Ioanida Costache is a PhD candidate in ethno/musicology at Stanford University, where she works on issues of race and ethnicity, history and trauma as they intersect in Romanian-Roma musical-oral context. She is also a violinist, videographer and Roma activist.
The Roma people have historically been and continue to be one of Europe’s most marginalized populations. In Romania, the situation of many Romani communities continues to be precarious as anti-Roma sentiment permeates society and rears its ugly head through continued persecution, enduring stereotypes and manifold efforts to push Roma to the periphery of society. Presently, Roma are continuing to fight for recognition of the 500-year enslavement on Romanian Territory and for recognition of the Roma Holocaust. In tangent with these ideological battles, Roma also struggle against racially-motivated harassment and violence, and continued segregation in schools and in the geography of cities across the country.
Historical events reach into the present and have affected the present reality for many Roma living in Romania. Unlike in the U.S. where the notion that a history of oppression hinders a minority group’s socio-economic mobility is more accepted in mainstream thought, in Romania, majority discourse concerning Roma remains at a very superficial, non-critical level, unaware and unconcerned with the way in which slavery and genocide and the mentalities of majority society towards Romani people matter in the present. The enduring ripples of these historical events are refuted with willful ignorance. Poverty comes as a direct result of historical marginalization, segregation and oppression and it has its consequences. It carries a slew of corollary realties such as lack of educational opportunity, access to health care, to employment, and forms of institutional racism that are deeply imbedded in our society. A true reckoning with this history of oppression and persecution would begin to fill in the lacunae in history. It is through these cracks and fissures in a historical narrative that a truly recognizable Romani subjectivity in all its nuance and specificity is lost. And it’s precisely the lack of knowledge which buttresses the false caricatures of Roma.
From the moment they set foot on ‘European’ territory, Roma people have been Orientalized, (in the sense that Edward Said gives to this term) exoticized and misrepresented. For centuries the Western imaginary has been filled with grotesque imagery of Roma as dirty and disease-ridden creatures that could blacken you with a single touch, to oversexualized, nameless, objects of the Western male gaze in artistic representations. The consistent othering of Roma, hinged on perceived difference, xenophobia and fear, lead to ceaseless persecution endured by Roma. From laws in the middle ages which expelled Roma from English territory (“Egyptians Act” of 1530) to restrictions on their movement during the Hapsburg Empire, to the enslavement in Romania, and to the Romani Holocaust, false notions of Roma as lawless criminals and thieves, as wayward and nomadic, inherently violent, overly sexual, primitive and uncivilized, pervade majority society’s treatment of Roma. These stereotypes in some cases stem from particular behavior that was provoked by legal and societal conditions, as is the case of nomadism, which nonetheless remains a grossly overblown generalization. In other cases, the stereotypes associated with Roma were not at all unique to Roma, but rather the same tired tropes used to render humans into caricatures to justify colonial projects in Africa: By insisting on their ‘primitive nature’ the West managed to strip non-white bodies, including Roma, of their subjectivity, leaving in its place an image, or object.
Imagine that you and your entire family were rounded up by gendarmes on a Thursday morning, put on a train to a wasteland, where for two years you were starved to near-death, watched as your mother was beaten to death or your sister was raped by soldiers. Then imagine that you were released from this living hell and thrown back into society but all your worldly possessions that were stolen from you upon deportation remained in the possession of your oppressors. You were expected to start from zero, and you did. Then years later, when you attempted to obtain a miserable sum of money as reparations from the State that committed this violence against you, you are caught in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and then finally denied even this paltry amount of money.
This is the lived experience of a number of Roma survivors of the Holocaust in Romania.
Between 1942-1944, under orders from Gen. Ion Antonescu, ca. 25,000 Roma were deported to Transnistria, a region north of Romania, which lies between the Bug and Dniester rivers, currently part of modern Ukraine. Less than half of those deported survived their interment in what has been called the Romanian Auschwitz.
In 2000, through Law 189/2000, the Romanian government recognized the persecution on ethnic grounds of Romani people during World War II. The law promises a number of benefits to survivors including the aforementioned pensions, free TV, radio and phone services, a yearly stay at a health and wellness spa, a half dozen free train trips, and a grave plot. There are just a handful of Roma survivors still living, and despite the fact that these pensions would hardly make a dent in the State budget, the Minister of Labor and Justice has continuously refused to take any action to rectify the situation in spite of considerable efforts from historians and activists on behalf of these survivors.
These few survivors who are denied these provisions, to which they are entitled by law, refused on the basis of absurd and impossible to fulfill requirements written into the law itself. In order to prove their deportation, Roma survivors must have attestation of both their deportation as well as their liberations from Transnistria. In situations where archives are difficult to collaborate with or are unable to provide the necessary documentation, the pension houses will accept witness statements from other deportees whose applications have been approved. However, the law requires that witnesses who are to be deemed credible must have been over the age of 10 at the time of their deportation. Among the dwindling number of remaining survivors of an event which took place almost 80 years ago, few if any survivors meet this inane requirement. Or, in cases in which pensions are granted, some survivors are misclassified as simply “displaced” peoples as opposed to deportees who were interned in concentration camps in Transnistria. The motivations behind the refusals received by these few survivors are purely bureaucratic as these decisions fall under the discretion of local pension houses.
