Roma Seeking Sense of Unity to Combat Racial Bias By PETER S. GREEN - The New York Times
LODZ, Poland — The 12 million Roma, the Gypsies of Europe, are trying to unite at last to fight what they see as their increasing marginalization in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism.
Some 30 European Romany organizations met in May in Lodz, in central Poland, where Jews and Roma were killed and deported in the Nazi Holocaust, to set up a continentwide organization that could give the Roma, as Gypsies prefer to be called, a strong voice in advancing their causes: housing, jobs, education.
Romany leaders say they must act now because they are sitting on a demographic time bomb. Their population is growing rapidly, with the young born into deepening poverty in societies, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, that have marginalized and suppressed the Roma for centuries and stood by as up to a million of them were killed by the Nazis.
"We will face a Palestinian problem in Europe," said Rudko Kawczynski, 48, chairman of the Romany National Congress. "Young people cannot be patient forever. How long can they live in the poor settlements like in Slovakia? In 20 years we will be 20 million."
Mr. Kawczynski, whose organization represents dozens of Romany civic groups, said the Roma are worried by the recent resurgence of populists with a racist message in Western Europe. "Anti-Gypsy sentiment is like anti-Semitism," he said. "It is a European phenomenon."
Unity has often been lacking among the Roma, with nonprofit organizations tangling with powerful clan chieftains and Communist-era political structures.
The Lodz meeting, encouraged by President Tarja Halonen of Finland, was attended mostly by civic associations from Central Europe, Germany and Scandinavia. Talks were transmitted live on the Internet in the hopes of reaching those who could not afford to be here.
Agnes Daroczi, a leader of the Romany Civil Rights Foundation in Hungary, said European unity increased the need to speak with one voice. "The question in a united Europe is how we can pressure countries to improve our situation," she said.
The Roma have tried to have their voice heard in parliamentary and municipal elections, but their candidates have not met much success.
The choice of Lodz for the meeting was symbolic. When World War II began, the Nazis made the Marysin district here the largest ghetto in Europe for both Jews and Roma. Some 200,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma were gathered there and died or were deported to Nazi death camps. During the conference, delegates held a memorial service with prayers by a Romany mullah from Macedonia, an evangelical Romany pastor from Sweden and the rabbi of Lodz.
The contrasting fates of Roma and Jews after World War II weighed on the leaders here, who lamented how unsuccessful they have been at organizing themselves, even after the fall of Communism removed restrictions that had hampered Romany activity for 40 years.
Mrs. Daroczi noted that her Jewish mother-in-law, deported as a teenager to a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, had received reparations and pensions from Austria and Germany.
An uncle of her mother's, a Rom, was deported to a Nazi camp in Hungary. He has yet to receive any compensation, even though money has been set aside from recent Holocaust settlements with German companies and Swiss banks for Roma.
As democracy and democratic reforms have brought increasing prosperity to many in the former Communist bloc, the Roma have been largely left out. Thousands have made their way to western Europe, some fleeing persecution, others simply seeking a better life. Most are turned away, shunted into refugee camps and eventually deported.
At home, Roma tend to be at the bottom of society. In many countries, they face heavy discrimination when seeking jobs or even entry to restaurants, and are quite often attacked by the police or neo-Nazi youths. Children are often consigned to special schools for the learning disabled, and fall into a vicious circle of poverty, teenage pregnancy, petty crime and substance abuse.
Wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia have left several hundred thousand Roma in squalid refugee camps, living in utter poverty, cut off from their traditional homes and sources of income.
The trick now is to unite and to rise in society without losing Romany identity.
"Society wants to assimilate the Roma," said Nicolae Gheorghe, a delegate. "But then we will no longer be what we want to be. Self-determination of Roma is the only road to integration."