Roma – assimilation or integration

  • What is…?

Assimilation: the gradual incorporation of one ethnicity and its culture into another culture in such a way that the signs of the original culture are lost and replaced by the signs of the dominant accepting culture. (c.f. Brouček et al., 1991, page 240).

Colonised consciousness: a change in thinking under the influence of the social climate which is controlled by the dominant group in society. Under its influence, minorities can adopt a negative attitude towards themselves.

Romipen: an umbrella term for the maintenance of Roma culture, traditions and social conduct. Romimo is also an expression of Roma identity.

Integration: the incorporation of an individual or group into majority society without the loss of their own culture and identity.

Sterilisation: a surgical procedure which deprives an individual of their fertility on a permanent basis.

  • Topic

The term ‘assimilation’ refers to a process, the consequence of which is adaptation to the majority and its customs to such an extent and by such means that this process leads to the complete loss of a group’s own ethnic or national identity. Assimilation means a perfect merger with the majority and the unconditional acceptance of its values. Assimilation takes place either naturally on the basis of the free will of the members of the assimilated group, or unwillingly, forced upon the minority by the conduct of majority society or its power apparatus. A huge motivation to assimilate is enshrined within the phenomenon known as ‘colonised consciousness’. This term is based on historical experience, in which a stigmatised minority, long used to being the subject of mockery, gradually adopts this contemptuous attitude and begins to scorn its own ethnicity. As a result of this, a desire is created to be the same as a member of the majority. A fundamental feature of this process is that it is a unilateral process placing considerable requirements upon those who intend to assimilate. The assimilating individual or group adapts completely, without this being absolutely necessary, and society does not have to create any special or conscious conditions for this process to be successful. Sometimes, this process is not even conscious. This is the case with the assimilation of individual members of Roma communities. Unquestionably, many Roma, during the course of their time in this country, have assimilated, either willingly, or in various historical stages also unwillingly, under the pressure of state power. However, it is true that this was clearly never a blanket process, relating to large groups, but rather an unobtrusive process affecting individual Roma people and those close to them. Between 1945 and 1965, Roma came to the Czech lands spontaneously and willingly. Though this massive process was not organised or managed on a mass scale, recruiters arrived in the Slovak settlements who underestimated the migration to the Czech territories. At the beginning, the aim was to move the Roma to territory freed up after the transfer of the German population, where there was sufficient accommodation and jobs, above all in Northern and Western Bohemia and Northern Moravia. The most important destinations of the Roma migration were large Czech and Moravian cities. This precipitate urbanisation of the rural Roma population, accustomed to the environment of Roma settlements localised outside Slovakian villages, could not turn out well. Municipal apartments were allocated to Roma from the settlements. Many Roma, who were not prepared for such a situation, began living squeezed together in blocks of flats, with their claims and customs, which they did not know or understand. They were offered employment in factories with fixed working hours. Most of these displaced persons received wages in money for the first time in the history of their families, and for the first time it was expected of them that they would carry out work they were not used to in a fixed regime every day. Many Roma, completely taken unawares by a different life situation, failed absolutely in the eyes of the majority. The huge tremors in coexistence with the first generation of the Roma population from Slovakia after 1945 did not augur well for the future of mutual relationships. The population of the Czech lands after 1945, though de facto for the first time, again encountered this different culture, and in an intensity which could not be compared with anything before it. If the migration of Roma from Slovakia to the Czech lands up until 1965 was a spontaneous process, between 1965 and 1970 it was a government policy, a policy of organised dispersal. The basis of this measure of the Communist government was the movement of Roma from Slovakia to the Czech lands, and the simultaneous liquidation of the Slovakian Roma settlements. The Roma were moved to the Czech lands willingly, motivated by a purchase price of some CZK 10 to 15 thousand for their largely worthless shacks. The migration of the most advanced Roma from the Slovak settlements to the Czech lands for work damaged the social structure of the original settlements, and also damaged the possibility of their advancement.