This is the situation for Roma people in Romania, who on top of all these abuses and infringement of their rights were not included in a Holocaust commemoration event in January of this year—not one Roma survivor was decorated alongside their fellow Jewish survivors.
On evictions, displacement and housing
This is the situation of the Roma who are descendants of the Holocaust survivors, whose grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents were slaves—objects bought and sold, abused and killed at the will of their masters—for 500 years on Romanian territory, and they carry the plight of these historical traumas materially in the poverty and squalor they struggle to transcend in a society which sees them as refuse that needs to be disposed.
In a salient and recent example of this desire to be rid of the Roma, the mayor’s office in Alexandrina, Romania, ordered two buildings where the majority of the residents are Roma to be placed by force. The residents are to be moved to the outskirts of the city – near the cemetery – to live in containers surrounded by fences. Such a move, far from any means of accessible transport, makes it even more difficult for the children to attend school. The actions proposed by City Hall amount to ghettoization, i.e. the displacement and segregation of a group in a position of littler power. The war on the poor continues. Society wants the ‘poor’, who most often are Roma, out of sight and out of mind, and in this case in cages next to a cemetery.
This is neither the first nor will it be the last attack on Roma people’s right to housing. In 2010, close to 100 Roma families were evicted from Cluj-Napoca in the dead of winter with no more than two days notice. These families were moved to containers outside of the city of Cluj, where they had no hot water and shared bathrooms among 4 other families. Pata-Rât, where Cluj disposed of their Roma, is also where the city’s garbage is dumped. Despite court proceedings which deemed the rushed eviction illegal, many of the Roma who were forced to move to Pata-Rât have remained there, in unsanitary, horrendous living conditions. Similarly, in September 2013, the mayor of Eforie, a coastal town in Constanta county, demolished 22 homes belonging to Roma. These families were left homeless for four days and then moved to unsafe temporary housing in an abandoned schoolhouse, only to be evicted again and forcibly moved to containers far from the city center.
These are a handful of cases that attracted media attention due to the large number of people targeted; yet housing abuses such as this occur frequently across the country. These forced evictions reveal a pattern of marginalization, ghettoization of Roma communities as a manifestation of anti-gypsy attitudes in Romania.
This kind of expulsion of Romani bodies from the center to the margins of our cities is part of a long legacy of segregation and marginalization throughout European history. In 1936 leading up to the Berlin Olympics Hitler purged the city of its Roma, rounding up 800 Roma and interning them in a camp in the suburb of Marzahn. The shipping containers in Alexandria are reminiscent of internment camps, as they are entirely surrounded by metal fencing. How it is possible are we not uncomfortable or uneasy when we see things happening in the present that so strongly mimic our past injustices against people? Is it a lack of knowledge and awareness of the resonances? Or is it a decision to turn a blind eye?
On hate speech
Comments on nearly any new story, article, Op-Ed about Roma, no matter what the subject matter, without fail always feature numerous instances of hate speech: ranging from “too bad Hitler didn’t finish the job,” to “You filthy one, stop with the commentary and objections, because you reek like a gypsy. You ‘crows’ [pejorative term for Roma] should be gassed, because if you were shot we would run the risk that one might get away. The cancer of society, that’s what you all are!!!” (Jegoasa mica, mai lasa conetariile si obiectiile ca puti a tiganca de la o posta. Voi ciorile ar trebui gazati, ca daca va impuscam exista riscul sa mai scape vre-unul. Cancerul societatii, asta sunteti!!!) The latter is a comment recently directed toward the author.
Anti-Roma sentiment pervades the Romanian collective social imaginary. Internet trolling and hate speech though seemingly innocuous, feed ideologies of hate, which are no longer ‘seemingly harmless’ when left to fester, and subsequently leave the realm of the internet/our screens and present true danger to the lives of Roma people. Such an instance of violence occurred in April of this year in a town outside of Cluj-Napoca. Right before Orthodox Easter a video went viral of a young Roma woman, holding a baby and accompanied by another child, being beaten with a mop handle at a bus station in Zalau, Romania. The man beating her was a bus driver who refused to let her board the bus. Media coverage of racially motivated violence such as this are few and far between, however, instances of police brutality and hate crimes towards Roma are much more common than statistics show as many abuses go unreported. Moreover, due to latent anti-Roma sentiment, Romanian society lacks the critical consciousness to see these kinds of instances as human rights violations, choosing, rather, to justify the violence due to the behavior of the Roma. When it comes to us, the Roma, majority society’s tolerance plummets. This level of argumentation—of justification of violence and harassment, bolstered by stereotypes and caricatures— denies Roma their basic human right to safety and security.
Today’s Romania is a hostile home for Roma people as it is a country which fails to recognize the historical trauma of Romani people—their persecution as slaves and as victims of genocide—as well as the enduring ripples of those traumas and the Roma struggle for equality against a backdrop of racism and continued discrimination. Aside from the issues discussed about—lack of recognition of historical trauma, unequal access to housing and hate speech— Romani people in Romania, like in all of Europe, are subject to segregation in the education system as well as to forced sterilization. The situation of Roma described here is not unique to Romania by any means, as the rise of populism in Europe goes hand in hand with an attack on its most vulnerable communities, most notably in Salvini’s reign of terror against Roma people, and in Ukraine with resurgent neo-Nazi violence towards Roma.