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A history of the Roma, without prejudice


According to a 2002 population census, there are 535,250 Roma in Romania. But many organisations claim their number is well beyond one million. Which may be more accurate, since Roma are generally reluctant to declaring their ethnic membership, although they are a constant and recurrent presence across Romania.

We have witnessed countless, heated, more or less clued-up debates on the situation of the Romani people in the country and in Europe. An overview of the history of this people is critical, if we are to understand the present and the Romani culture, often viewed, with good grounds, as a culture of survival.

Why Roma, rather than Gypsies?

The name „țigan,„ (pronounced tsigan) that Roma elites do not regard as mistakenly used for this ethic group, perhaps because it has long grown into a pejorative label used in speech, does have its justification. After all, “țigan” is not the original name of the ethnic group, but it is derived from the Greek “athinganoi” (translated as „untouchable„), the name of a Byzantium sect which practiced isolationism, and which Roma were mistaken for. In fact, they were referred to by various names by the peoples they came in contact with; Roma were often mistaken for Egyptians because of their dark skin: „arami“ (Armenian, pagan), „faraontseg“ (crowd), „bohemien“ (Bohemian), „tartares“ (Tatar), „gypsy“ and “gitano” (Egyptian) or „saracin“ (Arab).
The ethnonym „Rom“ is a name they better identify with; the term is of Greek origin, too, and was used in reference to the people of the Roman and Byzantine Empire, where Roma lived for extensive periods. Along with Rom, depending on their geographic location, this ethnic group which originated in India may refer to themselves as „Sinti„ (the Roma in the German area) and „Cale„ (the Roma in the Iberian area).

History preserved through language 

Stereotypes on Roma are in part owing to omissions in works on the history of Romania as taught in the communist era and later. No history textbook includes references to the Roma, to their history in this region, and even less so to the five-century Roma slavery in the Romanian medieval states.
An accurate history of the Roma is therefore hard to draw up, as hardly anything was written about it until the 20th Century. Worth mentioning in this context is that most historical assumptions are worked out on the basis of the Romani language, whose lexicon preserves words taken over from peoples in the areas where the Roma inhabited at various points in time. Linguistic and cultural evidence clearly proves that they originated in India, most likely in the northern region of Punjab, which they left at least 1,000 years ago. There are also Persian and Armenian influences, which prove that the Roma crossed these countries. To this day there are nomadic or quasi-nomadic tribes in India, which substantiates the theory that the Roma were originally nomadic people, who left India during some invasion and were then pushed towards Europe by subsequent wars and invasions.
Armenia is where they separated into three groups: one of them went north of the Black Sea, another to Egypt and a third to the Byzantine Empire. It is this latter group which spread across Europe later. The Turkish invasion most likely drove the Roma into the Balkans region in the 14th Century, some of them travelling to Western Europe after the Ottomans’ conquest of the Balkans.
Generally speaking, the Roma preserved their nomadic or quasi-no­madic lifestyle amid settled socie­ties for quite a long time. This enabled them to preserved their identity as a peo­ple, defined a distinct social and cultural brand and shaped their social behaviour and economic activities. Unlike other peoples, for a long time the Roma did not practice established or recognised professions; however, their arts and crafts skills won them fame, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Slavery - a stage kept under wraps

As many as 50% to 75% of the Romanians know nothing about the Roma slavery. How many of us still remember Vasile Alecsandri’s short story on Vasile Porojan? Romanian history textbooks barely refer to the „abolition of slavery,„ but give no further explanations. But it is slavery which occasioned the first written records documenting the presence of Roma in Moldavia (1428) and Walla­chia (1385). Monastery records inclu­de them as … assets. Roma were also owned by the State or by boyars. In contrast, in Transylvania the Roma status was better, as they were serfs of the Crown in the 1400s, while in 1785 Emperor Joseph II abolishes slavery.
In the 19th Century a new gene­ration of Romanian intellectuals, significantly influenced by Western civilisation, regarded slavery as an obsolete and barbaric practice. The abolitionist movement gained increa­sing scope in the Romanian Princi­palities, having France as a model. Ioan Câmpineanu is the first boyar who in 1834 released the Roma slaves he had inherited from his parents.
In 1841 a memorandum by the Swiss Emile Kohly in Iași asked Roma­nians, „Will you dare to regard your­selves as a civilised nation, as long as your dailies read: young gypsy woman for sale?“ The document had a remar­kable impact, and abolitionist views were embraced by an entire gene­r­a­tion. Between 1843-1856 Ro­ma sla­very was abolished, with crown slaves released first, followed by mo­nas­tery slaves and eventually boyar slaves.
Estimates indicate that over one-quarter million slaves were freed, and then a large number of Roma left the Romanian territory for neighbouring countries, and from there to Western Europe and eventually to America. This mass movement is known as the third major migration, after the ones from India and Byzantium. Some of the Roma living in Western Europe and America today speak a dialect with Romanian influences.

