Gypsies and Indians

By White, Calvin | Canadian Dimension, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Gypsies and Indians


White, Calvin, Canadian Dimension


The northwestern Czech city of Usti nad Labem made international headlines less than two years ago when the local residents of one neighbourhood decided to build a concrete wall to separate themselves from newly arrived Romany (Gypsy) families. The Roma are considered "coloured" and prejudice and discrimination against them in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the two halves of the former Czechoslovakia, goes back many decades.

During World War II, when the Nazis were in control, the Roma felt their wrath. At Lety concentration camp, a hundred kilometres south of Prague, Czechoslovakian nationals administered a regime that tortured thousands of Roma under horrific conditions. Hundreds died there, and the others were transported to Auschwitz. Today, Lety is rife with controversy as the Czech government refuses to relocate the gigantic pig farm established there during the Communist era, despite criticism that it denigrates the Holocaust suffering of Czech Roma. It is estimated that over 90 per cent of Czech Roma died in the camps.

In July of this past year, in Rokyana, a town in the southwest of the Czech Republic, the office of a high-profile Romany organizer was hit with Molotov cocktails. A few days previously, a Romany home was burned out in the same town. The flashpoint was assumed to be the opening of a mixed pre-school. Then, in late August, news headlines carried the shocking story of the clubbing death of a Romany mother of eight in the Slovakian city of Zilina. Anastazia Balazova was 50 when she died from a beating administered as she intervened to protect two of her daughters, eight and 19. They had been sleeping when assailants burst into their modest home with baseball bats and attacked the two girls in their beds.

Not long before that, the mayor of Zilina had aroused attention when he asserted that the Romany "problem" could best be solved "with a small whip in a courtyard." Earlier still, a federal parliamentarian had suggested herding the Roma onto reservations "to control their breeding."

Both Slovakia and the Czech Republic are leading candidates for entry into the European Union in 2004. That organization has expressed its concerns over the tolerated racism directed at the Romany minority. And it is expected that laws will be explicitly drafted to offer greater protection and possibly even advance Romany rights. As it stands, their quality of life lags far behind the "white" population. In the areas of housing, employment and education there are severe disparities.

More than 70 per cent of Czech Romany children attend Special Schools. This means it is very difficult for them to ever attend high school, let alone make it to university. Thus, a profession is out of the question. A CNN Special in early December featured coverage of Romany education in Chomotov, a Czech city close to the German border. It was chilling to witness a local Special School principal look directly into the camera and declare that the Romany children, who composed the preponderance of her students, were there because they were mentally deficient and would never succeed in a regular school.

For the Roma, discrimination is an everyday experience. The police in Prague routinely ask for identification and make accusations. A December poll revealed that 61 per cent of Czechs do not like Roma. Thus, the Usti nad Labem wall only came down because of the bad international publicity. Miroslav Koranda, a university student from that city, is certain that the average Czech reaction to news of the wall was one of empathy - they'd do the same thing if Gypsies moved next door. Koranda went on to relate how pubs filter their clientele in order to avoid serving Roma.

How can such an indefensible and backward social reality exist in a region that has produced such a high level of cultural and intellectual brilliance? But when it comes to the Roma? Good musicians, but not to be trusted.

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