AUSTIN, Texas–The fall of Communism brought tragedy and turmoil to many citizens of Eastern Europe’s newly emerging countries. But to the Gypsies, a people without a country, the impact has been profoundly more disturbing.
Today, angry mobs are once again attacking Gypsy communities, burning houses, destroying property, and raising frightening ghosts of the Holocaust, when as many as 1.5 million Gypsies were murdered in Nazi death camps.
Dr. Ian Hancock, a professor of English, Linguistics and Asian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, said Europe’s more than seven million Gypsies have “no political strength, no military strength, no economic strength. We don’t have territory.
“We are the largest ethnic minority in the whole of Europe, and there is nowhere to go,” he said. Hancock, who has taught at UT Austin since 1972, is the official ambassador to the United Nations for the world’s 12 million Gypsies and the only Gypsy serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
Hancock said Communism in Eastern Europe “suppressed expression of ethnic identity, at least in any political way, because you had to put the state before anything. Now, the various ethnic populations are reasserting their right to territory.” In areas such as Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, the end of Communism has led to bloody attempts to drive ethnic minorities back to their original lands. But there is no place for Gypsies, or Roma, to go because they never owned land in Europe.
The name Gypsy is short for Egyptian, applied by Europeans with the same geographic accuracy they used when declaring Native Americans to be Indians. Gypsies, however, really are from India, but they refer to themselves as Roma. The estimated one million Romani Americans are classified as Asian by the Bureau of Census and Hancock is part of UT Austin’s minority faculty.
“Our ancestors came from India to Europe one thousand years ago, but that connection has been lost in any political sense,” Hancock said.
UT Austin, where Hancock has taught since 1972, houses the archives of the World Romani Union, including archives documenting the Roma Holocaust. UT Austin also is the U.S. center for university studies of Roma history, language and culture, and will host a festival highlighting Roma culture in March.
The archives contain reports from international human rights groups, including Helsinki Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, that document rising violence against Roma, a population already plagued by poverty, illiteracy and serious health problems. Roma face discrimination in employment and social services not experienced by other ethnic minorities.
Rapes, murders and assaults on Gypsies by skinheads and Neo-Nazi street gangs have greatly increased during the 1990s, a phenomenon largely ignored by the world press.
“Roma are being destroyed all over the place,” Hancock said. “The problem we have is that most Americans don’t think we’re real. We’re something from fiction. Cartoon Gypsies (like Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) don’t help at all.”
Ironically, it is the shadows of the Holocaust that eventually may hold a key to some economic assistance for Europe’s Roma. Hancock said an estimated 75 percent of European Gypsies were killed in Nazi death camps, alongside 75 percent of European Jews.
For 50 years, Swiss banks secretly kept the assets of Jewish Holocaust victims, as well as deposits of Nazi gold and war loot worth billions of today’s dollars. The banks also are believed to have received valuables stolen by the Nazis when Gypsies were sent to the death camps, where their children were used as guinea pigs to test the effectiveness of Zyklon-B gas.
Gypsies carried their wealth with them in the form of jewelry, gold coins, gems, musical instruments, wagons and other portable valuables. Hancock said if each of 100,000 murdered Roma families had held assets worth only $1,000 each, total restitution would be something near $100 million. If reparations of $1,000 each were paid for one million victims, the total would be more like $1 billion.
Hancock said Romani organizations agree that part of the money should go to survivors in the form of pensions “while the rest should be used to improve the situation of Roma in Europe today, particularly in the areas of human rights, health and education.”
Proving their parents and grandparents had deposits in Swiss banks has been difficult for Jewish survivors. It is even more difficult for Gypsies to follow the 50-year-old trail of stolen coins and jewelry.
“We’re moving ahead, but it’s an uphill battle right now,” Hancock said.
Hancock, known internationally for his work on Creole languages, is author of nearly 300 articles and books, including The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution, published in 1987 by Karoma Publishers Inc., of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and A Handbook of Vlax Romani, published by Slavica, Columbus, 1995.
The Gypsy experience of poverty and discrimination in Europe sounds uncannily similar to that of African Americans, and the parallel has not been lost on Hancock.
“Much of my philosophy concerning the Roma human rights struggle has been learned from the black experience,” said Hancock, who has been nominated for an award from the Southern Poverty Law Center this year. Hancock’s wife, Denise Davis, is African American, and Hancock said she has vigorously supported his work for Roma political and civil rights
Hancock was the 1998 recipient of the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice from University of Wisconsin. He was 1997 winner of Norway’s Rafto International Human Rights Prize.