Whether we consider this assimilation process under the influence of a negative self-image as willing or forced, its result was individuals, families and entire communities which put aside all the signs which distinguished them from the majority, apart from the colour of their skin and a collective awareness of what it is to be Roma. To a remarkable extent, they adapted to the requirements of the majority without getting rid of the main reproach, i.e. that they were Roma. Assimilated Roma and their offspring live amongst us without our even suspecting it. Often, these people themselves know nothing of their Roma past, and even more frequently do not want to. They suspect that to be linked with this stigmatised group could damage them in the community. For all of these reasons, but above all because only that group which maintained its Roma identity is visible, looked at from the outside there is a delusion that there was no assimilation of the Roma people.

The process of assimilation was practised for the decades of the Communist regime in respect of the Roma within the Czech state. The state did not hesitate to use violent methods – the sterilisation of women without the women being told, the removal of their children because of an unsuitable environment for education from the point of view of the majority, etc. And the consequence? The Roma gave up their traditions, stopped offering their traditional crafts in which they had attained genuine success, etc. Instead, new phenomena appeared, such as prostitution and the removal of children to orphanages, which were phenomena which had previously been admissible in this community. Given the famous cohesion of the Roma extended family, we can but hang our heads in shame over why it is that orphanages are full of Roma children. The answer is clear: it was the decision of the majority that the Roma people had to surrender their traditional life and customs, though the acceptance of new values did not take place as quickly as the rejection of the old.

The integration of the members of one ethnic group into majority society is qualitatively a completely different process than their assimilation. The concept of integration means the incorporation of an individual or group into majority society without the loss of their own identity. As opposed to assimilation, this is a mutual process, demanding for those who intend to integrate and for those amongst whom they wish to integrate. The will to enter must correspond to the will to receive. A condition for the successful integration of a certain group is that majority society accept to a certain extent the difference of the integrating party and create suitable conditions for its integration. Integration resembles a contract between two contracting parties, those who wish to integrate and those who are to permit them. Under the terms of this contract, one contracting party declares that it will create the prerequisites for its acceptance, i.e. that it be capable to be integrated into (compatible with) the second party. For instance, Roma people attain a certain level of education, surrender certain aspects of their culture which damage the second party in social life, etc., and the second party undertakes to accept the integrating party under these circumstances as an integral and equal party, including tolerance and support of its different identity. If this process is to be successful, both parties must abide by the contract. The consequence of integration is a self-confident equal member of society who knows their worth and can behave and act out the regular roles of modern life. The question is whether the slow pace of the integration of the Roma into our society is not an indication of failure on the part of the majority, i.e. the second contracting party.

The historian of Sudeten Germany, Ferdinand Seib, in his work on the Jews and their thousand years of coexistence with the majority in the Czech Lands, wrote that “…it is the secret of all minorities, the secret of every example of coexistence with minorities. Minorities must have some functional relationship with the majority. They must be for something. Then they are endured and sometimes even accepted willingly. This applies to the present and it applied for centuries to the Jewish community.” This idea throws up very serious questions. A minority which is simply different, but has no specific use for the majority, has basically two possibilities: to assimilate or to remain different, and the majority has the duty to protect this difference. In respect of a minority which has some specific benefit, the majority has not only a duty but an interest to protect it. This is a large difference and the fundamental starting point for the mutual coexistence of the majority and the Roma.

What “use” can we have from integration? At the very least, it is the fact that a person becomes aware that the culture of the majority is not the only one in the world, and is neither the main one nor the best one. Or realises that people can, without fear, reject a xenophobic outlook and not worry about contact with a foreign, different culture. Each meeting with something unusual, often incomprehensive, can, on the contrary, only enrich a person.

  • Stories and examples

Josef, 20 years old
Josef grew up in an adopted Czech family from the age of 10. When he was 15, his adoptive parents began to have problems with him. He was being ridiculed and insulted by other pupils at school. He couldn’t understand why. He often heard phrases like “you black bastard” and other such expressions. Josef, who by force of circumstance felt himself to be Czech, had to face the fact that nobody in his surroundings regarded him as a Czech, even though he was extremely well-spoken. This was probably because his skin was darker. Society allocated him an ethnicity which he himself did not feel a part of. He felt deracinated and confused. He began to ask himself who he actually was, and why Roma people are so stigmatised. What if I admit to myself that I am Roma, will they respect me? He is still asking himself these and other such questions.

