I was born on the sweet breath of some spring morning near Bardejov in Slovakia, squalling and pink. The actual day is up for debate, my birth day unregistered for six weeks. My first days were spent swaddled and hidden as we travelled through Europe, back to the UK where, despite frequent dislocation, roots had begun to grow. Surrounded by strong women, mad women, and women who’s names I would never know, I slumbered steadily, wrapped in Romanija like a blanket.
My family were a chaotic miasma of sound and colour. Like an ever-overflowing pitcher, we spilled out of our houses and cars in noisy pools, children flitting like the finger-sized fish we caught in the burn. I don’t remember birthday parties, except one – my first and last – when I turned five years old. Maami Babka said it was to celebrate me making it all the way to five. Not all our babies were as lucky, even then, and family came in from all over to celebrate – aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone. At the time, I was confused as to why we were celebrating me. Normally we celebrated Saints, or family days, but rarely a birthday as no one knew for sure when they were born. My siblings and I were the first to have birth certificates in our family. At some point later, my parents got them, so they could get passports, little books framing their unsmiling faces like mugshots.
When I think about my family, I’m torn in so many different directions. All at once they were so many things – Romani, Slovak, Polish, British, loud, strong, angry, beautiful, frightening, traumatized, trapped… and the older I grew, the more I realized, they were also a stereotype.
Sometimes, I think, stereotypes are something people hide themselves inside, like a matryoshka doll. Layer after layer until they all blend together and you’re the very thing you fought all your life against.
My father, he was like that.
What can I say? Those photos you see of “Gypsy Men”? Yeah, that was my dad. He was a strong man, both in physique and in intellect. He was wily and cunning. He was quick-tempered and hot-headed. Unsmiling and stern. He was also a bad drunk. The kind whose anger was fueled by the searing whiskey in his belly. He had a round, brown face and wore a mustache, his black hair close-cropped. His mother, Maami Babka was also alcoholic; her mind trapped by memories of the curling black smoke of the Holocaust and the cries of the children she lost to hunger, disease, and fear. Papu was silent. Stoic. Harsh but fair. If you did something to deserve it, he’d beat you black and blue; but he’d make sure he was tanning the right hide. He drank too. Often, afternoons were spent around the fire, Papu and Maami drinking vodka secreted in teacups, telling stories of šerdzenja, forest monsters, and the foolish but brave princes who fought them.
My mother was also silent, but not for lack of a voice. My parents did not marry for love; they were chosen for each other and the union only made my mother sink further into herself. Baba and Papo were of Polish Bergitka origins, several generations in the UK. Still, the stigma of being considered part of one of the poorest and lowest class Romani groups tinged everything they did. My parents marriage was arranged, in part, to remove some of that stigma. Papo had come into some money, so could afford a dowry for my mother. My father’s family, although poor, were very traditional and were from the same region as Papo and Baba’s families, but unlike Maami and Papu, they shrouded their lives in silence, becoming what they thought they should be.
Our lives were divided equally between chaos and order; between being proud and being ashamed.
Research across many disciplines has shown that ethnicity, particularly that of the Roma, is conflated with criminality, violence, and abuse. In fact, this perspective is so ingrained that most people understand that when they are talking about crime, they are also talking about race and in much of Europe, this means the Roma. According to Gordon Allport (1954), “A classic definition holds that racial stereotypes are gross over-generalizations about specific out-groups in which certain negative behaviors and traits are over-exaggerated to the detriment of persons within that group”.
However, for the Roma, or Gypsies as we are known in popular consciousness, these stereotypes have also placed us as a foreign and mysterious race who are at home living a natural, rustic existence. In fact, our nomadic lifestyle was long thought to “have a biological basis in black-blooded wanderlust” (Mayall, 1988). We are at once painted as “a motley crowd of half-naked savages, carrion eaters, dressed in rags, tatters, and shreds […] sauntering along in idleness [our] vans and waggons carrying ill-gotten gain and plunder” (George Smith, 1880) and as “the other within” – pastoral figures, allied with an aesthetic of the picturesque and with protests against modern intrusions on unsettled lands. In fact, as Epstein Nord argues, “Their [Gypsies] literary representation was intimately connected to an obsession with origins of all kinds – linguistic, personal, and national. A people “without” origins came to stand, paradoxically, for the questions of origins itself and to be used as a trope to signify beginnings, primal ancestry, and the ultimate secret of individual identity” (2008).
