Who are the Roma? Scholars believe they originated in India, leaving in several migrations in the 11th century, possibly because of a Muslim invasion from what is now Afghanistan. Their Indian origin is revealed in their Sanskrit-based language and in their special skills and trades, notably music and metal-working; it is also revealed in their tightly knit communalism and certain cleanliness laws stemming from the Hindu caste system. Slowly moving westward, they sojourned in Persia and the Greek regions of the shrinking Byzantine Empire (modern Turkey) to cross the Dardanelles into Europe.
Dark skin, silver and gold jewelry, outlandish dress, and fortune-telling talents lent an aura of fear and fascination to their presence and soon defamatory legends arose on the superstitious soil of late mediaeval Christendom. Often with encouragement from the church, people accused them of spying for the Muslims, a charge that perversely reappeared in the recent conflict over Kosovo. They were also accused of having no morals, of stealing and eating Christian babies, of failing to help Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their flight from Herod, of forging the nails with which Jesus was crucified, of occultism, witchcraft and demonism, libels reinforced by their alien appearance and nomadic lifestyle.
Antipathy soon turns into persecution, and the Holy Roman Empire issued anti-Roma edicts calling for their expulsion from the imperial realms, especially in Germany. Men who did not leave were threatened with servitude in the galleys. Since these laws were unevenly enforced, the Roma managed to survive, but only by staying on constant alert. If for any reason they were arrested by local authorities, floggings, torture and decapitation often followed. There were even mass executions. Unlike the Jews, most Roma were nominal Christians (sometimes forcibly baptized), but this did not remove the social stigma.
The Protestant churches proved as anti-Roma as the Catholic bishops. With the eventual rise of “race science” in the 19th century, innate criminal traits were assigned to gypsy nature as proof of their biological inferiority.
In this way the so-called “gypsy problem” (in German, die zigeunerfrage) like the “Jewish problem” became a racial problem, an ominous classification. Old statutes inherited from the Weimar Republic dealing with the “gypsy plague” were buttressed with new “scientific” information distinguishing between pure gypsies, half gypsies, and one-quarter gypsies: a counterpart to the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws. Even one-eighth gypsies found themselves in the danger zone of deportation to Auschwitz.
No one knows exactly how many Roma perished at Nazi hands, but the number is certainly large, somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million. Many were shot by mobile killing squads in the wake of Hitler’s advancing legions; many died in the death camps, especially from 1942-1945. Their supposed “Aryan blood” did not save them, even if a few high ranking Nazis flirted with the notion that they belonged to the same Aryan or Indo-Germanic race as the Germans themselves. Dr. Josef Mengele liked to select gypsy children for his barbaric medical experiments and even adopted a small gypsy boy as his personal mascot before casting him into the ovens.
As Jews speak of the Holocaust (“burnt offering”) or Shoah (“catastrophic destruction”), so the Roma also have coined a special name for their terrible fate in modern times: Baro Porrajmos or “great devouring.” The image is highly evocative. Unlike the mass murder of the Jews, the crimes committed against the Roma drew little attention following the Second World War, either in Germany or elsewhere. Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish philosopher, once described the destruction of the Roma as more tragic in one sense in that no one ever bothered to commemorate them! Nor did they receive much compensation, although the German parliament did finally acknowledge German responsibility for their suffering in 1985.
Since Europe to this day has failed to purge itself of anti-gypsy myths and their harsh consequences, many Roma are attracted to Canada. Canadian society, they believe, offers the chance of a better life. However, prejudice is contagious, and on Jan. 21, 1999, the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected the refugee claims of two Hungarian Roma families, forcing them to return to Hungary. This decision was overturned on March 27, 2006 by the Federal Court of Appeal which ruled that the IRB action was biased and designed to throw cold water on other Roma applicants. Many of the latter were expelled from Canada with their Canadian-born children in the interval. Because Hungary and the Czech Republic now belong to the European Union, a facile excuse for rejecting Roma appeals is readily available. Are not the EU nations, on paper at least, committed to human rights? But violations persist and in some cases are worse than in the past because of the rise of neo-nationalism in economic hard times and the familiar search for scapegoats.
I was told at the Roma Community Centre in Toronto that somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Roma or persons of Roma descent live in Canada, a country of haven since the early 20th century when the first immigrants arrived. For understandable reasons, they prefer to keep a low profile but retain a strong sense of their unique identity. They are highly entrepreneurial, with only a small number living on welfare and few instances of family breakdown. There are no ‘Romatowns’ in Canadian cities as there are Chinatowns or Koreatowns or Italian or Portuguese or even Jewish neighbourhoods. They do not travel in picturesque caravans and many have lost the Romani language.
Alan Davies is a retired professor of religion. He lives in Toronto.
[For a podcast discssion of "Romaphobia," entitled, "An American View Of Europe's Integration Of Roma Communities," by Gwendolyn Albert, from a human rights point of view, click here.]