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Blond Gypsy Angels
Like Maria, the blonde Gypsy girl recently thought to have been kidnapped by a Gypsy couple in Greece, my Gypsy grandmother was a blond angel. She hid in plain sight in Germany during World War II, passing as a German girl with the lightest olive skin, clear gray eyes, and golden curls. She went to school, and like nearly every other German child she was automatically enrolled in Hitler Youth. She appeared to be the perfect Aryan specimen, but in reality, my grandmother’s family is Sinti, a sub-group of the Romani people, the ethnic group frequently and inaccurately referred to as “Gypsies.” The Nazis hunted Romani alongside the Jewish people, political and religious dissenters, gays and transsexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill, and other “undesirables.” Even though half of Europe’s Romani population was wiped out, that’s an estimated one to two million (though probably more) Romani men, women, and children murdered. Romani Holocaust victims are still barely acknowledged, often forgotten, or denied entirely. Romani writer, linguist, and Romani Studies professor, Dr. Ian Hancock, addresses the history and politics of Romani Holocaust victims and survivors in his writings, such as “Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend to Minimize the Romani Holocaust” and “Jewish Responses to the Porrajmos (The Romani Holocaust).”
It was not a safe time or place to be a Romani person at all, but my grandmother survived through happenstance. She lived in a very rural part of Germany, her mother had remarried a gadjo (non-Romani) farmer, and through a series of channels her family was lucky enough to obtain German documentation. As a family, they were able to “pass” as members of the so-called master race, as long as they were willing to sacrifice large parts of their culture. It wasn’t an easy thing to pull off: my grandmother and her siblings are the first generation of her family not to speak the Sinti dialect of Rromanes, the Romani language. It wasn’t safe for her to know it when at any time officers could and did burst into her home and tear through their possessions, looking for any evidence that they were not who they said they were. The first time officers paid a visit, she was five years old and so terrified that only after the officers left did she realize she had wet herself. She recalls diving into the ditch every time a car passed her on the road just in case someone was suspicious of her. She lived her life in constant fear of being discovered. It’s difficult to say exactly what grace brought her through the war when so many others were taken, but I’m sure it had a lot to do with those clear-gray eyes and that “angel” blond hair that we’ve been hearing so much about. It was her recessive-gene ticket to safety.
It was Maria’s ticket, too, had she been a victim at all when the police came barging into her home in Larissa, Greece. According to CNN’s Eva Cosse, “Maria was picked up by police during a sweep operation of the Roma settlement in Farsala, part of a broader police operation across Greece involving unlawful and discriminatory ethnic profiling.” They saw a blond angel in the Romani settlement and assumed she must have been kidnapped by the Gypsies. After all, who hasn’t heard that old racist cliché? If that’s anything to go by, Gypsies are never but stealing children! The problem is that without any real evidence, Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, Maria’s guardians, were charged with abduction and Maria was taken by the police for DNA testing.
While Salis and Dimopoulou and the rest of the world were waiting for the DNA test results, the media and Internet commenters went wild, slinging accusations of child trafficking, abuse, and a slew of nefarious intentions, as well as enormous doses of antigypsyism and hate-speech: Gypsies are dirty criminals. Gypsies are animals. All Gypsies should be killed. Once I met a Gypsy in France so I know for a fact that they are all terrible. Blah blah blah. It left me, and quite a few others, shaking with rage and disappointment in humanity, but it also left us wondering, If it really looks so bad for poor Maria, if there really is reason to suspect human trafficking, then why was only the “white” child removed? What about the Romani kids? And while we waited to hear the rest of the story, hysterical prejudice whiplashed across Europe: two fair children in Ireland were removed by the police from their Romani families to be DNA tested. Their darker parents were accused of child abduction. According to Carl O’Brien of The Irish Times, the mess in Ireland all started because of a Facebook post to TV3’s Paul Connolly Investigates Facebook page. The anonymous poster reported seeing the Maria case on television and noticing that “there is also a little girl living in a Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eyes [sic]…I am from Tallaght myself and it is a big problem [sic] there are missing kids.” Paul Connolly passed on this message the police. That apparently was enough to indulge in grotesque racial profiling and remove that child from home. Then there was another allegation about a fair child in Dublin, and that child was also removed, despite the fact that the parents produced the child’s birth certificate and passport. Instead, the police traumatized two families for no sound reason.
The DNA tests revealed that the two Irish children are Romani. No surprise and a lot of shame on those officers. Henry McDonald reported for The Guardian that Martin Collins, of the lobby group Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, called the police officers’ actions "abductions." Collins added: "We are extremely concerned and worried about these developments. We hope it is not the beginning of some sort of pattern where children of Roma parents who are not dark-skinned and have brown eyes are taken away one after the other for DNA test after DNA test." This is especially disturbing since, as Hancock discusses in his book of essays Danger! Educated Gypsy, the UK and Europe have a history of removing Romani children from their parents and placing them in institutions because it was assumed that Romani parents were not capable of raising their own children.
