This article is about the Gypsies, also called the Roma, Romani, and Sinti, who populate Eastern Europe. They are easily the most unique minority in Europe, and one of its oldest immigrant/ nomadic identities. Popularly reviled by most Europeans, they are perceived as a tremendous source of social plight, theft, prostitution, drug trafficking, disease and petty crime. Growing human rights concerns are greatly conflicting with inextricable inter-ethnic conflict that has endured for centuries. Included are some of my personal observations, interviews, and photos from Gypsy history from Romania, Bulgaria, and Auschwitz. We do not intend in this article to depict the Roma in racially-offensive or discriminatory terms. Negative perceptions and hatred for the Roma are virtually universal among Europeans. This article seeks to analyze their position and the difficult social conflict between natives and Roma in history and today. The Gypsies are an easily-identified, incredibly distinct, and bitterly hated non-European race dispersed throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The Roma people, a sub-group of the greater Romani race that occupies Europe, emigrated as nomads from North India several centuries ago. The exact time frame and circumstances incurring their relocation are unclear.
They may have migrated for superior agricultural opportunities, they may have travelled westward on trade routes created by Alexander the Great, or they may have been fleeing from persecution in India by the invading Mujahidin of the Muslim sultanates there (Ghorids, Ghaznavids, or the Lodis of Delhi). The only certainty is that it took centuries and began at least over 500 years ago.The Roma are a tribal people, and carried many of the traditional customs, values, and religious beliefs of India with them. Their physiognomy is the same as that of North India: straight dark hair, darker skin, shorter stature, a broader skull, a long nose, and dark pigmentation under the eyes. Their non-European origin makes them an easy victim of discrimination and inter-ethnic conflict with native Europeans. The language Romani derives from Sanskrit and North Indian languages. They have no written language of their own, although foreign human rights groups have promoted a Latin- or Sanskrit-based alphabet in hopes of improved franchise. Reincarnation, polytheism, intense superstition and propitiation of gods, a strong hierarchy, and various forms of gods of Indian Hindu origin all are expressed among the Roma in great variety.
One village may have a different set of religious or clan ethics than another only a few miles away. The Roma include many tribes, including the famous Sinti (named after Sindh province in Pakistan) and the Kalderashi, greatly connected with criminal groups. Their use of superstitions and “witchcraft” drew a baseless parallel to ancient Egyptian mystics and their traditions. As a result, the Roma were often directly referred to as “Egyptians,” hence [E]gypsies. They were often involved in “freak shows” and circuses with bears that gave them a very negative association. Their propensity for theft created the English expression “to jip” (to steal). The German term “Zigeuner” is today considered politically incorrect, but Germans still use it anyway.
Although many Roma feign the religion of their host nations (Christendom), it is generally only a pragmatic attempt at survival and also in many cases a fraudulent appeal to Christian compassion to give them money (see below). The vast majority retain their traditional religions. At least 500 years ago (calculations vary), the Gypsies settled in Eastern Europe during the Medieval period. Most avoided staying in the Middle East, likely due to its brutal persecution of polytheistic religions like that of the Roma, similar to their ancestors’ experience in Muslim-dominated India. Most settled in what became Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania. Small communities further traveled all over the rest of Europe. Most settled in dilapidated shanties, tent colonies, and ghettos that were greatly secluded and segregated from the native populations, as is the case today. There was and remains almost no assimilation due to abstinent inter-cultural antagonism.
Over the past several centuries of their nomadic settlement in Eastern Europe and the Russian Steppes, they have been treated as a bacillus or parasite and have even frequently been expelled, attacked, or even in the case of World War II, exterminated altogether. Their non-Christian nature made them an additional target for angry Christian mobs. It was not only the Germans who massacred the Gypsies along with the Jews and homosexuals; Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and Romania (all Axis nations) took the opportunity to put many of their Gypsies to death or do nothing to stop its occurrence (see below). The Gypsies never built a civilization, state, or polity. Their level of development today is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, with all features of modern civilization (sanitation, running water, heating, waste disposal, schools, offices, security, etc.) all being provided by the European governments.
