A Legacy of Persecution
By: Ronald Lee
Unlike most other Indigenous and oppressed people of colour, the Roma (1) people are neither Indigenous nor victims of colonialism. Instead, we have been what might be described as perpetual refugees. Since our coerced departure from India in the early 11th century CE as a Hindu army and its camp followers(2), a virtual population including women and children forcibly removed from India by Ghaznavid(3) conquerors and sent to Persia as garrison troops, we have been without a country. Following the battle of Dandanqan in 1040 where the Ghaznavid armies and their Hindu ghulam(4) were defeated by the invading Seldjuk Turks, the surviving Hindu troops and camp followers fled west to Armenia. Here they remained until 1054, when invading Seldjuks again forced us to flee to Cilicia, an Armenian kingdom in the Byzantine Empire, where the Roma nation was born as the Hindu caste system disintegrated and a new nation came into being. Today we recognize this as the Romani people, colloquially known as “Gypsies”, a contraction of Egyptian in English. Europeans in general called us “Egyptians” in the mistaken belief that we had originated in Egypt. Another name was Greek athinganoi (“untouchables”) which gave rise to terms like Cigan, Tsigani, Bohémiens, Zigeuner, Gitanos, Zingari and many more, all created by outsiders to define us.
In 1071, the Seldjuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikirt and the former Eastern Roman Empire in Anatolia now became the Turkish Sultanate of Ikonea, also known as Roum. What was left of the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans was later invaded by the Ottoman Turks, who replaced the Seldjuks as the ruling dynasty. Many Romani groups had left Cilicia to migrate across the Bosporus and more came with the invading Ottomans as artisans and sazende (military musicians) in the mid 14th century CE as the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans. While the vast majority of Roma remained in the Balkans, some moved westwards through Romania and small bands began to appear in all European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Wallachia and Moldavia, two Turkish vassal regions that later became Romania, Roma were enslaved because of their artisan skills by the nobility, the State and the Church. They were not freed until the Slobuzheniya (Emancipation) of 1865.
For a brief period the Romani groups that entered other European countries were seen as Egyptian Christian pilgrims who had fled Egypt to escape conversion to Islam by the Arab invaders, and were provided with alms and documents signed by kings and Popes giving them permission to travel freely. Following this period, while these groups were not enslaved like those in Romania, savage persecutions began when the Roman Catholic hegemony in Europe began to disintegrate with the Protestant Reformation. Roma were declared to be “cannibals”, “heathens” and “child thieves.” Rulers ordered Roma to be banished from their countries and in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, even English people who associated with Roma were guilty of a hanging offence. The Catholic Church accused Roma of having made the nails that crucified Christ even though we had not yet left India at this date. Noblemen in the German States and Switzerland organized Gypsy hunts where we were hunted down like wild animals. Large numbers of men were hung and their women whipped and mutilated by having an ear removed. Roma children were taken away from their parents and given to Christian families. One of the most successful of these child thieves was Empress Maria Theresa of Austro-Hungary (1717-1780), whose program of assimilation for Hungarian Romungere resulted in large numbers of children being kidnapped and given to Hungarian families. Roma were forbidden to marry other Roma, to speak the Romani language and to wear their ethnic clothing. They were ordered to become Ujmagyar, or “New Hungarians.”
In time, the persecutions waned except in the German States where repressive laws and Romaphobia reached their zenith under the Nazi Regime. Well over a million Sinti and Roma were murdered during the Holocaust. The true number of victims during this genocide will never be known because too many victims were identified as Jews, partisans or hostages. Others were rounded up and shot by fascist elements in Hungary and elsewhere in the puppet States and never officially recorded as victims.
After the end of World War II, European Roma were confronted with Communism in the countries gobbled up by Stalin and referred to as The Communist Bloc during the Cold War. Since the traditional Romani economy has always been free enterprise, a symbiotic relationship with the non-Romani world as providers of artisan services and entertainment, the Communists saw this as “free entertprise” and it was ruthlessly stamped out except in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Roma were now forced to work in factories; Nomadism was forbidden for those who still travelled except, oddly enough, under Stalin in the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia, the State bought the horses and placed the caravans without their wheels on sites which became sedentary ghettos. These are now reduced to third-world shanty towns like Swinia in the Czech Republic, the subject of a National Film Board documentary entitled The Gypsies of Swinia (1998). Despite The Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) which many Romani activists refer to as The Decade of Roma Exclusion, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Swinias in the former Communist countries and elsewhere in Europe like the Campi di Nomadi in Italy. Roma in the so-called “New Democracies” are living under what can only be described as “Undeclared Apartheid”. This has compelled untold numbers of refugees to flee to Western European countries and to the Americas, including Canada, where we have never been the preferred newcomer group, especially under a Conservative government. Jason Kenney, for example, our former Minister of Immigration under the Harper regime, referred to Hungarian Roma refugees as “bogus refugees”, and a previous Liberal government under Jean Chrétien set up an IRB kangaroo Court to prove that Hungarian Roma refugees had no need to come to Canada with the infamous test cases of 2000. These were later declared to be illegal by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Efforts at reconciliation have been instigated by some governments. Germany, under Angela Merkel, has created a monument to the Sinti and Romani victims of National Socialism. The government of the Czech Republic has finally agreed to get rid of the pig farm that has occupied the former site of Lety, a concentration work camp run by Czechs from 1939 until 1943 where thousands of Czech Roma died from brutality, malnutrition and disease. After the Germans took it over in 1943, it became a transit camp for Auschwitz. Today, the pogroms continue. Roma have been firebombed and murdered in Hungary. In the Ukraine, Canada’s current pet democracy (sic), thugs are murdering Roma and burning down their camps with impunity. As more and more European countries fall under the sway of right-wing governments, Roma become the convenient scapegoats of the ruling demagogues like Donald Trump’s “Mexicans”. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the walls are built around Roma ghettos to “protect” the non-Roma living nearby.