And, after all the stress, the DNA test confirmed that Maria is Romani. Of course she is. “Blond angels” aren’t unusual among Romani people, not one bit. As Romani blogger Pipopotamus puts it, “There are 12 million Roma in Europe. There are poor Roma, there are rich Roma, there are fat Roma, there are thin Roma—my God, there are even blonde Roma.” Like most small ethnic groups, there has been a certain amount of inter-marrying with gadjé: even though it’s an insular community, people fall in love across cultures and countries, of course. That certainly happened in my family. And come on, we know how genetics work: recessive and dominant genes all scramble to get their chance with myriad results. With that in mind, it’s clear that little Maria was abducted by the police on the grounds of racial profiling rather than any actual evidence. Her biological mother was found in Bulgaria, and while her story differed from Salis and Dimopoulou’s account, Maria was in fact living under the care of her intended guardians, albeit undocumented. Romani writer Oksana Marafioti writes for Time, “Stealing children is not Romas’ favorite pastime. We have plenty of our own, and as any parent can vouch, raising offspring takes time, money and the virtue of infinite patience. Most Roma—college students, professionals, homeowners, citizens — are too busy building careers and futures to slink about dark streets in search of children to snatch, because in fact most Roma are not itinerants living out of caravans but are assimilated into society.” The fact is, because Maria’s parents and the parents of the two children in Ireland are Romani, they were treated as though they had already committed a crime. That’s not how justice works.
Despite the good news, the Internet exploded again when it was revealed that Salis and Dimopoulou adopted Maria nonlegally. Nonlegal adoption you say? Well, I knew it. Those Gypsies are criminals, something sketchy there, one time I saw a Gypsy on the street so I know what I’m talking about, blah blah blah.
It’s not unusual for Romani people to be undocumented, and there are good reasons for that. Remember my grandmother’s story about the Holocaust? If her family had been documented Roma, they would have all been killed for certain. Historically and currently, too many countries have anti-Roma policies, laws, political groups like the Jobbik party, and practices: Greece, Italy, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, France, even the United States, and many more. In Europe and the United States, governments have segregated, forced-sterilized, deported, enslaved, institutionalized, and forced-settled Romani in camps without electricity, sanitation, running water, or facilities. There are even laws against being a Gypsy dating back to the Middle Ages. Romani people are not nomadic because of some “free Gypsy spirit” nonsense; the culture’s nomadism was born out of that persecution. For centuries, Romani have been running away from the gadjé. So if you are a Rom in countries where police regularly harass, beat, and otherwise persecute Roma, like, um, barging in and taking your children, it’s best if the government and the police don’t know where to find you. It’s much safer to be as invisible as possible.
Zeljko Jovanovic, Romani writer and social justice worker, writes for The Guardian, “No country in Europe has accurate statistics for Roma citizens in their official census or other state records. Many Roma do not have birth certificates either; Roma families often forgo registering the birth of a child with local authorities as the cost of obtaining a birth certificate can be prohibitive. Because of this official invisibility, Roma are denied legal protection, public healthcare and the opportunity to enroll their children in school, get a job and register to vote. It also means Roma are at increased risk of human trafficking and miscarriages of justice. If you do not officially exist, it is easy to disappear and be disappeared.” Writer Isabel Fonseca and Oksana Marafioti agree in an interview for ABC that in Greece in particular, Roma are discouraged from documentation because documentation is what entitles Greek citizens to state-care and services. Many Roma live in abject poverty, which is unsurprising considering the level of antigypsyism in Europe—it’s not that Roma don’t want to work, trust me, they do. Work ethic and service are important values in Romani culture. The problem is simply that discrimination and lack of access to education keep Romani people in a cycle of poverty and disempowerment. How will the Romani people rise from the ashes if employers won’t hire them, schools won’t teach them, and their countries won’t grant them basic human rights?
While many Roma do assimilate, in some countries, the price of assimilation is too high (not to mention, if it’s a small town, everyone knows who the “Gypsies” are already). If Romani are not allowed to keep their traditions, dress, language, and customs in order to assimilate, then they generally refuse. It would be asking them to give up the world. Finland is an excellent example of a government that has made an effort to work with Romani people on assimilation without suppressing their dress or cultural identity (Romanipen). The word Romanipen or Romaniya means “gypsyhood” and it refers to the collection of customs, laws, and beliefs that Romani people practice. Many of the practices center on impurity (marime) and purity—for example, a woman always wears long skirts to maintain modesty and purity because the lower half of the body is considered marime. There are strict rules for hygiene, food preparation, sexual relationships, and manners. I use Hancock’s book We Are the Romani People in the class I teach at Florida State University about Romani culture, representation, and creative writing—it’s a fantastic introduction to Romani culture, history, language, beliefs, practices, and the human rights crisis.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Romanipen is the role of the community. Because gadjé don’t follow Romanipen, the world of the gadjé is seen as marime and spiritually draining. Even if Romani people work and live alongside gadjé very happily and peacefully, it’s still important to return to an all-Romani environment to replenish the spirit. So when my grandmother and her family were stripped of their community and so many of their customs, it was as if their souls were swallowed up by the War. Not all of her extended family had the genes or documentation that allowed them to pass for German. The ones who couldn’t fake it took to the forests and hid, much like Papasza, the mother of Romani poetry, and her family did in Poland. But Papusza is another tragic story of exile and war. My grandmother still doesn’t know what became of her relations who took to the forests.
