Shifting Impressions

What the preservation of a Roma identity entails

01 February 2018
In 1939, weeks before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the country’s government built a labour camp in the quiet southern Bohemian village of Lety u Písku.
sovfoto / uig / getty images

Miroslav Brož, holding a can of Krušovice beer, greeted me and Eli Naegele, a Czech reporter, one April afternoon last year. We had just arrived at Předlice, a neighbourhood 15 minutes by bus from the desolate centre of Ústí nad Labem, a visibly poor industrial town near the Czech-German border. Gesturing at the graffiti, grime and abandoned buildings that bordered the open field in front of us, Brož, the 38-year-old president of Konexe, a Prague-based Roma-rights NGO, described Předlice and its dilapidated housing as “the worst Roma ghetto in the country.”

The conditions under which the Roma or Romani—a traditionally itinerant group, comprising between 10 and 12 million people in Europe—live in the Czech Republic are particularly dire. According to a survey conducted in 2015 by the European Commission, respondents in the Czech Republic reported the most negative views towards the Roma out of all respondents in countries of  the European Union. The Czech Roma—48 percent of whom live below the poverty line—are three times more likely than the general population to have gone no further than primary school, and face unemployment rates as high as 90 percent in some communities.

The Roma experience hostility across the European continent. A 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, an American think tank, found that 48 percent of respondents, largely from western European countries, had an “unfavourable” view of the Roma. This included respondents in Italy, France and Germany. France began deportations of Roma in 2009, under the then president Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite the European Parliament’s objections, expulsions continued during the remaining three years of Sarkozy’s term, and intensified under his successor, François Hollande, with more than 56,000 Romani deported between 2012 and 2017.

Studies suggest that roughly 1,500 years ago, the Roma left the mountains of northern India and began to settle on the steppes of the Caucuses, before starting to arrive in Eastern Europe in the 1100s. From there, Roma groups took disparate paths, but there have been attempts at organising them under a cohesive identity in the past two centuries. In 1933, for instance, the first Congress of the “United Gypsies of Europe” adopted green and blue horizontal bars as the Roma flag; in 1971, a 16-spoked chakra was overlaid on that design; in 2016, the Indian minister of external affairs declared that the Roma were “children of India.” Although some Roma groups are enthusiastic about creating a shared identity, discourse on the Roma has pointed out the difficulty in a non-territorial, traditionally itinerant group seeing itself as unified.

On the evening of 30 April 2017, Brož joined dozens of Roma families in a field at the eastern corner of the Roma neighbourhood. It was Carodejnice, Walpurgis Night, or “the Night of Witches,” when vast crowds across the Czech Republic gather around fires and consume sausages and beer in a night-long celebration. Children chased each other around a scarecrow witch on the field, while a few women roasted pork sausages over an open fire and clusters of men stood around drinking beer. In the middle of the clearing, a Catholic priest prepared for a mass that would later be celebrated on the soft grass, in the shadow of the scarecrow witch, circled by empty cans.

Alexander Hurst is a journalist based in Paris. He has previously written for the New Republic, The Daily Beast and France 24.

Keywords: identity Roma Czech Republic communities Slovakia