Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Really, Who Are the Roma?

There isn't a single word (or group of words, for that matter) which can accurately capture what it means to be Roma. Like any large group of people, the Roma are diverse, teeming with academics and athletes, musicians and artists, Holocaust survivors, civil rights activists, and even a reality TV star (yes, Snooki from the Jersey Shore is genetically part-Romani--although I doubt she identifies as such).

As a co-worker of mine once explained, the only common characteristics that unite all Roma are their common language and their Verfolgungsschicksal.

Historically, all Roma spoke a common language, Romanes, which had origins in early Sanskrit. This language eventually included elements of other languages as the Roma migrated from northern India to Europe over the past thousand years. Once in Europe, the language underwent another series of changes in which the local vernacular was incorporated into Romanes. This final metamorphosis produced a bounty of different Romani dialects. (Even today, many Roma from different parts of Europe cannot understand each other because their native tongue has been so intertwined with other European languages.)

Given the multiplicity of Romani dialects, it is the Verfolgungsschicksal of the Roma which truly unites them. Verfolgungschicksal has no direct translation in English. Roughly, it describes the "fate of persecution" of a individual or group. The term is quite popular amongst German-speaking Holocaust scholars, and I have come across it a lot while interning at the Center. As most of you know by now, the Roma--whether in France, the occupied Soviet Union, Croatia, or elsewhere in Europe--were persecuted by the Nazis and their allies in the Second World War. It is for this reason that Sinti and Roma have gathered in Auschwitz-Birkenau every August 2nd to commemorate the liquidation of the "Gypsy camp" for the past twenty years. It is also the continuation of anti-gypsyism in most European countries that still unites the varied Roma groups spread across Europe and the world.

The discrimination and persecution of Roma in Europe will become clearer as I share more about my experience in Poland this past week, but for now I want to leave you with a short story which, I think, best describes "the Roma" today:

On the first day of the conference, we had to form small groups and give introductions. My group of about eight people consisted of Roma and non-Roma from Spain, Bulgaria, Austria, and Romania. Some participants could speak Romanes, other could not. Some were studying at university, while others were still in high school. (None were beggars or charlatans as the stereotype might lead you to believe!)

After our introductions, I struck up a conversation with the group of students from Bulgaria. We exchanged questions about each others' countries and had a great time getting to know one another. At one point, I asked one of the girls, Antoniya, what she studied. She answered, "medicine", to which I replied, "Oh, so you want to be a doctor." She paused for just a moment and responded--despite a shallow language barrier--"No, I will be a doctor." (Mea culpa.)

Although Antoniya may not have realized it, there was a lot of power behind her response. She emanated a determination that I had never felt before from a university student. I later discussed Antoniya's plans for the future with her some more, and it became clear just how intent she was to not only be a doctor but also a role model for young Roma living in Bulgaria. (I have no doubts that she will be both.)

I suppose Antoniya's aspirations aren't what the Nazis would have expected from a "gypsy."

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