The Roma—A Thousand Years of Joy and Sorrow
THE event resembles any large, traditional wedding. Food and drink are plentiful, and the house is filled with music. Relatives press forward to congratulate the shy groom and his radiant bride. But this is not a wedding—only an engagement party the night before, which has drawn more than 600 well-wishers. Here the groom’s family present their son’s future in-laws with a bride-price. Tomorrow the groom and his family will escort the new bride to his home, where another celebration will accompany the actual wedding.
All the relatives of the new couple speak Romany—a language that would be considered foreign wherever they lived. This language in its various dialects, along with many ancient traditions and marriage customs, is the common heritage of a people who are spread across the globe but who claim no national territory and have no national government of their own. They are Roma.a
Who Are the Roma?
Retracing the Roma’s linguistic, cultural, and genetic paths leads us back about 1,000 years to northern India. Their language, apart from some admixture picked up during more recent times, is clearly of Indian origin. Why they left India is less clear. Some scholars believe that their ancestors may have been craftsmen and entertainers attached to bands of soldiers who left their homeland in the aftermath of military conflicts. In any case, the Roma arrived in Europe by way of Persia and Turkey before the year 1300 C.E.
In popular perception in Europe, the Roma have long occupied two extremes. On the one hand, they have been romanticized in some novels and films as a hospitable, carefree, wandering people who through song and dance give unfettered expression to the joys and sorrows of life. On the other hand, they have been vilified as untrustworthy, mysterious, and wary—eternal outsiders, isolated and insulated from the society around them. To help us to understand how such stereotypes have come to be, let us revisit the intriguing past of the Roma.
A Time of Discrimination
In the Middle Ages, the world of most Europeans was their own village or town. Imagine what must have gone through their minds when they first laid eyes on arriving Roma families. Many things about them must have been intriguing. Besides their swarthy complexion, dark eyes, and black hair, the newcomers’ clothing, manner, and language were totally different from their own, and the Roma often tended to keep to themselves—a habit perhaps traceable to their time back in the stratified society of India. Within decades, Europeans’ initial curiosity gave way to mistrust.
The Roma were literally marginalized—forced to set up camp only on the fringes of villages and prohibited from entering even to buy provisions or draw water. “They steal children,” it was rumored, “and even eat them!” Roma were sometimes obliged by law to cook in the open so that anyone who wished to could examine the contents of their cooking pots. This examination was often performed by spilling the meal for that day onto the ground. Not surprisingly, some Roma stole food to survive.
The Roma dealt with the discrimination by sticking together closely. For centuries they have found support and joy in family life. Traditionally, Roma parents care deeply for their children, and children care deeply for parents, looking after them through old age. Many Roma also hold tightly to traditional standards of conduct and decency.
Life on the Road
Rarely welcome, the Roma kept on the move. This nomadic life fostered various skills, such as metalworking, trading, and entertaining. By performing these needed services, they could at least feed their families. Some Roma women capitalized on their reputation for having psychic powers, often pretending to have them for commercial purposes. Life on the road also minimized the risk of cultural or moral pollution through too much contact with gadje—Romany for “non-Roma.”b
Meanwhile, prejudice led to persecution. Roma were expelled from some parts of Europe. In other areas, for centuries Roma were enslaved. The end of that slavery in the 1860’s further propelled the Roma diaspora, sending large numbers of them into Western Europe and the Americas. Wherever they went, they took their language, customs, and talents with them.
Even in their downtrodden state, Roma sometimes found a measure of satisfaction through their performing arts. In Spain the mingling of Roma and other cultures produced flamenco music and dancing, while in Eastern Europe, Roma musicians took up local folk songs, adding their own distinctive style. The passionate strains of Roma musical performances influenced even classical composers, including Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, and Sarasate.
Roma in the Modern World
Today between two million and five million Roma—some say many more—live in practically every corner of the earth. Most live in Europe. A large number no longer constantly travel, and some are financially well off. But in many places Roma must still be counted among the poor and disadvantaged and often live in squalid conditions.
During the Communist era in Eastern Europe, political theory dictated that all citizens should be equal. Governments tried with varying degrees of success to rein in the Roma’s nomadic way of life by giving them jobs and settling them in government-built housing. This at times provided some improvement in health and living standards. But it did not erase the lingering negative feelings and opinions that Roma and non-Roma had held toward one another for centuries.
Political changes in Eastern Europe in the 1990’s promised new opportunities. But the changes also opened old wounds when reduction of social-assistance programs as well as less vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws returned many Roma to a more difficult situation socially and economically.
