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Book Launch

"Between Past and Future - The Roma Center for Eastern Europe", Will Guy (ed.), 2001

"State of Impunity, Human Rights Abuse of Roma in Romania" - European Roma Rights Center, 2001

"On the Margins, Roma and Public Services in Romania" - Open Society Institute, 2001

Historical Background

Quarrelling with myself
(or about the "exotic" in Romany culture)

One needs not be an expert in order to realize something elementary: Romani culture is a "culture of survival". A whole arsenal of historical arguments could crush anyone in a second if attempted to support the contrary. Tolerated or chased away, mutilated or persecuted, the Roma survived their own history. It is this very survival, of course, which is reflected in the Romany culture in an original manner. For sure, the historical determination makes possible equating the Romany culture and the infinite voluptuousness of surviving. I think at the same time that one should also not forget that the Roma history is a "sub-history" of the many nations they have lived among.

So it happens that jumping a few centuries of slavery, freeing, persecutions, upsets and assimilations, some novices experience ecstatic feelings (sic!) by contemplating the "exotism" of the Romany culture… From some academics in nice suits to an array of artists searching for a marketable topic, it is still identified, even praised, the "exotism" of a "free existence", of a transcendental unbondable and non-sedentary spirit, of an unfinished quest… The non-sense is so visible that it becomes revolting. After all, what can be so "exotic" in somebody's sufferings?

The long journey of the Roma exile throughout the world (including throughout Europe) has a much more dramatic motivation than just an invoked atavic bohemism (well, the Roma were identified ethnically as "bohemians" in an European country). The Roma migration cannot be conceived as an avant-la-lettre hippy movement so that one can ask, at a certain point, if it is not more respectable the ignorance of the many than the superficiality of these so-called "connaisseurs". After all, only the Roma themselves know exactly the price paid for their "freedom". For instance, it is sufficient only one visit in Zabrauti neighbourhood and all the trumpeted exotism is fading away in less than a second.

Eugen Crai, LL.M.

Brief introduction to Roma's history

Normally one starts telling a story from the beginning. Indeed the temptation to do so is big, also when we're talking about the history of people.For sedentary people,for whom the ownership of land is a central value in their culture, it is very important to know where they come from and which land they owned originally. Studyng a Rroma community in Hungary, Michael Stewart doesn't find such a preoccupation:
Unlike other Diaspora populations, which may cling to the idea a place where they might one day be "at home", the Gypsies have been a nomad people with no homeland to dream of, no original territory to reclaim. What makes them so special is that they are quite happy in this condition. The same cannot be said for those who study Gypsies.It is a curious fact that the aspect of the Gypsies that has most interested non-Gypsy observers,at least since the eighteen century, is their obscure "origins". In 1753 a Hungaryan theologian, Istvan Wali, discovered that the vocabulary of three Indian students from Malabar, whom he had met in Leiden, was comprehensible to native Gypsies. But it was only when H.M. Grellmann published his book Die Zigeuner (The Gypsies) in 1783 that Waly's discovery became widely known. (Stewart, 1997 p 27)
But having foreign among your ancestors doesn't mean automatically that you are different from the rest of your surroundings. Many ordinary people, in no way different from their neighbours, would be surprised of the number of foreign ancestors appearing in their personal genealogies just a few generations ago. Wich means that in the case somebody is different the appearance of such foreign ancestors, does not fully explain this difference.Therefore we have to look how and why people maintain and regenerate these differences over generations.


From the first attestations on of Rromi in Romania they were held as serfs, and were owned by landlords, monasteries and the principalities. Most were kept because of their specific professions. Until the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century new groups of slaves have been brought with the Ottoman Empire.Viorel Achim gives an overview of all the kinds of serfs that existed, depending on the type of owner, profession, and kind of tribute the Rromi had to pai to their owners, or whether they were sedentary of wandering around the country.
This was a nomadism where people lived in fixed winter quarters and in summertime travelled the same routeto visit the same places every year, having a permit from their owner. From the nomads point of view these permits even offered some protection: harming them would harm their powerful owner. Without any such documents they would be regarded as escaped serfs, and this was seen as a crime. This was a well-controlled system and on specific days of the year they had to pay tribute to their owner. Everywhere in the world misunderstandings and depreciation occurred in the relationship between nomads and sedentary people.
For sedentary people, land and buildings are the major capital goods they invest in and which they want to pass on to the next generation. Nomads cannot see the value of these goods: 'you cannot take them with you.' They prefer to invest in things such as wagons, gold, or large herds of cattle,which of course in the eyes of sedentary people have no stable value. So both are in the opinion of the other , squandering money.

