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May 2013 Issue

The Roma

A woman pushes a cart of material to be recycled in a largely Roma, Turkish-speaking neighborhood of Dobrich, in the northeast of Bulgaria.
A woman pushes a cart of material to be recycled in a largely Roma, Turkish-speaking neighborhood of Dobrich, in the northeast of Bulgaria.

Overcoming a Legacy of Suffering

By Paul Jeffrey

Last October German leaders dedicated a memorial in Berlin to the hundreds of thousands of Roma who were killed by Germany and its allies between 1933 and 1945. The act came almost seven decades after the end of World War II and years after the dedication of memorials to Jews and homosexuals murdered by the Nazis. Nonetheless, the monument finally acknowledges the suffering of the Roma and underlines the urgent challenges faced by today’s Roma as they struggle with exclusion, separation and assimilation throughout Europe.

As many as half a million Roma were shot, gassed or starved to death under Nazi regimes, yet after the war Germany remained in denial about what happened. West German officials ruled measures taken against the Roma before 1943 were legitimate actions against persons committing crimes, not the result of policies driven by racial prejudice. Only in 1979 did the West German Federal Parliament identify the Nazi persecution of Roma as being racially motivated.

Violence against the Roma is escalating across Europe today. In that context, the memorial’s dedication was better late than never. “Opening the memorial sends an important message to society that anti-Roma sentiment is as unacceptable as anti-Semitism,” said Romani Rose, a leading Roma rights activist in Germany.

Who are the Roma?

A December article in the British journal Nature presented the results of an extensive genetic sequencing study that indicates the Roma originated from the Dalits, the so-called “untouchables” caste in India. This reinforces earlier studies linking elements of Romani, the Roma language, to Sanskrit words and phrases. The researchers believe the descendants of today’s Roma began their westward exodus between 1001 and 1026, motivated by a promise that they’d get a promotion in caste if they fought in wars in what is today the Punjab region.

In the centuries after, most Roma continued westward, often remaining a nomadic people until forced to stop by European governments in the last century. As they wandered they took on disparate identities and names—including Travelers, Gypsies, Ashkali, Sinti and more—shifting their cultural identities in order to survive, a process that continues today, as witnessed in this issue’s article on Roma in Bulgaria, “Who Is Roma?” (page 20).

There are some 12 million Roma in Europe today, making them the region’s largest ethnic minority. Despite the Berlin monument’s suggestion that remembering Roma suffering precludes it today, they remain a people in motion. Increasing marginalization and violence during the past decade are pushing the Roma to migrate to other lands, where they’re met with restrictive labor laws, forced eviction and expulsion.

From France to Finland, Roma exercising their right to travel in an expanded European Union have been kicked out of their homes and deported or forcibly relocated to garbage dumps or inaccessible margins of large cities. Roma families across Europe are more likely to have their children segregated in special schools and their daughters trafficked to serve as sex workers in other countries. Roma have been systematically denied health care, and Roma women have suffered from coercive sterilization at the hands of government health workers.

Right-wing political parties in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere have revived the hate speech of the Nazis to justify violent attacks against Roma families and settlements. In Italy and Russia, police violence against Roma, especially Roma women, has increased. Perpetrators of anti-Roma violence enjoy widespread impunity. In the past four years, the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) registered at least 48 violent attacks against Roma in Hungary, at least 40 attacks in the Czech Republic and at least 13 attacks in Slovakia, resulting in a combined total of at least 11 fatalities.

The attacks involved Molotov cocktails, hand grenades and guns, police violence, arson attacks, mob violence and demonstrations. Yet the ERRC’s monitoring of 44 of these cases found no perpetrator was punished in a vast majority of the cases. Indeed, the police suspended investigations without identifying any suspects in nearly one-third of the cases.

Mission study on the Roma

United Methodist Women and others will come together to study the Roma this year and next at hundreds of Mission u gatherings, the next generation of United Methodist Women’s Schools of Christian Mission. As a resource for participants in the study, and as a window onto the complex reality of the Roma in today’s Europe, we take a look in this issue of response at the daily life and challenges of the Roma in three countries: Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

A future issue of the magazine will carry an article on the Roma in Berlin, where the Roma genocide monument dedicated last year bears these words from the poem “Auschwitz,” by Italian Roma poet Santino Spinelli:

Sunken Face
Extinct Eyes
Cold Lips
One Torn Heart
Without Breath
No Words
No Tears.


Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He spent several weeks with Roma in Europe last year to prepare the articles in this edition. He blogs at kairosphotos.com.

Last Updated: 02/05/2014

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