By Nicoleta Bitu

We Roma are first and foremost human beings, just like all other human beings. Unfortunately, we have not always been treated as such in history, nor are we even now.

Research in the fields of linguistics, anthropology and population genetics has meant that the long discussed Indian origins of Roma have started to be considered a fact. However, the exact reasons why we Roma left central and north-eastern India has not yet been clarified and remains open for further investigation.[1] Our language, Romani, which belongs to the Indo-Aryan languages group, has been and remains the fingerprint of both our origins and our migration route, for it contains within itself the connection to the languages of the peoples we have come into contact with, such as the Greeks, Persians and Armenians in the pre-European era.

So if anyone wonders whether we are Europeans or not, the answer is found in these historical facts: we were most probably living in the Byzantine Empire – the territory of what is today’s Greece – before 1200, [2] and there is consistent written evidence of our presence on European soil dating back to 1400, which is in fact when the first accounts of our deportations and expulsions appeared. By 1450 we had spread throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, in Wallachia and Moldavia (modern-day Romania), [3] from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards we were forced into bondage and slavery for a period of five centuries, an enslavement comparable with that of African–Americans in the United States.

Gypsies shall be born only as slaves; anyone born of a slave mother shall also become a slave’

(The code of Wallachia at the beginning of the nineteenth century)

We were owned by the prince (as ‘slaves of the state’), by monasteries and by boeri (as the aristocracy of the time was known). The slave owners had complete control over our anscestors’ lives, from birth, through marriage, and until death – they even sometimes had the right to the virginity of young girls.

Towards the middle of nineteenth century, an abolitionist movement emerged among intellectuals in the Danubian principalities, influenced by the other European revolutions at the time, and this led to our liberation. It should be noted that the majority of private owners agreed to liberate us only if they received compensantation from the state. Once the emancipation of slaves had been achieved, the next issue to be raised – and one still being raised today – was that of our integration into the social and economic life of Romania. Traces of slavery persisted in the memories of former masters and their slaves, and the era of slavery has marked relations between the descendants of these two social strata to this day.

The fate of we Roma in Central Europe between our arrival and the eighteenth century was strongly determined by political changes and, of course, by conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore, for example, in Hungarian territories we were confronted with two different policies until 1683, when the battle of Vienna took place: under Ottoman rule our artisanal and musical skills were appreciated, while in Habsburg controlled areas we were barely tolerated and faced bigoted assimilation policies. There were some regions along the western Hungarian border where both types of policies were present at the same time, making our lives even more difficult.

Although Roma were taxpayers, blacksmiths and soldiers, there were periods of time when we were forced to the peripheries of towns, evicted and subject to banning orders. Those of us who had letters of safe conduct issued by rulers were allowed to stay in central and western European countries. But even this limited right came to an end, and from the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards more and more radical laws were issued to legalise persecution and make it more organised, a process which even led to killings. Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were the last to be affected by all these phenomena, which reached them only in the eighteenth century. We might say that these were all early manifestations of the anti-Gypsyism found across Europe.

Meanwhile, the Russian Empire treated us as equal subjects with corresponding full civil rights, [4] hile making an effort to make us meet our obligations as citizens. We might say that this was where mainstream policies were first implemented for we Roma. Wherever there was a ‘special’ policy directed at Roma, the aim was to overcome separation from society without exerting pressure to achieve assimilation.

Spain pursued policies of assimilation, while Portugal and later the United Kingdom deported us to the Americas, which is one of the reasons for our presence there too. Another source of our existence in the Americas and Australia is what historians have termed the ‘second migration’ in the mid-nineteenth century, with migrants coming mostly from central and south-eastern Europe in the wake of social changes and in particular the abolition of slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia.

More and more regulations were issued by the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1850 and 1938, restricting opportunities for Roma to earn a living, enforcing settlement and banning certain professions. Economic crisis and National Socialist propaganda aggravated the situation, and finally there was ‘forced labour, deportation and sterilisation’ as a means of resolving the ‘Gypsy question’ with a ‘National Socialist solution’.

Police checks on Roma were initiated as early as the mid-1920s in Germany and Austria. The media played a major role in promoting negative news articles and inflaming the existing prejudices. In the name of preventing crime the government identified and registered Roma and Sinti, which formed the basis for later systemic persecution by the National Socialists. In 1936 a central agency was formed to combat the ‘Gypsy problem’ in Vienna. Heinrich Himmler intiated concerted action to eradicate Roma throughout the Reich. The Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 classified Roma and Sinti as ‘racially inferior’, leaving us without citizenship or rights. We were exterminated by means of forced labour, concentration camps, killings in forests or deportations. By 1945, roughly one in four Roma who had lived in pre-war Europe had fallen victim to Nazi persecution.

It is still unknown exactly how many Roma were casualties of the Nazi tyranny. Roma were not always registered as such, and might appear in victim statistics as members of the majority population, or as ‘others’, or not at all. Documents from the extermination camps and deportation lists were lost, are scattered in numerous archives or have not yet been analysed. Research has to rely on estimates, but whatever evidence is taken as the basis, a number of at least 250,000 victims is considered highly probable.

Even after we had been subjected to the Holocaust [5] our survivors were confronted with the same prejudices we had been forced to endure before 1933 throughout Europe. After 1945, there was no public interest in our fate at all. In Germany and Austria, restitution or compensation payments were issued later, but it took until the mid-1990s for us to receive proper offers. In the socialist countries, Roma were not officially recognised as victims of the Holocaust at all.

After World War II, a substantial number of us lived in the communist part of Europe, facing different degree of assimilation policies, while western European societies were marked by policies of integration or ignorance, combined with the sterilisation of women. The result of these policies has been an increase in the number of educated Roma but also an increased number of us losing our language and proud identity.

Despite this history of persecution, discrimination and marginalisation, we Roma have a rich cultural heritage – one that is part of European culture and has contributed to its development. This cultural heritage is now visible in RomArchive.