A question that has frequently been posed to me by Gadje (non-Romani) authors is how to write Romani characters into their books. This question in itself merits an entire article to it, but, for the moment, I will share one aspect of Romani culture that tends to be overlooked by horror and fantasy writers, (whose genres tend to be the main ones portraying Roma in them.)
There are two major events that, to grasp the modern Romani mindset and thereby effectively write Romani characters, cannot be ignored—slavery and the Holocaust.
Europe has a documented history of using Roma as slaves almost from the time that they arrived there. I was once asked to list which countries did this. I replied that, to be perfectly honest, it would take less time to list which countries did not do it. Of course, slaves weren’t always titled as “slaves.” Euphemisms may occasionally be employed to make the slave-owners (and their descendants) feel more comfortable about said cruelty, but, in the end, if there is a sum of money exchanged for the bondage of a human being, the term is not as relevant as the attached agony.
As I am myself a Romani-American, I will enlighten audiences a bit on the subject of the origins of so many of my brothers and sisters on this continent today.
Contrary to the beliefs of many, the first slaves to be brought from to the “New World,” were not African. Instead, they were Gitanos (Spanish Roma) carried over by none other than Christopher Columbus himself on his second voyage in 1498. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s infamous Christian Reconquista had, years earlier, labeled the Roma, along with the Jews and the Moors, as undesirables that would no longer be welcome in Spain. By royal decree, all Roma were ordered to choose a master. For those that refused, this was the beginning of a long and bloody history of Gitano persecution. During upcoming centuries, not only would their Hindu-based religion be banned, but their traditional clothing and language as well. They would, on pain of death, be bred with non-Roma in efforts to dilute their bloodlines and make them “more Spanish.” Those who not unpredictably preferred the nomadic route, and sometimes even those who had settled, could be rounded up and shipped to both the Americas and to Africa.
In the 17th century, under Oliver Cromwell, the UK was no better in this regard. People even mistaken for being Romani could be shipped off to the American colonies, Jamaica, and Barbados under the title of “indentured servant.” A pretty myth about this status is that, after serving the length of your proclaimed sentence, you would simply be set free. Oh no. Much to the contrary, in fact. It took precious little to have the sentence extended, such as the allegation by one’s master that the servant had been too lazy for the master to get their money’s worth. This grim reality was particularly true for women, who, if impregnated during their sentence, would have their sentences extended for many years. The children born during the “indenture” were, in turn, the property of the owner, sometimes for decades, even if the owner had himself fathered them. Romani women, who, from one end of Europe to the other, had a history of being used like cattle for breeding purposes, could therefore be held legally in perpetuity, so long as their masters ensured that, through rape, they produced enough children. This was, by no means, a brief historical horror. The UK was still shipping the Roma off to Caribbean plantations to be slaves a century later.
Similar laws and practices abounded throughout Europe, but there was nowhere where the Roma endured slavery quite in the same fashion as they did modern-day Romania. A common misconception is that Romani and Romanian are the same ethnic group. No. One is of Indian origin, (mainly from Rajasthan, Punjab, Sindh, and Haryana;) the other is Balkan European. Nonetheless, the Romani have been part of Romanian society since roughly the 12th century. There are different theories as to how they became slaves in the ancient kingdoms of Moldavia, Transylvania, and Wallachia. The only thing that does remain very clear is that the slavery took hold extremely quickly after this particular branch of Europeans met with the Roma. It was soon fully institutionalized and no less brutal than the one in the United States. It continued for five hundred years until, after much effort from Romanian abolitionists, it was finally snuffed out in 1864. At its end, a large portion of the freed slaves fled the country and, today, many Romani-Americans are the descendants of this particular exodus.
(Above, a Romanian Romani family two years prior to the end of slavery. Many slaves lived their lives in tents, as portrayed above.)
(Above, a notice advertising an upcoming auction of enslaved Romani men, women, and children.)
Suffice to say, in fact, whether it be from the UK or from Romania, slavery and escape from slavery were the two main driving forces beyond the majority of Romani-American families being here in the USA at all. These concepts would be followed by a constant drive to escape the other persecutions of Europe—from which Romani immigrants are still fleeing to the US and Canada today….
