Czech Radio has a very informative article on the history of the Roma in the Czech Republic.
The article speculates that the arrival of the Roma to what is now Czech Republic may have been as early as the 13th century. However, “solid proof of the Roma’s residence on Czech territory is actually (a letter) of protection, which was issued on April 17th, 1423 . . . by the Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King, Zikmund.”
Many historians refer to the 15th century as the “Golden Age of the Roma in Europe,” because the Roma were at that time often “received by aristocrats and. . . given letters of protection and other privileges.” In the 15th century, however, the persecution of the Roma began when they were observed by the Catholic Church to not be “servants of God.” The Roma were also suspected of being spies for the Turks.
The article details the types of persecution experienced by the Roma in Medieval and Renaissance Europe:
Rulers of individual countries began to issue decrees by which the Roma were ordered out of their territory. With the persecution, the Roma were exposed to torture, bodily mutilation, and then execution. The greatest persecution in the Czech Lands came after 1697, when the Roma were placed by Imperial decree outside the law. Anyone could shoot, hang or drown them, and killing Roma wasn’t considered a crime. . . The Roma’s life was never easy, they were always among the poorest population groups
In Central and Eastern Europe, if they could find work, the Roma were most commonly employed as builders and blacksmiths.
In mid-18th century, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa issued a decree which forbade nomadic life and the use of the Romani language. The Roma were also “forced to wear different clothes, and children were taken away and placed witn non-Roma families for re-education.” At that time, a sizable population of Roma settled in Czech territory. As Czech Radio reports, “the settlers were mostly bricklayers, tinkers, blacksmiths, trough-makers, road-menders, musicians.”
Further restrictions and assimilation efforts continued in early 20th century. Then during WWII, the Nazis rounded up, deported and killed approximately ninety percent of the Czech Roma. After the war, most of the Roma coming to the Czech Republic were Slovak. In 1965, a law was passed “concerning the procedure of dispersing the gypsy population, through which Roma from eastern Slovakian Romani villages had to move to Bohemia to work.”
Not covered in the Czech Radio piece is the fact that during communism, and continuing through at least 2003, Romani women were coercively sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. The Roma experience systemic discrimination in housing, health care, the justice system, and education as a result of past and current state and social practices.
The Czech Radio article concludes with a very important point in understanding today’s dynamics between majority and minority population, the former of which often blames the Roma for being too dependent on the state:
In state social policy, the Roma were dealt with as a socially backward group of the population, and the state’s remedies were confined to various forms of social support, which helped the Roma survive, but also taught them to rely completely on the state.
As a final note, I do want to point out that it is important to be critical of the view that the Roma have been completely reliant on the state, because there are multiple, innovative ways in which communities, including the Roma, find to survive despite the discrimination and poverty they experience. These ways may be invisible or unrecognized by the majority community. However, as a documentary I recently watched points out, the old adage “necessity breeds invention” is quite pertinent in the Romani community. My next post and future articles will show just what I mean.
Posted By Tereza Bottman
Posted Jun 3rd, 2010