It was one of those bright, searing summer days. I stood with my Bibi below the treeline on a hill somewhere north of Vyšný Tvarožec, looking towards Poland. I was young, six or seven, and it was the last time I ever visited the places my family were from.
“There used to be houses here,” she said, her eyes filling. “Most people wouldn’t call them that. They had no doors and no windows, but they kept out the rain.” She sat down suddenly, her legs unable to hold the weight of her overflowing heart. She self-consciously rubbed at her forearm, the tattoo hidden by her rough jumper, but we both knew it lay there. Even in the sticky summer heat she kept the crawling bruise-coloured numbers covered. “Half of your family went that way,” Bibi pointed to the north and waved her hand briefly, before letting it fall heavily to her side. “We, Babka and the others, we went that way, towards Germany. We didn’t know…” her voice trailed off, swallowed by remembered grief, a terror that hunted them through the mountains and forests as they fled.
My family, nestled in and around the foothills of the Beskid mountains had escaped much of the turmoil leading up to the war, though most of the men had been fingerprinted, banned from the towns, and banned from “wandering” even at the beginning of the 1920’s. Once moving freely around Zborov, Bardejov, Cigeljka, and across into Poland, now they were corralled in settlements set back miles from the road and the nearest towns.
“We didn’t really know what happened when war broke and Germany invaded Poland,” Bibi mumbled, her wrinkled fingers picking absentmindedly at a hole in her skirt. “We didn’t know then, about the “slovenský štát” and how it strung itself up with the Nazi party. It all came so quickly, like a spring storm across the mountains. The Hlinkova garda, the Nazis, the beatings, work camps, and killing.”
Suddenly Bibi stood and began to walk back down the dirt road, away from her memories, away from the past. Neither of us returned to Slovakia, to those mountains. Before she died, she told me stories of her life during the war and their journey to meet their relatives already safely huddled in the forests of southern England.
When I was born, all those years ago, on the floor of a one-room wooden shack with no glass in the windows and an ill-fitting door, my identity, like theirs, was already decided. My personal name, family name, social status, and significant family relationships were already allotted to me. Until I married, my being was to be a fixed point in time; A woman becomes her husband – so, as my mother had shed her life (as her mother and her mother’s mother and on back to our first days) and become a Zavačko, though her own Polish roots lay in Mirga and Siwak, so I would too. Our families joined with one another like a huge patchwork quilt, each name a square covering the sky.
According to the outside world, to non-Romani, my identity was immutable. I was a Gypsy – I couldn’t be educated, I couldn’t be reasoned with. I was an animal, a myth, a romantic construction. I was already created.
Words, stories, myths – they’re all so powerful. My daily life was woven together with sentences and stories that gave us our history, lessons on proper behaviour, economic life, and relationships within and without our family. But, just as these stories were told in our families, so they were told to non-Romani families. We were thieves, harlots, witches, baby-stealers, horse-thieves, crows, locusts, cockroaches or alternatively, mystical, magical, fortune-telling, wildlings.
Identity is both fixed and fluid. We are at once changing and unchanging, moving and standing still.
My family’s identity lay in the hills and forests of Slovakia and Poland; it lay in the dark circles under their eyes, as they were evicted or arrested yet again. For some of them, it was tattooed permanently on their arms, forever reminding them that they meant nothing to this world. For as long as they could remember, they had been labelled as “other“; their identities handed to them the moment they arrived wet and squalling in this world.
Nothing has changed. For Romani, our identities are still handed to us, distorted and pockmarked by historical tragedies, molded and ravaged by personal and political agendas. The word Gypsy misused and misrepresented as a means to an end – our end. When we try and change our identities, to step outside our boxes we are called a credit to our race, a one off, a mistake.
I started this post with a clear idea of where I was headed and sit here now more confused than when I began. Where does self-representation end and “otherness” begin? How does my interaction to the word, “Gypsy” or indeed, “Romani” resemble that of my parents, my grandparents, or their parents? How has our identity been molded and affirmed through war, genocide, and racism, and how has that legacy of cultural trauma ingrained itself in our lives today? Am I Slovak, Polish, or British Romani and does it matter?
Who am I?