“Silence,” Maami said, “is the only thing that saved our lives.”

She barely talked about her life during the war, their passage out of mainland Europe, or their arrival in the North of England. Sometimes, there were brief mentions, scuttering across our conversation like clouds across the sun. I learned phrases and stories about “hungry smoke” and “Lesovij – Forest men” were not just words. They were echoes of silence and terror.

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Romani near Radom, Poland 1945

She did tell me once, barely breathing, unmoving, of the journey. How my family scattered like avginjalji seeds on the wind, some running unknowing into the jaws of the beast, some falling in rivers, and some running from dogs and ‘wolves in the woods’ for days and weeks and months. She told me of the Hlinkova garda, a brutal precursor to the Nazi regime, who beat our men, raped our women and cut their hair. She told me of ash falling from the sky like rain; the unfilled pits by the side of the road, bodies still warm.

At times, she choked and could go no further until whisky, slipped between her lips like a knife loosened her tongue and her heart once more.

My grandfather only ever said one thing, “njigda – never again.” 

His family had turned and run right back into Poland, into the arms of Auschwitz. He stayed with my grandmother and her family. His new wife was pregnant and her mother was sick. He never saw any of his family again, except in his dreams.

“Silence,” Maami said, “is the only thing that saved our lives.” I used to wonder why she never told me our history, why she never shared her stories, except in metaphor – shadows and half-light covering the truth like heavy blankets. I used to wonder why she clung to the old ways so voraciously, refusing to give even the smallest fraction, buried in superstition and žužipen.

One day she sat me down next to her and took my hand, unable to look at my face. “They tried to take it all away, ” she said quietly. “They tried to take everything, but most of all our lives. The things I saw they did to our people, no one should ever see. There are no words for the things we saw, the things we heard, the things that were done to us. We are Gypsies, we are not English or Slovakian or British or any other such thing. We are Romani and we must keep our words, and songs, and dances, and music. The Slovak Hlinkova, the Germans, they tried to kill us like dogs, worse than dogs. If you go on in your life and you lose all of these things, what did we do? We lost, we lost everything then. You may as well spit on my dead eyes.”

I didn’t really understand what she meant. The War, the Holocaust, they weren’t part of my consciousness or my education. I grew on in silence, wrapped in the empty spaces of a culture traumatized so completely that it could no longer speak.

Difference or sameness, assimilation or segregation, life or death… all of it a coin flip away. I argued, once, that assimilation would keep us alive, now. That it was time to change, that we needed to make different choices. I told her all of this in English, a language she refused to speak.

Maamki Babka slapped me, hard. Shocked I ran from her house and out into the fields, alone. Wandering along the hedgerows I started to think about the stories she’d told, the secrets she’d hidden within them. It was so distant for me, it was a place and a time that was not my own.

I was lucky and I was lost.

Maami, Papu, my bibja and kaka – all of them were surrounded by ghosts and I was too – the silence was crowded with them. They fell into our eyes at night and shook us awake in the morning. I breathed in their scent – the bitterness of damp wood and cigarette smoke, the rancid stench of alcohol and day old vomit, the delicate, coy scent of fresh bluebells, and freshly-kneaded bread. I was a ghost, treading carefully between two worlds, but a ghost who belonged in neither.

I’ve been told my entire life that Romani history is a history that doesn’t matter; we are a problem and we caused that problem ourselves. I’ve been told that our silence means we cannot speak, that our words are meaningless. I’ve been told that ours is a life full of forgotten ghosts and children left to die in the woods.

As I tell my son stories of hedjoskero njecuhos, lesovij, giants and their Tatranský čaj, basorka, and šerdženjis, I can hear the ghosts in my voice. I can smell the cigarette smoke and I know that our history is important – not only to Romani, but to non-Romani too. Our history sits in the silences between your words, in the breaths between sentences and paragraphs, and at the bottom of the pages of your past.

Each word is an echo, each breath a prayer.

Ma roven, de Devla, mre čhavale,
brišind del, brišind del,
e mašina maj piskinel,
čore Romen maj ladinen.

Imar na bijina,
chodz te bi merava

Don’t cry, children, Oh God,
it is raining, raining,
the train is whistling,
Poor Romani are loaded up.

I don’t care anymore,
even if I will die.

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