Somehow, my family embodied all of it – a people without a past and without a future; a people at once thieves and vagabonds and mystical, mythical creatures; not all of us settled, not all of us of the same moral bearing as those we lived among, and all of us illiterate or largely uneducated. Great grandfather still had a (beautiful ‘Burton’) wagon and horse when I was little. Hmara was the colour of an angry spring sky – light and dark grey swirling together, a flash of lighting white down her nose. Clopping along country lanes I understood why they didn’t want to live in the little boxes their children did, even if none of this had been their choice. I had uncles who were frequently arrested; cousins who were kicked out of school; brothers who beat their wives and children. I had parents who were alcoholic, disconnected, and indifferent. I was taught to be a “good” wife and mother. I was betrothed at age 12 to a boy who promised to “keep me in line”.
We were both insiders and outsiders. People longed for our “simple, country, nomadic” lifestyle, yet when we were forced to settle in towns and cities, we were feared and reviled. This “national narrative” belonged as much to us as it did to outsiders. According to Peter Novick, “to call something a ‘national narrative’ suggests that the narrative in question constitutes some sort of national statement about how the collectivity understands (or is supposed to understand) all or part of it’s history” (2003). For my fajta and my family, this narrative and our history included themes of migration, exclusion, and cultural trauma. However, it was a history largely shrouded in silence, as if Hitler had exterminated our past as he tried to eradicate our future. My family were cocooned inside themselves, all trapped within a repeating pattern of upheaval, suffering, and oppression, held together by tradition and language.
According to scholars such as Jeffrey Alexander, “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves an indelible mark upon their group consciousness, marking their memory for ever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (2004). For my family, and indeed many others, the Holocaust became just such a trauma, embedded silently within our culture, trickling down through the generations, like sand ticking through an hour-glass. As we lost each other, in the silences between words and the emptiness between bottles, we lost our language and our ties. We lost everything. My grandparents didn’t even have a word that meant “Holocaust”, instead they told me “našjol sar muxji” – they vanished in smoke.
It will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness. – Friedrich Nietzsche (1887)
For my family, and many other Roma, this ‘forgetting’ became our national narrative. We had no family history, no cultural history, no past at all. Maami and Papu never told me of their stories until they grew old and their light was fading. Yet, as I’ve realized in the past several years, society as a whole does not remember the Roma either. In fact, even scholarly and historical research omits the Roma as victims of the Holocaust, arguing that “the semantic, discursive, and political conflict between remembering the Holocaust and forgetting the Nazi atrocities has regularly, and almost predictably, been played out between two communities: the victims and the perpetrators or between Jews and Germans” (Krondorfer, 2008). These narratives have consistently disregarded the over 1 million Roma (and Sinti) who lost their lives and the hundreds of thousands who barely survived. Unfortunately, for Roma families, this means our personal and cultural narratives are dying along with our elders.
For me, personally, this has meant a journey that has not always been easy. About eight years ago, I lost my parents, older brother, and my father-in-law all on the same day. As my grandparents and many of my aunts had already passed, I felt like I lost everything. It wasn’t until 2010 that I began openly identifying as Romani here in the United States. After I came to the US, I entombed myself in silence, lucky enough to pass as some other kind of immigrant.
I’ve been sitting on this post, unsure what it actually says, if anything, and wondering how my voice will be heard. This area is something I really want to explore. My family was, by Western standards dysfunctional, addicted, and abusive. But, it didn’t feel that way when I was a part of it. They struggled with illiteracy; with exclusion from school and economic opportunities; with evictions and disease. Drinking was a way to numb the day to day struggles and for my older relatives, a way to ensure they forgot. When I think about Maami Babka, losing her relatives in the Holocaust and then losing 5 of her 8 children… I can’t even imagine the kind of trauma that she lived with on a daily basis. My father too, underneath that tough mask there always seemed to be a lost little boy – his identical twin died shortly following birth; he quit school aged 10; his family were evicted multiple times and lived a barely ‘settled’ life. But, when he was sober and when we were out in the world, all those things didn’t matter. He taught me the stars, the plants I could safely eat in the woods or by the roadside, which mushrooms and fungi were safe to eat, how to set a good fire, and how to ride a horse. I can clearly see, now, the effect cultural trauma, silence, tradition, and language have all had on my family and my life.
I too, am a daughter of the Holocaust, raised by women with smoke in their hair and sadness in their eyes, but even though I am a “čori” – orphan – now, I don’t really feel it. They are in my heart, everywhere I go. I am Romani and as such I am part of a much larger family. I’ve made mistakes – with addiction and with friendships – that have changed my life and not always for the best. Our culture, I think, holds struggles close and many of us are raised feeling a deep sense of sadness but without having full knowledge of the pain and suffering our families have experienced. But, we all have choices and even though our elders might disagree, I think as women (especially) we have to make our voices heard.