Finding Hope and a Better Life
Such were the circumstances when raven-haired Andrea attended school in Eastern Europe. She was the only student of Roma descent in her class. Though strong of spirit, she tries unsuccessfully to hold back her tears as she recalls the taunts and rejection. “I would regularly be picked last when we chose teams for games,” Andrea remembers. “I wanted to run away to India where I could blend in. In fact, someone once yelled at a friend of mine, ‘Go back to India!’ He replied, ‘I would if I had the money.’ No place felt like home. We were unwelcome everywhere.” A gifted dancer, Andrea dreamed of fame and, through it, acceptance. But during her teens, she found something far better.
“One day a young woman named Piroska, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, called at our home,” Andrea relates. “She showed me from the Bible that God loves us individually and not just as a mass of humanity. She explained that I could have a good relationship with God if I wanted to. This made me feel that I was really important to someone. Knowing that in God’s view all people are the same gave me more confidence in myself.
“Piroska took me to the Witnesses’ meetings, where I met Roma and non-Roma and could sense the unity among them. I made real friends there with Witnesses of both backgrounds. After studying the Bible with Piroska for about a year and a half, I also became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Today Andrea and her husband are full-time evangelizers, teaching others about God’s warm love for people of all nations.
“Accepted as an Equal”
Looking back to his youth, a Rom named Hajro relates: “Bad association with other boys who did not respect the law regularly got me in trouble. Once, the police detained me for stealing something while in the company of those boys. When the police took me home, I was more afraid of my mother’s reaction than I had been of them because, as is true in many Roma families, I was taught that it is wrong to steal from anyone.”
When Hajro got older, he and his family also met Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Bible’s promise that God’s Kingdom will rid human society of problems, including prejudice and discrimination, resonated deeply in Hajro’s heart. “Roma have never had a national government of their own to care for them,” he says. “That is why I feel that Roma are in a good position to appreciate how God’s Kingdom will benefit all peoples. Even now I see those benefits. From the moment I stepped into the Kingdom Hall, I felt the way the apostle Peter did when he said: ‘For a certainty I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.’ (Acts 10:34, 35) I was accepted as an equal by everyone. I could hardly believe my ears when non-Roma called me phrala—‘brother,’ in Romany!
“At first, some of my family members vigorously opposed me. They could not understand the changes I was making in order to live by Bible principles. But now our relatives and the Roma community have seen that standing firm for God’s standards has made me happy and has produced many good results. Most of them would like to improve their lives too.” Hajro presently serves as a Christian elder and full-time evangelizer. His non-Roma wife, Meghan, also teaches Roma and others how the Bible can help them to have a happy life—now and in the future. “I have been completely accepted in my husband’s family and community,” she says. “They like it that a non-Rom has taken such an interest in them.”
a In different parts of the world, the Roma have been called Gypsies, Gitanos, Zigeuner, Tsigani, Cigány. These terms are considered pejorative. Rom (plural roma), meaning “man” in their language, is the term most Roma use to refer to themselves. Some Romany-speaking groups are known by other names, as in the case of the Sinti.
b Although some Roma cling tenaciously to many traditions, they have often adopted the majority religion of the territory in which they reside.
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Today the Roma live in practically every corner of the earth
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During the Nazi era in Europe, Hitler killed an estimated 400,000 or more Roma in his death camps, along with Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. In 1940, even before Hitler’s campaign of extermination had become widely known, movie actor Charlie Chaplin—himself of Roma descent—made The Great Dictator, a movie satirizing Hitler and the Nazi movement. Other well-known artists claiming Roma ancestry include actor Yul Brynner, actress Rita Hayworth (below), painter Pablo Picasso (below), jazz musician Django Reinhardt, and Macedonian singer Esma Redžepova. Roma have also become engineers, doctors, professors, and members of national parliaments.
Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images
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Many Roma have become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some serve as congregation elders and full-time pioneer ministers. Local government officials and other non-Roma regard them as exemplary. A Roma Witness in Slovakia relates: “One day a non-Roma neighbor knocked on our apartment door. ‘My marriage is in crisis, but I know that you can help us,’ he explained. ‘Why us?’ we asked. He replied, ‘If the God you worship can help you Roma to improve the quality of your life, perhaps he can help us too.’ We gave him a copy of a Bible-based book on family life published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Later his wife knocked with the same request, not knowing that her husband had already been there. ‘No one else in this apartment building can help us,’ she said. We gave her a copy of the same book. Each asked us not to tell the other of the visit. One and a half months later, we began to study the Bible with the couple. Living by Bible truth has elevated us so much in people’s eyes that they turn to us for spiritual help.”
“Roma are in a good position to appreciate how God’s Kingdom will benefit all peoples.”—Hajro
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© Clive Shirley/Panos Pictures
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Roma in England, 1911
By courtesy of the University of Liverpool Library
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© Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos Pictures
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Andrea dreamed of fame and acceptance through dance
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Romania: © Karen Robinson/Panos Pictures; Macedonia: © Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos Pictures; Czech Republic: © Julie Denesha/Panos Pictures