Research on Gypsies by Paul Polansky

Nobody knows for sure the origins of the European Gypsies. Some linguists insist that Romani (the language of the European Gypsies except for those in Spain) bears a strong resemblance to Punjabi. But when studied in depth, Romani has too many Persian words and a grammar that is closer to the Dom of eastern Bengal than the Punjabi language of Northwest India. But after living with the Czech and Slovak Romany (Gypsies) for over five years, and visiting the “Gypsies” of India, I am convinced it won’t be long before DNA tests actually prove the historical origins of Europe’s largest minority. In the meantime, I continue to collect their stories which shed a lot of light on their past.

I started to live with the Romany in 1993 to collect their first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. In a Czech archive l had discovered over 40,000 documents on a Gypsy death camp run during WW II by the Czechs, not the Germans. When the present-day Czech government denied Czechs were involved, I set out to find survivors. Although President Havel’s office assured me there were no longer any Gypsy survivors of this death camp, I found over a hundred. I recorded not only their stories of the Holocaust, but also the oldest stories that had been passed down by their ancestors. [See the official Lety website for background material about the Lety Camp.]

As with most oral histories, there were immediate discrepancies. The oldest Gypsy story I heard was: “In the beginning the Jews were Gypsies, and the Gypsies were Jews until God made us change places.” A possible Jewish origin for Gypsies has always intrigued me because many of the Holocaust survivors who were born in the wagon told me how their parents always prayed to Abraham before making a journey. When I asked why, they always said that legend had it that on his journey from Ur, Abraham was accompanied by Gypsies who protected him. That was why they now prayed to him for protection.

Despite these intriguing “Jewish” connections, most expects agree that the first Gypsies in Europe arrived in the 14th century, coming from Northwest India. After publishing two books on the Romany Holocaust, I set off for India.

Not one to ignore local knowledge, the first thing I did in India was to ask as many people as possible if they knew or had heard where the Gypsies of India came from. Almost without exception, I was told, “our Gypsies came from Israel.”

My first experiences with the Gypsies certainly made me feel I had found the distant cousins of the Romany I knew in Eastern Europe and Spain. Not only their physical features, but their mannerisms, music, and dancing convinced me that I could take these people back to Hungary or Andalucia and no one would dispute that they were “Gypsies.” I traveled over 3,000 kilometers in Northwest India to find the “Indian Gypsies” mainly living in blanket tents on the outskirts of the larger cities. Although I was warned never to enter these tent cities, I found the same happy, gregarious, generous people that I knew as Gypsies in Europe. They not only entertained me with their music, but also their stories.

It didn’t take long to find common stories and professions between the Indian and European Romany. Although the nomadic Gypsies of India were supposedly settled in the 1950s, as were most Romany in Europe, stories of life in the wagon still abound. As do the stereotypes. Most Indians still believe that the Banjara Gypsies kidnap children. But as with my experience with the Romany in Europe, Gypsies do not kidnap children but readily accept runaways and homeless as their own, no matter what their origins or skin color.

How many times had I heard about itinerant Gypsy blacksmiths in Europe? In India I found the Lohar, still making their wares at curbside, a small hole scooped out for water, another for their coals kept red hot by the blacksmith’s wife turning a bicycle rim to run the blower while their children sought out buyers for their homemade chisels and pliers.

These are the Indian tribes I found that most closely resemble the Gypsies I know in Europe:

LOHAR – Itinerant blacksmiths who used to be great warriors making their own weapons. Legend has it they originated in Chittorgarh but were defeated in the siege of that city in 1308. They then became nomadic. They are most famous for their beautiful wagons, the only Gypsy tribe today in India who still have their wagons. Many of the other tribes/castes listed below followed the Lohars on foot or with just a donkey or mule. In 1322 the first Gypsies were documented in Eastern Europe.

DOM – one of the few original Dravidian tribes of India, these people became nomadic after the invasion of the Aryans around 1,500 B.C. Although the Dom once had forts and were famous for their cavalry, they were designated as the lowest caste under the Aryans and became wandering dancers and musicians. Most of the following tribes are sub-caste of the Dom.