For the Romani who stayed in Romania after slavery ended, life was predictably bleak. During slavery, a Romanian term for a runaway slave translates in English to “incomplete one,” meaning that only a Romani person who was of inferior intellect would not wish to be a slave. This deeply-ingrained belief in the mental inferiority of freed Romani people continued the economic and scholastic crippling of upcoming generations. In a country which had previous allowed any White man, whether he owned her or not, to rape any Romani woman that he encountered, the myth of the hypersexual Romani seductress continued as well. And, to this day, Romani women are more likely in certain areas—(Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia,)—to be targeted for human trafficking than White women, partially because of this.
So, to authors seeking to write Romani characters, that’s a huge chunk of history that is still, however much mainstream European society has sought to sweep it under the rug, very much part of the Romani mindset. Most Roma you encounter are not only quite aware that we have a significant past as slaves in Europe and the Americas, but that, if we were to ask people on the street about it, ninety-nine percent of them would have no idea that it had ever even happened at all. We are also aware that, once educated, a huge portion of listeners would be of the “get over it” belief system. According to mainstream society, our history has profoundly little value. It is not unusual, when we highlight what happened to our ancestors, for us to simply be called liars. Yet again, that erases the culpability of the oppressors and, especially in Eastern European countries where, to this day, Romani poverty and lack of education are very major problems, people do not want to understand the true process as to how these conditions came to be. Yet it is undeniable that post-slavery mistreatment, based on the mindset of slave ownership, remains a key factor to this day.
Another simple fact that I like to point out to people is this: those from Romania who were born in slavery lived to see the Nazis take power. And any Romani person from Romania that was under the age of seventy-five or so, who that was murdered in the concentration camps was the child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of human beings that had been born with the label of being White people’s “property.”
Those who question today, “Why can’t the Roma just pick themselves back up and integrate with mainstream society?” have to understand that, after slavery occurred, there was very little opportunity for the community to organize itself. Massive PTSD from the tortures of enslavement aside, the general population went out of its way to ensure that Roma people did not have equal job opportunity. Even now, throughout Eastern Europe, Romani children are frequently kept in segregated schools for the mentally handicapped. Based on their skin color, they are denied a fair chance at life’s opportunity’s from essentially day one as part of government policy.
And what Romani-led organization to lift the community up there was, in many areas, was then obliterated by the Holocaust. Psychologically and economically speaking, there was just not enough of a gap between slavery and the mass murder of our people to get ourselves firmly on our feet.
(Above, a Romani victim of the Holocaust.)
And about that Romani Holocaust, which most outsiders know next to nothing about, exactly how bad was it? Most articles that do reference it are badly researched and place the estimate of our dead at a mere few thousand. The reality is that it might be as high as one and a half million. Deaths of Roma were not always recorded and, when they were, they were not always recorded as being Roma; rather than as Jews. As a Romani woman myself, I lean far towards believing the one and a half million figure for the simple reason that every Romani person that I’ve ever met whose family was in Europe, (short of the UK,) during that time period has the same story that I do: their people were almost entirely, if not completely, obliterated.
(Above, Romani Holocaust victims in the Lublin Ghetto.)
(Romani Holocaust victims.)
In all my life, I have never once had a Romani friend from my own tribal background. My ancestors were slaves in Romania that escaped to what is today’s Czech Republic. During the Holocaust, it is said that only around six hundred Roma from the entire Czech region survived the war. That equates to ninety to ninety-five percent of the entire country’s known Romani population being murdered. Consequently, my tribe, in books, has been called “extinct.” Many Roma that I encounter have not even heard of our tribe before, as the Roma that currently live in Czech Republic mainly immigrated from other countries after World War II.
I recently published a story, “Shades of Equality,” in UnBound Emagazine.
