Rom of Czechoslovakia - History and Cultural Relations

As mentioned above, the Rom are descendants of groups who left India about 1,000 years ago. The first document written about "Gypsies" in Europe was by a Mount Athos (Greece) monk in the twelfth century and describes them as blacksmiths. A medieval legend about a "gypsy" blacksmith who made nails for crucifixions spread throughout Europe. Other ancient accounts note that "gypsies" were musicians, for example in the Turkish army. The first reference to Roms in the region that is now Czechoslovakia dates to the fifteenth Century. Because non-Gypsies ( gadžos ) never distinguished the different Rom groups from one another, we do not have a record of which groups "came and went." The history of the Rom in what are now Czech versus Slovak regions differs greatly. In Czech areas, the number of Rom was always small and they remained largely itinerant, until they were exterminated at Osweinenczim during World War II, when the area was a "German protectorate." Of 8,000 Rom, only about 200 escaped death. The German extermination policy was the culmination of a long history of persecution of the Czech Rom. Various laws and directives dating back to 1539 decreed that "gypsies should be evicted/banished out of the country" or even killed. In 1697 King Leopold issued an edict declaring that Gypsies should be considered outlaws. And, as late as 1710, in the Czech town of Beroun, the law stipulated that one who "murders a gypsy, should not be accused of any crime."

In Slovakia conditions were better. The Hungarian noblemen who ruled the region allowed Rom to settle on the outskirts of villages and work for the peasants as blacksmiths, basket weavers, and musicians. They were also drafted as soldiers in the various regional armies. Thus, the Slovak and Hungarian Rom were sedentary as early as the 1700s. Only the Vlaxi remained peripatetic, until 1959 when a sedentarianization law was passed. In 1761 the Empress Maria Theresa enacted an "assimilation decree" that Gypsies in both the Czech and Slovak regions be assimilated into the general population. Toward this end, "Uji-Magyar" replaced Gypsy as the official group label, Rom were forced to settle on farms, Rom surnames were replaced by Christian ones, the speaking of Romani was outlawed, and Rom children were placed with non-Rom farm families for reeducation. Although this effort failed, the Slovak and Hungarian Rom slowly have been assimilated, largely through economic relations with their gadžo neighbors. During World War II, while the Slovak Rom did escape mass extermination, they too were persecuted: men were sent to labor camps, they were banned from cities, Rom settlements were moved to isolated locations, and some settlements were burned and Rom killed as punishment for participating in the partisan movement. After the war, many Slovak Rom emigrated to Czech regions where they settled near towns, often in areas previously inhabited by the Germans who were exiled.

In recent times, Rom officially were labeled "citizens of gypsy origin" by the Socialist government and were viewed as the "relics of a decaying ethnic" and underdeveloped culture that blocked the national goals of social integration and assimilation. This official position led to attempts to disperse the Rom among the general population and to ban the use of Romani. In 1969 a group of educated Rom formed the Union of Roms (Svaz Cikánu-Romu) and demanded official recognition of the Rom language and culture. The union disbanded in 1973, but informal Rom ethnic identity efforts persisted, such as amateur theater groups, a Romani language school in Prague, and petitions to the government. In 1989, the assimilation policy was reversed when the Presidium of the Communist party supported a new policy encouraging ethnic freedom for the Rom.

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