One of the most asked topics to talk about as a tour guide in the history of Roma people in Romania.
Even though they represent one of the country’s largest minorities, few things are known about them: their origins, their language, old traditions, and other curiosities. That is why we rather find information that shows stereotyped images and prejudices deeply rooted in the collective mentality towards the Roma. For instance, in literature, Carmen, The Hunchback of the Notre Dame, or La Gitanilla, we meet Roma characters who are supposed to possess mystical powers of fortune-telling, to have a passionate temper combined with a burning love for freedom and inclinations for criminality or robbery.
In this article, we shall present a brief history of Roma people in Romania and discover their story behind stereotypes.
The Roma, also known as “Gypsies,” represents one of Romania’s largest minorities. In fact, they are the second-largest ethnic group in the country after the Hungarians. According to the 2011 census, 621,573 Roma people live in Romania, or 3.08% of the total population.
However, lots of Roma people do not declare themselves as being of Roma descend. That is why there are different estimates regarding the actual size of the Roma group, somewhere around 6-8%.
Large communities are also in Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, Russia, etc.
Actually, Roma people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, and, in many countries, they are the fastest-growing ethnic group. Around 12 million Roma are living worldwide. Most of them (8-10 million) live in Europe.
1. Where the Roma people come from?
It is difficult to precisely determine, taking into account written sources, legends stories, linguistic analyses, and even genetic analyses, which are the exact origins of the Roma.
However, they are believed to originate from the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of northwest India. All historians accept this theory.
The Roma started migrating to Europe and North Africa, crossing the Iranian Plateau around 1000 A.D., driven away by the existing caste system in India, where they occupied the lowest position.
The exact causes that forced them to leave their territories and start their migration are not known. However, there are different hypotheses:
- they were first hired as musicians, artisans, or even warriors
- other historians invoke economic reasons, difficult living conditions, discrimination against them
- nomadism was simply common in that period
Their migration left no tangible traces for one simple reason: for centuries, the Roma did not have a written culture but a predominantly oral one. Thus, their culture was passed down in family moreover as a family memory. This is why it could not perpetuate more than 4-5 generations.
Others have rather written the history of the Roma.
2. The Journey from India to Europe
In the IX-X centuries, the Roma people arrived in Persia, then in Armenia (there are many Persian and Armenian words in the Roma vocabulary).
There is actually a legend that explains how the Roma got in Persia. In the 60000-lyric Persian national epic poem “The Kings’ book (Sah-Name),” Firdousi mentions the Persian King, Bahran Gur’s request to the Indian King, Shangul, to send him artists:
“The poor here drink wine without listening to music, a situation with which the wealthiest cannot agree. Therefore, choose and send me 10,000 men and women who play the lute. “
Bahram Gur offered to these musicians grains, cattle, and donkeys and sent them to the provinces of his kingdom so that they could work as farmers and, at the same time, sing to the poor.
Within a year, they had eaten all the grain and all the cattle; the king scolded them for the waste and then banished them from his kingdom. He commanded them to load all their possessions on the donkeys’ backs and live by playing their songs. Every year they wander the country and sing for the rich and the poor.
The first appearance of the Roma tribes in Europe happened this way:
- 1348 – Serbia (in today’s Kosovo region)
- 1362 – Dubrovnik (today’s Croatia)
- 1378 – Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
- 1385 – Wallachia (Southern region of nowadays Romania)
- 1400 – Transylvania (Central region of nowadays Romania)
- 1428 – Moldavia (Eastern region of nowadays Romania)
- 1417 – Hungarian Kingdom
- 1419 – France
- 1425 – Spanish kingdom
- 1530 – England
- 1536 – Denmark
Initially, the Roma were welcomed in the West. King Sigismund of Luxemburg, from Hungary, offered them recommendation letters for protection. Thus, the Roma tribes received the right to wander freely on the Hungarian territory. You might ask yourselves why they were allowed to do that. The Roma presented themselves as Christian pilgrims, and they were received and treated as such in the first part of their European migration. Even more, a few years later, Pope Martin the 5th reconfirmed the status of the Roma as so-called pilgrims from the Holy Tomb.
The locals used to speak about the Roma people with curiosity mixed with sympathy and did not hesitate to offer them food and shelter.
