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The History of the Roma Minority in the Czech Republic
13-06-2000

The exact year of the Roma's arrival on the territory of the present-day Czech Republic is difficult to determine, as the chronicles of the time don't mention their arrival in any clear or concrete way. In the chronicle of "Dalimil," in the chapter "About the Pagans" the author makes reference to Tatar scouts who were moving through the Czech Lands after 1242, and with whom he could be confusing the Roma, though Roma scholars haven't verified this document.

Another reference to the Roma in the Czech Lands comes from the end of the 14th century, when the Executioner's Book of the Lord of Rozmberk contains the testimony of a condemned man, who names as his accomplice a "black gypsy." This could be fact, as the Roma arrived in Central Europe in the 15th century. Many historians also refer to this century as the "Golden Age of the Roma in Europe," when they were being received by aristocrats and being given letters of protection and other privileges. Solid proof of the Roma's residence on Czech territory is actually one of these letters of protection, which was issued on April 17th, 1423 at Spissky Castle by the Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King, Zikmund. The text of this letter has been preserved and reads as follows:

"We, Zikmund, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, ..., Our loyal Ladislav, Duke of his Gypsy people, humbly beseeches us for affirmation of our special leniency. Receive then his civil appeal and don't refuse this letter. In the case that the aforementioned Ladislav and his people appear in whichever place in Our Empire, in any town or village, We recommend that you show to him the loyalty which you would show to Us. Protect them, so that Duke Ladislav and his people may live without prejudice within your walls. If some one among them is found drunk, if they should cause a quarrel of any kind, We desire and decree that only Ladislav himself, Duke, has the right to judge this person, punish, give pardon and absolution, or cast him out from your circle ..."

The Roma brought this letter with them when they arrived in France, and because it was issued in the Czech Lands (La Boheme) and by the Czech King (roi de Boheme), the French people named the newcomers after the land from whence they came, les Bohemiens.

The first to observe that the Roma were not servants of God was the Church. This was also began their persecution, which was soon joined by the secular powers, which saw the Roma as Turkish spies. In 1427, the Archbishop of Paris excommunicated the Roma from the Church and the attitude of the population changed radically. And so began four centuries of cruel discrimination. 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 persecution of the Roma at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance belongs among the darkest pages of European history. Europe never really accepted them, due to their dissimilarity, and also in part to the fact that they often found provisions on their travels by stealing, which was then used as justification for their persecution. In the first few centuries, the ill will they generated among the locals was offset by their migration to a new region, where they weren't yet known. The Roma's life was never easy, they were always among the poorest population groups, and supposedly Christian Europe never behaved towards them in a very Christian manner.

In Central and Southeastern Europe, it was a little different situation than in the West. The Turkish advance, which expanded the borders of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries to the area of southern Slovakia, transformed the situation between the other inhabitants and the Roma, when both warring sides expoited the services of the local residents. In the case of the Roma, except for fortification and building work, mainly the services of the Romani blacksmiths were put to use.

From the second half of the 16th century, there were instances of certain towns allowing the settlement of Romani blacksmiths with their families. In Hungary, the families of talented musicians were settled by music-loving feudal lords on their lands. The foundations for a permanently settled way of life among the Roma population were created in this way in the Hungarian lands. The persecution of the Roma was ended by decree in Austria by the middle of the 18th century by Maria Theresa..

The intent of her decree was the assimilation of the Roma ethnic group. The Empress realized that the differences in living standards between the Roma and the other inhabitants were enormous, and for this reason she tried to tie them to the soil. She forbade the nomadic life and the use of the Romani language. Only official marriages were permitted, they were forced to wear different clothes, and children were taken away and placed witn non-Roma families for re-education. An interesting document of the period by Ab Hortis was preserved which relates everything about the situation of the Roma community in the Hungary at the government of Maria Theresa in great detail. Maria Theresa's decree may seem inhumane by today's standards, but she established the recognition of the Roma as an existing element of the population of the country.

In the period of Maria Theresa and Joseph II, a sizable number of Roma settled in the Czech Lands (mostly, but also in Slovakia) or passed through in a semi-migratory way of life. The settlers were mostly bricklayers, tinkers, blacksmiths, trough-makers, road-menders, musicians, and so on, or whatever they recieved permission from the community to do.

The decree of Maria Theresa's son Joseph II was more concerned with the education and christianization of the Roma. In this area, the ruler was ahead of his time. The results of his efforts were evident in the Czech Lands, where the Czech-Moravian Roma were almost assimilated with the population.

At the end of the 19th century, the differences between the Roma and Czechs began to increase. Compulsory education and factory work was changing the mentality of the whole society, while the Roma stagnated. From a nation of able craftsmen and fine musicians, the advance of industrialization, to which they were unable to adapt, left only a socially backward population. Before WWI, nearly all Roma were illiterate and, faced with the discrimination they felt in "gadje" society, had no motivation to educate themselves, as even with an education they would have difficulty finding a place in society.

The First Republic made an attempt at resolving "the Gypsy question" in 1927 by issuing the Law on Wandering Gypsies. In practice this meant that they all had to apply for identification and for permission to stay the night. The aim was to "civilize" their way of life, but the law so restricted and deprived the Roma of their civil liberties, that it became an expression of the slanderous, defamatory, and villifying attitude of society at the time towards the ethnic group as a whole. This law remained in effect for the entire pre-Munich period and for a rather long time afterward.

But the greatest tragedy of all for the European Roma was World War II, during which they were considered by Nazi racial theories to be an inferior race, just like the Jews.

