Wanderers of the World: The Gypsies, Their Travels and Travails

What do you imagine when you hear the word “Gypsy?” As a child growing up in New Orleans, my earliest memory of “Gypsy” was going to Mardi Gras dressed up as one — or at least my mother’s idea of the way a Gypsy should dress — long red flowing skirt, billowy blouse, colorful sash around the waist, head scarf tied at the side, and, of course, the required gold dangling earrings. I imagine that Bizet’s “Carmen” or Liszt’s and Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsodies would come to mind to music lovers, and perhaps for the traveler, an unpleasant experience of having one’s pocket picked or purse snatched while touring in Europe.

The saga of these mysterious peoples — for there are many different “brands” of Gypsies — is fascinating. First and foremost, most take the name “Gypsy” as a pejorative. Their name for themselves is ROM (and various versions of that word), stemming from the Sanskrit word for “man.” “Rom” simply means “man.” The name predates both the city of Rome, the Roman Empire and the country of Romania, where many settled. Confusion of the names is common to people who are unaware of their history.

Romani (plural for Rom) peoples began arriving in Europe during the Middle Ages. They moved westward in waves and, because of their skin coloring and their nearly incomprehensible language, they were thought for centuries to have originated in Egypt (hence, the name GYPsy, from the word EGYPT). Eventually, several myths arose regarding their wandering ways. Since Medieval Europeans who traveled in caravans were usually on religious pilgrimage, many thought that they must be Christians on their way to or from some holy place or the Holy Land. The Romani took advantage of this belief because it caused the Europeans to treat them with respect for their common beliefs (or so they thought). Three more tales had to do with Our Lord: one claimed that they were punished by God because a Rom blacksmith forged the nails for the crucifixion. Another claimed that they were condemned to wander because their ancestors in Egypt refused to harbor the Holy Family when they fled from the bloodthirsty Herod. Another story had it that, because of their refusal to accept Christianity, God condemned them to the wandering life. These last three are obviously erroneous beliefs that sprang from simple minds, but, nevertheless, they had the effect of making the settled peoples of Europe suspicious and even hostile to the wanderers.

The Gypsies did bring with them new knowledge and skills. Many were copper and iron workers who traded their talents for food or lodging. Others were horse traders, in particular the Lowara group, found in the Low Countries and other areas of Europe, who took pride in their excellent steeds. Some brought new kinds of music and musical instruments. Different tribes (more like extended families) had different specialties, some of which proved very practical and helpful to the settled peoples of the lands they passed through, and sometimes settled in.

Real Origins of the Rom

It was not until 1763 that a Hungarian theology student named Stefan Vali met several medical students from India in Leyden, Holland, who gave him a clue as to the Gypsy origin. He was intrigued by their similarity to the Romani peoples in his homeland. By that time, Hungary was host to a large Rom population. The Indians looked like the Rom of Hungary and their speech sounded similar as well. He took the time and trouble to write down more than a thousand of the words of their Malabar tongue and their meanings. When he returned home, he compared the words to the vocabulary of the Rom, and found that they had the same meanings and pronunciations. This accidental discovery led to a more in depth study of the Rom languages (for by this time, the original language had borrowed many words from the countries that its speakers had traveled through), leading to the unquestionable conclusion that India was actually the country of origin of these traveling peoples. Besides language, other customs were similar to those found in India, such as social structures and choice of professions. For example, Rom metal-working bears a striking similarity to that practiced in India.

It is still not known for certain, and probably will never be, but the guess is that these inhabitants of India were members of the lowest caste, driven out either by drought or famine or by a desire to escape the strict Indian caste system for an opportunity to find a better life and possibly a market for their wares. There is also a theory that they were captured as slaves by Muslim warriors who conquered the northern part of India and forced them to return to Muslim lands. Or, possibly they were conscripted as fighters in the Muslim armies. One Muslim conqueror reportedly took half a million prisoners during a Turkish/Persian invasion of Sindh and Punjab. This was a common practice of the Muslims as they marched out of Asia slaughtering and conquering in the name of Allah.

Some experts believe their wanderings began as early as the seventh century, but the consensus seems to be that groups began to leave India in about the ninth century to begin their trek across thousands of miles of Asia into all parts of Europe as far west and south as Spain and as far north as the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. They came in individual bands and in waves over an extended period. By the fourteenth century, they had reached the Balkans; by 1424, they were in Germany, and by the sixteenth century, they had reached Sweden and Scotland.

Hostility and Separation

Because of some of their peculiar customs, the Rom quickly alienated the Gadje — their word for non-Gypsies. They considered Gadje ways unsanitary — their practices in the bath, washing of clothes and the preparation of food. The Rom followed strict sanitary practices in these areas. For example, men’s and women’s clothing were washed separately, with upper body clothing and lower body clothing also separated. The lower body was considered contaminated because of its functions (including childbirth). However, they thought nothing of living tightly packed in their caravan cars, with all the children sleeping together. In good weather, they would camp out and sleep under the stars.