The only case of a type of Roma state was a small fiefdom in the Greek island of Corfu in the 14th century that only lasted a few years. Roma are distinctly non-European, and have the genetics of India with some superficial features of Europeans in an attempt at survival. Gypsies have a very agricultural lifestyle. In Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, many street signs show men with horse carts. Concerns for the political and social franchise of the Gypsies only occurred with the hysteria of human rights and mulch-culturallism after World War II. The Roma, however, have received very little support or interest due to the carelessness of Eastern European governments to alleviate their plight, especially when they have such difficulties serving the needs of the native majority. Human rights groups in the United States, England, Romania, and Bulgaria have created many Roma cultural institutions, including a World Romani Congress forums since the 1970’s.
UNICEF and the European Union have even extended their casual attention to this social conflict. A flag has been designed to promote the cultural identity of the Gypsies, one that expresses an Indian origin. New Western organizations have eschewed the discrimination the Gypsies receive, and have criticized the Romanian and Bulgarian governments for looking the other way as native mobs assault Gypsies. Many Gypsies who through independent wealth and donations have become international political pundits for Roma interests have called themselves “King of the Gypsies,” an ad hoc title that has no actual meaning and has been used for centuries by various individuals. Julian Radulescu and Florin Cioaba are two of the most recent examples of these “kings,” the latter having lost what little public prestige he had when he arranged the marriage of his 12-year-old daughter. The Gypsies typically arrange marriage and at an extremely early age, often marrying as early as 9 and to a partner decades older, which has greatly inhibited any toleration by the native population of their culture.
A growing interest to bring attention to the suffering of Gypsies in the Holocaust has also occurred recently, generally to no avail and has been elbowed aside by the monopoly that the Jews enjoy over the Holocaust. As I saw for myself in 2009, a small museum inside of Auschwitz led by a German academic source has been devoted to the slain Roma population that is given very little attention in comparison with the Jews and homosexuals who died there. Photos were not allowed unfortunately. The interior is even filled with pictures and stories of malnourished Jews, not Roma at all. Whereas the other portions of Auschwitz are in English, Polish, German, and Hebrew to bring global attention to the Jews’ suffering, the Roma’s suffering is only explained in German. Many plaques inside describe the intentional effort of the Hungarians under Regent Miklos Horthy and under the ultra-nationalist Arrow Cross, the Slovaks under Jozef Tiso, and the Third Reich to exterminate their Gypsy populations.
Although few Gypsies died in the Holocaust overall due to their smaller population and their lack of direct threat to the dominant society (unlike the highly-politically active Jews), their suffering gets very little attention. The oft-used unofficial flag of the Gypsies based upon that of India, including the Chakram wheel which signifies a variety of concepts including reincarnation, the nomadic culture of the traveling wheel, and the ancient wheel of Buddhist emperor Ashoka. During World War II, the Roma became victimized along with other foreign minority groups as most European countries adopted nationalistic Fascist-fashioned movements even prior to Hitler’s conquests. Their foreign racial, cultural, and religious nature greatly contrasted from the intense cultural and/or racial nationalism that pervaded in Europe. So too, their involvement in petty theft made them a particularly “expendable” racial group.
In Germany, they were compared with the Jews as infesting parasites who brought disease and drugs, whilst in Romania and Germany their physical infirmities and omnipotent ailments and deformed statures were deemed naturally defective (a foreshadow of great consequences). Romania, Hungary, Germany, Croatia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria all had and have sizable Gypsy minorities. All were Fascist allies of Hitler’s Germany, although Croatia and Slovakia were tributary puppets. Romania and Croatia, arguably Hitler’s two most complicit supporters of the Holocaust that were swept by their own analogous forms of racial ultra-nationalism, directly participated in their expulsion, relocation, and massacres. Fascist Slovakia and Hungary directly and consciously allowed their deportation and mistreatment due to a widespread apathy of the populations for their well-being. Axis Bulgaria has been accused (particularly by Misha Glenny in The Balkans) for completely exterminating non-Bulgarian Slavic populations — including Gypsies — when occupying Yugoslavia’s Macedonia.
