by Jonathan Lee
Numbering around ten million, Romany gypsies constitute Europe’s single largest minority ethnic group and are almost certainly the continent’s most discriminated against. The Romany people, uniquely bear both the intense scrutiny of outright persecution and the simultaneous off-hand dismissal of their very identity, allowing and even justifying racism to go unchallenged.
When viewed from a historical perspective, the plight of modern Gypsies is perhaps less surprising given Europe’s spectacular legacy of prejudice against the group. Arriving on the continent over 700 years ago, the Romany have been subject to unrivalled persecution and prejudice since. The Roma were easily characterised and segregated by their dark features and foreign appearance, originating in the north-west of the Indian sub-continent.
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of anti-ziganism, and the oppression of Europe’s spectral nation is growing to staggering heights.
Over the next few centuries, the Roma were enslaved throughout Eastern Europe, a practise only banned in Romania in 1856. After westward migration they arrived in England where in 1583, an act was passed which stated that newly arrived ‘Gyptians’ were required to leave the country within 16 days. Failure to do so could result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. When this proved impractical, Romany were told they must abandon their “naughty, idle and ungodly life and company” and adopt a settled lifestyle. For those who failed to adhere to a sedentary existence, it was permitted that non-complying Romanies may be summarily executed ‘as a warning to others’. Later in 1701, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I issued an edict against the Romany, ordering “that all adult males were to be hanged without trial, whereas women and young males were to be flogged and banished forever”. In Moravia and Bohemia, Romany were to have one ear cut off to identify them to authorities. In Austria, Romany people were branded on their back with an iron to mark them for the gallows.
Long before the witch-hunts plagued women, Europe underwent several hundred years where Romany people were hunted by authorities, mutilated and executed for crime of belonging to their race. Unlike the witch-hunts, the atrocities continued into the modern era.
In 1899, an intelligence service was set up in Munich to monitor gypsies in German lands. The result of which were used as primary justification during the Holocaust and described the Romany people as a “plague” and “menace”, listing their principal crimes as trespassing and the theft of food.
The Romany word for the Holocaust is Porajamos, literally translating to devouring. The period 1939-1945 resulted in the deaths of between 500,000 and 1,500,000 Roma. The number is likely higher but most of the victims are unreported by the Nazi’s at the time or later by modern historians and the media. Many were also being systematically murdered before the war broke out and long after. The Porajmos resulted in 85% of Germany’s Roma being exterminated. Virtually every Romany person in every Baltic country was exterminated. The same happened in Croatia, only the Nazi’s were not responsible. The perpetrators were local, Croatian fascists who also murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews and Serbs.
In other countries such as Hungary and Romania, the governments actively supported the Nazi deportation of undesirables to concentration camps. Around half of the Romany from Hungary were deported to Auschwitz. In Romania, the government deported Roma to Romania run concentration camps in Transnistria. Czech Romany were sent to camps staffed by Czech guards who were often more brutal than their Nazi counterparts. The modern Czech Romany population are all descended from Slovaks as the Czech population was entirely exterminated.
In addition to outright execution, the Roma are notable for their use in the infamous Nazi medical experimentation. The work of Dr Joseph Mengele, was particularly focused on Romany children. He would bring them sweet and toys, and would personally take them to the gas chamber. They would call him “Onkel Mengele”. A Jewish inmate at Auschwitz recounts:
“I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents – I remember the mother’s name was Stella – managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering.”
A full summary of the atrocities carried out against the Romany people cannot be articulated in short. Suffice to say, the persecution did not end somewhere in the mod 20th Century with the destruction of state fascism. Over 90,000 Romany women underwent forced sterilization in former Czechoslovakia between 1971 and 1991. Similar practices were carried out in Sweden until the 1970’s and cases still arise in Eastern Europe as recent as 2001. The parallels with US government sterilization of African-American women in the early 20th Century are clear, the tangible difference being limited human rights campaigning on the behalf of Romany women.
The history of prejudice is clear and well documented. However, we do not need to look back and judge previous generations, separated from us by a comfortable few decades and insulating the social responsibility from the modern day. We can see this racism, for that is what is is, alive and well in modern British society and media.
Romany British are subjected to almost daily discrimination in social services, schools, newspapers, the workplace, and sometimes even in hospitals and front-line care centres. Many choose to hide their origins (easier if they belong to a settled group) but are still met with a barrage of hate language from community councils, employers, teachers, and just in day to day conversations even though it is not directed at them personally. How often do we hear of someone being ‘gypped’ or of a shady character looking like a ‘pikey’ or a ‘gypo’? The social stigma surrounding gypsies in school and employment is the major factor Roma cite when choosing to hide their identity and culture.
Unfortunately this discriminatory culture is so endemic across so many fates of British society that Romany people rarely report hate crime or prejudice to any authorities. There is a strong sense that to do so would be pointless as little or nothing is accomplished and the very act may draw more attention and trouble towards themselves. One participant in a survey in Devon exemplified this:
“We are so used to it. If we had to make complaints, we would be making them every day. So we ignore it and get on with it.”
Conditions are better here than on the continent. Britain has not descended to the mass deportations seen in France, specialized government camps in Italy, or segregated school and uniforms as in Hungary and Romania. Nor are there currently any political parties or groups articulating specific anti-Roma ideologies as key points in their manifestos. Yet this is no argument to say that British Roma don’t know how good they have it here compared to somewhere else in the world, so should be grateful for what few liberties they have.
In order to effect any form of meaningful change in attitudes towards this minority group, the casual discrimination and dehumanisation of the Roma must stop and be recognised for what it is, possibly the last unchallenged form of racism in Europe.