You Try It for a Few Days: The Roma and the gadje in the Czech Republic by Fedor Gál
The year 1997 will go down in history as the year the Western press suddenly noticed the relatively massive Romani emigration from this country which has been going on for years. Since nothing is true until it appears on television, most journalists and commentators blamed the exodus of hundreds of Czech Roma to Canada on a TV Nova documentary that presented an idyllic picture of émigré life in the North American country. The Canadian government reacted to the exodus by slapping a visa requirement on Czech visitors to Canada. The Roma then started heading to Britain. The British reacted by sending the buses on which the Roma arrived back to the Czech Republic. A proposal to impose visa restrictions on Czech and Slovak travelers started to circulate in the British parliament. President Václav Havel tried to get in touch with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in an attempt to prevent London from imposing a visa requirement - a move that could complicate the Czech Republic's integration into the European Union.
Czech television viewers were treated to nightly footage of Romani families sleeping at British and French train stations and ports. The newspapers were filled with dramatic headlines such as "Czech Roma Not Welcome in Dover" or "Czech Transport Companies Don't Want to Carry Refugees." The chairman of the Czech Chamber of Deputies, Miloš Zeman, let it be known that the whole affair was mainly a Romani "disgrace." Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus at first declared that there was no Roma problem in this country but later announced that the government would take "firm" measures, even recommending that a special government office be created to deal with the issue.
In late October, the deputy chairman of the small Czech National Social Party stated his thoughts on the issue. While his party has no representation in parliament and the comment was pure rubbish, it is noteworthy for the simple reason that it truly reflects the opinions of many average Czechs. This commentator placed the blame for the situation squarely on the shoulders of the Roma. In his opinion, the Roma are not so bad off in the Czech Republic. He asked, "How long are we going to silently suffer restrictions to be placed on our rights because of a minority group that has demonstrated time and time again that it is not prepared to conform to the laws and basic societal norms of this country?" He also proposed that the president and government quickly find a "few Gypsy advisers" because "the Gypsies know better than anyone how to make easy money without lowering themselves to any form of mental or physical exertion."
By mid-November, the Roma exodus had been pushed off the front pages of our newspapers, but its protagonists were and still are among us.
A history on the fringes
The Roma settled into what are today the Czech and Slovak republics sometime around the 15th century. Most of them turned to traditional craftsmanship or lived as nomads. Those who settled down ended up anchoring themselves in the local society. But the anchor was unsteady. Their traditions and language, their carefree attitude toward money and competitiveness, their communal lifestyle, and their hand-to-mouth existence all served to cut them off from the rest of society once and for all.
In 1927, the Czechoslovak government passed the Law on Wandering Gypsies. In March 1939 - two weeks before the German army's occupation of Prague and the establishment of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia - the government passed an ordinance on the establishment of punitive labor camps for "Gypsy families and other wandering individuals." This collection center was later replaced by concentration camps in Lety u Písku and Hodonín u Kunštátu, where many Roma perished or were held until they could be transported to Nazi death camps. Of the thousands of Roma who were sent to the concentration camps, only a few hundred survived. After the war, the Czech nation maintained an embarrassed silence with respect to this tragic genocide.
The communist regime decided to "re-educate" the Romani people in its own image. It stripped them of their identity and persistently worked to destroy Romani culture and solidarity by imposing a "correct" set of values and lifestyle on them. In a society that no longer recognized private property and freedom of movement, the Romani people were forced out of their traditional occupations as musicians, blacksmiths, and basket-weavers and drafted as unskilled laborers at construction sites. According to the regime's grandiose social engineering projects, the Roma were moved from Slovakia to the Czech lands, from rural settlements to tenement housing blocks in the city, from a communal lifestyle in the countryside to the anonymous environment of large industrial urban centers. This systematic uprooting of the Romani people had a predictable effect - a high crime rate, unemployment, alcoholism, and related problems.
The past eight years
The fall of communism in 1989 opened up new opportunities for the Roma of the Czech lands. However, the successful exploitation of these new opportunities depended not only on the Roma but also on the dominant majority in the Czech lands. The same majority that has been losing the struggle for multiethnic and multicultural harmony throughout this century - from the Romani Holocaust in the Czech lands, to the postwar expulsion of the Sudeten German population, to current attitudes toward immigrants from impoverished corners of the world. Today, public opinion polls show that the majority of Czechs refuse to put up with the Romani minority, whom they view as a loud and lazy band of parasites. Those same Czechs view themselves as friendly, tolerant, and hard-working.
Meanwhile, daily life is becoming increasingly difficult for the Roma. The number of racially motivated crimes against Roma is increasing with every passing year. Other forms of racism are also becoming more common, such as incidents of Romani children being beaten up in the schoolyard or on the streets, Romani youths not being allowed into certain clubs or bars, or Romani fathers unable to find work because of their ethnicity. As for those who say the Roma are only getting what they deserve, one can only respond that they should color their faces and hair and try to live like a Rom for a few days, because the story of the Roma is also the story of the gadje who refuse to learn.