Romanian Fascist leader Ioan Antonescu targeted Europe’s largest Gypsy population along with the Jews of Iasi with expulsion and purges. Both Slovakia and Hungary are directly blamed for the massacre of Gypsies during the war in the Roma museum in Auschwitz (see above). When Hungary switched sides as the Soviets approached Hungary and the Arrow Cross ultra-nationalists took power in Budapest, previous Hungarian apathy for the fate of the Roma and the Jews turned into direct murder and relocation to Auschwitz by the tens of thousands. Marshall Antonescu of Romania, arguably Germany’s closest ally and the most involved in the Gypsy extermination. Miklos Horthy, Hitler’s close ally in Hungary. He consciously allowed the Gypsies to be deported to German death camps. The Gypsies were present in several concentration camps, especially Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Treblinka. In Romania and elsewhere where their Fascist governments did not have developed death camps, the more common method was either a deportation to German-occupied Poland or violent raids and massacres on the spot.
The unemployment, apathy, uncivilized and backward qualities, and an evident incapability of self-improvement made them associated with the “Anti-Social” category of Holocaust victims. A relatively few number of Gypsies were actually sent to death camps, and many sources indicate that they did not suffer the same famously brutal treatment that the Jews and homosexuals did. A major reason why the Roma were not so completely exterminated was that they posed little threat to the host nations, whereas Jews were actively involved in Communist, anarchist, and pro-democratic movements that most governments of the 1930’s and ’40s perceived as an enemy requiring removal. Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish assistant to German Dr. Mengele, claimed that the Gypsies in Auschwitz-Birkenau effectively had it easy.
They were allowed to stay with their families in a very relaxed lifestyle due to the fact that, in his dubious words, they were “Catholic”. They were given free movement and were not forced to work except to police the Jews, where they employed great “cruelty” against the Jews who they liked just as little as the Germans and Romanians did. He cites that there were 4,500 of them in the camp. He also describes a widespread presence of syphilis and other diseases that contributed to their marginalization and later extermination. The Roma story during the Holocaust has come to light only recently. It is difficult to determine how many died in the Holocaust considering the disputes that have arisen from the numbers of Jewish dead in the war. Some estimates for dead Roma range from 200,000 to even a million. Since the Roma were less frequently annihilated than the Jews, there were no Roma-exclusive death camps; Roma prisoners were thrown in with the Jews and homosexuals alike. They were forced to wear black triangles which signified their lack of use as “asocial” to the Völkisch, Germanic nationalism that was expected to be the purpose of the nation.
Their initially liberal treatment changed towards the end of the war, when a lack of food to feed the prisoners led to the mass starvation and malnourishment with which we are so familiar in pictures of the Jews. After the war, the Roma received treatment and political franchise that was no better than it was before. International attention from liberal countries like England and the United States did not penetrate to the hard-line Communist nations of the Warsaw Pact that followed their Fascist predecessors. Roma were forced out of their homes in most Communist countries in order to integrate into the collective social interest. Many politicians, finding their attempt to civilize the Gypsies unsuccessful, eventually suspended the integration attempts and returned to previous discrimination.
So too, the Communist governments of post-war Romania had an incredibly unique political ideology that was highly independent from Soviet thought. Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceaucescu still promoted a type of ethnic Romanian nationalism that in many ways naturally excluded the Roma. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the franchise and protection of the Roma again changed very little. Roma have theoretically enjoyed guaranteed and universal education in all Eastern European countries since the Communist era, although most drop out due to various reasons including alleged discrimination, a greater preference for serving the Roma villages of their birth, and the fact that most quit school as soon as they forced to be married by their parents (generally before age 16).