In those days nobody was equal before the low. This equality is a quaite recent principle of justise. Every group, according to class,religion, language, descent, even within the same empire, or province, had it own status, was governed by a different set of laws and fell under the jurisdiction of different rulers. Because of these differences statutes intermarriage between groups was very limited, thus maintaining different cultures with its set of norms and values, typical economic activities, languages, for centuries. Later,as part of the policy to assimilate the Rromi, they even obliged them to intermarry. An example of such a policy was the law proclaimed in 1783 by Joseph II of the Austrian Empire which organised the lives of Rromi in Transilvania in every detail. They were obliged to assimilate completely with the surrounding people: they were not allowed to speak their own language, or wear their traditional clothes, marriages between Rromi were forbidden, they were not trade horses, and the number of musicians had to be reduced as much as possible. Their children had to go to school under the responsibility of the local priest. The landlord, had to give them small plots of land so they would be involved in agriculture. And everybody who abandoned their home or workplace were be treated as a vagabond, and brought back to their registered place of residence. The implementation of this law depended, however, on local conditions and therefore varied very much from province to province.


Under the influence of the international abolition movement and despite strong resistance from the nobility in the middle of the nineteenth century groups of serfs, including groups of Rromi, were liberated in Alachua and Moldova. These measured had as important objective the obligation to tie the Rromi to villages, where they should work in agriculture on same basis as other peasants: part of the harvest had to be given to the landowner. Many Rromi refused the plots of land alloted to them under these unprofitable conditions, and chose to maintain their professions. For them abolition meant an aggravation of their exploitation. Large numbers moved to the margins of the cities and villages,and as a result in every village some metalworkers and other craftsmen settled themselves, were thw agricultural population needed their skilk. Of corse a part of the liberated population became peasants, in the first place those who already worked as serfs on the land. Around a number of monasteries, villages were erected consisting mainly, or some exclusively,of Rromi.
Some nomadic groups continued their itinerant lifestyle. In the spring they came from teir winter quarters to the villages where they were officially registered, paid their taxes, and then travelled around the country until the next winter. During the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of twentieth century the abolition gave rise to a large wave of migration to other parts of Europe and to the Americas.


The period between the two words wars is characterised on the one hand by a further assimilation of the Rroma population and on the other hand the appearance of their own emancipation movement. Local and organisations, such as the General Union of Rromi in Romania, were fonded. Unfortunately they were not given the time to consolidate themselves. After the installation of the royal dictatorship and the start of the Second World War these organisations were dissolved. In this period, industrial progress made a number of their manufactured goods obsolete and non-competitive. Their craftsmanship was on the decline; some trades even disappeared completely.
The racism that appeared in the inter-war period was not invented by the Germans. The history of the world is unfortunately full of outbursts of racism. The stategies range from reducing large groups to a marginal status of second-rank citizenship,and slavery , to ethnic cleansing and total genocide. During this period, so-called scientists came up with 'scientific' justifications of the racial inferiority of certain ethnic groups, thus paving the way for the politicies promoted by Antonescu's governement towards the Rroma. In1942 some 25000 Rromi were deported to Transnistria where they were settled on the banks of the river Bug, wuthout places to work and without sufficient means of subsistence. The selection was based on life style, nomadisn, time served in prison,lack of means of subsistence or a permanent occupation. Approximately half of them died there


Under communist rule everybody was equal before the law. Of course, as in Animal
Farm by George Orwell, some were more equal than oters. Although a law did not distinguish between groups, certain groups were more affected by a law than others. On paper it could discriminate very much. The communist regime denied the Rromi the status of ethnic minority, and as a consequence no education was given in their own mother tongue and no account was taken of their specific culture.
In those days, because of the policy of full employment, everybody had a job and an income, which assured the person free medical care, a number of holidays and pension. Many Rromi worked as unskilled labourers in big factories or on the co-operative or state farms.
With the closing down of many big factories and other factories reducing their work force to a more competitive level, and the land of land of the co-operatives been given back to their original owners, the majority of the Rroma lost their jobs. Many have resumed their traditional ways of life, including turning back to nomadism.
The different groups of Rroma have adapted themselves in different ways to the new situation. Some have found their niche, friends, professional relations, etc., while others are victims of poverty and discrimination and have no means of surrival.

1998 Tiganii in istoria Romaniei. Bucuresti: Editura Enciclopedica
Fonseca, Isabel
1995 Bury Me Standing. London: Chatto and Windus
Fraser, Angus
1994 The Gypsies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Stewart, Michael
1996 The Time of the gypsies. Boulder: Westview Press.
Yoors, Jan
1967 The Gypsies. New York: Simon and Schuster

This personal perspective of Roma history was written by Pieter van Abshoven and does not represent the view of the National Office for Roma.

We would welcome other perspectives of Rromani's diverse historical heritage.

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