My grandmother left Germany after the war when she was nineteen and came to Boston to start her family. 1950’s America was much safer than post-war Germany, but still unfriendly to immigrants. “It was bad enough to be German,” she explained. “I couldn’t be a Gypsy too.” She quietly passed down some customs and beliefs to her children, but she did so without context and she didn’t tell them about their heritage until they were well out of school. My mother remembers feeling that she and her siblings were different from her schoolmates, but not knowing exactly why or how. They were all olive skinned, but also blue-eyed or green-eyed with light hair, so it wasn’t their appearance exactly, but more of “a way of being, or believing in things” as she puts it.
I am a reverse-blond angel. From a line of mostly fair Romani blood, I look a lot more like my great-grandmother, that is, a lot more like a “stereotypical Gypsy” with long dark hair, a dark olive complexion, and green eyes. Although, genetically, I’m significantly more Caucasian than anything else. So when I was born, “brown as a berry,” my grandmother had already raised a generation that barely knew or understood their roots, and she was terrified that her culture would be lost entirely. She had another chance to pass on as much Romanipen as she possessed to another generation, and luckily, she did. It’s been an opportunity for my mother, my aunt, and my uncles to reconnect with their culture, too. Despite the dire human rights crisis that continues for Romani people all over the world, my grandmother, far away in years from her memories of terror, feels safer discussing our heritage now. We are reclaiming what was almost taken from us.
That doesn’t mean that I escaped unpleasantness entirely. On my first day of first grade, I was stoned by a group of older boys for being “dark like a Gypsy.” I was teased mercilessly for being “different” and in 5th grade, my teacher Mr. Martin gave me detention for “practicing witchcraft.” A group of girls who regularly bullied me had told him that I could “cast Gypsy curses with my eyes.” Apparently he agreed. But I’ve led a very privileged life; these are small incidences to most Romani children. If they get to attend school at all, and they aren’t automatically segregated into special education classes because it’s assumed that Romani children are mentally deficient (like in Slovakia and other countries), they are often bullied so badly by teachers and peers alike that they are seriously injured and/or removed from school by their parents.
Although I may look “exotic” to some, unless I am dressed traditionally, that is, in a headscarf (if you’re a married woman) and a long skirt, usually people assume I’m a fair-skinned Indian. There’s a tiny seed of truth in that: Romani people originated in northern India and left during the Muslim invasion between the 10th and 11th century, probably as part of the army against the invasion. After the invading Muslims won, the Romani groups were displaced. Some returned to Rajasthan and their descendants are the Kalbeliya and Bopa, though the majority pressed on through the Middle East and eventually into Western Europe in what’s known as The Great Diaspora. So in that way, Romani people are very distantly Indian, and certainly those Indian origins have left their mark on Romani customs and language as well. Chances are, you know Romani people without even realizing it—many Romani in the U.S. and in certain European countries like Spain and Finland have largely assimilated, are allowed to work, permitted education, and have safe homes or apartments. They are invisible like me, though, not only because they are financially more secure, but because they are still afraid to reveal themselves. Just because a country’s Romani policies are more progressive than others doesn’t mean that prejudice has vanished.
The media tried to make a white martyr out of pretty blond Maria. They tried to save her from her own family because the lovely child couldn’t possibly be a “Gypsy.” She had to be a victim. In truth, Maria is a victim, but she is victim to a state that treats her and all her Romani brothers and sisters like pestilence. Jovanovic writes, “…Maria, like other Roma children, will have to navigate her way through life suffering illiteracy, unemployment, and segregation in education. She will have on average 10 years lower life expectancy than the mainstream population due to hunger and malnutrition, squalid housing and substandard healthcare. If European governments or the wider community are really interested in helping Maria and other Roma children like her, they should start with ensuring access to basic documentation and fundamental rights.” If Maria becomes a “martyr,” if she is remembered as the blond angel, let her be remembered as the child that turned the world’s attention to the human rights infringements that Romani people suffer all over the world, every day. Let her be remembered with our outrage that we let this happen for so long. Let her be remembered for the point in history when we agree that it’s all too much. Let us remember that Romani people are people, equal to gadjé, with dignity and a rich culture. Let her remind us that we cannot tell the difference between souls. Let her change everything from this point onward. We owe her that much.