Tuesday, March 6, 2012






PHOTO : Helena Ferencikova, shown with her son Nikolas in Ostrava, Czech Republic in January, 2006.
Dozens of Gypsy women, including Ferencikova, have been illegally sterilized -- a practice that dates to communist times. (AP file photo)

In Tuebingen, Germany, in December 1990, I witnessed some 200 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) occupying the large Protestant church. Some local folks called the unexpected visitors "vagabonds" and "criminals" and asked local authorities to evict them immediately.

But most people, including students and university and church officials, supported the plea for assistance and justice and supplied the Gypsies with food and medicine. After three weeks, their protest was over. As far as I know, most Roma families were flown to their home country, the former Yugoslavia, with assurances of humane treatment there by local authorities.

Since then, Roma from Eastern Europe were expelled by a number of west-European countries. For example, in August 2010 the French government was criticized for condemning the prolonged stay of "foreign-born" travelers and for deporting them to Eastern Europe. Tristan Garcia, in a New York Times opinion piece on Jan. 1, 2011, wrote that the "French government and most of the neighboring states have made the Roma the perfect scapegoats for the failure of their imagination: a Europe that is white, rich and impenetrable, where the Roma are the pariahs."

Before that, on June 18, 2006, The Morning Call carried a story with the headline, "Czech Republic acknowledges sterilizing Gypsy women without their consent." A 19-year-old, Helena Ferencikova, blamed her unwanted sterilization to an "ethnicity — Gypsy." The article by Karel Janicek also dealt with "broader issues of entrenched European prejudice toward Gypsies, or Roma, especially in the former communist bloc, where most of the continent's 7-9 million Gypsies are concentrated."

We know that the Gypsies emigrated from India (not from Egypt) in the 15th century. "The popular term 'Gypsy,'" as the scholar Romani Rose noted, "is rejected by many Sinti and Roma as discriminatory, since the word is usually understood in a disparaging sense. If the term 'Gypsy' is used in a historical context, the clichés and preconceptions behind it also have to be considered."

For many centuries, the Roma were social outsiders and endured discrimination, stereotyping and persecution. Dehumanizing and hurtful clichés prevailed. Gypsies cannot be trusted, they are deceptive, destructive, they steal and beg, etc. Nevertheless, many Roma adopted a sedentary lifestyle and became cobblers, craftsmen, horse dealers, toolmakers, dancers and outstanding musicians.

During World War II, approximately 940,000 Roma lived in Greater Germany and in countries under Nazi occupation. "Between 1933 and 1945 Sinti and Roma suffered greatly as victims of Nazi persecution and genocide," according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Gypsies, like Jews, were interned, killed, or deported to camps in Germany and Eastern Europe." Using racial guidelines, Sinti and Roma were murdered in large numbers. For example, 2,897 Gypsies were exterminated at Auschwitz on Aug. 3-4, 1944. It is estimated that the Roma genocide claimed as many as 500,000 lives.

Today approximately 9 million Roma live in Eastern Europe, 12 million worldwide. The largest population is in Rumania (1.9 million), followed by Bulgaria (750,000), Hungary (600,000), and Slovakia (500,000). Despite hundreds of years of stereotyping, discrimination and persecution, the Roma are still the victims of racist violence, hate crimes and intolerance, especially in some central and eastern European countries. According to Amnesty International, the Roma live in poverty, receive little official and public support and lack equal educational rights. They suffer from inadequate housing, inferior health care, high unemployment, and incidents of evictions.

In the past several years, there have been incidents of shooting, stabbing, beating, firebombing and other acts of violence. On Feb. 16, European Roma Rights Center Executive Director Dezideriu Gergely, at a hearing in Washington, D.C., referred to a survey that showed that "one in five Roma respondents were victims of racially motivated personal crimes at least once in the previous 12 months."

It is a shame that Western media pay little attention to the Roma's plight and struggle for equality and justice. The former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel once remarked, "The Roma are the litmus test not of a democracy but of a civil society."

Hans M. Wuerth, who lives in Upper Saucon Township, is professor emeritus at Moravian College.

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