The story deals with the current treatment of the Romani people in Slovakia; how they endure hate crimes, neo-Nazism, school segregation, forced sterilization, poverty, arranged marriage, and so-called “Roma walls,” which are built to keep Romani and White communities separate. As UnBound Emagazine is now being promoted by the publishing platform, Kalaage, I was soon contacted by Kalaage with an offer to put one of my thousand-word short stories in September’s edition of Ink Drift Magazine—another of their featured literary enterprises.
This was quite a thrill, as this particular issue also showcased an article on writing horror novels by my very good friend, Aindrila Roy, the best-selling author of “I See You,” as well as an interview with the well-known Romani author-activist, Oksana Marafioti. Several other prominent writers–some I knew; some I didn’t–were making appearances and giving feedback on our craft. And it’s definitely when you are in such good company that you know you have the most to lose by turning in something below par.
Ultimately, I was determined to write something about the Holocaust’s legacy—mainly because the readership from UnBound Emagazine has been incredibly receptive to authentic Romani portrayals, our true history, and not expected any of the usual “Gypsy” stereotypes that plague us. As they are published out of Mumbai, I can even occasionally throw in a word or two from our language, Romanes, and feel quite confident that the majority of those reading will know what I’m saying—something that I certainly could not expect from a European or American publication.
But how to talk about the Holocaust in one thousand words? In a short story format, no less?
(Another Romani Holocaust victim.)
Well, I thought first that I would discuss Lety—the concentration camp for Bohemian Roma, which has long been the center of the spotlight as activists have had to wage their own war to bring an end to its usage as a pig farm.
(Lety Concentration Camp for Bohemian Roma.)
Those Roma who did not die in Lety were shipped directly to Auschwitz. Did I have relatives in Lety? Through my paternal g-grandmother’s side, probably. There was never contact with a single one of them after World War II. One could argue that the silence speaks for itself.
But, as I sat to type, I had to note that there was another concentration camp—Hodonin—which was, like Lety, run by Czechs, not Germans, and had set itself to the task of either personally killing or sending its thousands of surviving victims on to Auschwitz. As with Lety, Hodonin is another probable place for my family to have died or been transferred from.
(Hodonin Concentration Camp for Moravian Roma.)
So what was the unheard story of Hodonin? In the average Holocaust film, one sees some semblance of the Nazis being brought down in the end. This was far from the case for the camps designed for Romani extermination though. Their guards were not prosecuted. They did not even have to hide their identities. They lived in the same communities that they grew up in, with all their neighbors fully knowing them for the murdering bastards they were…and choosing to overlook it because, after all, the dead were “just Gypsies.”
Rather than being turned into a memorial, Hodonin received a reaction from the local populace every bit as disrespectful to the dead as Lety’s pig farm—arguably, more-so. Its site became a recreational center. One of the former barracks of the Romani prisoners was turned into a restaurant. A swimming pool for White tourists to play in was erected where people, only decades earlier, because of the color of their skin fought to not succumb to starvation, complications from Czech-enforced slave labor, and typhoid.
To be perfectly honest, when I submitted the story, “The Fountain of Youth,” about Hodonin, I very well would not have been surprised if it had been refused acceptance by Ink Drift simply because the details that I was having to squeeze into the tiny word count were almost too inhumane to believe—not because the Holocaust had happened, but because of the government’s reaction after the war was over. That so many locals could, without being able to use the excuse of the Nazis being in power, treat the genocide of their country’s ethnic minority so cavalierly that you could literally walk into a place and order lunch where people died….it simply raised the question, “How could they live with themselves?”
But this is the reality of being Romani. However much it has been romanticized in literature, ours is, while a proud culture, in many ways not one possessing a history to be envied. What most Romani worldwide today long for is when that history—the truth of it—will no longer be ignored.
So, writers, the next time that you ask a Romani person for advice on how to include a Romani character in your books, here’s what I would say: do your research first. Learn what we’ve been through. Learn what we are still going through. And, after you’ve done that, then ask the question, do you really want to be the kind of person to portray a caricature or a human being with genuine depth, who just happens to come from a different racial background? The one is easy and may indeed earn you readers. But the books that stand the test of time are forged from quality, not clichés. And, when you ask your questions, a Romani person’s response may very well be, “Are you writing a pot-boiler or actual literature?”