Melanie, 30 years old

Melanie lives with her husband in a small town where everyone knows each other. She likes wearing black, because it suits her. But whenever her family, which lives in the city, come to visit, she puts aside her black clothes because she doesn’t want to cause them pain. The reason is that for Valasko Roma, black is a symbol of grief and death. It wasn’t easy for Melanie to take this step. It was a process which lasted several years. When you observe her, you find out that she is able to use two different communication styles depending on whom she is talking to, without any great problem, whether it is a Roma or a member of the majority. Everyone likes her.

A girl tells her story
I was born in the Czech Republic. My parents work in the Czech Republic. Some people say: “You’re Czech.” Others say: “You’re a Roma like us.” But what am I in reality? In my school, all the children are Czech. They don’t want to play with me. Romani is my first language. My father tells me not to feel ashamed of being a Roma. When I’m at my grandmother’s, my pleasure slowly evaporates. Granny doesn’t like me any more. “You’re not one of us.” OK, but where do I belong

This story is taken from the journal: Giere Jacqueline, Köbler, Gottfried (2001). Konfrontation. Bausteine für die pädagogische Annäherung an Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust. Frankfurt am Main. Fritz Bauer Institut. p. 9.

The story of Jana Horváthová
My path to education was not exceptional, special, and not remotely thorny. I did not have to overcome any great barriers, I didn’t have to fight the animosity of the school teachers, and even my hunger for knowledge did not meet any incomprehension on the part of my parents. These are the relatively frequent direct or hidden impediments which Roma pupils confront. Most Roma trying for higher education usually meet similar barriers and are forced to overcome them somehow.

Similar considerations run through my head when I think casually about this topic. My story was not typical and is definitely not exemplary. Despite this, after thinking more deeply about things, I decided that my origins, or rather, my anthropological differences, influenced both my childhood and my later destiny. They influenced me fairly deeply, regardless of the imagined or real share of Roma genes in my body.

Some people call me “gadjo” or "bumpkin" (but only behind my back), for others I am a gypsy or a Roma, depending on who it is and how they think. In reality, I’m a "crossroads” as the Roma say, or half-gypsy if you like, even though strictly mathematically speaking, I’m not even that, I’m a quarter ethnic gypsy. I come from a mixed Czech-Roma family.

As a child I was petite, with somewhat narrow eyes, and given my surroundings had very dark skin – not shining golden brown, but grey, as though always dirty, and covered by loads of fine black hairs. From a very young age, I was used to my appearance attracting the attention of both children and adults. Children tried to argue as to whether I was Indian or Spanish, or even French, or from another country altogether, which they didn’t know about. I wasn’t too happy with their interest in the origin of my exotic looks, because I was embarrassed not to be the same as everyone else. Not because I’m ugly, I like the way I look and even other people say I look nice too, but I think that it’s normal for a child to want to be the same as their school friends, to want to fit in, to be an integral part of the children’s collective. Individuality and significant deviation from the average, both in appearance and abilities, in the negative and positive sense of the word, is very quickly detected by the children’s collective and becomes the centre of its usually negative interest. I don’t write that because I found myself directly in the centre of such interest. That never happened. But because of my differences, I felt like the black sheep. In my environment, there was nobody like me, we lived in a district where Roma didn’t live, and the several Arab children with whom I went to nursery made friends with almost nobody, living in their own closed world. Surprisingly, the teachers liked them, which was obvious (and provoked envy in the rest of us) by the fact that, when bathing in the school swimming pool, they were the only ones who could wear bathing costumes, while we had to ignominiously display our nakedness. None of the children had dark grey skin on their elbows and wrinkled hands, which appeared to me like the hands of old Indian women. So difficult were the impressions I had of otherness that in third grade, the teacher unthinkingly said that I had hands like a hippo. I was convinced for a long time of the inevitability of this fact and the impossibility of changing it. In the grip of this prejudice, it would never have occurred to me that hand cream would do the trick. At that time, I also admired what for me was the unattainably delicate beauty of the thin curves of the eyebrows of most of my girlfriends, whereas I had thick black brows joined together at the top of my nose.