As a result, most Gypsies are unemployed, uneducated, illiterate, and of no direct benefit to the economies or the job markets. Instead, the Gypsies are actually an economic drain, as the new EU-bound governments are expected to give free health care and a functional standard of living to the Roma who cannot produce it for themselves. This drain on already-impoverished Eastern European countries does not go unnoticed by the native populations that harbor intense hatred for Gypsies already. Local governments are reluctant to help them due to a perceived inability of their self-progression. Most Roma live in Romania (some 2,500,000), Bulgaria (800,000), Hungary (650,000), Slovakia (520,000), Macedonia (260,000), Greece, Austria, Germany, and Albania. Despite superficial overtures of anti-racism laws, an intense racial hatred exists between the Gypsies and the native European societies. The majority simply stay in disease- and waste-ridden villages on outskirts of town for their short life spans. They have more than twice the birth-rate of Europeans, who tend to have one child per mother, instead having anywhere from 4-9 children.
Some countries have forcibly sterilized them even after World War II, including Cold War-Czechoslovakia and even modern Sweden. Due to their low literacy, perceived stupidity (justly or unjustly), low life expectancy, high disease frequency, and hatred by the natives in the schools, local agencies and schools are not keen to encourage them to attend schools. In addition, the social rights of Eastern Europe are a far cry from the liberalism of America and Western Europe. Despite their hopes for social improvements, the natives still hate them, and can be seen yelling at them, spitting, attacking, pushing, or kicking trash or gutter water at begging Gypsies at all hours of the day in many nations from Italy to Moldova. Europe is far from the open and tolerant place that is often believed. The standard of living in terms of housing, sanitation, sewage, water quality, ventilation, and transportation of the Roma today is atrocious, nauseating, depressing, and akin to the Middle Ages. Typical stereotypes of the Gypsy lifestyle are, as I was shocked to learn in my research travels, accurate. Horses and donkeys defecate right next to the public drinking supply, which is in many cases simply a water stream or a well. Animals live in the same overstocked home as many Roma families, leading to tremendous health concerns and disease.
Gypsies do not assimilate at all; they either live homelessly as begging mendicants on the streets or they live in segregated ethnic enclaves built out of tents or roadside debris. This is not an exaggeration. Some Gypsy villages actually include legitimately developed homes funded by the governments (especially in wealthier Bulgaria) that are quickly ruined and dilapidated when handed over to the Roma. Each day the Roma travel to the cities each day to panhandle, steal, beg, and trade their dubiously-sanitary goods on the streets. Their villages are dilapidated houses and sheds with torn-down walls and collapsed roofs.
They have mud floors, free-reign animals defecating in grain supplies, and no electricity. Horses and donkeys walk around on government-paved roads, with stray and starving dogs scavenging for food. They are basically subsistence farmers, and rely upon this when they are not begging to survive. Sewage runs in the street, and feces can be smelled from hundreds of feet away. Dozens of people live in small dwellings and defecate in public even in the sight of urban indigenous Europeans. They bathe infrequently, and drink from collective wells prone to disease. Due to Western complaints of insufficient efforts by the Eastern European governments to support the hated Roma, some Gypsy villages are actually torn down and rebuilt by the government regularly for their own benefit.
Bulgaria, far wealthier and slightly more liberal than Romania, has built whole settlements for the Gypsies, particularly outside the beautiful coastal city of Varna (see my photos below). This has likely decreased the high level of disease, but out of the wallet of already-poor and struggling natives who want absolutely nothing to do with them nor want to even see them. In Bulgaria, I saw many business owners and individuals shielding their purses and property from hunched-over, begging Roma whilst yelling profanity. One even spat at an older Gypsy woman, whilst another group of men pretended to kick her. One Bulgarian I interviewed about the Gypsy problem responded with shocking candidness, saying “the government needs to get rid of all of them.” Another said “they need to be shipped away from Bulgaria.” In Romania, far more poor than Bulgaria, the Roma simply wander the streets, sleep on the sidewalk, bathe in rain-water puddles, defecate on the roads, and beg and steal from tourists and locals. On my research trip to Constanta-Romania, several tourists were robbed of their wallets and watches by mendicant Gypsy children. The Roma can be seen laying down on the streets and in open doorways coughing and wheezing because of terminal diseases and weak immunities that come with their poor standard of living.
