Sunday, March 13, 2011


A tale of Czech racism


Thank you for the patience which reading this story requires. This is a real story about real people. Only the names of the places and the people have been changed. We do not realize how many such stories are constantly playing themselves out around us.

Most people are not bad. They would never hurt anyone - at least not intentionally. As everyone knows, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We are all just living our lives. For the most part we do our best to live as well as we can, and we are quite unaware of how much we are connected to other people, how one word can change someone's life for better or for worse. One sentence spoken, or not, and a human life can head in a completely different direction.

Our story starts in a grocery store in a district town. It's a rather small, nice shop, carefully kept up by a nice owner, an older gentleman who has worked in the grocery business his entire life. He liked his work even in the days when everything was state-owned, and within the realm of possibility he did his best, as the manager, to have fresh goods in stock (even though the selection was poorer) so his customers could always shop well and be glad to come again. He knew very well they did not have a lot of choice, that there wasn't a broad range of goods to offer, but even so.

Then the revolution came and at the start of the 1990s he opened his own grocery store. It was HIS shop. He sincerely loved it and the business flourished. He never became a multimillionaire, but neither did he do badly. He was happy.

So this owner (let's call him, say, Novotný) gradually expanded the shop's range of products and sometime after the year 2000 he even extended the opening hours so it could function partially as a convenience store. Understandably, his prices couldn't compete with the hypermarkets, but even so he had enough customers – mainly thanks to his friendly staff and quality goods. He was also accessible to those living nearby.

Sometime in July one of his staff went on maternity leave. The rest soon tired of the extra work, so Mr Novotný decided to hire a new salesperson. He put out a "Help Wanted" sign.

Jarmila Demeterová was a Gypsy - that's what she called herself, she wasn't concerned about whether the term "Roma" or "Gypsy" should be used. Either term can be used nicely, or pejoratively. She came from a family of five. Her father drank quite a lot and her mother loved the family with all her heart and took care of them. Jarmila went to school and was an average pupil. She wasn't stupid, but she wasn't a genius either. She was just a normal girl - with slightly darker skin than the others. After finishing school she served an apprenticeship as a salesperson.

Jarmila shopped fairly regularly at Mr Novotny's grocery store. She liked it there, mainly because she did not have the feeling she was not welcome there. No one ever followed her around suspiciously when she shopped there, something that usually happened in other stores. One the one hand she understood why that was. She knew very well that many Gypsies stole and didn't work, and she understood the ill feeling she encountered, the lack of trust. That doesn't mean it didn't bother her. It's true she herself was also sometimes tempted to steal something in the hypermarkets - if they're all looking at me like a thief, then let's give them a reason - but she never did it.

The "Help Wanted" sign had been hanging on the shop door for several days, and Jarmila kept passing by there. She thought about whether she should ask about the job, but she was afraid of being humiliated yet again. No one had ever told her directly that they wouldn't hire her because she was a Gypsy, but many times the eyes say more than words.

Finally Jarmila got up the courage to ask about the job. When she walked into the store where she had done her shopping so many times, her heart was pounding, as does the heart of any 19-year-old girl looking for work.

"Boss, you have a girl here who is interested in the sales job. Wait here just a moment, please, the boss will be right with you.“

This decent and agreeable treatment surprised her, and she calmed down a bit. It only took a few seconds for Mr Novotný to come out of his office, but to Jarmila it seemed like an hour.

"Hello, miss. Come into my office please.“

Mr Novotný knew Jarmila by sight. He knew she was a frequent customer, that she was well-mannered, quiet, and cleanly dressed. He liked her. He had never been a racist. He was a businessman, and customers are customers, no matter their color. After a brief interview he decided to give Jarmila a shot. They agreed to a standard three-month trial period, to the starting salary and other conditions. Jarmila didn't even pay much attention to the details. She was glad to have a job, and she began dreaming of living in her own place - even though she loved her family, she wanted a little bit of privacy. She was grateful to Mr Novotný.

The three-month trial period passed and Jarmila gained a lot of work experience. She wasn't perfect, but no one learning a new job is. What is there to say, school and an apprenticeship are a bit different - but she was competent and learned quickly. She enjoyed work in the way that work can be enjoyable - hardly any of us actually rejoice at going to work, but you all know what I mean.

One year later, Jarmila was an experienced salesperson. She was fast, friendly, and most people were used to her.

One day she was serving customers as usual. There were quite a few people in the store, including a bunch of young men.

"Do you see that chocolate one?“

"Hm, she should be standing on the E55 highway, not bothering people here in a shop. Let's get out of here before we catch hepatitis.“

The young men hadn't exactly shouted, but their words were heard. The rest of the customers paid them no attention. No one ever wants any unnecessary problems. Jarmila also ignored them, even though she felt terrible. She had not heard that kind of talk in a long time and she wasn't used to it. Sometimes all it takes is a few words to very quickly remind someone of the past.

It wasn't over. The young men started coming to the little store more and more often, and their attacks became more and more intense. One time Mr Novotný witnessed this and got involved.

"Is there a problem here, gentlemen?“

"Not us, you're the one with the problem, old man.“

"Get out or I'll call the police.“

People like those guys usually don't have much courage. They muttered something about seeing them later and left the shop.

When Mr Novotný came to work the next morning, there was graffiti all over his front window reading "Death to the Gypsies", etc.

The cycle started to repeat itself, but that wasn't the worst of it. What was worse was that the customers stopped coming. The young men didn't come inside anymore, but every so often rotten eggs, or vegetables, or other things would be left at the shop entrance. The customers no longer found the store pleasant.

The train had left the station and couldn't be stopped.

A few months later, a "For Sale" sign appeared in the shop window.

Slávek Pařenica, translated by Gwendolyn Albert


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