by Richard S. Ehrlich
BUDAPEST, Hungary Bob Dylan blares through a Pizza Hut sound system, in a city sprayed with ubiquitous American-style graffiti.
Multiculturalism and US tags, however, do not conceal Hungary's current wave of ethnic intolerance, nor the past slaughters and enslavement of its Gypsies.
World War Two's Nazi Holocaust against Jews, Gypsies and others, followed by 45 years of Russian-enforced communism, continue to scar many Hungarians.
Gypsies who survived are now often seen only when marked by big signs offering "Live Music" -- punctuated with a big arrow.
Hungary's estimated 500,000 Gypsies form this nation's largest ethnic minority, comprising five percent of the population.
Feeling increasingly displaced, Hungarian Gypsies are taking their case to human rights organizations, the media and into cyberspace.
Danube-divided Budapest, meanwhile, has many competing problems, including prostitution rackets and other criminal gangs.
Many of Budapest's street corners display security cameras, obsessively mounted on all four corners, in a bid to lessen robberies.
This once-haughty capital's opulent buildings show signs of distress, with ruined facades caused by years of damage and poverty.
Despite such woes, the mood of the city is simultaneously exuberant yet relaxed, traditional though experimental.
After East Bloc communism ended in 1989, Budapest toyed with all things Western, creating a new mutation of Hungarian flamboyance.
Virtually every street, and much of the surrounding countryside, is now covered in a scrawl of endless, insane graffiti -- mostly scripted in angular East Los Angeles calligraphy -- though the messages aspire to be hip Hungarian catcalls and boasts.
This cross-cultural sheen, however, eventually gives way to starker images, including a display of a German Nazi "Totenkopf," or Death's Head, previously worn by a "Schutzstaffel" SS officer during the war.
The tiny insignia is preserved on top of Budapest's highest peak, in Buda Castle's vivid Military History Museum, which also portrays the pain of Adolf Hitler's propaganda, bunkers, weapons and other Nazi horrors, alongside artifacts from medieval battles through to the end of the 20th century.
For many in Hungary's Gypsy community, however, the past has created an ominous present.
Today, Hungarian Gypsies suffer disproportionate unemployment, discrimination, and violence meted out by skinheads and others, according to international human rights groups.
Gypsies -- who often prefer to be called Roma or Romani -- are relegated by Hungarian society to a "low social status, lack of access to education, and isolation," which makes them "relatively unable to defend themselves and their interests," according to Helsinki Human Rights Watch.
Gypsies have always suffered a so-called "Pariah Syndrome" in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.
Their suffering in Hungary dates back to 1476, when King Mathias authorized officials to employ Gypsies as slaves, to be scattered throughout his kingdom, often to labor as blacksmiths hammering out weapons and metal implements for torture.
Dr. Ian Hancock, who President Clinton appointed as the only Gypsy representative on the US Holocaust Memorial Council, wrote: "Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by the first Europeans to be from Turkey or Nubia or Egypt, or any number of vaguely acknowledged non-European places, and they were called, among other things, Egyptians or Gyptians, which is where the word Gypsy comes from."
Linguists later traced Gypsies' origins to 8th century India.
Hancock added, "The enslavement of Gypsies came to an end something over a century ago," after 500 years of slavery in Hungary and other regions of Europe.
During that time, Gypsies were also shipped out of Western Europe to be slaves in the United States, India and Africa, said Hancock, who is now professor of Romani Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
"The world does not yet appear ready to believe that the enslavement of Gypsies ever happened, or that it was significant enough to warrant being brought to the attention of the larger community," he added.
In 1721, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl VI ordered extermination of all Gypsies throughout his vast domain.
In the 1700s, Gypsies were sometimes considered vampires and cannibals.
More recently, during World War Two, an estimated 1.5 million Gypsies in Nazi-occupied Europe were executed, according to Gypsy historians.
In the past few decades, however, Hungary and most other European nations canceled racist laws against Gypsies.
But when communism collapsed across East Europe in 1989, Gypsies suffered an upsurge in unemployment and racist violence.
Communism had outlawed their nomadic existence, so when freedom arrived, Gypsies' skills -- working at communist-run farms and factories -- were suddenly useless in a capitalist marketplace.
To protect themselves, Gypsies set up the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest in 1996.
They also formed segregated schools, which sparked debate similar to issues in 1960s America, during the black civil rights movement.
"Sadly we have to say that the Gypsy children are not doing well in the Hungarian schools" said Jozsef Choledroczi, Gypsy headmaster of Kiraly Jag, a recently opened Gypsy secondary school in Budapest.
"Forty percent of Gypsy kids do not graduate from primary school, and less than one percent of Gypsy students make it to a university," Choledroczi told Budapest-based journalist Simon Evans.
"We learn in a different way, and require teachers to teach in a different style, but also we need to develop a real knowledge of our own culture, our own language and our own history," Choledroczi added.
"These things are not taught in normal Hungarian schools."
Billionaire Hungarian-American George Soros recently established a Roma Education Program, and other school-related schemes for Hungary's Gypsies, albeit within the normal, integrated school system.
Separation of Gypsies into their own schools, no matter how altruistic that may be in theory, would alienate them from mainstream Hungarian life and perpetuate ghetto existence, according to many educators, including Gypsies.
Meanwhile, in a 1998 report, sponsored by the Hungarian Office of Ethnic and National Minorities, Maria Nemenyi found Hungary's "medical doctors, nurses, and midwives" continue to regard Gypsy mothers as "wild women, a population in transition from a semi-civilized life to normal culture.
"Elements of that 'wild women-ness' are an early sexual life, easy pregnancy and delivery, prolonged breastfeeding, etc.," reported Nemenyi, a researcher at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology.
"We also observed that the myth of 'wild women' influenced the self-perception of Romani women negatively," Nemenyi added.
In Hungarian museums, meanwhile, antique paintings portray an occasional cluster of ragged, dark-skinned musicians fiddling away in a corner, while paler, wealthier Hungarians dominate the artworks' dramatic center.
"It has been said that all a Hungarian needs to get drunk are a glass of water and a Gypsy fiddler," wrote Hungarian anthropologist Dork Zygotian in a recent study titled, "A Vanishing Tradition."
Zygotian added, "Like many stereotypes of Hungary, it is one that dies hard. But one stereotype has been disappearing with alarming speed: the Gypsy violinist, strolling amongst the tables of fine restaurants laden with grand history."
Zygotian, who is also a fiddler, said, "Fifty years ago, Budapest was the vacation center for the high society of Europe, and the presence of Gypsy fiddlers in cafes and restaurants was an essential ingredient."
All that is rapidly changing, he said.
"Many younger Hungarians are more likely to dine on pizza, and then slip out to discos."
Richard S. Ehrlich has a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, and is the co-author of the classic book of epistolary history, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews.
from The Laissez Faire City Times