The Devouring

Gypsies are believed to have arrived in Europe from northern India in the 1400’s. Analysis of the Romani language has shown that it is closely related to those spoken in the central and northern Indian subcontinent. This linguistic relationship is believed to indicate the geographical origins of the Romani people (Roma, Sinti, etc.). Loanwords in Romani make it possible to trace the pattern of their migration westwards. They came originally from the Indian subcontinent or what is now northern India and parts of Pakistan. The Romani language is usually included in the Central Indo-Aryan languages (together with Western Hindi, etc.). (wikipedia) Bohemian Romani or Bohemian Romany is a dialect of Romani (a European Indo-Aryan language) formerly spoken by the Romaniesof Bohemia, the western part of today’s Czech Republic. It became extinct after World War II, due to extermination of most of its speakers in Nazi concentration camps.

In 1926 a Bavarian law called for the registration of all Gypsies in order to prohibit them from roaming about or camping in bands. The law also noted that they could be sent to labor camps for up to two years if they could not “prove regular employment.” As Hitler rose to power, the Gypsies, like the Jews, were officially identified as non-Aryan by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.

Brand used by the Nazis to identify gypsies

At the beginning of 1940 a large number of Jews and Gypsies (Sinti and Roma) were deported to Belzec from Polish towns, from Slovakia and from the Reich, notably from towns in Schleswig Holstein. “95 percent of the Czech-born Romani population” perished in the war.

The Holocaust was the systematic Nazi annihilation of six million Jews during World War 2. The forgotten Holocaust was the extermination of more than 220,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) – a quarter to a half of the European population – during the Nazi genocide. It is difficult to assess the actual number of victims of this long-neglected chapter of the Holocaust but some estimates are as high 700,000. One of the terms for the Holocaust is Porrajmos, literally “the Devouring”.

Gypsy couple at a concentration camp

I wanted to introduce to you a classic book, one of the few, on Roma people  called Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.

Bury Me Standing is a fascinating book. It documents the universal plight of the landless, illiterate, and non-technological in a world that defines civilization as real estate and possessions and documents that define them. Like the Indians, the Gypsies must compromise their most inhering values in order to survive. People who cannot read are helpless before governments. People without governments are unable to muster the strength of numbers. People without a country have no recourse when they are evicted from their home. 

Like the Indians (Native Americans – my note), the Gypsies eat differently, worship differently, think of work differently, do not bind up the world in books and contracts. The Indians of Europe. They too live behind a layer of almost opaque misconception; and like the Indians, their desire for privacy gives them no way to undo those misconceptions.

Cleaning. It is pages later, without any obvious prompting from Fonseca, that we listen, fortified with that irony, to the gadje (non-Gypsy) complaints about how dirty and lazy they are. The Romanian officials who complain that when they house the Gypsies in Romanian ‘projects’ they don’t keep clean (Fonseca points out that the ‘projects’ lack running water). The neighbors who complain that they don’t take care of the houses they were forcibly relocated to. The German doctors disgusted by the idea that the Gypsies actually seemed not to ‘mind’ the degrading lifestyle of the concentration camps two generations earlier: the irony of the Gypsies forced into degrading circumstances, and then despised for making the best of it. 
 Dirty Gypsies. Dirty Indians. The Indians of the Great Plains bathed every day, unlike the stinking, foul-mouthed, lice and diseased infested soldiers who slaughtered them. Dirt is a metaphor for a more complete alienation. As the ‘Indians’ of Europe (Fonseca herself makes the comparison, less categorically), the Gypsies too do not value the things with which we define civilization: permanent homes, farming, 8-to-5 jobs, literacy, religious institutions. 
 Values, not dirt, create alienation. The Indians smelled different from us: fed on bison instead of sheep, done up in bear grease and aged leather instead of whale vomit, turtle oil, and vaseline; they were ‘dirty.’ Even the Indians who farmed, we preferred to see as worthless, indigent nomads. William Bartram, travelling the wilds of the Ohio valley before the American Revolution, admires the rolling fields of corn and imagines (with absolutely no conscious irony) what great farm land this will be once the savage, nomadic hunters are displaced. No accident that a famous Indian leader of the Colonial period was named ‘Cornplanter,’ Bill. Indian farming; only the Pueblos did it right, building permanent houses of rock and brick. Frightfully dirty folk, of course….

Gypsy girls

 Wisely structured, thoroughly researched, fleshing history with yesterday’s news, Bury Me Standing is much more than a book about the quaint and fascinating Gypsies. It is brilliant, moving, and literate, persuasive without preaching, subtle in its rhetoric, a mirror of its subject.

To see the full review on this book go to:


“Bury me standing. I’ve been on my knees my whole life.” – Gypsy saying

“Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world.” – Archimedes

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