I haven't read anything very noteworthy (or blogworthy) of late, except some of my favorite mystery writers (I might blog about them some day). Instead, I will discuss two books - both quite remarkable, which I read some time ago. They chronicle the experiences (one current, the other from a bygone era) of two communities in diaspora, with vastly disparate fortunes. The first one deals with the sad plight of European Gypsies (I am using the term Gypsy as it has been used in the book; the preferred term is Roma or Romani) and the other, the obscure but idyllic history of Indian Jews. Black and white photographs lend quaint appeal to both books. This is Book I of a two part book review.
Bury Me Standing - The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca
Consider the title of the book and some of the chapter headings: The Least Obedient People in The World, Slavery, A Social Problem, The Devouring, The Temptation to Exist etc. and you can tell that this is a harrowing tale. The book opens with the words of a Gypsy poet from Poland and what follows is an elegy.
Numerous fables obscure the origin of Gypsies, many of them fabricated by the Gypsies themselves - expert fabulists, as the author discovered. Language being the longest memory of man, there is evidence - accepted by most historians and philologists, that Gypsies (or the Roma) migrated to Europe from India through Iran. The Gypsy language Romani, closely resembles Farsi and north Indian dialects in its syntax and vocabulary. Why a large group of Gypsies left India more than a thousand years ago is not certain. Speculation ranges from 1) to become musicians at the court of the Persian emperor 2) as blacksmiths hired by a returning Greek / Persian army 3) being nomads, they just went looking for new pastures. Since the Gypsies were (and still are) mostly illiterate, did not own land and kept to themselves, there is no accurate record of the migration. Another intriguing practice which points to a Hindu/Indian past, has to do with a Christian ritual. There are hints in Persian court history of the era that the Indian Gypsies were devotees of the formidable black Hindu goddess, Kali. The festival of the Black Madonna of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Lyon , France, is devoutly celebrated by European Gypsies. Could it be a Christian substitute for the Hindu worship of Kali? The Black Madonna's origins may lie in Celtic - Egyptian (some think Indian) myths, but the embrace of a dark Christian goddess figure by new converts may have been an acceptable way to keep alive part of an ancient heritage which had to be abandoned upon conversion to Christianity.
"Bury Me Standing" is a remarkable account of Gypsy life in Europe. Isabel Fonseca writes with informed passion and level headed compassion. She does not yield to the temptation of dwelling on the lurid and exotic aspects of Gypsy life - caravans, magic, fortune telling and the like. Instead her dignified curiosity is about their lot as a scattered, neglected and marginalized ethnic minority in the heart of "civilized" Mittel Europa.
Fonseca lived and traveled among the Roma communities between the years of 1991-1995 - in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania and Albania among others. The focus of her investigation were the human and civil rights issues affecting Gypsies in post communist societies of eastern bloc countries. What she discovered was a poor, uneducated, mistreated, vilified, suspect and often abused minority group, whose trials and tribulation through centuries had culminated during WWII in tragedy and horror in the prison camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. Despite their terrible sufferings at the hands of the murderous Nazi regime, Gypsies subsequently garnered little sympathy from the white Christian majority in the countries of their domicile. Unlike the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, who had a clear concept of Jewish identity and the promise of a homeland embedded in history, religious liturgy and in the ideals of Zionism, the uneducated, peripatetic Gypsies had no idea of what constitutes a "home land" or an ethnic identity. While most Jews, after WWII left Europe for Israel or the USA, the Gypsies returned to their former "homelands" mostly in Soviet dominated eastern Europe. There, they pretty much went back to their miserable existence of living as perpetual outsiders and undesirables.
There are several reasons why I use the word Holocaust in the title. For one, there indeed was a holocaust - an estimated two million Gypsies perished in Nazi death camps. Lacking eloquent and organized spokespersons, the plight of the Gypsies has been slow to penetrate the world's consciousness. One bit of information that surprised and disappointed me was that some of the opposition to recognizing the Gypsy genocide as a second holocaust, came from a few Jewish Holocaust survivors, on the grounds that Hitler did not mean to kill ALL Gypsies ! Most prominent among the objectors was Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The induction of Gypsies into the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. happened only after Wiesel stepped down as the chairperson in 1986. Among the millions of prisoners who suffered and died in Hitler's concentration camps, only Jews and Gypsies were singled out for special humiliation based on racial, religious and cultural identities. Gypsy adults and children, like Jews, were subjected to pseudo Nazi science of racial Eugenics, including the notorious "twins" studies of Josef Mengele. Although the "Jewish Question" was of greater urgency to the Nazis, a fair amount of attention was paid to answering the question, "Who is a Gypsy?" determined by blood and ancestry. Both groups were suspect and objects of contempt. Historically, both had been accused of "poisoning the well", "causing the plague" and "killing Christian children". In the twentieth century, the reckless Teutonic slanders that made the two Holocausts possible, were 1) the Jew was given to hatching "international conspiracies" and 2) the Gypsy was a "congenital criminal".
With the help of advocates like the author, progressive leaders like Lech Walesa of Poland and Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and the emergence of educated, politically savvy Gypsy leaders and spokespersons, the last two decades have seen some improvement in the lives of Gypsies in parts of Europe. But it is still a dismal life for them in the less prosperous/progressive countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, where social and economic inequities, along with casual violence, contribute towards a precarious existence.
Isabel Fonseca says in her book, "When I began my research I had it in mind that the Gypsies were 'the new Jews' of Eastern Europe. But they are not the new Jews: the Gypsies, alongside the Jews, are ancient scapegoats [in Europe]".
And what about the title of the book? Though it sounds like a line from a folk song or a tragic ancient verse, it actually was a telling remark made by a modern day Gypsy activist friend of the author:
" Manush Romanov always had something memorable to say, especially, and sweetly, in farewell. Once at the end of a visit in Sophia in which he was practically in tears for his Gypsies, he dramatically called after me, "Prohasar man opre pirende - sa muro djiben semas opre chengende" _ "Bury me standing. I've been on my knees all my life." "