To this day, there are many hurdles to overcome. Since the Harper government refused to officially recognize Roma as victims of genocide by the Nazis and their collaborating puppet states, we have been lobbying the Trudeau government to do this to no avail. We would also appreciate an apology for the more than 500 years of Roma slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia, the two Principalities that became modern Romania. Finally, we would like to see an end to cultural appropriation of the Roma culture and music where non Roma performers can piggyback on the popularity of genuine Romani artists. One of the worst offenders is Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello among many others. Finally we want to see an end to the use of the word “gypsy” with a small “g” when reference is made to the Romani people. We are Roma, not “gypsies.”
On the positive side, numerous Romani NGOs and other organizations have sprung up all over the world. The Toronto Roma Community Centre was registered in 1998 and has worked to assist Roma refugees with social integration and combatted prejudice and hate crimes like the Skinhead trial and the hate charges against Ezra Levant for slandering the Romani people. The Western Canadian Alliance in Vancouver was founded in 1997 to assist Czech Roma refugees in that city and now there is Romanipen in Montreal, a sister organization of our Toronto NGO. Many young Roma are attending university, graduating and entering the academic world. We are producing authors, lawyers, teachers and an educated elite which will hopefully lead our people to a better tomorrow.
- I am using the word Roma because this is known in Canada and used by the media as an adjective. It is actually a plural noun and refers to the Roma of Central/Eastern Europe. The proper adjective is Romani, not Roma, and refers to all Romani groups (an English spelling of Romany is no longer used by us). Romani people in Western Europe do not use the word Roma as an ethnic marker but have their own identity markers like Romanichals (UK), Sinti (Germany, France, Italy), Manouche (France), Cales (Spain), Kaale (Finland), etc.
- Ancient and Medieval armies needed a lot of camp followers to support an army in the field composed of cooks, butchers, fletchers, religious leaders, veterinarians, washerwomen, medical staff, sanitary workers and other skilled people. In a Hindu army, these people would have belonged to many jatis or sub-castes.
- Ghaznavids, a Muslim dynasty of former Turkish slave soldiers who overthrew the Arab Caliphate in Afghanistan in the 10th century CE and expanded their kingdom into North-Central India, forcing the local rulers to submit to their rule and pay tribute.
- Ghulam, slave soldiers. The Hindu rulers were forced to provide tribute as vassal states to the Ghaznavid conquerors consisting of precious metals, food, elephants and their handlers and what were called client soldiers, or ghulam, from the military caste (Kshatriya). Like all Indian and other armies of this period, the army consisted of fighting troops and camp followers which included their wives and children.
- This is still happening today in Canada. Children’s Aid services are taking children of some refugee Roma families away and placing them in foster care with non-Roma instead of giving them to Romani relatives or to another Romani family. This, like the same practice with our Native People, is cultural genocide.
- Romungere, the major Hungarian Romani group
- Sinti are Roma who decided to live in the German States in the Middle Ages. They distance themselves from the Roma groups of Central/Eastern Europe even though they speak a Romani dialect. Their name is probably derived from German Reisende (“Travellers.”)
- An initiative undertaken by twelve European countries to work toward improving the conditions of Roma in Europe. Unfortunately, conditions are worse now than they were in 2005.
- This is not just my opinion, it is also that of numerous civil rights organizations and academics who have studied the situation first hand.
- The Romani population of Bohemia and Moravia, about 7,500 people, was effectively wiped out during the Holocaust. Those in Slovakia, a Nazi puppet state, survived for the most part.
- In one of his outbursts of verbal diarrhea, Levant referred to the Romani people as a gang of criminals like the Crips and the Bloods. He was forced to make an apology in 2013. He would have been convicted of a hate crime if he had not been protected by his friends in the Harper government.
Ronald Lee is a Romani activist, author, lecturer, translator and founding member of the Roma Community of Toronto (1998). He taught the only course on Roma in Canada at New College, Uof T. (2003-2008). He has lectured widely including Harvard and Colombia. His publications can be seen at www.kopachi.com