Overdue hearing for a minority voice

The Roma in Romanian History
February 9, 2007

The mass westward migration of Roma in modern times, leading to probably the most explosive social crisis facing the expanding European Union, is widely attributed to the long-delayed abolition of slavery in Romania in the 19th century. This is the subject of study by Viorel Achim of the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History in Bucharest, which fills a huge gap in urgently needed knowledge. The author is well known for his contributions to research into the Holocaust of European minorities during the Second World War.

Achim's book originates from an essay published in Romanian; this English-language edition, translated by Richard Davies, goes well beyond that. It should be useful for courses in history, sociology and politics as well as Holocaust and genocide studies. And it may well become an essential research tool for politicians and social and educational planning departments grappling with the challenge of European integration.

Achim not only synthesises the historical literature, but he also makes use of a wealth of archival material for the first time. The book lacks a conventional bibliography, probably because of the dearth of books on the history of Roma. Instead, each chapter is followed by pages of notes identifying and often elaborating on the sources on which the author relies.

The book seeks the roots of the present marginalisation and contempt experienced by Roma communities throughout Eastern Europe in their enslavement during the Middle Ages and their exploitation by the state, the monasteries and the boyars (Russian nobility). It was in these situations that they developed their extensive social organisation and skills in small-scale entrepreneurship and traditional crafts, and the itinerant life still pursued by many may at last be put to advantage to meet the flexible demands of modern capitalism.

This complex and often heartrending story is organised into sections: the migration of Roma into Europe from the 13th and 14th centuries onwards; their deployment in territories inherited from the Tatars and eventual attempts at their assimilation under Habsburg rule; emancipation and the consequent second great Roma migration, to Central and Western Europe, from the second half of the 19th century; the inter-war period, when Roma gained some integration into wider society; the rise of racism culminating in murderous attempts at "ethnic cleansing" in deportation to Transnistria in 1942-44; the postwar communist experiments with "social engineering"; and the situation now.

Today, the Roma in Romania comprise an estimated 4.3 per cent of the population. They have the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate (63.1 per cent). More than a quarter of the male heads of families are unemployed, and only 4.4 per cent of them receive unemployment benefits. More than a fifth of the Roma population have no schooling. Only 0.7 per cent have received higher or further education. About half the population is illiterate.

The Roma, Europe's largest minority, number 7 million to 9 million people, nearly 80 per cent of them in those mostly East European countries that have just joined the European Union. Their children are frequently placed inappropriately in schools for the mentally and physically disabled. Incidents of forced sterilisation of Roma women are regularly reported. Violent riots recently erupted in Slovakia in protest against welfare budget cuts leaving entire communities of unemployed Roma with no means of livelihood. The site of an internment camp at Lety in the Czech Republic once used to transport Roma to Auschwitz is still being used as a pig farm.

This book is part of an overdue process of change. The EU, the World Bank and the Open Society Institute, which is run by George Soros, the Jewish-Hungarian philanthropist, have launched a regional programme called Decade for Roma Inclusion. The OSI has also increased the capital base of the Central European University (including its press, which publishes this book) to €400 million (£263 million), providing an annual budget of €20 million.

Soros, a Holocaust survivor, has held talks with political leaders throughout Eastern Europe that have led to projects in education, housing and employment. Soros and many others fear that an imminent explosion of Roma frustration could dwarf the recent race riots in France.

Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe.

The Roma in Romanian History

Author - Viorel Achim
Publisher - Central European University Press
Pages - 233
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 963 9241 84 9

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