These days, such memories seem petty to me, and I laugh at them, but as I say: every age has its serious problems, and adults should not make light of them. The trifles in question influenced me for a long time, and confirmed in me the feeling that I was different to most others, and that I couldn’t change that if I wanted to.

When I started first grade, I was already aware of my origins and had been superficially acquainted with the word “gypsy”. Regarding gypsies, talk amongst both adults and children had been of ridiculous people, but no threat to anyone because of their limitations and their simplicity. I can’t ever remember anyone attempting to analyse the poor relations between the Roma minority and the majority; nobody was bothered by this problem. People simply amused themselves at the expense of the Roma people. It was natural that jokes about gypsies were part of having a good time. It was common to speak of gypsies with disrespect and contempt. They took it as natural, as something unavoidable, over which one had to avert one’s gaze for a while, that is until such a time when it was possible to bring up these wild and half-baked “children” to appreciate the “good Czechoslovak citizen”. In short, as far back as this time, I saw the word ‘gypsy’ as an insult, as a synonym for a stigmatised person whom nobody would take seriously and who was the target of ridicule.

I can’t even remember when I first learned that my grandfather was a Roma. This was because I learned about it as a secret, even though everyone in the family knew. However, amongst our close family (my parents and sister) it was not discussed, because it wasn’t fundamental at that time. Moreover, my parents were both tolerant to both social and ethnic minorities, it was utterly obvious to them, and so they did not lead us to it in such a programmed way. One could maybe speak of a certain naivety with which my parents confronted the most various, sometimes completely doubting people with complete openness. Maybe for this reason I found it difficult to understand the malice shown towards Vietnamese and Arab people, who were numerous here in the past.

In our close family, we didn’t speak of ethnicity, as opposed to when the extended family met – the descendents of grandfather’s siblings, of those who did not survive the war, were always thinking back to the common ancestors, that is, to the old men and women who lived in a gypsy camp and, through their own will and diligence, managed to build a nice house outside the camp and taught all their children as far back as the first republic, were permanently employed and even one of whom studied at the Law Faculty of the prestigious Charles University before the war. After the war, his example was followed not only by his son, but many other relatives. In a small Slovak village, this caused a commotion. Few of the sons of the rich farmers had such a career, and at that time being a lawyer was a very respectable way of making a living. As well as these almost heroic achievements of my great grandfathers and grandfathers, the family also frequently returned to the war, which had branded it indelibly. Whoever did not die in the concentration camp – three of grandfather’s brothers were executed after trying to escape, his father and other relatives were gassed at the time of the liquidation of the gypsy camp in Auschwitz – had to hide for three long wartime years. From family meetings, I recall sometimes almost hysterically recounted memories of this difficult time. From the family memory, from these almost heroic acts of our ancestors, who were still gypsies and detested all the same, maybe more than the Roma today – from all of this, there was a lot of contempt created for the surname Holomek. This fact linked us all – by Czech standards even remote relatives – together. On the other hand, family meetings were also a place where these pioneers of the integration of the Roma into society confirmed their uniqueness and differences. They emphasised that they were Moravian gypsies. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the Roma arriving here after the war from the backward and agrarian Slovakia, whose path to integration was only at its beginning in comparison with the settlements of Moravian Roma. The Holomeks felt a gulf between themselves and other Roma, and their pride grew and grew. Nobody ever made it publicly known, but it was known in the family. We didn’t want to be identified with the Slovak Roma, which was as difficult then as it is now. The general public doesn’t want to be bothered by dividing Roma up according to the cultural, educational and social level. What tended to happen was that some of them did not present their Roma origins in public. As a small child, I did not understand any of this and it is with great difficulty that I have been able to orient myself in this complex situation.