Roma children and early teenagers can be seen walking around nude even after reaching menstruation age. Most have no shoes. Natives angrily claim that Gypsy parents use these images of poverty, ailment, and even the “cuteness” of their children to “trick” natives into giving them money. This stereotypical “Gypsy game” at extorting from people seemed to me to be ridiculous and merely discriminatory. Gypsies also have the abhorrent habit of begging outside churches to pilfer from charitable Christian church-goers, as I saw in Ukraine. The locals all consider this extortion, lies, and theft, especially because they are not even Christian. In Romania, I saw them exploit religious charity and alms giving by waiting outside Romanian mosques in hopes of benefiting from the Muslim poor-due (zakah). I interviewed at least ten Romanians in Romania and in diaspora, and each expressed universal and intense hatred for them. Upon asking one if the Gypsies are a problem in Romania, he responded “no, they’re all dead. We killed them all.” When he saw the stunned look on my face, he continued, “we wish.”
Another responded “how can we fix the problem? Sadly, Hitler and Antonescu are dead!” Upon asking one Macedonian about the Gypsies of Macedonia, he replied “they are useless, disgusting. We have to get rid of them,” before his Romanian colleague broke in to agree and describe the economic drain the Roma bring to the Romanian taxpayer’s wallet. Additionally, I asked each Romanian of their opinions of Ioan Antonescu’s leadership and his murder of the Gypsies.
In every case without exception, he was lionized for doing “a good thing.” Coming from a multicultural and open society like the United States, the completely open statements endorsing expulsion and murder, and even extolling the genocides of World War II under Hitler and Antonescu (see above) made me awestruck. It is apparent that the inter-ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe between native Europeans and this immigrant minority is intense and longstanding. It is not something that can be simply alleviated by the European Union’s mantras of minority tolerance. An interesting criticism of the Gypsies is that they are frauds who falsely feign their poverty and homelessness to extort money and become rich.
Some even believe that they secretly have “palaces” in certain parts of Romania where they pool together their stolen or “donated” earnings to build massive housing complexes with very crude materials like iron sheets for roofs and doors. It is quite laughable to believe that an entire ethnic group would feign poverty and suffer huge disease to this end. One Romanian told me a story that she was ostracized for donating to Gypsies due to a compassionate heart, but after being taken up north to see these “palaces,” she learned the reality of the Gypsy problem and never donated again. Nonetheless, a number of Gypsies have managed to become inordinately wealthy due to independent business acumen, development of Gypsy communities, international support, and in the minds of some, organized crime. In Hungary, where one of Europe’s largest Gypsy populations reside, the government extends as little attention to the living standards of the Gypsies as Romania.
Most Gypsies sleep in and wander the streets begging for money. They are wickedly hated by most Hungarians, who view them as a drain. Some Hungarians espouse the same violent demands as the Romanians, saying that the government should either sterilize or expel them. Many who I interviewed said that Miklos Horthy did not do nearly enough to remove them when Hungary as a Fascist state had the chance. The Communist regime after the fall of Horthy had an equal antipathy, and has been criticized by posterity in the West for its discrimination of the Gypsies as well. Here, too, they beg outside Christian churches despite their very adulterated and syncretic adherence to Christendom.
