Gypsies and Caravan Dwellers in the Netherlands - History and Cultural Relations



The history of Dutch Gypsies can be divided into three periods. The first period, from 1420 to about 1750, began when a small group of wandering people appeared in the Netherlands. They said they were pilgrims from "Little Egypt" and were soon called Egyptenaren (Egyptians) and heidens (heathens). In the beginning they were received reasonably hospitably. This attitude changed around 1500 when government policy toward them became increasingly repressive. They were accused of being spies for the Turks and were prohibited from dwelling in the Netherlands, as well as in surrounding countries. Heidens caught by the authorities were to be punished and banned. Their sheer presence was enough for persecution. This policy was also motivated by accusations that they troubled the population by begging, stealing, and fraud. Toward the end of the seventeenth century the persecution intensified, resulting in their being driven to criminal acts. By then the authorities had become overtly violent and in some provinces a reward was offered for every heiden, dead or alive. As a reaction to their outlaw status, the Gypsies formed gangs and their crimes became more and more serious. This escalation of violence ended in an attempt at extermination. Those who escaped went into hiding or fled to surrounding countries, such as Germany and France.

The second period, from 1750 to 1868, was one during which the authorities were convinced that there were no longer any heidens living in the Netherlands and therefore did not maintain any specific policy regarding them. The negative image of the group, however, was kept alive by diverse sources and the memory of the "stealing and murdering heidens" remained.

The third period, from 1868 to the present, began when Hungarian coppersmiths (also called Kaldarash) and Bosnian bear leaders (Ursari) and their families entered the country in 1868 and the government reacted negatively. The foreigners were immediately "recognized" as heidens, a term soon replaced by the new label "Zigeuners" (Gypsies). The Kaldarash and Ursari were thought to possess the same vices as their presumed predecessors, the heidens. The stereotypes of the authorities were so deeply rooted that, although the Hungarian coppersmiths and Bosnian bear leaders were self-sufficient and appreciated by the population for their skills and services, the central government defined them as unwanted aliens. The military police, among whose duties was the guarding of the borders, was instructed to remove all Zigeuners as soon as possible. Most of the Kaldarash and Ursari were, however, only passing through, on their way to the United States. After the turn of the century they appeared only sporadically. From 1900 onward their place was taken by the Lowara, a subgroup of the Kaldarash, who had changed their profession to horse dealing and who had managed to obtain German, French, and Norwegian passports. The Lowara were not immediately "recognized" as Gypsies, since they did not conform to the dominating "Hungarian image." Although they earned enough money through horse dealing, the central authorities nevertheless looked upon them as parasites. Contrary to the Kaldarash and Ursari, the horse dealers settled in the Netherlands and succeeded in obtaining a firm footing with the cooperation of municipal authorities. After some time (around 1930) the "Hungarian image" faded in importance and the Lowara were definitely regarded as Gypsies. At the same time a fourth group, the Sinti, specialists in music and other forms of amusement, were also labeled as Gypsies. They appeared to have been living for generations in the Netherlands already, but up to that time they were not regarded as Gypsies.

In the 1930s the anti-Gypsy policy was intensified and many Lowara and Sinti were registered as such. This made it easy for the Dutch authorities to pick them up during World War II and deliver them to the Nazis. Because of their presumed race, 245 of them were finally sent to Auschwitz. Only 30 of them survived. Together with family members who managed to go into hiding they returned to the caravan sites after the war and tried to continue their way of life. This became more and more difficult as the government encouraged a sedentary life-style and discouraged free traveling. Moreover, the recollection of the cooperation of Dutch authorities at the time of the Nazi raids in 1944 greatly increased their isolation from Dutch society.

We know very little about the history of Dutch caravan dwellers. People began to live in caravans for the first time around 1880. Some of them did so because that type of dwelling made it easier to practice their ambulant professions, such as basket making, knife grinding, and chair mending; others ended up in caravans because of a housing shortage. In general they traveled within a limited region. During the twentieth century they have become a distinct subcultural group in the lower strata of Dutch society.


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