The year 1997 will go down in history as the year
the Western press suddenly noticed the relatively massive Romani emigration
from this country which has been going on for years. Since nothing is true
until it appears on television, most journalists and commentators blamed
the exodus of hundreds of Czech Roma to Canada on a TV Nova documentary
that presented an idyllic picture of émigré life in the North
American country. The Canadian government reacted to the exodus by slapping
a visa requirement on Czech visitors to Canada. The Roma then started heading
to Britain. The British reacted by sending the buses on which the Roma
arrived back to the Czech Republic. A proposal to impose visa restrictions
on Czech and Slovak travelers started to circulate in the British parliament.
President Václav Havel tried to get in touch with British Prime
Minister Tony Blair in an attempt to prevent London from imposing a visa
requirement - a move that could complicate the Czech Republic's integration
into the European Union.
Czech television viewers were treated to nightly footage of Romani families
sleeping at British and French train stations and ports. The newspapers
were filled with dramatic headlines such as "Czech Roma Not Welcome in
Dover" or "Czech Transport Companies Don't Want to Carry Refugees." The
chairman of the Czech Chamber of Deputies, Miloš Zeman, let it be known
that the whole affair was mainly a Romani "disgrace." Czech Prime Minister
Václav Klaus at first declared that there was no Roma problem in
this country but later announced that the government would take "firm"
measures, even recommending that a special government office be created
to deal with the issue.
In late October, the deputy chairman of the small
Czech National Social Party stated his thoughts on the issue. While his
party has no representation in parliament and the comment was pure rubbish,
it is noteworthy for the simple reason that it truly reflects the opinions
of many average Czechs. This commentator placed the blame for the situation
squarely on the shoulders of the Roma. In his opinion, the Roma are not
so bad off in the Czech Republic. He asked, "How long are we going to silently
suffer restrictions to be placed on our rights because of a minority group
that has demonstrated time and time again that it is not prepared to conform
to the laws and basic societal norms of this country?" He also proposed
that the president and government quickly find a "few Gypsy advisers" because
"the Gypsies know better than anyone how to make easy money without lowering
themselves to any form of mental or physical exertion."
By mid-November, the Roma exodus had been pushed off the front pages
of our newspapers, but its protagonists were and still are among us.
A history on the fringes
The Roma settled into what are today the Czech
and Slovak republics sometime around the 15th century. Most of them turned
to traditional craftsmanship or lived as nomads. Those who settled down
ended up anchoring themselves in the local society. But the anchor was
unsteady. Their traditions and language, their carefree attitude toward
money and competitiveness, their communal lifestyle, and their hand-to-mouth
existence all served to cut them off from the rest of society once and
In 1927, the Czechoslovak government passed the Law on Wandering Gypsies.
In March 1939 - two weeks before the German army's occupation of Prague
and the establishment of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia -
the government passed an ordinance on the establishment of punitive labor
camps for "Gypsy families and other wandering individuals." This collection
center was later replaced by concentration camps in Lety u Písku
and Hodonín u Kunštátu, where many Roma perished or were
held until they could be transported to Nazi death camps. Of the thousands
of Roma who were sent to the concentration camps, only a few hundred survived.
After the war, the Czech nation maintained an embarrassed silence with
respect to this tragic genocide.
The communist regime decided to "re-educate" the
Romani people in its own image. It stripped them of their identity and
persistently worked to destroy Romani culture and solidarity by imposing
a "correct" set of values and lifestyle on them. In a society that no longer
recognized private property and freedom of movement, the Romani people
were forced out of their traditional occupations as musicians, blacksmiths,
and basket-weavers and drafted as unskilled laborers at construction sites.
According to the regime's grandiose social engineering projects, the Roma
were moved from Slovakia to the Czech lands, from rural settlements to
tenement housing blocks in the city, from a communal lifestyle in the countryside
to the anonymous environment of large industrial urban centers. This systematic
uprooting of the Romani people had a predictable effect - a high crime
rate, unemployment, alcoholism, and related problems.
The past eight years
The fall of communism in 1989 opened up new opportunities
for the Roma of the Czech lands. However, the successful exploitation of
these new opportunities depended not only on the Roma but also on the dominant
majority in the Czech lands. The same majority that has been losing the
struggle for multiethnic and multicultural harmony throughout this century
- from the Romani Holocaust in the Czech lands, to the postwar expulsion
of the Sudeten German population, to current attitudes toward immigrants
from impoverished corners of the world. Today, public opinion polls show
that the majority of Czechs refuse to put up with the Romani minority,
whom they view as a loud and lazy band of parasites. Those same Czechs
view themselves as friendly, tolerant, and hard-working.
Meanwhile, daily life is becoming increasingly difficult for the Roma.
The number of racially motivated crimes against Roma is increasing with
every passing year. Other forms of racism are also becoming more common,
such as incidents of Romani children being beaten up in the schoolyard
or on the streets, Romani youths not being allowed into certain clubs or
bars, or Romani fathers unable to find work because of their ethnicity.
As for those who say the Roma are only getting what they deserve, one can
only respond that they should color their faces and hair and try to live
like a Rom for a few days, because the story of the Roma is also the story
of the gadje who refuse to learn.