Beth Wofford

Elizabeth Wofford (Dzeno): Between 2009 and 2011 Beth studied at the University of Maryland – she graduated with with a Bachelor of Arts in Socio-Cultural Anthropology. In 2010, Beth studied in Prague, where where she first encountered discrimination against the Roma community. She spent the spring semester of 2011 interning at the Global Terrorism Database (a research project of the US Department of Homeland Security). Beth was also a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and the Sigma Circle of Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Fraternity. After her fellowship Beth wrote: “I am absolutely more confident. I know that I can work through tough issues and be able to make a product happen. I have more faith in myself and in other people to get things done that need to get done.”

Chronicling History: Understanding the roots of the European Roma

21 Jun

“The Roma need to know their history. They need to know that they belong here,” says Ivan as we’re talking this week. “My family was here since the fifteenth century.”

This simple statement made me realize how utterly ahead of myself I’ve gotten. Who am I to report on the situation of the Roma when I too barely know their history? I feel my cheeks burning as I realize my hubris over the past week. As I go back to my corner of the office I decide to delve a little deeper into the history of the people I am trying to help. Hopefully this knowledge will make me a better Peace Fellow and a better advocate for the Roma.

Migration to Europe

Initial reports of Roma in Europe are hard to verify, with some of the first official reports surfacing around the fourteenth century. Europeans in the era described groups of travelers with darker skin, a different language, and unwillingness to conform to traditional roles.

It was initially hypothesized that these people came from Egypt – hence the term “gypsies”. However, as time went on and the world slowly became more connected, similarities were seen between the Roma population and the Indian population. Their language, customs, social structure, and even professions were similar to those seen in Indians. Later genetic testing confirmed their Indian background, with 47.3% of Roma men carrying the y chromosome of haplogroup H-M82, which is seen almost exclusively in the Indian subcontinent.[1] (Excuse my love for genetic tracing of migrations, I guess I still have a touch of biological anthropologist lurking in me somewhere….)

Map of the migration of Roma throughout Europe

In the extremely religious time of the Middle Ages, wandering was viewed as a form of penitence. These newcomers were seen with a mix of admiration and suspicion. Admiration in that they took to the word of God to repent for their sins, and suspicion about what they could have done to need such penitence.

Roma in the Czech Republic[2]

Concrete evidence of the Roma in current day Czech Republic is seen in a letter of protection issued by Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King Zikmund on 17 April 1423. This protection was not long standing, as persecution of the population began with the church, claiming that the wandering Roma were not followers of God. Secular persecution followed, with authorities claiming the Roma were Turkish spies.

This persecution reached its height in 1697, when Roma were placed outside the law by imperial decree. They were seen as subhuman, and it was not a crime to murder a Roma individual.

Maria Theresa attempted to end this persecution in the 18th century; however her efforts were counter intuitive by current standards of human rights. She wanted the population to assimilate, and in order to ensure this would happen, she had the Roma placed in permanent settlements, forbade the use of the Romani language, forced them to change their dress, and their children were taken to live with non-Roma families in order to assimilate.

Another attempt to “civilize” the population came with the Law on Wandering Gypsies in 1927, another initiative to have the people settle and give up aspects which were very important to their culture. This law required Roma to apply to stay overnight anywhere in the Czech lands, thus making it difficult to maintain their nomadic lifestyle.

The Roma were often in the lowest social and economic strata of society, left without proper education and opportunities for employment. The stereotypes persisted, but the ascent of Nazism brought forth a type of persecution henceforth unheard of: extermination. (This topic is one which is huge, and will be discussed at length in a later post.)

A few notes

This is an extremely brief summary on the history of the Roma. It would be an injustice to their rich culture to leave the discussion of their history this short, but for the sake of brevity, I summarized. Please look at these additional resources to understand more about the history of the Roma before World War Two:

[1] Kalaydjieva, L.; Morar, B; Chaix, R. and Tang, H. (2005). “A Newly Discovered Founder Population: The Roma/Gypsies”. BioEssays 27 (10): 1084–1094. doi:10.1002/bies.20287. PMID 16163730

[2] Miklusakova, Marta, and Ctibor Necas. “The History of the Roma Minority in the Czech Republic.” Roma in the Czech Republic. Český Rozhlas, 13 June 2000. Web. 21 June 2011. <>

Posted By Beth Wofford

Posted Jun 21st, 2011

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