The first exceptional anti-Roma measure in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was the edict of the Ministry of the Interior in 1939, which ordered all Roma to settle down and give up their migratory way of life. Anyone not complying with this edict could be put in to work camps - in Bohemia the camp was in Lety u Pisku, in Moravia it was Hodonin u Kunstatu. With the Decree on the Preventive Fight against Criminality (1942), the government introduced police detention along the German Reich model, which took place in detention camps at Lety, Hodonin, Prague-Ruzyne and in Pardubice, or in the concentration camp at Auschwitz I.

According to the census of August 2, 1942, more than 6,500 Roma from the Protectorate were rounded up, of which the smaller part were sent off to the newly opened gypsy camps, up til then work camps, in Lety and Hodonin.

The Lety camp was intended for the concentration of "anti-social" Roma from Bohemia, and 1,256 prisoners passed through it, including 36 children who were born there to imprisoned mothers. Debilitating work, consistent hunger, excessive crowding in insect-infested barracks as well as the precarious state of health of the internees - it all contributed to their sickness and death. Such a death claimed the lives of 326 men, women and children. Three transports were arranged of the other prisoners who didn't survive the war: the first left Dec. 3, 1942 for the first Auschwitz concentration camp and consisted of 16 men and 78 women in total, the second headed for the gypsy camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Mar. 11, 1943 and included 16 women and four men hospitalized before the departure in Pisek and Strakonice hospitals, and in the third group, on Apr. 7, 1943, the mass of prisoners was deported, which included 215 men and boys and 205 women and girls.

The Hodonin camp was meant for the internment of "anti-social" Moravian Roma and in it were recorded 1,396 prisoners, including 34 children born there. Of this number, 207 prisoners died and 855 of them were sent to Auschwitz. The first shipment of 45 men and 30 women was set up for Dec. 7, 1942 and its destination was Auschwitz. The second two groups ended up at the gypsy camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau; one left on Aug. 22, 1943 with 749 prisoners of both sexes and and all age groups and the second left Jan. 28, 1944 with 26 adults and 5 children who had been imprisoned in a police jail in Brno after the closing of the Hodonin camp.

The commandant of the gypsy camp in Lety was Captain J.Janovsky, the commandant of the camp in Hodonin was S. Blahynka, and both camps were run solely by Czech personnel and none of them were punished after 1945.

The majority of Roma, who had a permanent residence and could demonstrate steady work, after the implemented census remained free for the time being. Their deportation came about by two edicts issued at the turn of 1942-3 by the Reich Ministry of the Interior.

In March 1943, a substantial part of the Roma were sent away, first from Moravia (1,038 people on Mar. 7), then from Bohemia (642 people on Mar. 11), and finally from both areas at once (1,042 people on Mar. 19). The second stage of deportation was made up of shipments in May (853 people total from Bohemia and Moravia on May 7, of which 420 were from the liquidation of the Lety camp), August (767 people total from Moravia, of which 749 came from the liquidation of the Hodonin camp), and October (93 people from Bohemia and Moravia on Oct. 19). The final Roma were deported from the Protectorate either in smaller shipments (the 31 prisoners remaining from the Hodonin camp on Jan. 28, 1944), or individually.

In the files of the gypsy camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau were written the names of 4,493 Roma from the Protectorate. Of all of them, the only ones with a hope of surviving were those transfered to work at other concentration camps, such as Auschwitz I, Natzweiler, Flossenburg, Buchenwald, and Ravensbruck, from where they were then distributed to other concentration camps, especially in Dora, Dachau, Neuengamm, Bergen-Belsen, Mathausen and so on.

After liberation, only 583 Romani men and women returned to their homes. The original Roma population in the Czech lands was thus almost annihilated during the period of the Nazi occupation. A similar fate befell the Sinta and the Roma in the detached Sudetenland.

In the Slovak Republic, which was declared a non-sovereign state under the protection of the Reich on March 14, 1939, the fascist regime implemented its persecution in a somewhat milder manner. On the previously prepared decree by the Czechoslovak government on corrective work camps, labor regiments were set up for transient concentration and labor exploitation of so-called asocials and Roma in Slovakia. Slovak Roma were subject to various discriminatory measures: they wern't allowed to travel by public transportation, their children couldn't go to school, they could only travel to cities or towns on specific days and times, and so on.

The original "Czech" Roma were almost wiped out, and many Roma came to Czechoslovakia after the war from Hungary and Romania. Roma from settlements in Eastern Slovakia started to migrate to the evacuated Czech frontier regions and were dispersed as a light work force throughout the industrial areas of Bohemia and Moravia. The overestimation of financial factors (starting with the presumption that the improvement of material conditions would change the mentality and psychology of the Roma) produced results far short of the effort expended. The results, in fact, did more towards degrading Romani society, as the abrupt disruption of community life amid the transfer of the Roma to unfamiliar conditions, resulting in the disintegration of traditional norms and values of the Roma and the erosion of traditional family life. Gradual dissolution of the traditional Romani ways of life and population growth also deepened the levels of poverty and social backwardness of the Roma, and thus the growth in their crime-rate.

In 1958, a law was passed concerning the permanent settlement of migrating persons, according to which national committees were supposed to help people who led a migratory way of life change to a settled one. In practice, however, this law enabled the police to cut off the wheels of caravans with impunity and to take the horses away from migrating Roma, and the Roma had to start living where they were assigned as a work force, without regard to the separation of families.

In 1965, another 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. In this way, the Roma were being moved from dirt-floored cabins to flats with hot water, flushing toilets and doors.

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, and not on their own devices. These various forms of state support, which in many cases favoured the Roma, led to further grudges against and condemnations of the Roma by the majority, and thus increased their dependence and their inability to resolve their affairs on their own, increasing still further their dependence on the state. In this way, the state was also buying their reticence (much as it was of the Czechs), and the Roma still haven't made their voices heard, haven't demanded action on their difficult situation, and continue to quietly take support.

Written in cooperation with Marta Miklusakova and Ctibor Necas.
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