From the first days spent at school, I vividly remember how during the break a pupil I still didn’t know shouted “gypsy” at me, mocked me for my beautiful red dress with its white ribbon by calling the ribbon a bandage, and the teacher who heard it remained quiet, as though she agreed with what the little boy had said. I didn’t want to be a gypsy, I didn’t want to belong to those whom everyone smiled at, who were associated with dirt, backwardness and whom everyone scoffed at. Being a gypsy took no account of ethnicity or nationality, the official state policy at the time did not even regard them as an ethnic group, but as a social group. More accurately, as a socially pathological group. “Gypsy” was an unambiguously shameful label and remains so to this day, even though several healthy self-confident Roma now don’t care, and that is a certain step forward. Publicly, people only talk of gypsies in connection with the necessity of their re-education and their promotion to a level comparable with the surrounding population. Understandably, in schools, too, silence reigns regarding the origin of gypsies, regarding the originality of their culture, which is, on the contrary, regarded as a manifestation of their backwardness. These days, people with a serious interest can, if they study hard enough, find information about the Roma people, but children at school have not really moved forward since my childhood. It is certainly an improvement that they do not persist in the theory that the Roma are members of a backward social group, which must be liquidated through assimilation with the rest of the population. Another positive fact is that information regarding the Roma ethnicity is included in school textbooks. On the other hand, these days Roma children have to encounter racism and ethnic intolerance far more than they did in the past.

From what I have said, it follows that our family had no contact with other Roma. They were a completely unknown entity to me, as I had learned nothing about them at school, and for this reason, like the rest of the children, I believed all the negative stuff being said publicly about the Roma people. Not that I would have adopted this ugly nonsense as my own, but I was subject to it, and so was ashamed for my own, albeit partial, but nevertheless clear Roma origin. Gradually I began to understand that our family was Roma, but at the same time it was instilled in us that we were different, i.e. better. The cruel ideology of the time really did conceive of the gypsy as a member of a social group. From the social point of view, a non-problematic Rom could not be a gypsy as far as the authorities were concerned. And so, the whole of our family dropped out of the files held on the gypsy population. My pleasant, sensitive and loving mother took the word ‘gypsy’ in a similar sense, who in all good faith gave me the following advice: “Don’t dress in too colourful clothes, don’t wear large earrings, tie your long hair back, or else you’ll look like a gypsy.” When she married my father, my mother did so for his qualities, and his origin was secondary. In truth, she didn’t know much about the Roma people when they got married. I didn’t take the reservations of my somewhat small-town mother too seriously, who was once in her life robbed by a gypsy and never forgot it, and so I asserted myself as I wished.

Despite the fact that the members of my family felt on a higher level than other Roma, they felt a kinship with other Roma and clearly a certain duty to those on a lower level. This was manifest above all during the period of the Federation of Gypsies-Roma (1969-1973). Many members of our family became founding members of this organisation, and after the administrative liquidation of the federation, my grandfather especially was still engaged in resolving issued linked with the Roma. However, he did not hide his feeling that it was necessary to get the Roma ethnic group to a higher social and cultural level. He himself was already there, he knew this and was pleased, and yet even so he felt best amongst Roma people on the lower level. Granddad, as opposed to younger relatives, had experienced the poverty of the gypsy settlement and the genuine disdain of white people. He managed to change himself by virtue of his ambitiousness and thanks to the selfless help of many members of the family. Everyone had to work and earn money, but he could study. In childhood, he experienced for himself the desperate absence of conditions for keeping himself clean, which led to high sickness rates, which he never forgot, and as a result he always had a morbid obsession with his own hygiene and a horror of dirt and contact with ill people. However, for this reason he understood the very poor Roma better than the younger members of the family, and he was able to chat kindly with them, and felt at home among them. He told me on several occasions how difficult his path amongst white, educated, cultured people had been, how much self-denial, self-restraint and even dissimulation it had cost him. He only really felt free amongst Roma people. Otherwise he became sad, depressed, worried about his health, he despised not only ill people but the food in restaurants, where he sometimes looked for dirt and impurities. However, when he was amongst the Roma, the strict diet and all the anxieties disappeared. Once he took us to a christening party in Brno for one family of Slovak Roma. I noticed simply impossible red drapings with banners, a crowd of people, a huge pot with greasy food from which everyone ate, and loud noise. But granddad glowed with satisfaction.

