Andrej Giňa: Why we had to knock down our houses
By 1942 it had been nearly a year since the Germans had attacked the Russians. Since then the Germans had been driving them across their country and taking their land. In this way they had seized most of Europe. And as was to be expected, the Fascists were riding high. They did as they pleased. In Slovakia, the members of the Hlinka Guards were the worst. Everyone was afraid of them. The judges, the lawyers, even the police.
I was six years old at the time. We lived in Tolchemesh not far from Sabinov in Eastern Slovakia. The Roma of Tolchemesh lived among the gadje, the Non-Romani farmers, at the upper end of the village. Our house was just like the gadje’s. We had two large rooms: a living room and a kitchen. They were fitted with a nice wooden floor. We had a large tiled stove, a good table, two beds, large pictures of the holy Virgin Mary and Jesus on the walls and even a white bench by the window. In the back there was also a wooden shed to store the potatoes, which also served as a coop for the chickens and geese and even as a pigsty.
My mum was wonderfully house-proud; no other Romani wife could match her. She had an arrangement with a local Jewess called Hanusha. Hanusha was about sixty-five years old. She ran the village shop. She would give my mum the goods, which she would then redistribute to the house wives around the farms. The gadje women worked in the fields all day and they were happy to have my mum bring their shopping directly to their houses. Hanusha paid my mum a little money but the gadje house wives also gave her something – a little flour, some lard and other kinds of food; some even gave her grain for the chickens and geese. It was not uncommon for us to have as many as three sacks of wheat at home.
It was a good life. In Tolchemesh, nothing had yet been heard of the things that were being done to the Roma and the Jews in town.
Every day when the weather was hot, people hid in the shade of the trees by Andrish’s house. They had been planted by Karol, Andrish’s step-son. This is where people gossiped. Today they had plenty to talk about. The day before, Karol and the girls, Irena and Agnesa, had been to the cinema in Sabinov.
“What’s new in Sabinov?” Yura asked.
“There’s plenty,” replied Karol. “These Hlinka guardsmen, they’re right trouble. The Roma from Sabinov told us to take good care of ourselves. Listen to the story they told us. It’s been about two weeks since this guardsman, a nasty piece of work, arrested a young Romani girl. There was a market in town and she stopped to look at some shoes. She really liked one pair. The saleswoman kept watching her. She was worried she might steal them. This is why she called the police officer who was keeping order in the market. As bad luck would have it, a Hlinka guardsman happened to show up at the same time. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. The gadji accused the girl of wanting to steal the shoes. “Alright then,” said the guardsman and took the girl to the station. In vain did the poor girl cry and wail that it wasn’t true, the guardsman dragged her along as if she had murdered someone. The police station was empty, and the girl was good-looking. The guardsman threw her in, locked the door and ordered her to get undressed. When she started to cry and scream, he gagged her with a rag and tore her clothes off. She ended up standing there naked. The guardsman turned into an animal. He threw himself at her and raped her. The girl was barely seventeen. When he was done with her, he took her far outside the city limits and told her to get home quickly and if she were to tell anyone what he’d done to her, he would kill her.”
The Roma who had been listening to the story remained speechless.
“Oy oy oy, that’s really bad news!” finally cried out Kalman.
“So then you didn’t go into town?” asked Yura.
“We did. The town was empty barring some young Slovakians who were walking around, looking into shop-windows and laughing. The film didn’t start till five, so we had nearly an hour to spare. We found it striking that all the Jewish shops were empty. They were all boarded up and one of them had a broken window. ‘Let’s get out of here quickly, girls, otherwise they’ll say we’ve done it. The guardsmen are not to be messed with,’ I decided. So we quickly got out of there. Once they’d opened the cinema, we bought the tickets and went inside. There weren’t a whole lot of people. In the newsreel they showed how the Germans were giving the Russians a bad time, how they were winning in every country they invaded. The main feature was poor.
As we were leaving, I asked one older gadjo about the Jewish shops. The gadjo gave me a strange look: ‘Don’t you know anything? The shops were shut down on them and they were all taken away, no one knows where. Make sure you don’t get caught by the guardsmen. They shave the women’s hair off and send the men to Petich, where they force them to do hard labour on the roads.’ Can you imagine what a scare this gave us? We fled the town like the wind. We were lucky we made it home without anyone catching us.”
