Romani History Along the Danube

By Aashish Paulraj

Roma (or Romani) is an overarching term describing various groups of gypsies, mainly living on the shores of the Danube in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia (though many have moved further west).  Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, and have existed predominantly on the shores of the Danube for over 1000 years.  Yet, the details of their history in Europe remains largely undocumented.  This essay will attempt to explore the turbulence that the Roma faced in attempting to integrate into European society.

Historically, the Roma were estimated to have started their journey west around 600 AD.  They came from India, predominantly from northwest states such as Rajasthan and Punjab. There are two theories as to why they left India for the west: one states that Roma were ex-soldiers who fled India to the Byzantine empire following invasions by Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi.  The other says that Roma were ḍōmba – a word in Classical Sanskrit meaning “a man of low caste who lives through singing and performing”.  Thus, the second theory suggests that the Roma simply continued with their lives as gypsies, and moving to the West was nothing more than a continuation of their lives.  Over time, the Roma moved more West, into Eastern European countries such as modern day Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia, whereas others moved further West still, with some moving into France.

The issue for the Roma once they arrived in Europe was that of integrating into the western world.  Rather than a seamless joining with the Byzantine society of the time, the Roma struggled. This was due to a language barrier, a race barrier and the fact that the Roma couldn’t agree on a universal culture for themselves – leading to the splitting up of the Roma into smaller, more dispersed “tribes”.   A Parisian journal described the Roma as being dressed shabbily and condemned them for practicing fortune telling and palm reading.  This is not the only place where Roma were unable to integrate, with the first documents of a transaction selling Roma as slaves dating back to 1385 in Wallachia (a part of the Ottoman empire in modern day Serbia).  This inability lessened over time through the 15th and 16th centuries, with Roma being given more rights than other gypsies in England (1596) and then in France (1683).  In Russia, Catherine the Great gave Roma the status of “Crown Slaves”, a title greater than the serfs.  Finally, some Roma were able to overcome the struggles of integration, most notably Stefan Răzvan, who eventually became Voivode (Prince) or Moldavia.  While in general, Roma people struggled to assimilate with society in the immediate aftermath of their migration, over time they were recognized by kings and queens and given better rights.

Roma struggled during the 19th and 20th Centuries in many countries.  Over time, as the political situation in countries like Germany and the Easter European bloc became more radicalized (fascism and Nazism in Germany, communism in Eastern European countries), Roma were caught up in multiple campaigns against their rights.  In Germany, Hitler targeted the Roma, putting them in the same bracket as the Jews.  Much like the Jews, Roma were separated into ghettos and were later subjected to the horrors of concentration camps.  It is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma were murdered by the Nazis, a number that represents 25% of European Roma.  In Eastern Europe, with the onset of communism, the governments were unsure as to whether to include the Roma as part of the proletariat or to denounce their existence all together.  This ambivalence led to fluctuating policies in the Soviet Bloc – leading to Roma being unsure of their place in society.

Moving onto the present day, Roma have similar if not the same rights in many countries around Europe.  But there is still a persistent struggle to integrate.  Roma people are still considered to be “other” in many Eastern countries – leading to a divide in society between natives and Roma inhabitants.  This leads to the question of why Roma have found it so hard to assimilate in Europe despite the length of time they have settled in Europe, which is answered in “Why is there a lack of integration and opportunities for Roma people in Bulgaria?”.

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