However, starting with the 16th century, the first actions against the Roma appeared. First, it happened in Switzerland, then in other countries from the West. In Portugal, for instance, they were deported to colonies over the ocean, which explains the presence of the Roma communities in Brazil.
France sent them to Martinique Island. We now find Roma in the USA, in Virginia, and Louisiana due to the colonization process of this “New World.”
3. Slavery of the Roma in the Romanian Principalities
The history of Roma people in Romania cannot be presented without including the slavery chapter.
Some consider that the first Roma arrived in the Romanian territories in 1241 during the Mongol invasions, and they became war prisoners. Others support the idea that the Roma were enslaved while captured during the battles with the Tatars.
It is believed that the Roma were already slaves or troops of the Mongols or Tatars, and the Romanians captured them and preserved their status.
This is believed to be the debut of slavery in the Romanian Principalities. In the 15th century, when the bulk of the Roma tribes arrived in these countries, slavery was already widespread.
In the Romanian principalities, there were 3 categories of Roma slaves according to the owners:
- Roma belonging to the monasteries;
- Roma belonging to the lord,
- Roma belonging to landowners (boyars).
The Romanian principalities (Moldova and Wallachia) were for most of their history the only territory in Eastern and Central Europe where Roma slavery was legislated and the place where this was most extended.
The Roma were seen as the private property of the owner. He had the right to put them to work, sell them, or exchange them for different goods. He also had the right to apply physical punishments if necessary, but he did not have the power to take their lives. However, the master did have some obligations, those of clothing and feeding his slaves.
Even the Orthodox Church itself hold slaves, and it did not contest the institution of slavery. However, there were some voices among the clergy that advocated for abolition and tried to limit the owners' abuse over the Roma.
4. Roma during WWII in Romania
During WWII, the Roma people were declared as “enemies of the race-based state” under Hitler.
Thus, they were placed in the same category as the Jews.
In 1942, over 25,000 Roma were deported to Transnistria by the Romanian Government led back then by Marshal Ion Antonescu.
Transnistria is in the today’s Republic of Moldova and back then occupied by the Romanian and German military.
This was a region with very fertile land. To exploit these vast territories and bring more cheap labor force, the Romanian authorities deported the nomadic Roma from Romania, and some of the sedentary Roma considered “dangerous” in society (people with convictions or recidivists).
Being promised that they would receive land and jobs, some Roma people even insisted on being deported to Transnistria.
Unfortunately, many of them died there between 1942-1944 because of poor living conditions, unhealthy housing, and lack of food or health services.
Many years passed so that the Roma people would be recognized as victims of the Holocaust and receive compensation for the survivors.
Not all of them have benefited from the compensatory measures due to corruption and bureaucratic aspects.
5. Does Roma mean Romanian?
The word “Roma / Romani” means “man/people,” and it is used as an ethnonym (the name applied to a given ethnic group). The feminine form is “Romni,” and they speak the Romany language.
Indeed, the word Romani sounds like the word Romanian, but this is just a coincidence. So no, Roma does not mean Romanian. It is quite a common mistake.
Roma or Romani represent the ethnic group that started the migration from India more than 1000 years ago. The Romanians are another ethnic group, the majority inhabitant of today’s Romanian territories and successors of the Ancient Dacians and Romans.
During Medieval Eve, the locals called the Roma people “Gypsies,” thus mistakenly considering them as coming from Egypt.
Today, not only in Romania but also in the rest of Europe, the politically correct term for Gypsy is Roma or Romani.
Furthermore, the word “gypsy” is considered to have a pejorative or negative nuance, and it reflects neither the reality nor the diversity of this ethnic group. It is associated with much suffering and pain.
6. Roma and their occupations
In 1856, Roma slavery was abolished in the Romanian principalities. There were important debates among the Romanian politicians regarding the future of the free Roma people in Romania. They proposed different techniques to support the assimilation of the Roma into the Romanian nation. The Romani were to be scattered across the villages, they were banned from using the Romany language, inter-ethnical marriages were encouraged, and education for the Romani children became compulsory.
When the Roma people arrived in Europe, they were organized into different tribes according to their profession.
In Ancient India, the profession's secrets were transmitted in the family, from father to son. This was also the case of the Roma, and it still is.
In the past decades, more and more Roma have forgotten or have come to ignore the tribe they belonged to. One-third of the Roma living in Romania no longer define themselves as members of certain tribes. Also, some professions have disappeared almost completely.