“This is not good,” said his father, Andrish, gravely. “If they’re after the Jews now, who knows if we, the Roma, aren’t next.” Everyone stopped dead in his tracks.
“Let’s hope dear God won’t allow anything like that to happen,” said Bela.
“And you three, if you don’t want anything bad to happen to you, don´t go anywhere near that town again!” Andrish added.
“Does anyone know where Petich is?” asked Karol.
“It’s a place on the outskirts of Preshov. It seems they’ve turned it into a work camp and are sending the Roma down there,” explained Andrish.
Then perhaps a week went by. One day a car came to our village and pulled up in front of Hanusha’s shop. Two Hlinka guardsmen in their forties stepped out of the car. One was tall and broad-shouldered, the other, the driver, was smaller and better looking. The first one looked around and then walked into the shop. “Are you Hanusha?” he asked. The woman just stared. You could tell how frightened she was. “What can I do for you?” she asked.
“You’re coming with us. You have an hour to pack some clothes, food and drink. You’re not getting anything to eat or drink today. You can only pack ten kilos. That’s two bags or one suitcase. Bring some money, so that you can buy something if need be.” The Jewess stood as if struck by a lightning. Then she started to shiver and weep.
“What have I done to make you take me away?” she said with tears in her eyes. The guardsman just glared at her. “We’ll be back in an hour, so make sure you’re ready! Just go ahead and run! You know full well we’ll hunt you down.” Then he walked out.
The other guardsman was waiting outside. He was surrounded by the village boys who were admiring their car. Cars only came to Tolchemesh once in a blue moon.
“Who knows where the mayor lives?” the taller guardsman asked the boys. “We need to speak to him.”
“That’s my dad,” said a boy of about ten. “Come on, I’ll take you there.”
It took less than five minutes to reach the mayor’s house. As soon as they came to the gate, the dog started barking as if it wanted to rip them apart. It only stopped when the little boy shushed it. “Wait here, I’ll bring my dad. You don’t want that crazy dog of ours to hurt you.”
Before long, his father appeared. “Are you the mayor?” inquired the first guardsman.
“I am,” replied he. “They call me Jurchik.”
“Name’s Drabek,” said the guardsman. “And mine is Konarik,” said the other.
“Come inside, let’s not stand around. Be much easier to talk inside,” the mayor showed them into the hallway. “What is it you need then?”
“We’ve come to arrest Hanusha.”
The mayor gave them a long hard look. “Wife! Get us a bottle of liquor and some bread and bacon!”
Then he turned to the guardsmen. “And what do you want from me? I’m not coming with you. I’ve known her since I was a boy. She’s always been nothing but good to everyone; we’re happy to have her here. Her shop has everything we need; everyone in the village likes her. If you want to take her away, I want no part of it. Give my boy the key to her shop, so that it doesn’t get robbed. I’ll look after it until she gets back. ”
The mayor’s wife came in with the liquor, bread and bacon. They each had a shot straight away. The mayor then asked them what was new in town and various other questions. They talked and talked, and the content of the bottle slowly vanished. By that point both of the guardsmen were the worse for wear. “Well, gentlemen,” said the mayor. “We’ve eaten the food and we’ve drunk the drink and now it’s time for all of us to get on with our work.” The guardsmen’s eyes were shining, and they had trouble walking straight. They had completely forgotten about Hanusha. They went to their car, somehow managed to climb in and drove off. It was lucky they did not run over any of the boys who were hanging around.
But they did not get far. They drove into the ditch at the Yakubovany junction and could not get out. They each had a few bruises on their heads and their faces were covered in cuts and grazes. A lump the size of an egg swelled up on the forehead of the guardsman who was driving. No cars came round that way, only occasionally a horse-drawn wagon would pass by. Willy-nilly, they had to wait until someone towed them out. About an hour later a gadjo farmer from Yakubovany was passing by with horses and wagon. When he noticed the car, he stopped. He unhitched his horses and harnessed them to the car. The driver pushed along, and the horses pulled the car out in no time. It was back on the road before they knew it. Luckily it had come to no harm; it was only lightly scratched. The guardsmen thanked the farmer in such a heartfelt way you would not believe it was truly they. Then they got into their car and drove back to Sabinov. It was nearly dark when they got home. They did not dare leave their houses for three days out of shame.