From slavery to Holocaust

But the Roma emancipation was not accompanied by support for their social and economic rehabilitation, which generally perpetuated their status as an ethnic group affected by poverty, discrimination and social exclusion.
The early 19th Century saw the emergence of the first Roma organisations and publications, intended to enable the group to safeguard its rights. The 1930s were the most prolific in this respect, with Bucharest hosting in 1933 the first Congress of the Roma in Romania and the release of the first Roma history book, written by secretary of the General Society of the Roma in Bucharest George Potra, and titled “Contributions to the history of the Roma in Romania.” But the positive trend came to an end in 1939, when WW2 broke out. 
Against the backdrop of Nazi policies, xenophobic trends targeted both the Jews and the Roma—an ethnic group which could not be fully assimilated and controlled anyway, and which did not match the racial standards of the time. The first Roma expulsions to Transdniester took place in June 1942. By 1944, 36,000 people had died in camps.
The Roma Holocaust is also a hardly researched topic, largely kept under wraps. Those who ventured to study it and came in touch with Roma communities with Holocaust survivors were mostly Westerners, e.g. American social scientist Michelle Kelso, whose research resulted in a documentary titled “Hidden Sorrows.”

Between assimilation and inclusion

The communist regime that seized power after WW2 implemented a policy of assimilation: Roma lost their status as an ethnic minority and were forced to settle. In April 1948 a large-scale operation was launched, to identify gypsy communities and register them in public population records. The operation took long to complete, and involved the issue of identity documents and award of conventional names. For the Roma, the process entailed some benefits, including sedentism, compulsory school enrolment and certification of professional skills. Traditional activities bordered unlawfulness, and officially the Roma did not exist. The communist regime also forcibly changed their habitat, as the Roma were confined to shabby outskirts houses or to homes abandoned by the Germans having left Transylvania.
In post-communist times, the social status of some Roma worsened, while others got very rich. At present there is an income divide within the ethnic group; adding to the two cate­gories are the educated, inte­gra­ted Roma, who are hardly ever news material.
To give fresh impetus to the solving of century-old, deepening problems, a large-scale initiative titled “The Roma Inclusion Decade” (2005-2015) was lau­nched in Central and Eastern Europe. The programme is aimed at identifying solutions to problems that have been a vicious circle for centuries. It is a political commitment by eight CEE countries, Romania included, to reduce disparities in terms of fund allocation for economic and social development, by means of reforms and programmes to fight poverty and social exclusion. The foremost investment target in the programme is education.
Romani culture and identity

Today Roma are integrated in the society or preserve their traditional life style, with family names hinting at their traditional occupations: Kalderash, Boyash, etc. But their economic and social status and their perception are no better than a hundred years ago. While their culture is appreciated and many Romanian personalities are Roma, their valuable contributions to the Romanian culture and society do not remove the ethnicity stigma from their image.
Although they don’t have a national state, the Roma have created an anthem, a flag and a common holiday (equivalent of national days). In the first World Romani Congress in 1971 the flag, anthem and international day of the Roma were approved. The Romani flag consists of two longitudinal strips, green and blue, representing the earth and sky respectively, and of a cart wheel, “chakra,” a symbol of the centuries of travelling. The International Day of the Roma is April 8, though former nomadic Roma in Romania also celebrate the Blessed Virgin on August 15. The anthem, “Gelem, gelem” (“We go, we go”) speaks about the travels, tribulations and joys of the Roma.

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