Most of those who still consider themselves part of a tribe are:
- Domestic Roma (vătrași) – are the former servants stuck for centuries at the court of the landowners or monasteries. They used to be skillful in agriculture.
- Coppersmiths – they used to and still manufacture boilers, pans, pots, stills, etc., made of brass and copper. From the beginning, they lived in tents, traveling in colorful carts. Many have kept their traditional lifestyle until very recently. This group still keeps the position of a chief and the practice of Judgment by the community elders.
- Gold-miners – their job was initially to search and process gold during the warm season and wood processing during the cold season. They are the descendants of the ancient goldsmiths of India.
- Ursari or Bear handlers- their ancestors, were magicians, trainers, jumpers, etc. In the Middle Ages, they used to roam the villages with the trained bears, thus earning their living. After this profession disappeared, at the beginning of the last century, the bear handlers learned other crafts from other tribes.
- Gabor – they are the Roma from Transylvania, who took their name after the estate owner where they worked. Men wear their famous black hats proudly. It is not a tribe with a particular profession.
- Silversmiths – they are excellent craftsmen (ornaments manufacture), and they represented an elite of the Roma nations. Currently, there are very few in Teleorman, Ialomiţa, Tulcea Counties, and Bucharest. The traditional judgment and the traditional marriage are still practiced in the community.
- Blacksmiths – they held the monopoly of iron processing throughout the Middle Ages. Among them, the more valued were the specialized farriers. In the twentieth century, many became farmers or workers in the industry. After ’89, the few remaining blacksmiths in the villages made carts and tools again. They were rich, among the first who settled, but also among the first who lost their language.
- Florists – this is a relatively new generation, which appeared and developed rapidly during the interwar period. At present, florists are the most homogeneous category of Roma, relatively rich.
- Lautari (string instruments players) – they were musicians who performed in bands called “Taraf.” They were invited to perform and entertain at different celebrations from the villages: weddings, christening parties, important holidays, even funerals (there were certain songs played depending on the event). This profession was inherited from father to son. Even though the Roma did not study music at fancy music university, they could perform quite difficult songs without knowing how to read the musical scores. Today, very few Roma musicians in Romania try to keep alive this traditional profession. Romanians, but most of all the foreign audience, highly appreciate those who try.
Today, there are Roma people fully integrated into the Romanian society and part of the working class. Given their past and the fact that most of them still struggle with prejudices, it is difficult to overcome poverty. Some belong to different tribes and preserve traditional activities. Others survive from social assistance and work in agriculture in the villages whenever needed (this is a seasonal job).
There are many social inclusion projects developed by the Romanian authorities, NGOs, and the European Union, but it takes more time for the situation to be improved. Many Roma children abandon school after only a few years of studying, and in some cases, the Roma girls do not even go to school. Their parents arrange their marriages, and at even 13 or 14 years old, they move to the house of their also very young husbands.
It is a rather sensitive situation that the Romanian authorities need to handle: to encourage the Roma communities to send their children to school and to fight at the same time against their discrimination.
During our private and shared tours, we try to break prejudices. We visit Gyspy communities, and tourists have the chance to talk to them and discover their real stories. All our tourists are interested in this part of Romanian history, and they embrace the initiatives of helping the Roma communities through tourism.
There are so many other interesting aspects of Roma culture and traditions. We tried to offer you only a glimpse of the history of Roma people in Romania.
7. A movie and a book
At the end of the article, we propose a more colorful way to discover the history of Roma people in Romania through a movie and a book.
Aferim is the name of a 2015 Romanian movie that recreates so faithfully the story of a Roma slave who runs away from his master after having had a love affair with his wife. A local policeman is hired to find the Roma, and this is how a journey full of adventures starts. The action is placed in Wallachia, one of the Romanian principalities, in the 19th century. The movie reveals so many social aspects of the Roma community, thus creating a harsh history lesson delivered with bitter-sweet humor.
The movie was screened in the main competition section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, where Radu Jude, the director, won the Silver Bear for Best Director.
Along the Enchanted Way is a beautiful and sensitive book written by William Blacker, a British journalist who experienced rural life in Romania in the 1990s. Besides writing about life in the Romanian villages, William successfully creates a genuine Roma portrait with their good and bad. You can read more about this book in the article One country, three books.