About two weeks’ later, a different set of Hlinka guardsmen came to arrest Hanusha. They arrived, spoke to no one, grabbed the Jewess, threw her in the car and handed the key over to the mayor. She was never seen again.
Two weeks after that the mayor sent for my father.
“What’s going on? Why have you sent for me? I really hope you have some good news,” my dad said.
“Wife!” the mayor called out to the gadji. “Get us something to drink and some bread and bacon!”
My dad stared in disbelief. Something was not right. Never before had the mayor put food and drink on the table. “Have a drink,” said the mayor. “It’ll loosen us up.”
“Fair enough,” said my dad, “but first tell me what’s going on.”
“Three days ago, the village council held a meeting and it was agreed that the Roma would have to move from the top end of the village to the Hineshka pasture.”
“You’ve got to be joking!” my dad exclaimed.
“I wish I were. There are six members of Hlinka’s People’s Party in the council and only three of us from the other parties: myself, Kolpak and Yurush. They passed everything they wanted; it was easy for them to vote us down. We did what we could, believe me, but they wouldn’t listen to anybody. And they’ve commissioned me to inform you. They’ve come up with some act which states that the Roma must live downstream from the village so as not to dirty the water.”
“I must be hard of hearing! We dirty the water? Do we keep cows, horses and pigs? Do we have piles of manure in front of our houses? Do we leak filth from the stables and the yard into the stream? Whose idea was it?!”
“I wasn’t going to tell you but it was Charne, the head of the local Hlinka branch.”
“Well, call another meeting and tell them to take it all back. What are they planning to do with our houses? Are they going to knock them down? We Roma have lived here for at least two hundred and fifty years. We do no harm to anyone. We don’t steal, we don’t cause trouble, we don’t argue; we all live together with you, the gadje, in peace. We work in your fields, play music at your events, collect your firewood and do anything else you need. What is it that this Charne wants? Is he trying to clamber up to the regional council, or higher? There are others with their snouts already in the trough. No one cares about some Charne from Tolchemesh.
And what will become of me? I’m a blacksmith; my customers walk from Bodovce, Yakubovany and other villages nearby. Hineshka pasture is another two kilometres away. Who’ll walk that far to get their tools fixed?
How would it make you feel if someone turned up and knocked your house down? And my house is just as nice as your gadjo one.
In the winter, the snow will bury everything. How will the kids get to school? How will we make our way into town through the snow drifts? None of us have the kind of clothing to protect ourselves in this weather. I don’t even have to remind you that one pair of shoes is shared by all the kids. The one who is going out wears them.
And as to us dirtying the water! Visit the farmers who live by the river and check out their yards, see where the slurry from their stables is running. Are we supposed to drink the water that the farmers let all their filth into? There are many villages where the Roma live alongside the gadje but not one of them has driven the Roma out and knocked down their houses. And to my knowledge, those Roma have a much worse reputation than our community here in Tolchemesh. We trust you will do everything in your power to make them leave us alone. I believe you have the authority to change their minds and stop them from driving us out. No offence but I’ve lost my appetite. When are you going to call a meeting? Make it soon!”
Then my dad went home. He was shaken. He couldn’t believe what was happening. At home he told my mum what the mayor had said. My mum was dumbfounded: “So the swine want to destroy our houses? The fruit of our entire lives’ struggle? We need to do something! We can’t let that happen!”
The news that the council wanted to knock down our houses spread like wildfire among the Roma. Both men and women were outraged and had they apprehended Charne at the time, they would surely have broken his ribs.
On the following day, all the Romani women agreed to go to Charne’s house. They stood outside and shouted: “Come out, you and your wife! Show your face! What do you want from us? Do you want the plot of land we live on? Do you want to build a new house on it? Why are you doing this? What have we done to you; aren’t you ashamed? Your mouth is full of God but if you had your way, you’d crush people without batting an eyelid. Just come outside and we’ll burn you with scalding water!”
