Jana Horváthová: Affirmative action and inclusion will solve the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic
"I was always crouching somewhere out of sight so nobody would start talking about 'gypsies', or about the Holomeks, so that nobody would discover my roots. I was faint-hearted, mixed up. Once I accepted my Romani identity, if was as if I could suddenly stand up straight. All of a sudden you can breathe freely, without constantly anticipating that somebody is about to cause you harm. You begin to live in a better way - although I do not always openly tell people that I am a Romani woman," Jana Horváthová, the director of the Museum of Romani Culture who is an ethnographer, historian, and museologist, says in an extensive interview for Vlasta magazine (issue number 44/2018).
The interview there is titled "I am a radioactive Romani woman". In it, Horváthová touches on the history of her family, reveals how she perceived her Romani origins in her youth, and focuses on the current situation of Romani people in the Czech Republic.
The history of the Holomek family and its Romani origins
"I perceived my Romani origin to be something like a personal curse. Children sometimes shouted at me because of my origin, I was ashamed of it. Not only did I not know how to accept it, I never managed to discuss it, not even at home. I studied as much as I could so nobody would be able to say that I was an ineducable moron. I did not manage to come to terms with my origin until I was at college," Horváthová says in the opening of the interview.
Her grandfather had been the first Romani man ever to graduate from university in the Czech lands. "Granddad was born in 1911, he was a lucky child. His father, by the end of the First World War, had managed to save up enough money to buy a little house right in Svatobořice. Life in the Romani settlement had been deplorable, the children had not been able to attend school, everybody was illiterate. In 1917 Granddad's nuclear family was able to move away from there, so his children were able to attend school like everybody else from the village," she describes.
The life of her family was tragically impacted by the Second World War, as were the lives of other Romani people in what was then Czechoslovakia. "About two years before the mass forced transports of Romani people to the concentration camps, according to Himmler's order of December 1942, the people from Hraničky settlement moved into different villages - the encampment there ceased to exist and those who had been in it were later sent to the concentration camps. Granddad was warned of this ahead of time, he saved himself by fleeing to Slovakia. The others had to be sent to the concentration camps, his father and his three brothers. The Mayor of Nesovice, where his sister Rosína's family lived, spoke up for her, so they did not have to leave. That is, in our country, the only known case of a mayor standing up for 'his' Roma. Otherwise as many as 30 people from the Holomek family died after being imprisoned for racial reasons," she says.
Occupation, dissent, and freedom after 1989
Horváthová's mother, who is not Romani, married Horváthová's father, Karel Holomek, in 1959. "Granddad was, like many people after the war, a convinced communist, and Dad was a promising scientist - a mechanical engineer, who thought along similar lines, but when the Warsaw Pact troops invaded, he openly expressed his disagreement. During the entire 1980s he reproduced and distributed banned literature," Horváthová describes.
She perceived the year 1989 to be an opportunity for Romani people as well as everybody else. "I joined the Brno City Museum and got involved in establishing the Romani Civic Initiative (ROI). In those days Romani people were still received by others with sympathy, they had joined the [Velvet] Revolution and there was euphoria. The 1990s, however, were already marked by [anti-Romani] racism. I wanted to do anything I could that might change the atmosphere in society, and my children no longer had to have any problem with the fact that they are Romani, they identify as Roma naturally," she says.
Establishment of the Museum of Romani Culture
Horváthová then established the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno together with her father. "In Brno we had the first Romani historian, Bartoloměj Daniel, and my father was in the national legislature. They were both involved. At home I said 'Dad, what if we did the museum the Roma are always talking about here and now?' Dad's like I am, he's radioactive. We both still know how to become as electrified as children about something. He immediately took it up, he was on fire, he raised some money and in the spring of 1991 we registered the museum as an association," she describes the beginnings of the Museum of Romani Culture, which today is a state-supported organization of the Czech Culture Ministry.
In addition to its collecting activity, the Museum today tutors children from socially excluded localities. "We have so many people interested that we cannot serve all of the children. Parents, even if they are themselves half-illiterate, comprehend what kind of aid we are offering. They are frequently unemployed and live in excluded localities. Their children attend segregated schools. Even if they earn top grades at those schools, they can only be accepted to secondary school with great difficulty, the segregated school does not prepare you well for that," she says.
Horváthová says the parents of these children are usually struggling to remain in their housing and risk their children being taken into state institutions because they cannot afford their rent and might be evicted. In her opinion, politicians must address this irrespective of their party affiliations.
The solution is affirmative action and inclusion
When asked how politicians should do that, she says: "Affirmative action, part of which will also be thorough inclusion. In Brno we have four schools that are 100 % Romani. The [local] education department says nothing can be done about it. Those children are lost: They know nothing of how the majority society functions, they know nobody but their own neighbors and schoolmates from next door. Each socially handicapped pupil should have an assistant in first grade. What you don't comprehend by then, you will never be able to correct once and for all, you'll just be putting out fires. Teachers in the schools do not have the capacity to catch all of the problems of all of the children."
Horváthová perceives Romani people's biggest problem to be their dependency on the system in the Czech Republic. "When I'm tired, that makes me angry too. However, I know these people will never solve this on their own, that they need a helping hand. They have lived for centuries in isolation, the Romani people from excluded environments have distorted ideas, very often, about how the world works beyond the imaginary walls of the ghetto. They should have daily contact with the majority society. I see this in our extended family also. My children grew up in a beautiful neighborhood, they had a library full of books at home. Our relatives' children, whom they played with when they were little, grew up in an excluded locality and today they are in and out of prison, they are drug addicts," she says.
In her view, the future of Romani people depends on the adoption of systemic solutions and on a change in the societal atmosphere. "The number of [Romani] individuals who make it somewhere will keep increasing. However, if systemic solutions are never established, along with a gradual transformation in the societal atmosphere toward Romani people, then nothing much will change here. From time to time some educated colleague will say to me: 'Doctor Horváthová, you're good, but those fellow tribe members of yours are spoiling it for you!' As long as the question of Romani people is perceived in such a way even by educated people, then we won't make any progress even during the next century. What can you even say to something like that?!" Horváthová's interview ends.
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