At school, I kept my origins hidden, or more truthfully I didn’t speak about them. I remember some unpleasant feelings which I’d had when jokes about gypsies started making the rounds. The children obviously knew them from their parents, and they were favourite features of school recesses and pioneer camps. So, when in Rome, do what the Romans do: because of the fear of being discovered, I also contributed with jokes about "silly gippos", etc. However, nobody in our close family knew anything about my feelings regarding my origins, even though it was our habit at home to speak openly about everything from all sorts of angles. I never spoke with my parents about the topic, because while still a child I wasn’t aware of it as such. I didn’t manage to make my complexes ensuing from my otherness coherent. My sister didn’t experience anything of the sort, because she was a blue-eyed blonde, and it would have been difficult to discover her origins.

Finally, after I had been going to school with the same friends for a longer period of time, nobody dared to call me a gypsy; it wouldn’t even have occurred to them. I remember how women sitting by me on the tram would clutch their shopping bags, and their nasty and sometimes downright evil look would tell me exactly what was going through their heads. Even as an adult, on several occasions I have not been able to explain why a shop assistant is so informal with me in a shop, but I was brought up to be tolerant, and so I didn’t admit or realise the real reason. Good manners used to prevent me from applying the same conduct. It is a paradox that my Roma husband, who is as white as a gadjo, but knows hidden discrimination from life inside the Roma community, himself started to draw my attention to how people around me hide their bags and how shop assistants behave with a distinct insolence towards me, as opposed to the way they treat my husband.

Another of the attributes regularly used in connection with the Roma, is ‘primitive’ or ‘limited’. Just saying the word ‘gypsy’ brings with it the unconscious awareness of these deep-rooted clichés. This would be unpleasant for me, as it would not be easy for me to reconcile myself to the fact that people would have such an opinion of me before even meeting me. I always wanted to be educated and, above all, to help others. As a child, and later on, I had a clear idea of my self-realisation. Above all, I wanted to do work which would bring some positive and, if possible, permanent results. Moreover, I was brought up to be ambitious. My father used to be critical of my conduct and appearance, he didn’t want me to be only good, but took it for granted that I would be the best. Actually, this must have already been in me, since he also behaved like this towards my sister, but she was happy with her calm and phlegmatic nature, and the occasional failure didn’t mean anything to her. But I was and remain very critical of my failures, whether at school or, later on, at work. Such failures became incentives for even better work. I remember that my parents didn’t have any cause to be concerned about my school attendance, since they knew that it mattered to me. Though I was always one of the best pupils in class, if I received a bad mark, it was difficult for me to take. In this case, my parents would try to disperse the clouds hanging over my head by saying that marks weren’t everything. Even when I was a baby, my parents taught me to concentrate on my hobbies and extend my abilities. From first grade on, I was sent to several special interest classes, and every day after school I had either gymnastics, music, or I hurried over to the Theatre Na provázku, where I was a member of the Children’s Studio.

I always wanted to be one of the educated, capable people beneficial to society, and from childhood I prepared for it. However, these days I realise that the circumstances around my origins confirmed me and supported me in my efforts. I know that it would work out all right for me if I created a kind of shield against stupid and restricted people. I soon understood that only my knowledge, education and the results of my work could act as this shield. Another reason which led me to study hard was the circumstances surrounding the character of my father. He always went for things full-on, he wanted to defend the truth and live according to noble moral principles. And so, in 1968 his promising career as a military scientific specialist ended, and from day to day he became difficult to employ. Eventually, he found a job as a lorry driver, then a labourer on socialist building sites, to which he had to travel literally to different ends of the republic. My father never did anything by halves, which is why he fought against the hated regime, not only through seditious speeches at labourers’ meetings at his company, but also within the circle of dissidents by getting involved in the copying and distribution of exile literature. We spoke of these questions much more in our close family than about our Roma origin, since they had an immediate impact upon the lives of us all. It was clear to me that if I wanted to study, I always had to be better than all the rest. And I wanted to study at all costs.