BAWARI – known as a nomadic, predatory tribe, the Bawari still to this day make signs on houses, gates, or alongside the road that can only be read by their own tribe informing them of conditions in the area. Many of these same signs were used by the European Gypsies up to the 1950s.

BADU – a small tribe in Kashmir who tamed and led bears. In the last century their dress was the most similar to the European Gypsies.

MEOS – famed cattle rustlers whose activities and customs closely resembled the Indian Gypsies who settled in England.

BERIA – a sub-caste of the Dom, this is the tribe whose women read palms and tell fortunes.

GOPAL – nomadic tent dwellers who earn their living as wrestlers in local fairs. Many European Romany were famous as wrestlers and their descendants today can always be found in Olympic wrestling teams.

BANSBERIA – famous in India as pole vaulters over animals in village fairs. The first bullfighters on foot in Spain were reputed to be Gypsies who also pole vaulted over charging bulls in the bullring.

KANJAR – one of the more despicable tribes of India because they prostitute their women. Their name has become synonymous for “pimp”.

SANSI – closely related to the Kanjar, the Sansi were one of the most famous criminal tribes of India during the colonization by the British.

GANDHILA – one of the lowest castes of India, they are well known as itinerant sharpeners of scissors and knives, a profession followed by many European Gypsies.

BILOCH – camp followers of the Lohar who transported their supplies. They are reputed to have a Persian origin.

KIKAN – famous horse breeders whose origins can be traced back to Iran, this tribe arrived with the invading Islamic armies in the 11th century. Known for their predatory ways, they were expelled from the Lahore area in the 12th century and then joined other nomadic, criminal tribes before leaving India almost en mass with Lohars in the 14th century. The Kikans brought to India the story of Abraham. According to them, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was a Kikan. In many European countries, Gypsies are called Tsikans.

Although it is not politically correct today to talk about the criminal tendencies of “Gypsies” or to stereotype Gypsies as petty thieves, most Gypsies that I lived with take great pride in stealing. One of their oldest oral histories speaks of the ancient times when all horses roamed free until the gadzo (non-Romany) took all of them himself. The Romany then started to steal back what was once free for all men. Many Romany think stealing is proof of great intelligence. Others have the philosophy that all men steal. In my experience of living with Gypsies, I found that only those Gypsies without jobs, or those who were refused jobs because of the color of their skin, made a life out of crime. Those who were allowed to go to normal schools or have a proper job quickly gave up their “religion” of stealing.

Trying to stereotype Gypsies today is the same as stereotyping all Americans as cowboys or all Spaniards as bullfighters. The days of Romany living and travelling in wagons are over. Most live in apartment ghettos. In Eastern Europe conditions for them are the worst. A Romany Holocaust survivor summed up for me what is happening today in the Czech Republic to his people:

“To be honest, any Romany who stays in this country today is an idiot. I am white, I can pass for a Czech, but those who are dark are stupid to stay here. Too many Czechs are trying to kill us, and the police are helping them. Five years ago I lived in Austria. If I knew what was going to happen after the Velvet Revolution, I never would have come back here.

“The Czechs have always hated us, before the war, during the Hitler times, during the communist times, even today in this democracy we are hated.

“There is only one place in this country where Romany are safe. If you go to Old Town here in Prague and go to Perlova Street, you will see the Romany prostitutes with the police all around because the police are paid by the hookers to protect them. The police have a business with them. But these are the only Romany safe in this country. This is the only place in the Czech Republic where Romany are protected from the skinheads.

“In my opinion it is something terrible, something you can’t imagine what is happening in this country. I am white so I don’t have problems, but my nephew has a dark girlfriend and they are afraid to go out at night. My nephew rented a flat here but when he moved in with his girlfriend the landlord kicked them out because she is dark. He threatened them with the skinheads so they left. But it is not only the skinheads but the normal Czechs that turn you away from restaurants, that prevent you from getti ng jobs. It is worse than World War II. Now with freedom, people are getting kicked out of apartments. I know a woman with six children now living in the park. You can’t imagine what is happening in this country.

“But to be honest, there are no real Romany left today. My mother was not allowed to wash the women’s clothes with the men’s; where you made your food, you were not allowed to dry your clothes. These were some of the old traditions. But today the young Romany have forgotten our traditions, our culture, our language, in their struggle to survive.”