The Roma people (also spelled Romani) often known colloquially as gypsies, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, traditionally made-up of nomadic travelers living mainly in Europe, although after a diaspora, Roma populations are found throughout the world. It is now accepted that the Roma people come from a single group of peoples who left the North Indian subcontinent around 512 AD.
Roma are widely known in English by the xenonym Gypsy (and Gipsies), which some Roma folk consider deprecatory.
Arising out of (a legitimate) fear of discrimination, most Roma choose not to register their birth or ethnic identity officially. There are an estimated 10 million Roma in Europe (as of 2019) with large Roma populations found in the Balkans, some central European states, in Spain, France, Russia and Ukraine. There are probably several million more Roma in other countries
During World War II, the Nazis embarked on a systematic genocide of the Roma, a process known in the Romani tongue as the Porajmos (meaning “the Devouring.”) Historians estimate that at least 500,000 and probably over 1 million Romani folk were killed by Germans and their nazi collaborators.
In post-war Czechoslovakia, the Roma were labeled as a “socially degraded stratum” and Roma women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. Even in 2004, new cases of forced assimilation were revealed in the Czech Republic.
1: EL PELÉ
EL PELÉ was a Spanish Romani born in August 1861 in Aragon, Spain into a Romani family. Ceferino Malla’s father was a cattle-trader and so the family had a nomadic lifestyle, with Ceferino often going without food and having to resort to begging. Known for his integrity and sense of fairness, Ceferino became something of a leader in the Roma community in and around Barbastro in northeastern Spain. Folk sought his advice and mediation in family disputes. Ceferino was also called upon to resolve disputes between Roma and Spaniards.
One day a local landowner, suffering from tuberculosis, passed out on the street. Heedless of the danger of contagion, Ceferino carried the man home on his shoulders. The grateful family rewarded him with a sum sufficient to start a business of buying and selling surplus mules.
After becoming a member of the Franciscan Third order (a tertiary-type ‘friar’) in July 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, Ceferino tried to defend a Catholic priest from Republican militiamen. Both men were arrested, to be imprisoned in a former Capuchin monastery, converted into a wartime prison. As he led a modest life and had no significant political influence, his family asked an influential anarchist and member of the Revolutionary Committee known as Eugenio Sopena, to release him. Sopena did everything possible to free him, but was told that Ceferino was influencing other prisoners by encouraging them to have faith and believe in God. Ceferino was strongly advised to give up his rosary and not to draw attention to himself or his Catholicism, but refused to give up his rosary or his faith.
The Republican militia (revolutionaries) shot Ceferina on August 9, 1936, in a cemetery in the Spanish city of Barbastro, along with 18 other people, mostly priests and believers. Before he was killed, he raised his rosary high to shout loud: “Long live Christ the King.”
El Pelé is now considered the patron of the Rom and Sinti peoples.
2: SETTELA STEINBACH
SETTELA STEINBACH (born Anna Maria Steinbach) was from Buchten in the Limburg area of southern Netherlands.
Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. During the occupation of the Netherlands, over 100,000 Dutch Jews were rounded up and transported to Nazi extermination camps; only a few survived. In May 1944, a razzia (early morning police raid) against Romani families was organized across the whole of the Netherlands. 577 people were arrested and taken to Westerbork concentration camp ( the same camp that Anne Frank was taken to in August 1944.)
After the arrests, about 279 people were permitted to leave the camp once interrogation had been completed and the Nazi authority categorized them as non-Romani. But Steinbach and others were condemned. The ten-year-old’s head was shaven and, like other Romani girls and women, she was made to wear a torn sheet around her head to cover her baldness.
On May 19th, Settela was put onto a train along with 244 other Romani folk to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The carriages also contained Jewish prisoners. Settela and her family were gassed along with another three thousand Romani prisoners.
Settela Steinbach gained notoriety after the war when her image (shown above) was shown. The harrowing picture was associated with the pain and anguish of Auschwitz. The photo was taken for a movie about Westerbork transit camp made by the German photographer (of Jewish descent) Rudolf Breslauer whose own family was transported to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944.
3: RODNEY “GIPSY” SMITH
RODNEY “GIPSY” SMITH was born in a bender-tent in Epping Forest, six miles from London. Smith received no education and his family made a living by selling baskets, tin items, and clothes pegs though his father Cornelius mother Polly provided him with a happy Romanichal family upbringing. After his father became one of the “Converted Gypsies” that were involved in evangelistic efforts at that time, Smith taught himself to read and write and began to practice his preaching. He’d sing hymns to people he met and was known as “the singing gypsy boy.”
At a convention at the Christian Mission (later to be known as The Salvation Army) headquarters in London, the Methodist preacher and army founder William Booth noticed the Gypsies and saw the obvious potential in young Smith. In 1877 Smith accepted an invitation extended by Booth to be a “street corner” evangelist for the Mission.
Smith traveled extensively around the world on evangelistic crusades, drawing crowds numbering hundreds of thousands throughout an active life. Despite how busy he was, he never tired of visiting the Roma camps whenever he could on both sides of the Atlantic.
During World War I he ministered under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A. to British troops in France, often visiting the front lines. As a result of this undoubted heroism, King George VI made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
4: PETR TORAK
PETR TORAK is a modern-day hero. Born in Liberec in the Czech Republic (1981) he grew in a Roma family. In 1999 he and his parents sought asylum in the UK, after suffering violent attacks with political and racist motivations.
Petr volunteered in a solicitor’s office in Southend-on-Sea (he had studied law in the Czech Republic). And, after gaining a work permit, he found employment in fast food, factories and in supermarkets before joining Cambridgeshire Police in 2006 as a Community Support Officer. In 2008 and after further studies, Petr became a fully-fledged police officer with Cambridgeshire.
As a police officer, he worked in the city of Peterborough, a place with many east and central European immigrants and utilized his language skills (Czech, Polish, Slovak, Portuguese, English and Russian) to great effect. He became a project coordinator for a local organisation, COMPAS, which attempts to promote community cohesion, and is a trained mediator for ROMED, an EU funded project which trains mediators to help Roma folk communicate with local authorities.
Petr has also spoken-out against “modern slavery” and other issues affecting Eastern Europe migrants including young women being forced into sex work, and workers being exploited by gang-masters.
Petr is actively involved with the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association (GRTPA) that offers a network of support for Traveller and Romany police officers who often feel they are required hide their ancestry for fear of prejudice.
In 2015 he was awarded an honorary MBE (an MBE for non-Commonwealth citizens) for “services to the Roma community.” The award was made Substantive in August 2019.
Words: @neilmach 2020
English novelist Neil Mach has gained widespread recognition for the creation of strong female characters and for compelling stories that often revolve around the themes of loyalty and duty.
His character MOONDOG is a Romani detective. He is called-in when other investigators hesitate. The detective inquires into things that lay “beyond normal human experience” where things hang in the balance between mundane and miraculous. Moondog and the Reed Leopard is OUT NOW.