Last October Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that the Roma, more popularly known as gypsies, would no longer find safe haven as refugees in Canada.
Until recently, I had little knowledge of these people who transcend national borders and trace their history to the Dom tribe of 11th century India.
On my recent backpacking excursion in the Balkans, I was introduced to Paul Polansky, who has lived and worked among the Roma for decades.
Polansky was born in Iowa in 1942, the son of German and Czech immigrants. As a young man he left the United States to protest the Vietnam War. In 1990, he settled in Prague and lived in Roma communities and gained notoriety as an activist and writer who understood the gypsy ways.
In 1999, the UN invited him to serve as an advisor on gypsy refugee issues and in 2004 he was awarded the Weimar Human Rights Award.
Today he gives readings throughout Europe, underscoring the challenges of the Roma to secure shelter, food, and medical support — and also to fight popular ethnic stereotyping.
Although he has published nine books connecting various Roma themes, they are not all weighty and grim.
In Gypsy Taxi, he writes, “As I keep telling my gypsy friends, not all their traditions are good ones, but I’ve always believed you have to see people’s warts before you can help them.”
Polansky has gained both accolades and criticism for his attempts to shed light on the abuse and torment at the gypsy labour camps. By zeroing in on the role of the Czech nobility he has found himself at odds with both European nationalist movements and government officials.
I sat down with Polansky in his home in Nish, Serbia this past July and asked him about his novel The Storm. It depicts the hardship of a Roma family interned in a devastating work camp during World War II.
Ben Mahony: In The Storm Lopata, the father, arrives home after a day of work to find his family has been whisked away. They are interned in a labour camp and later transferred to Auschwitz. What was their crime?
Paul Polansky: The Czech government, like most countries in Europe, passed laws starting in 1929 to stop gypsies from travelling without a permit.
BM: Your narrative refers to editorials in the Czech newspapers that petitioned the government not to give citizenship to the gypsies after the Treaty of Versailles. Why was there such antipathy towards gypsies?
PP: In many countries before WWII, like Italy, gypsies were respected as an important part of the agricultural economy. The gypsies planted and harvested many crops for farmers. But the Czechs have been racists especially with regards to gypsies. In many villages up to WWI gypsies were hung by the neck from village gates to warn other gypsies not to enter the territory. As gypsies moved west into other parts of Europe they were called bohemians since they came from or through the Czech lands. In the 20th century the word bohemian was considered derogatory because of its connotation with gypsies.
BM: You’ve done considerable research on Lety, the labour camp fictionalized as Roky in the novel. You suggest that the treatment in these labour camps was sometimes worse than Auschwitz. Is that based on oral history?
PP: Yes. Those were their stories, as you will see in my book Black Silence.
Black Silence is a collection of stories told by the Roma survivors and camp guards and contains some harrowing passages:
“One day a policeman arrived with four Romany men and two women from Auschwitz. They had truncheons like the terrible Czech guards. We were afraid to pick up our food because these gypsies frightened us with their clubs. We asked the capos [gypsy guards] why they did these things to us, their brothers. They said, ‘We have to.’ They told us the Germans at Auschwitz were not as bad as the Czech guards at Lety. From that time on many of us prayed to be sent to Auschwitz for Christmas.”
BM: Were there camps similar to Lety in Hungry and Romania?
PP: A few that were mainly run by locals, not by Germans, but overall, 90 per cent of the Roma survived in Hungary and Romania although there were some tragic isolated events.
BM: What sort of responses does your work get in Europe?
PP: The Czechs say I am exaggerating but don’t say what is the exaggeration. Whenever one of my lectures or readings is well advertised in a country such as Israel or Finland, the Czech ambassador shows up and tries to refute my remarks saying the Czech government is doing everything possible today for Roma. But I always get a good reception from the audience.
Polansky names Jack London a formative influence and hopes to see the Yukon and perhaps give readings here. His compelling literary works are not for the faint of heart.
His books can be ordered through his website, www.PaulPolansky.net, which also features updates on his advocacy work.