The Travail of the Gypsies.

AuthorLewy, Guenter

A recent U.S. State Department report on human rights around the world noted that Gypsies, often also called Romani or Roma,(1) "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 they 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...

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