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Mediterranean Language Review, 2:14148-150 (1985)

Rudiger Vossen
Zigeuner: Roma, Sinti, Gitanos, Gypsies, Zwischen Verfolgung und Romantisierung
Frankfurt: Ullstein Sachbuch, 1983. Pp. 352.
In German

Reviewed by Ian Hancock
The Romani Archives and Documentation Center
The University of Texas at Austin

It is not often that I am truly impressed by general discussions of Gypsies, and there have been a good number published over the past few years, but the volume under review here is a clear exception. The subtitle of the book tells us that it is the catalogue for the Romani exhibit at the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology, but it is much more than that, dealing with a great many aspects of the life and culture of a people whom half a century ago the Nazis were trying to annihilate completely. It is heartening that the same nation has now produced such an excellent study.

As curator of the museum’s Eurasian section, Dr. Vossen is well qualified to compile such a work, and solicited in addition contributions from Wolf Dietrich, Michael Faber, Aparna Rao, Michael Peters and Karla Vossen, all specialists in this and related fields.

The book is divided into seven chapters, followed by footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, but no index. The first chapter deals with the history of the migrations out of India during the first millennium AD, and the subsequent arrival in Europe in the early centuries of the present millennium, and with the first recorded accounts of the arrival of Romani populations in various countries—the so-called First Diaspora. Included in this section are references to Gypsies arriving as slaves and transportees under the auspices of different European nations in India, Angola, São Tomé, Brazil, the West Indies and Virginia, from around 1600 onwards.

The second chapter concerns the situation of Gypsies in Europe up until the 19th century, documenting attempts at extermination and assimilation, and dealing in particular with the centuries of enslavement in the Balkan principalities, and the “second great diaspora” of Romani groups out into the rest of Europe, and subsequently to the Americas, following the abolition of that slavery.

Chapter three, “Annihilation”—so expressively rendered in German as Vernichtung— covers the period from the late 19th century up until 1945, during which anti-Gypsy legislation was becoming increasingly enforced in Germany, leading ultimately to Hitler’s attempted extermination of the entire race in his death camps. This aspect of recent Romani history is receiving a certain amount of attention lately, since representatives of the International Romani Union in Europe and America are voicing their dissatisfaction at Romani representatives having been excluded from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington. As with Gypsy slavery, the part of Gypsies in the Holocaust has remained generally unknown to historians and other scholars, especially in the West, largely the result of traditional Romani society being institutionally non-literate, and consequently less able to draw attention to its own situation. The following chapter, “Persecution: a sequel,” describes the events following the Second World War, when Romanies were excluded from any consideration regarding the reparation of war crimes, and were denied representation at the Nuremburg Trials, resulting from which millions of Deutchmarks were paid as compensation to other victims of the Holocaust, though none to any Gypsy survivors.

Chapters Five and Six discuss in detail the attempts of Romanies to gain recognition for their plight, and their efforts to secure for themselves civil and political rights. The contemporary social situation of Gypsies, their housing problems and their relationships with the law, especially in Germany, are also dealt with in considerable detail. For the first time in a widely-published book, the background to the rise of the International Romani Union is clearly documented, an organization which functions as a coordinating body for national and regional Gypsy organizations in twenty-seven different countries and which, since 1979, has held non-governmental status in the United Nations Organization. While it has grown out of pain and struggle, and while there are still opponents who maintain that it is an elitist organization not genuinely representative of the Gypsy population, it has nevertheless succeeded in initiating the first evidence of lasting, positive change, and in bringing attention to the centuries of persecution and oppression that characterize Gypsy history.

Those centuries underlie the topics of the following chapter, which occupies something over half of the remainder of the book, and which deals with different aspects of the traditional culture. Of value to the non-specialist in particular is a table (pp. 142-156) listing the various categories and subcategories of Gypsies, with their name(s), dialect classification, approximate numbers and geographical locations. Discussed in turn throughout this chapter are the different dialects of the Romani language, Gypsy-like peoples in Asia (by Rao), non-Romani travellers in Germany and other European countries (by Faber)—the only two sections whose inclusion in this book I question —social organization (the Kalderash, Sinti, Manush and Spanish Kale are discussed), traditional settlement of internal legal disputes, Romani self-expression (by Karla Vossen), traditional occupations and, finally, music (by Dietrich)—which includes a section on “Gypsy jazz” by the book’s editor, a style becoming increasingly popular with the appearance of groups like Swing Gypsy Rose and artistes such as Birelli Lagrene.

Its title, Gypsies . . . between persecution and romanticism accurately reflects the book’s content. It is refreshing to encounter a book of this type not preoccupied with the romantic stereotype especially characteristic of British publications; perhaps the horrific reality of the present century has given German academicians a less literary perception of the Romani populations in their midst. It is supplemented with useful charts and maps, and contains a number of beautiful photographs which, in my copy at least, have all dropped out because of the weak binding. This is a treasure trove of information for anyone seeking a straightforward and comprehensive introduction to Romanies, or who thought that Romani politics and self-determination was a myth. Unfortunately there are still individuals, even “Gypsy experts” (i.e. experts on Gypsies) who are made uneasy by this aspect of contemporary Romani life. I should like to see a hardbound edition of this book available, and without a doubt many North American and British scholars would benefit from an English translation of this fine work.