At grammar school, I was as ashamed of my partially Roma origins as I had been before. On the very first day in the new school, my fears were proved justified by one of my classmates. The moment I sat down next to her, she turned toward me and informed me coldly that the place was already taken. It was only after my baccalaureate that she told me, smiling, that she had thought I was a gypsy. Even then, I wasn’t capable of telling her that her impression had, in fact, been correct.

It was only at university that I gradually began to change a lot of things. Obviously, the relatively liberal environment of the philosophical faculty after grammar school had helped. Basic and middle schools under the Communists were places firmly bound by discipline which, as a shy child on the outside, I could conform to without difficulty, even though I suffered inwardly. At university, even though it was clear that amongst my fellow students there was more than one member of the Secret Police, this kind of drill didn’t exist. In addition, I could concentrate on my favourite subject, history, and not have to worry about science. I learned how to speak, express myself and define my opinions. I stopped being the vulnerable child. By sublimating my opinions, I also acquired the requisite self-confidence, and the entire course of my studies confirmed me in this respect. Furthermore, there were Greeks, Arabs and Africans studying with us at university. Non-European cultures began to interest me, including India. Studying history and the history of art made me interested in things I had not yet seen which would be worth seeing. At that time, a pupil who must have known of my origins (perhaps it was an open secret, since granddad was a genuinely well-known personality) told me that one of our professors was working on a history of Moravian Roma, and was looking for research assistants amongst the students. I applied, more out of curiosity, to see if someone really was going to study this much-maligned group of people. It was true, and what’s more the professor was enthusiastic, and I gradually began to share his enthusiasm. I read lots of small magazine entries. From specialist periodicals, I learned the history of our family, which this same specialist had started to work on. Very soon, I was taken up not only by the history of our family, but the fate of the Roma on a global basis. The doors to an unknown world began to open to me, which I had lived right next to for many years. I found myself temporarily on the opposite extreme, which clearly belongs to each “national revival”, whether it relates to the whole nation or individuals. I started to about everything Roma uncritically. These days, I look at all of these issues more objectively, and thanks to many years’ practice in the field of Roma studies, more professionally. My heart no longer burns exclusively for the Holomeks, but also for all Roma. I linked my life with that of a wonderful person from a group of Slovak Roma. I completely freed myself from the feeling of exclusivity of the Holomeks and, on the contrary, these days hold many Slovak Roma in high esteem -- above all, those who came from very poor backgrounds, managed to free themselves, attained honourable success in society, while not losing their Roma origins -- just as my grandfather managed to, many years ago. He took the basic step for all the members of our family, who now, without any great problem, can attain their titles.

My story is therefore not about how a Roma girl became educated, but how education discovered a Roma girl. Some might object that I was too sensitive a child, and I would agree. However, it is possible that through these trifles, which were so decisive for me at one time, the real barriers and suffering which the Roma people regularly meet in the street, school, authorities, during entertainment, or simply during the course of life in this society, will be better understood. Roma, who because of the way they look, could not and cannot deny their origin, must live a stigmatised life and have no shield in their uneducated parents or in their educational failures. If any of these children attain a higher education and manage to use it successfully for their own benefit and that of society as a whole, I would take my hat off to them: it is something I could not manage.

This story is taken from the book: Romové v České republice (1945 - 1998). Sešity pro sociální politiku. Socioklub, Praha 1999. p. 311-318.

  • Sources


Acton, T., Gallant D., Vondráček P. (2000). Romové (Ohrožené kultury) (The Roma – A Threatened Culture). Praha: Nakladatelství Svojtka & Co.

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