They had large families. Girls were married off at very young ages and were expected to produce many children. They did not exactly have a marriage ceremony, just a big party where all the new clothing of the bride and the wares given to the bride and groom were displayed. The bride was expected to “belong” to her husband’s family, and most especially to her mother-in-law. The bride became almost a slave to her, doing her bidding night and day. The younger the daughter-in-law, the lower status she held in the family. As one can imagine from the description of keeping clothing and eating utensils clean, much of the day for the women was spent washing and cleaning.

Many times the traveling caravans stopped in farmers’ fields and helped themselves to a chicken or two. The women were famous for their fortune-telling in the towns they passed through. Some Rom wore their wealth in the form of gold coins as their jewelry. It became common to think of them as thieves and, at the very least, unscrupulous dealers of their services. In short, their philosophy of how to live was so different from the settled Europeans, that it is easy to understand how hostile feeling developed on both sides. They eventually became a feared entity, especially when they arrived in large numbers.

How the Rom Came to America

As more and more Romani (plural for Rom) moved into Europe, the various countries began to put strict laws into effect to keep them separated from the settled natives. In truth, the Rom did not want to integrate into the societies of these countries. They were strict about keeping themselves separated, not only from the Europeans, but also from the other tribes or branches of Romani peoples. They always married within their own groups and, as is typical of fallen human nature, some Gypsy groups felt themselves superior to others and refused to associate with them.

Many cruelties and injustices were visited upon the Rom. In the fourteenth century, in Moldavia and Wallachia (present day Romania), for example, the Gypsy peoples were forced into slavery and were bought and sold just as the African slaves were in America a few centuries later. It was not until 1864 that Gypsy slavery in the country of Romania was abolished. Many of these poor people migrated to the Americas at that time. Some European countries — England, Spain, and France — solved their “Gypsy problem” by transporting them in large numbers to their colonies in the New World to work on plantations or settle on their own. It was merely a way of getting rid of these unwanted peoples. There is even documentation of Gypsy slaves being owned by free Blacks in Jamaica.

The Devouring

Everyone knows the term “Holocaust.” The true meaning of the word as a common noun simply means a whole burnt offering. When we see it capitalized it now refers to Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Always considered inferior and at the very margins of European society, the Romani population was also persecuted by Hitler’s Reich. They refer to this dark time as “The Devouring,” and what an appropriate term it is! Besides the Jews, the Romani were the only group sentenced for extermination because of their ethnicity, being considered “non-persons.” They were selected among the first for deportation to the death camps because they were lumped with the sick, the old, the mentally ill, and the retarded. Another excuse for their selection was their “criminal” activity. It was said that criminal behavior was genetic with them; so they must be eliminated.

The total number of Romani peoples murdered during the Nazi period is about 500,000. The Germans were pretty meticulous about keeping records; so we must assume this number to be accurate. The Gypsy peoples were particularly fascinating to Dr. Joseph Mengele in his medical and genetic “studies.” Mengele was fascinated with twins and their genetic makeup. He selected twins, mostly children, from the Gypsy compounds in the camps and studied them carefully, keeping neat records. One day he was their “Uncle Pepi,” plying them with candy and other treats and the next day he could inject their hearts with chloroform and perform autopsies on them after they died. Reading about the mistreatment of these people and the horrible tortures that were inflicted on them in the name of science is stomach-turning.

Much more could be said about this period, but we leave it simply by saying it was among the worst in the history of the European Gypsies.

Religion Among the Romani

Traditionally and historically, the Rom belonged to no particular religion. As we have seen, their marriages were ceremonial only in that the families of the bridal couple threw enormous parties that lasted days and put their newly-acquired wares on display for all to see. Most of the time, especially when they began to end their traveling ways, they adopted the religion of the area in which they lived, or they remained without systematic religious beliefs entirely. The only time they actively looked for a priest was when one of their members died. They wanted the full rites of whatever church was in the area and in-ground burial somewhere near the church, but not in the cemetery (for cemeteries were contaminated places in their tradition). They primarily lived in Eastern Orthodox countries, and it seems that the priests reluctantly complied. Western minds would probably think of their beliefs more as superstitions, although most certainly there were sincere Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim Gypsies here and there.

The Gypsy Saint-to-Be

Spain has the highest population of Romani people in all of western Europe. In Spain, they are called Gitanos, and their numbers are about 800,000. Although they share the unflattering reputation of Gypsies everywhere, many things we think of as Spanish are actually Gitano. Music, especially the flamenco and the cante hondo of southern Spain are of Gypsy origin. They are also called Calé. Their dialect is called Caló, which is a mixture of Romani and Spanish.

Other articles on this site (notably here, here, and here) have considered the horrible period of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, when multiple political and religious factions tore Spain apart. To oversimplify, many of the Republicans were actually Communists who wanted to overthrow the crown and the Church. In addition, there were other factions — Fascists, Falangists, Carlistas — all with their own vision of what kind of government Spain should have. In the end, it came down to the Communists against the Catholics.

