Sixty years ago the "law on the permanent settlement of itinerant persons" was adopted in Czechoslovakia
Sixty years ago on 11 November 1958 a law took effect about the "permanent settlement of itinerant persons" that was the first measure of the state-directed assimilation of Romani people in communist Czechoslovakia. While the law did not expressly mention Romani people, it was aimed primarily at them and had a fundamental impact on their lives, not just of the Roma who were still living a travelling way of life, but also many Roma who were in fact sedentary.
Eyewitnesses to those events have recalled them in the oral histories filmed as part of the Paměť Romů (Memory of the Roma) project. Most of the itinerant persons were forced to settle at whatever location they happened to be at the moment the authorities "inventoried" them at the beginning of February 1959.
Their horses and wagons were confiscated and their state-issued identification cards were stamped. "Then came '58 and that inventory. The cops came and surrounded us all. They took our horses and wagons. 'You're not allowed to itinerate! You must stay in one place!' they said, and they did an inventory of us... After that we didn't want to go anywhere, we were afraid. They would have arrested us, after all. Our fathers were afraid of prison because they were already quite old at the time," recalls Romani community member Štefan Stojka in his interview.
The law defined the "itinerant lifestyle" very vaguely, making it possible for the authorities to interpret it as they pleased. On the one hand it affected some settled Roma who, at the moment of the inventory, had just been commuting to work or traveling to visit family, and on the other hand the authorities, at the personal discretion of this or that bureaucrat, allowed freedom of movement for some itinerant persons to whom the law probably was meant to have applied.
"For example, at the time when that inventory had already happened and it was forbidden to go by horse and wagon, we rode with the late Homolka Pepík. He had a puppet theater company, so we travelled with him and we were free to do so. We were children. My uncle, my aunt, we all went with them and we were able to do what we wanted back then. However, the others who already had a stamp in their id card were no longer allowed to travel. We never had that stamp. Just my Mom had a stamp on her id card saying she was not allowed to go where she wanted. She always had to report to the police where she was going, stuff like that," eyewitness Jan Hauer says in his interview.
Many Romani people refused to reconcile themselves to being settled and got around the law in different ways. "Well, my Dad, because he was a clever guy and wanted to continue travelling, he arranged for himself and his little horse to be employed by a firm that had buildings scattered all over the republic and he simply got some kind of paper allowing him to travel from one building to the next, but he had to buy it," eyewitness Čeněk Růžička says.
The law also instructed National Committees to arrange any aid needed for the newly-settled residents, primarily by providing them proper accommodation and employment. However, that also did not happen in the way the lawmakers had envisaged, and long after the ban on living itinerantly, many of the newly settled people were still living in isolated colonies and temporary dwellings, such as caravans placed on blocks.
"They had wagons there and also these wooden houses ... That's where they moved them, it was like a colony where they relocated everybody at that time. Just like here in Prague, in the Michle and Kačerov neighborhoods, there were colonies like that. Even into the '60s all the Czech Roma who existed were parked there, and the circus people with their caravans. Then they got rid of it there," Hauer says.
Similarly, problems arose with arranging for "proper" employment, as most of the people being forced to settle were illiterate. "They didn't give us jobs either. 'If you don't have a certificate, who will employ you?' they said. Who would have hired us without training? We couldn't go anywhere else, the inventory put us just there. If I had wanted to go to Prague to work it would not have been possible, the inventory didn't allow you to go anywhere. Each and every one of us had it written in our id. They'd look at your id: 'You're in the inventory, how is it that you're going this way?' 'I'm going to work!' 'Well hurry back home or we'll lock you up!' " Stojka describes the situation at the time, adding that his family ended up absolutely penniless because of the travel ban: "They confiscated everything from us, they didn't leave us anything, those Communists. My Mom had rings like this, little chains, bracelets. To this day they have never remunerated us for that, not one crown, nothing. Nor for a single horse, not for the wagons. That's how we became absolute beggars."
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