and it was decided that only Roma found guilty of theft or another criminal offence would be sentenced to death. Others would be driven from one place to the next until they found the sense to leave Sweden for good. However, none of these draconian directions seems to have been observed consistently. Sweden was not emptied of its Roma population.

New efforts were however made to achieve this and as late as 1923 a governmental committee suggested that the Roma should be harressed in such a way that they found it in their own interest to leave Sweden and untill the beginning of the 1960īs the Swedish Roma were still living in tents or in ghetto camps.

As recently as 1926 a law was passed in Bavaria on the "combating of gypsies, nomads and the work-shy" and after the end of World War II an amended version of this law was only stopped through the intervention of the allied victors.

Earlier, in 1899, the German Empire had started to keep a card index of the Roma population. These were of course very useful later when the Nazis set about the extermination of the Roma as an inferior race. Initially sterilisation was viewed as a solution to the Roma problem, but during the notorious Wannsee Conference on 18 September 1942, when the policy of extermination of the Jews was established, a decision was also taken to "eliminate gypsies through work". The value of an adult Roma prisoner was cynically set by members of the SS at 1631 Reichsmark "from which the cost of food and fuel will be deducted".

On 16 December of the same year the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the "total liquidation" of the Roma population. The victims were gassed to death in special vehicles or in concentration camps. Roma were used as guinea-pigs in medical experiments in which they were, for example, subjected to extreme cold and used to try out new methods of castration and sterilisation. Roma twins were also used in a number of appalling experiments.

It is impossible to establish exactly how many people lost their lives as a result of the Nazi beliefs. This can partly be ascribed to the fact that many Roma in South and South-East Europe were the victims of massacres by domestic fascists before they reached the concentration camps. The British historian Kenrick has calculated an minimum of 277 200 victims but it is likely that twice as many Roma and Sinti lost their lives in the concentration camps or were killed by special troops who had been engaged for the purpose.

In 1969 the Council of Europe drafted a proposal which aimed to improve their situation in all member states. Well-equipped camping sites or, in colder regions, permanent accommodation were to be created with state or municipal funds. Roma children were to be encouraged to attend school and public authorities were to take a more serious approach to the problems and questions of Roma and to improve their opportunities for obtaining citizenship in their countries of domicile. While some member states have gone a long way to implementing these proposals, the majority have not.

Today estimates put the total number of Roma in the world at approximately 10-11 million. They are found in all corners of the earth in such diverse places as China, the Philippines, the West Indies and even on Hawaii. However, almost 8 million live in Europe. Of these, around 7 million are in East and Central Europe and in the Balkans; 2 million in the former Yugoslavia before the wars started, approximately the same number in Romania, half a million in Slovakia, around 200 000 in the Czech Republic, 600 000 in Hungary and Bulgaria, around a quarter of a million in the former Soviet states and somewhat fewer in Poland. In all these states Roma constitute a lower class with the highest illiteracy, the shortest average life expectancies and the highest figures of infant mortality.

Their situation has not been improved by the democratic revolution in the former Eastern bloc countries. The cries of "we are the people", called out against the now fallen dictatorships did not include the Roma.

In September 1991 the International Romani Union organised a conference in Rome which primarily focused on the situation of Roma in the former Eastern bloc countries. This led to four long-term recommendations. First, these states were urged to appoint inter-ministerial committees with the task of examining their social situation. Second, measures were to be proposed to improve their schooling, vocational training, health care and housing conditions in a way that would not force them to abandon their cultural and historical traditions. Third, measures were to be taken to enable their participation in the creation of a new economic and political system and, finally, the countries were encouraged to harmonise their policy on Roma bilaterally and multilaterally.

The conference led to an appeal to all the states of Europe to recognise Roma as a "transnational ethnic minority" that is, a stateless nation or, why not, the first pan-Europeans.

There is still a long way to go before this will be officially recognised but, in the long run, neighbouring European countries cannot continue to maintain barriers or limit freedom to travel on grounds of race or, in fact, on any other grounds. Unlike the Jews they have no Israel to offer them a sanctuary. Even today, tens of thousands of stateless Roma are sent around between different European states. The war on the territory of the former Yugoslavia will add to this figure. Therefore, in the coming years the Roma issue will seriously put to the test our tolerance and solidarity between the states of Western Europe.

Ingmar Karlsson

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