At that point, my father appeared: “Go home, women, we don’t want any more trouble. It’s a good job there are no policemen in our village and the nearest station is in Terni. They wouldn’t hesitate to call them on us.” We, the children, just watched what was going on and we couldn’t make head or tail of it. To be fair, the farmers from the village knew nothing about the village representatives’ plans with the Roma. On the other hand, neither did they do anything to help us. Everyone was terrified of the Hlinka Guards.
About a week passed and the mayor invited the village council to a meeting to ask them to take back everything they had planned for the Roma. He and two of his deputies tried to change the other council members’ minds but Charne persisted. He was adamant and would not budge. In vain did the mayor point out to them that it was Charne and the other farmers living by the water who dirtied the stream. When it came to the vote, one councillor joined the mayor but overall the mayor’s people had only four votes while the Hlinka supporters had six. And so they had their way.
The next day the mayor came around to our house and he and my father talked for a long time. The other Romani men quickly joined us, and they were trying to outshout each other. “If we all keep shouting like this, we can’t make any arrangements! It would be best if you took the houses apart yourselves, brick by brick, so that nothing goes to ruin. Pull everything apart carefully and put it in one pile, including the roof. Like I said, slowly and carefully so that there’s no damage. I’ll send some wagons down and we’ll move everything nice and slowly to Hineshka pasture. You’ll make sure you can reassemble your houses out of the material you picked apart. If you don’t have tools, Andrish will make them for you and the council will pay for them. I am genuinely sorry. We did what we could but the Hlinka people managed to beat us. Take your houses apart as soon as possible, while it’s still nice and warm out, before the rains start. It would be really bad if you got everything soaked. If you need anything, Andrish will come and see me and we’ll work something out.”
The following day some Roma came to my father to ask him to make them tools to pick the houses apart with. My father made everything they asked him to. This way they dismantled the houses and piled everything up. And when they had finished, the wagons arrived and carried everything down to Hineshka pasture.
Tentey, my sister Margita’s husband, was the first to take his house apart. His house was the smallest of all. Then came Yura, then Kalman and Bela. The sons, Bela, Yura and Kalman, then took apart their mother Jozhanya’s house. We came last. Our house was the biggest and needed the most work to take apart.
I remember clearly how across the stream, by Motyl’s mill, two policemen were standing day after day, making sure the Roma did the work. The mayor was as good as his word. He sent some wagons down and they carried everything down to Hineshka. And once the people had started building, once again did he send wagons to bring clay for those who needed to make mudbricks and plaster the house both from the inside and the outside. Our local Roma not only made mudbricks, but they also baked them. My dad was a real expert. He knew what sort of fire to make in order to bake good bricks and how to pile them up.
In a month all the Roma moved into the Hineshka pasture and there they built simple abodes. Everybody built a single house; some had a bigger one, others a smaller one. Our Margita’s was the smallest one just like at the top end of the village. The mayor bought everyone lime so that people could whitewash their houses. The Roma whitewashed both the outside and the inside of their homes. There we survived the war.
With our displacement dad had lost his work. Only rarely did someone wander into our settlement to get something fixed. The first winter we got snowed in. Like my father had said, not one child made it to school. When the women needed something from the village, it was a real struggle to get there.
That is how we lived until the Russians arrived. That was in January 1945. The Hlinka supporters had all but vanished. I remember when my father went to see Charne at his house: “See, how the tide’s turned? You’re nothing now. If I were to tell the Russians what you’ve done to us, how you drove us out of our houses and forced us to knock them down, what do you think they would do?” Charne, his wife and their children were visibly terrified. “But I’m not like you. I can see you have a wife and children. I wouldn’t allow them to be left all alone. This is why neither I nor anyone of the Roma will say a word. We won’t have you on our conscience.”
After the war the world opened up and everyone was free to go where they pleased. Not a single Rom stayed behind in Tolchemesh. My job brought me back to the Hineshka pasture several times. Nothing was left of our houses, everything had fallen apart. All I found there was a field; barren and empty.