When I passed the sickly Gypsy in Budapest shown in the photo below, more than a half-dozen Hungarian men openly either laughed at her or feigned spitting on her or kicking her. It is a breathtakingly sad sight that I saw in several different cultures. The issue of “Gypsy crime” and Roma gangs is a growing problem recently, as documented by journalist Ross Kemp on the television series “Gang Nation.” It is an interesting phenomenon that I witnessed myself that many Gypsies beg for money at the same time as they listen to iPods and have expensive watches and sunglasses. Brand new Mercedes can be seen driving into Roma villages next to starving elderly, inspiring predictable rumors of illegitimate earnings.
More and more Roma have immigrated to Western Europe to enjoy more liberal social rights, liberal social programs, and free housing. Thousands of Gypsies live and beg in Germany, Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macedonia, the rest of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia, the UK, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy. Predictably, they fall victim to the growing racism in Western Europe. As a result, many have fled to the United States, where they enjoy greater protection and less discrimination. In Italy, the Gypsy problem has culminated into a major social issue.
Government-subsidized Gypsy dwellings in parks are often burnt down by natives, homeless Gypsies are attacked and assaulted in back alleys, and rocks and weapons are hurled at beggars, forcing local Italian authorities to intervene to protect the guaranteed rights of minorities and discriminated racial/ethnic groups. In 2008, Italy’s minister of the interior initiated a program to fingerprint and register Gypsies into Italian police databases. Because of the peripheral and migratory nature of Gypsies in Europe, many Gypsies are not even registered as residents or counted in the population, as seen by the fact that no one agrees whether there are four or twenty million Gypsies in Europe.
This program was part of the government’s effort to alleviate Italy’s rampant street crime in major urban areas such as Naples. Liberal groups responded with accusations of racism, but the government assured them that Red Cross observers would be present to ensure a humanitarian treatment of this hated minority. In the United Kingdom, local police describe the total income of Gypsy gang theft, prostitution, and drug trafficking as “in the millions” (of pounds). Many Gypsy gangs organize prostitution rings and, using kidnapping and violence, traffic whores as far away as England to gain profit. Many Gypsy clans are highly collective and cooperative, pooling together their income from theft, crime, and business profits for the collective good or for the elders of this strong hierarchy (hence the Mercedes). Some tribes are scapegoat by other Gypsy clans: many Gypsy clans blame the Kalderashi tribe for being the only criminal Roma sub-group, whilst the Kalderashi blame all of the others. In reality, this may merely be an effort by members of the Roma community — popularly involved in theft overall — to pass off legitimate stereotypes onto a marginalized minority of the Roma clans in order to strive for better social toleration.
It is true that there is tremendous stereotyping, some inappropriate, of Gypsies as being drug and gun smugglers and criminals in Eastern Europe, but it cannot be denied that the Roma form a significant social and economic problem for the European societies where they reside. Of the estimated 4-12 million Roma in Europe, UNICEF reports that 84% of Roma in Bulgaria, 88% in Romania, and 91% in Hungary live below the UN-defined poverty level. The blame is often levied against the governments themselves for their poverty, but the Gypsies themselves have proven unable to better their own living standards by adaptation and survival. With the growth of technology, Roma are being outpaced and further pushed to the boundaries. And with racism and nationalism growing in Europe at a time of dire economic bankruptcy that can seldom longer support the impoverished Roma communities, their future is as bleak as always.
Author: Mr.James Mayfield is an historian and Chairman of the European Heritage Library, with special academic interest in Europe’s diverse ethnic identities, languages, and cultures, and the political struggles of native European minority and regional identities. He also have a particular intellectual interest in the controversial and problematic issue of foreign Muslim immigration in Europe, and its resultant ramifications on European politics, culture, and jurisprudence. Note that many of the images are of an uncertain origin in terms of the original owner or copyright. Most are redistributed across many websites. If you find that you are the owner, and you ask to remove it, feel free to notify us. To better underestand gypsies culture, music and lifestyle we invite readers to watch the beautilful movies: GADJO DILO (Crasy Stranger); LATCHO DROM and SWING, both of them directed by Tony Gatlif.