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By Jennifer Rokhsar, Cold Spring
Harbor High School, New York
Roma at Belzec
(Jerry Ficowski, Courtesy USHMM)
When many people hear the word "Gypsy," they think of a life of adventure, fortune, and a joyful, mischievous people. But the reality of these people is much different.
On October 21, 1997, this past year, Dusan Jovanocic was beaten to death in Serbia. Ten days later, a pregnant woman met the same fate. Before that, a man had his hair lit on fire by a gang of teenagers. What were these people doing to provoke this violence? The answer: absolutely nothing. They were Rom.
Rom, commonly known as "Gypsies," have led a life of persecution, not romance as most believe. Throughout history, these people have been despised by Europeans. To understand why, one must look at where the Rom came from. They were originally of Indian descent, a tribe that centuries ago migrated towards Europe. When they arrived there, they were immediately met with looks of distrust, due to their bright clothing and dark skin. Soon after, rumors of kidnapping children, rape, vampirism, and cannibalism followed the Romani. Those accused were beaten or hanged.
Later in history, under the rule of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, people attempted to "civilize" the Romani. Their tents, language, chiefs, and customs were banned. The men were forced into the military and the children into segregated boarding schools. Parents who were caught not sending their children to these schools were hanged, tortured, or beheaded.
During the Holocaust, the Rom were deported along with the Jews. They were placed in concentration camps and murdered. One might think that things have gotten better for these people, but it is not true. Here is an excerpt from the lyrics of a song played on Hungarian radio. It's called, "Gypsy Free Zone":
The flame thrower is the weapon with which I can triumph
Exterminate the Gypsies whether child, woman, or man.
Little has changed for the Rom in all these centuries. Most countries the Rom reside in, such as Hungary, Serbia, and Romania, had been under Communist rule following World War II. But since the fall of Communism, hate crimes against the Rom have soared. This fact is largely due to a rise in nationalism. In countries such as Hungary, nationalism has lead to the belief that only "true Hungarians" have the right to live in Hungary.
Yet the group that has suffered the greatest has been the Serbian-Rom. All the hate crimes I mentioned earlier happened in Serbia. Since the break up of Yugoslavia, neo-Nazi street gangs and their violence are on the rise. Rom leaders say they have reports of hate crimes happening every two days in the nation's capital. Rom have become second class citizens. Their children are made to sit in the back of the classroom; sent to special education; ostracized by their teachers; and, even thrown out of school. There are an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 Rom in the Hungary/Czech Republic region, making them the largest minority. But they have suffered greatly. One Rom said in an interview that "the Rom and the Jews have once again become the black sheep for Hungarians. We are waiting for our own Los Angeles riots."
The Rom are waiting to rise up, but they have a major obstacle to overcome before receiving justice. Eighteen-year-old Tibor Olah said, "Perhaps it is our own fault. We should organize ourselves to fight for our rights." He made this remark in response to what is happening to the Rom in Germany. They are being deported from Germany to Romania. For protection, many Rom and Jews live in the same quarters of towns. Some walls are scrolled with graffiti reading "anti-gypsy" and "You are a dog! We are the gypsy beaters!" Many Rom have smuggled members of their families to Canada, so they can have a better life. They hope they can earn money for their families.
For centuries, Rom have been the scapegoats for Europeans. They have been tortured; had had their families broken apart; and have been murdered -- but they have always prevailed. An old Rom saying goes, "Bury me standing; all my life I've been forced to kneel." This is the tough mentality that has allowed the Rom to survive as a people.
Monika is a fourteen year old who lives in Hungary. She says, "The looks of suspicion when a Rom enters a room are something I'll have to deal with for the rest of my life. Wouldn't it be great if I became the first Rom to win a Nobel Prize? Don't be so sure I won't." Monika is one of many Rom who are determined not to let hate stop her from achieving her dreams. She is determined to stand proud during her life. This human right is one that no person, race, or people should be denied.
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