Did you realize the term “gypsy” was a pejorative term? In many languages it was synonymous with the term thief, demon, or whore. Millions of people were tortured, enslaved and killed because of the connotations of that word. To many of the Romani, or Roma, it is as offensive as the “n” word is to an African-American.
My great-grandmother immigrated to the United States in 1908. She was 8 years old. Her family came here for two reasons. First was to seek treatment for her older sister who had accidentally ingested a mixture of lye and water thinking it was milk. A bit of the mixture was inhaled as she coughed and gasped. The doctors in Hungary told my great-great-grandfather to take her on a sea voyage and the sea air would help her lungs. (The second reason had to do with the rumors of pogroms spreading across Eastern Europe-a place that had just, within the last 30 years, outlawed slavery for those known as “gypsies”.)
So my grandpa Karl, a widower with six small children, did the only thing he knew. He sold everything they had and booked passage for his family to join family members in America. There were several complications, one of which led to my great-grandmother Anna staying behind for a year with her oldest brother Josef (later Anglicanized to Joseph at Ellis Island) and her grandmother Maria. When Anna arrived in the United States she found her sister healthy and her family living a secret.
No one knew they were Romani. What people call gypsies. But in 1908 the United States and the people of that country weren’t thrilled to welcome “gypsies” into their midst. So they hid who they were. They became simple Hungarians, active in the Hungarian community. I found out later while researching, that this isn’t uncommon. The Romani who entered the country at the previous turn of the century either clung doggedly to their traditions, or shamefully hid them.
My great-grandmother took her secret to her grave. We only found out because her sister did not keep her secret. She told her children. At my great-grandmother’s funeral, her nephew told our branch of the family the truth. They had never spoken of it to any of us out of respect.
What causes someone to be so afraid of who they are that they would hide it for their entire lives?
*Rumors were spread in medieval times that the Roma were
descended from a sexual encounter between a Roma woman and Satan.
*Another belief was that Roma forged the nails used in Christ's
*The Christian genocide against Witches during the late
Middle Ages and Renaissance was also directed against the Roma. The courts seized and imprisoned them in Witches' prisons, often without even bothering to record their names.
*The Diet of Augsburg ruled that Christians could legally kill Roma. Meanwhile, the courts were closed to Roma who were injured by
*In 1721, Emperor Karl VI of what is now Germany ordered total
genocide of the Roma. "Gypsy Hunts" were organized to track down and exterminate them.
*Roma were rounded up and imprisoned in Spain during 1749. They
were considered a danger to society.
*In 1792, 45 Roma were tortured and executed for the murder of some Hungarians, who were in fact alive and who observed the executions.
*During the 17th century many gypsies were forced to become slaves in Hungary and Romania, where their final liberation did not take place until 1855. It is believed that as much as half of the Roma in Europe were enslaved, from the 14th century until Romani slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century. In some parts of Europe it took even longer for slavery to be forbidden.
*In many places Christianity closed its doors completely to the Romani. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches refused to baptize “gypsy” infants.
Though it was after the fact, let us not forget that the oppression didn't end in the 19th century. Two million of the Nazi Holocaust victims were “gypsies” including these child victims. They were considered even lower on the hierarchy of hate than the Jews and the criminally insane.
The Romani or Roma are still considered one of the most oppressed people in the world. With these stories in her ears and fear for her family, a frightened little girl hid the truth of her identity to the day she died.
I ask that you consider this the next time you toss about the term gypsy, incorporate it in a title or use the term to make your heroine or hero seem more mysterious.