Blessed Ceferino Gimenez Malla, “El Pelé”

Among the latter was the Gitano, Ceferino Gimenez Malla, “El Pelé.” His nickname means “the strong one” or “the brave one.” Ceferino was pure Gitano, married to Teresa, also Gitana, late in life. Although they had no children, they took in a niece and became as missionaries among their people, teaching catechism to the Gypsy children. He was known as a very holy man. In the early days of the war, when the Communists were seeking out and shooting on sight priests and nuns, Ceferino saw a group of Communists harassing a young priest. When he approached them to let him alone, the story goes that they ordered him to put down his weapon. He replied that his only weapon was the Rosary he carried in his pocket. Drawing his “weapon” out of his pocket, he waved it in the air and was summarily murdered along with the young priest. Now, there are two versions of the martyrdom of this holy man — the other says that he was arrested along with a number of other Catholic laymen and priests, brought to jail and died there under the awful conditions they endured. One story says that his body was never found; the other says that he was later disinterred from the common grave and buried alongside his wife.

Ceferino (named for Pope Saint Zephyrinus) was beatified by Pope John Paul II in on May 4, 1997, and is the first Gypsy on the path to sainthood — surely a model for all Catholics suffering persecution. He serves as the patron saint of the Romani peoples.

One might also hear of another Gypsy “saint” — Saint Sara-e-Kali (or Sara the Black). She was the Egyptian servant of Mary Salome, one of the three Marys (Mary of Cleophas and Mary Magdalene, the other two) whose boat was miraculously carried to coastal France, along with Saint Lazarus, after they were shoved out to sea without a sail during the persecution of Herod Agrippa in the year 42. Although the story of Lazarus and the three Marys is a well-founded tradition, that of Sara is probably an invention. Nevertheless she has a following who devotedly venerate her shrine in southern France. Every May 24, her statue is carried from its grotto in Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer to re-enact her arrival in Southern France. The Wikipedia article on her has a photograph of her statue at the shrine; a large picture of the real Blessed Ceferino can be seen in the background.

Further Troubles

When all of Eastern Europe came under Communist control after World War II, the Gypsy peoples who were not exterminated during the War suffered again, as did millions of others. Their high birth rate replaced rather quickly those who died in the persecutions. These survivors continued to remain on the margins of society. A Hungarian friend who grew up in Communist-dominated Hungary told me that they always lived at the edges of the small towns, eking out a living in their traditional ways. She remembers her parents telling her to stay away from them because they would steal anything valuable.

After the fall of Communism in countries with large Gypsy populations, such as Romania and Czechoslovakia, they suffered even more. It is a fact that most of the thousands of children in Romanian orphanages were Gypsies. Although the governments had changed, the attitudes of the general population had not changed. Another friend of mine from Germany, who travels extensively in Europe, told me that when he and his French wife visited Berlin after the Wall came down, they could see thousands of western European Gypsies making their way by caravan toward the formerly Communist countries in order to sell their wares and their services. I believe that this is proof that those living in western democracies, as marginalized as they were, were much better off than their fellow Rom living under Communism.

What’s the Problem?

Why is it that the Romani peoples have never been accepted into any of the societies that they traveled to and lived in? First and foremost, they do not want to integrate into a group whose practices and beliefs are so different from their ways. Second, they have remained throughout their history an illiterate people, shunning schools because they feared integration and contamination by Gadje ways. This fact has given the majority of them no sense of their own history or of any history at all. Third, their many branches or clans refuse to integrate even with each other, seeking to retain their traditional identities and customs. In fact, there has been much infighting among the various groups of Gypsies. Romani peoples do not actually see themselves as a nation. Therefore, unlike the Jews, who were better educated and had a written history and organized religion, they have had difficulty presenting a united front to a hostile world. While there is a Romani flag, adopted in 1933 by the World Romani Congress, is does not seem to have much of a unifying influence. Appropriately, there are two horizontal bars dividing it in half, the upper one blue for the sky, the lower one green for the grass. There is a red wagon wheel depicted in the very center of the flag.

There are individuals speaking up for the Romani peoples at this time. One of the most outspoken is Dr. Ian Hancock who, though born in England, has organized the Romani Archives and Documentation Center, the largest collection of Romani materials in the world at the University of Texas in Austin. Dr. Hancock has been campaigning for years for better treatment of his people worldwide. He does attribute the cause of their misunderstanding and mistreatment to traditional Gypsy fatalism and the desire to put the good of one’s clan above the good of the whole. Dr. Hancock is a tireless speaker, organizer, and spokesman for the Romani cause. He speaks many languages and is comfortable with heads of state around the world.

There are about one million Rom of various groups living in the United States. World population estimates vary wildly, but it is probably about twelve million.

A Personal Recommendation

If you find your interest in the story of these fascinating peoples piqued by what you have read here, I recommend the two books that I read to prepare this article: The Gypsies by Jan Yoors, the story of a Belgian boy’s youth living among the Lowara group in the Low Countries, and Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca, which gives a more complete picture of the story of the Romani worldwide. Her research, as well as her travels, is meticulous and impressive; her writing style is quite beautiful and sometimes poetic. The title is taken from something an old Gypsy man said to her, “Bury me standing because I have been on my knees all my life.” Touching. Dr. Hancock has written The Pariah Syndrome, which I have not read, but intend to because the subject is so interesting.

Blessed Ceferino, pray for your people; pray for us!