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
So hin učo oda svetos, hej, de te merel, jaj, mušinav. Hej, de te merel, jaj, mušinav, hej, de njič man Devla njič na dukhal The world is so high, hey, I have to die. Hey, I have to die. Hey, nothing hurts me, God, nothing ____ Sometimes, there in the dark Papu Frančišek would begin to sing. His words, wrapped in melancholy and cigarette smoke would rise and fall with the flicker of light from a candle or the fire. His words fluttering so gently to our ears that we could barely understand them. Soven čhave, soven, ča te chal ma mangen, joj, se tumari e phuri daj andr’odi kalji phuv džal. Sleep my children, sleep, just don’t ask for food, oh, ‘cause your grandmother is going into the black ground. _____ Some traumas are so terrible, so intense, that their force continues to reverberate through time and place, making it impossible to escape their terror, even generations later. Papu and Maami told of their suffering quietly, gently, rocking it in their empty hands; swallowing their tears in cups of whisky-laced tea. Denaš, mamo, dromeha, jaj, de bo me džav mre dromeha. Me nasig avljom me de khere, la da te murdardena. Run, mother, run along the road oh, ‘cause that’s the road I’m taking. I came home late, my mother was killed. _____ As a child I thought that our songs were just words. I didn’t realize that they were our history books; memories of our feet, our hands, our hearts. Each story was a story among many, words wrapped in hundreds of other words. We wore... read more
Today, as I walked in the sun on my lunch break, a cold gust of wind followed me, rustling the trees as I stepped by. I shuddered and stopped. Bibi Penella told me a story once, when I was seven, about a wind just like that. Once long, long ago, there was a young Rom who lived with his father, mother, and brothers and sisters. No one knew how many of them lived in the small and rickety house because every space was taken up with a small face or a set of legs. Even though they were very poor, the Rom was very proud – in fact, many said he was too proud. He would always tell the biggest stories and sing the wildest and most outrageous songs. He claimed to have the most beautiful wife, the most children, and the most gold, but he would never share with his brothers and sisters. For example, one day after a boring day walking to the market and back, the Rom (his name was Pako, for obvious reasons) came panting up the road calling out for the head of the village. “Wise grandfather!” He cried. “I met the most terrible fate on my journey today. A two headed giant! But, now I have so much gold and even more courage!” Of course, all the children gasped and the women ushered them away, knowing that it was just another Pako story. No one but the smallest children believed him. So, when he came pale and shaking into the village some years later, no one turned from what they were doing, not... read more
“You Gypsies, you never stand up for yourselves. That’s the problem,” the gadžo professor nodded his head emphatically. We had been discussing the situation of Romani throughout Europe and the best way to improve conditions. “You don’t do anything to change the situation, you’re just so passive about everything!” Again, he nodded as if he alone knew all the answers. By this time, he had been talking non-stop for a good fifteen minutes and his raspy voice was grating my nerves into a pile of finely-shredded frustration. “I’m sorry, sir, but I have to disagree. Your reasoning is built on faulty logic. We are not passive because we don’t want to do anything, we are passive because of the continual racism, oppression, and discrimination we face on a daily basis. We feel like we CANNOT do anything! How can you find the strength to battle oppressive political systems when you can’t even find food? Water? Clothing? Not to mention the misrepresentation by academics such as yourself, as nothing more than pieces on a political chessboard!” I sputtered to a stop. His face was red, lips pursed angrily, mustache twitching. He glared at me for a moment and then he said it; “You don’t need to be so aggressive!” Maami always said that Gypsies were never of our own making. We were (and are) a social construct – a story, a meta-narrative. This narrative is rooted in the idea of citizenship as universal and equal, and as previously nomadic people, we are considered non-citizens, unequal and different. This universal citizenship narrative renders non-existent historical and contemporary realities of individuals who have not experienced citizenship in equitable and just... read more