Our spirits are made of songs and our hearts are made of gold. We live in abject but picturesque poverty. We fear God and the police. We are passionate and indestructible.
We are childish, exotic, backwards, barbaric. Genetically averse to hygiene, education, and employment.
Nomadic, wild, primitive.
The embodiment of difference; of other.
Yesterday, I discovered (via Facebook) that someone was attempting to sell a shirt via the popular website “Zazzle” (an online retailer that allows users to upload images and create their own merchandise, or buy merchandise created by other users, as well as use images from participating companies), that was extremely offensive.
Juanita Casey – England and Ireland
My grandmother was a refugee; she had no home.
My parents were home – but that home didn’t want them.
My family fled the war in Germany that ate up the continent. Half of my family swallowed whole by Hitler’s campaign. The other half crawled home with scars that wrinkled their voices as they spoke. They were not welcome where they tried to make their homes. Their way of life, illegal; their skin too brown and too suspicious. They ran for their lives, across countries, across oceans. When they finally placed down their hearts, they were asked to leave. They had no passports, no birth certificates, no official documentation.
That was the word I heard every day of my life growing up. We were Gypsies and sometimes Tinkers, Knackers, Pikeys. I thought we were all the same – all the Irish Travellers (Pavee), Scottish Travellers (Nagin), Kale, Romany, Romanichal, and Romani. My grandmother called the Pavee and Scottish Travellers who lived near us “parne romane” – White Roma and didn’t treat them any differently to her own family. If someone needed something, we all helped each other. It wasn’t only Romani being evicted, it was Travellers too.
If I asked her, Maami Babka was only Romani (or accordingly, Gypsy). If pushed she refused to identify herself, saying nothing but, “sam Roma, som Romnji!” I used to get angry with her, sometimes, as she seemed to deliberately evade or misunderstand my questions. In my grandparents eyes, we were not immigrants, we were refugees. Still running from a war-ravaged Europe full of Nazis and hungry smoke. They saw no changes and no reason to change in the world. They didn’t live anywhere. They waited. They waited to be evicted; to be told to move; to be chased by demons of the past.
But, the stories they told belied this fear and continued flight.
My cousin Penhelli was always outspoken, loud, brash, tough. She’d punch a gadžo boy in the face soon as look at him. I was never that strong.
A little over ten days ago someone hacked my blog and my personal computer. I immediately wanted to curl up and give up; tired of fighting the incessant hatred, I let the tears slowly trickle down my face, carrying all my hope and heart with them. I thought about Peni, then. How she’d have just started shouting at the computer, bashing it uselessly with her hands, spitting on it.
I sometimes wish I couldn’t read. I wish all these foreign letters and words didn’t make sense to me and that I could spit them back out, undigested. I wish, like my grandmother, I could cast aside the gadžikanji čhib and wade unknowing through the world around me. I wish, like Papu, I could spend afternoons sitting on the back step, puffing clouds of smoke into the pale blue sky, words like my breath, quiet and unhurried.
There were no dates that we remembered our dead, at least not those who faded away, smothered by the hungry smoke, devoured by the Holocaust. Not even my grandmother’s lost children who lived such short and hungry lives, their names whispered in nightmares and memories too sharp to hold. The heat of summer, of August, brought fruit and vegetable picking, visits to long-distant relatives throughout Europe for weddings and last-goodbyes – France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia. I had no idea of the atrocities committed at Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Lety, Dachau, and hundreds of other Concentration Camps. I had no idea of the mass-murder of thousands of Romani on August 2 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
I was raised to code switch admirably, to play the part, to step out of one world and into the next seamlessly. It wasn’t a conscious decision on the part of my parents – it wasn’t even their decision at all. Baba Edita prided herself on her good English and her ability to pass. She knew all the ladies on her morning walk into town and would ask after Mrs. Robinson’s children, or Mrs. Williams’ husband. There were lots of other, similarly passing Romani on her walk too – the Bucklands, Fowlers, and the Coopers down on Hope House Lane – and they would stop and chat about the weather or hundreds of other beautifully British banalities.
My grandmother’s poetry lay in the rhythm of her breathing and the time-worn ridges of her knuckles and cheekbones. Her meter and verse stretched broad across her forehead and pooled in the crooked corners of her eyes. She drew heavy circles in the air as she walked, skirts swaying, heart beating. Elegies etched themselves over and again as she puckered and puffed on her well-worn cigarette.
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... read more
“Romani are so very strong,” Papu told me once. “We carry the rest of the world on our shoulders without any complaint, yet they are always telling us we must do better!” People have repeatedly asked me for more clarification regarding why I support the European Roma Institute (ERI) and thinking about it, I realized it comes down to one very simply idea: Strength. Whenever I look at news articles, research, academic, or white papers about Romani in Europe a theme very quickly becomes apparent – simply put, the Gypsy Problem. Decades after World War II and the havoc of the Holocaust, we’re still addressed as something wrong; as a problem that needs fixed. When I was six, my teachers said that the Gypsy kids in her class were a problem. We were disruptive, dirty, animals and we were moved into a different classroom, without fancy desks, books, or crayons . When I was ten, my grandparents were evicted from their house in the middle of winter. The landlord said that we were problematic for his other tenants. So much time is spent looking at what is wrong with us – our lack of education, lack of literacy, lack of basic human rights – always what is missing, what is lacking. When people try to help us, they set up foundations and missions and programmes aimed at fixing these perceived deficits. We are seen as a people full of holes, a people lacking some kind of basic humanity. Whenever Romani come along and try to speak up about how we feel, our lives, what we would like to see in the groups, programmes, and institutes that help us – we are consistently and continually denied a... read more
This is a more personal post, a shorter, less known story. I never talk much about the Polish side of my family. Many… most of them died in the Holocaust. They were Siwak and Mirga. I… am Siwak and Mirga… and Zavačková. We changed our names when we came to the UK. We lost so much in the mountains, the Karpaty. Poland. Slovakia. Names that mean nothing to our families. We lived in the mountains, mountains that had been divided and torn apart by so many different political entities. The last time, they tore apart my family too. It’s hard for me to talk about because even though no one sat me down and spoke about it, I lost half of myself at that moment. I lost connections and roots and … being. Baba Edita rarely spoke Romani. She sang a song (Kałe Bała) and occasionally yelled “javen daj!” Papo was pretty much silent. Sometimes I’d call him Baba and he’d smile, mutter “papustyr!” and playfully bat at me, but mostly he sat silently in the half-light, smoking his pipe. I don’t know where we lived. I don’t know where my grandparents came from. I know that Maami married into a “Polish” family and that’s why my parents married too. I don’t know any stories, any footsteps. All I know is that my grandparents were alone and refused to be “Mirga”. And now I am alone and trying to put these jigsaw pieces together and I just have no understanding of the jagged edges and smooth curves of their lives. I know so much about the other members of... read more
“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. 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... read more