Saturday, October 17, 2009

Don't Call Me a Gypsy

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.


Tarot By Arwen said...

Thank you for sharing this. I imagine ht has to have been hard to have written. I teach Tarot. One of the things I mention is that "gypsy" is an ugly word. I do not think I hit it hard enough. I will, with your permission, use this link in that particular lesson. I will also eradicate the word from my language as much as I possible can. I hereby relegate the g-word to the same status as the n-word in my world.

Lyla Sinclair said...

Wow! I had no idea. Thanks for the history lesson. I've also learned recently that many more Chinese were slaughtered by the Japanese in WWII than Jews were killed by Germans, but no one in this country ever mentions it. It's always astonishing to me that humans all over the world never run out of reasons to kill each other. Astonishing and very sad.

Sally Painter said...

Excellent post, Jacqueline. What a tragic history and so unjust! I'm grateful your heritage was preserved for your family by your aunt. The best book I've read about the Roma is: David M. Crowe's, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. At one time, a fact often obscured by centuries of enslavement the Roma were designated as royal craftsmen, allowed only to work for royalty as sword makers and other skilled arts. When the kingdom was conquered, they refused to forge weapons for their enemy and were persecuted.

Michelle Polaris said...

I really appreciate this blog. I'm currently writing a piece where the hero was mistakenly believed to be Roma and this makes me very conscious of how I'll refer to this belief in the text. A big thank you.

Jacquéline Roth said...

Thanks for your comments and your understanding. These days no one means to be hurtful and the idea of the "gypsy" has been glamorized and made exotic and even sexy. The truth is far from that.

Jacquéline Roth said...

Sally, the image of the Romani as little more than vagabonds, scavengers and tramps, while denying the artistry is common. My great-great grandfather was a leather worker making custom saddles, harnesses and bridles. Like the Jewish people in the Diaspora, they kept their skills mobile and were often artisans, tailors and craftsmen.

Lynne Connolly said...

My grandparents were Romany, in the UK, where I still live. Look at pictures of me and you can tell, or so I've been told. I still don't know how to take that. Prejudice?
My grandparents moved into a house and denied their origins, not because they were ashamed, but because if Hitler had won, they would have been in the queue for the gas chambers. We aren't so far from Germany and there was a time, in 1940, when it looked as if the Nazis would win.
The concentration camps were an open secret in some communities. Your relatives mysteriously vanish, it doesn't take much working out.
There is prejudice. "Dirty gypsies" is still an epithet you can hear today, even though gypsies are far from dirty and never have been - there's a long tradition of cleanliness that is almost a religion in Romany communities.
But it's getting better.

Lynne Connolly said...

Just wanted to add - please carry on writing the stories about mysterious gypsies and use the word freely. It's about time we had some good press!
I'm proud of it, and what my ancestors did to survive. I'm sure Jacqueline would say the same thing.

Valerie said...

I was going to add to this - that words only have the power we give them. Not to be insensitive, because I did know that the Romany were subject to horrible persecution over the centuries, and some of it still goes on to this day in Italy and some other parts of Europe. (There was a scandal over that only in the last year.)
But turning 'Gypsy' from a pejorative term to one that stands for a sexy, mysterious, wise (remember the gypsy woman in the original Wolfman?) and intriguing people seems the best revenge on history.

Cris Anson said...

Jae, thank you so much for enlightening so many people. I had no idea of some of the things you described. Let us hope that we can welcome everyone in this world with love and tolerance.

And great stories about them.

Anny Cook said...

Excellent blog. Thank you!

Gerri Bowen said...

A very informative blog, Jae. I knew the Roma were persecuted throughout history, but I never realized the full extent of the horror. Yet when I read or hear the word Gypsy, I don't picture anything negative, just a person, a Roma, the same as I picture a person when I hear the word Irish. I have some Irish ancestry, but I'm aware of past prejudices against them. Seems people need to find other people to vilify.
Thank you for posting this!

Jacquéline Roth said...

Actually, Lynne, I don't agree with the free use of the word. Valerie has a point, but how many of us who are not African-American would start using the N word freely because, afterall it only has as much power as we give it?

There are some Romani who would disagree. They do take ownership of the word. And the current connotation in many Western cultures is positive. However, not all are.

It is an ugly word. Write about the Romani, please do. I have. But when you do, Be honest and true about their heritage and who they are. Educate others about the truth.

Anita Birt said...

Thanks for the rant. Sad to say, I called Riena Stanley, a gypsy in my historical romance, A Very Difficult Man. Riena is an old childhood friend of my heroine and comes to her help to escape from her abusive husband. Riena is beautiful. Tells fortunes and at the end of my book is on her way to Victoria, BC, on a Bride Ship! She has no intention of being a bride and had to hide her Roma identity or would not have been allowed on the ship.

They are an oppressed people.

Naima Simone said...

Wonderful post, Jacqueline. Thank you so much for educating me as well as others. I didn't know the history of the Roma or how they were hunted and persecuted. It's sobering and humbling. You must be proud to be the descendants of a people who possess such bravery, heart and passion that they survived the fire of hate and bigotry. You have a fine family history.

Ashlyn Chase said...


Very eye opening post for those not aware of these atrocities. I did quite a bit of research for a book I wrote a few years ago.

The information is very hard to come by. Most of it is handed down by oral tradition. And much has been lost due to the persecution and need to hide.

I hope the Rom find acceptance of their heritage. My mother-in-law grew up in Slovania and told me about the Rom who lived on the edge of her village. They stole some of her family's hay once. When confronted, they said they only took what they needed from those who had more than they needed, because God would want them to share their wealth with the poor. They may have been onto something there.

It's their spiritual beliefs that most interest me, and much of that is oral tradition, but when a bit can be found, it's generally an earth-friendly concept. Take only what you need, live simply, take care of the earth and it will take care of you. They belief the souls of their ancestors are the stars in the sky and are watching over them at night. All in all, I found it to be a beautiful philosophy that many of us could learn from.


Elizabeth Delisi said...

Thanks for sharing this, Jacqueline. I'm also of Hungarian ancestry, and while I don't believe I have any Romani ancestors...who knows? I *do* know that my grandmother and father were imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II, and luckily they survived it.


Jacquéline Roth said...


One of the reason for the scarcity and the reliance on the oral tradition is that the Romani language has no written form. There have been recent attempts to create phonetic basis for some of the words, but they have a long way to go in terms of translations. Writing was not a priority for them, it could be used against them too easily.

Elizabeth, A good number of honorable people were locked up by the Nazis when they protested the injustices.

When I wrote the Romani into a book I did called Circle of Wolves, I did use some of the marriage lore. The concept of the darro (wedding contract/bride price); gadje (stranger/he who is other than us); and the courtship and marime laws were incorporated into what I wrote. It was fascinating to research.

Mack Neubig said...

Thank you Jacque for posting this I never knew it and Great Grandma was the greatest lady you could/would ever know.... You just knew to never make her mad during Christmas time if there was a Christmas tree around. LOL