Janko Horváth: Romani people are easy targets
Romani columnist and poet Jan Horváth (born in 1959) blogs on news server iDNES.cz about "everything that ails this world, the beauty and uniqueness of Romani culture, and the lives of ordinary Romani people." Some people also know him as a die-hard activist and local politician. Today Horváth lives at the Janov housing estate in northern Bohemia. He teaches Romanes and works for Caritas in Most. When asked to evaluate his years of effort to build a better situation for the Romani minority, he says "I am just one stone in the mozaic".
Q: You are from the "Servika Roma" (Serbian Roma) group, like most Romani people in the Czech Republic today. What is the history of your family?
A: My father, like most Romani people who came here to settle the border areas, came to the Ostrava area from Slovakia after the war to work. He worked in construction, forestry, surfacing tunnels, he did various kinds of manual labor. In the 1950s he met my mother and they had a family. I was born here, in Bílovec near Ostrava, but our relatives were from the Slovak settlements. My mother was of Hungarian Romani ancestry, but we all spoke Dad's dialect at home - Slovakian Romanes.
Q: What was life with your non-Romani neighbors like when you are a child?
A: Not as bad as it is today. Back then people were closer to one another. I don't have any memories of anyone cursing at us, for example. Our neighbors were wonderful, we helped one another out, the whites came over for coffee back then. At school I had it a bit harder, because from the second grade I was the only Romani child in the class, and my schoolmates sometimes let me know I was different - children are like that. However, the teachers were always my anchors, so I graduated all nine years of school. Most of my Romani friends attended the "special" school, which was across the street, and I sometimes even envied them, because they had a looser schedule and they were all together. I could at least go visit them during recess.
Q: Your parents supported you in your education?
A: There were six children and we all graduated from mainstream elementary school. Neither my father nor my mother could read or write, they didn't learn to until they joined the Union of Gypsies-Roma [the first Romani organization in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, active from 1969 to 1973 - Editor's Note], but they insisted that we study. Father always said "special school" was not for his children. I had loved literature ever since I was a child, so I chose to study at the High School for Library Studies..
Q: The widespread myth is that Romani people don't read much.
A: I went to the library as a child and at home I curled up in a corner and read Erben, Němcová, various travelogues... Today we have Facebook, the internet, we have a good time that way, so books aren't as important as they once were. As a small child I also experienced Romani elders telling stories - adventures from their own lives, fairy tales, that was brilliant. In Bílovec one of the storytellers was wonderful, and every time we got together with him he would talk for hours and hours. He mainly spoke at funerals. We little ones were not supposed to be there, so we would hide under the table so our parents wouldn't see us, and we just listened and listened! Today no one knows how to tell stories like that anymore, even though the tradition of holding a wake is still practiced.
Q: Janov, where you have been living for the last few years, is known to most people because of the unrest there at the end of 2008.
A: We experienced that unrest ourselves. The neo-Nazis wanted to get into our building too. I was in Most at the time, where I teach Romanes at the Business Academy, and my sons were visiting me. We couldn't get home because the police had closed off all access to Janov. When I saw, over the heads of the police officers, the winding horde of people approaching Janov from the center of Litvínov, I was incredibly anxious. You know, it's an economic crisis, people have no money, they're looking for the enemy, someone to blame no matter what. Romani people are an easy target because no one will stand up for us. According to recent research here, as many as 90 % of the people here hate us. That's a horrible number! Every day there are dozens of distasteful opinions posted online in response to my blog, full of so much hate that they cannot have been written by anyone healthy. That horde of people walking up the hill - they were all just normal people. They had their own problems, and they were taking them out on others.
Q: Your parents experienced anti-Romani crusades during the Second World War. Have they ever discussed them with you?
A: Mom was 10 or 12 years old at the time, Dad was two years older than her, and they experienced horrible things, they have personally experienced what Nazism is. At home we didn't discuss it much, we were just living our lives, working, and we didn't feel like those around us held any grudges toward us. It would never have occurred to my parents, not in their worst nightmares, that one day we would be facing that kind of hatred again. After the war everyone hoped nothing of the sort would ever repeat itself. We lived in peace until 1989.
Q: On 13 May, Romani people commemorated the 70th anniversary of the transformation of the labor camp at Lety by Písek into the so-called "gypsy camp", where hundreds of Czech Roma perished under circumstances that are still not clear. The vast majority of government actors, however, just sent flowers to the commemorative ceremony instead of attending in person. That is sad when compared to their personal participation in the 70th anniversary of the burning of Lidice this year. How do you explain it?
A: Politicians don't want to lose points with the electorate. If they were to turn up at Lety, no one would vote for them. Despite this, I believe that if they want Romani people to "adapt" to Czech society, then they should accept that we too are citizens of the Czech Republic, which they represent, and once a year they should come take a look at the commemorative ceremony at Lety. It's the stench of the pig farm they're probably trying to avoid. I've been there a couple of times and the stench is terrible. The Czechs would certainly not permit anything like that at Lidice. We are not descendants of the Czech Roma, but we are Romani, and we feel a relationship to that place. What the Czech and Moravian Roma experienced is a reminder for us - we don't want to ever experience something like that again. That's why it is important to fight that pig farm. I have also written a poem dedicated to the victims at Lety. However, the main task is for the schools to inform people that not the Jews were not the only people who suffered during Nacism. Romani people suffered too.
Q: In your experience, are teachers willing to teach that about Romani people?
A: Here at the elementary school in Janov, where most of the children are Romani, we had a project to teach them the Romanes language. The teachers at that school immediately assured us there was no point, that it would be useless, that the children don't know Romanes at all. When we started our work, despite their objections, we discovered that most of the children do in fact know and understand Romanes. Czech schools should facilitate the transmission of information about Romani culture, history and the Romanes language. We have that right under the Constitution. The children must develop an awareness and understanding that we Roma are equal to Czech people. People who do not know their past have no future.
Q: Is that why you write in Romanes?
A: Books written in Romanes don't sell very well… It's not about sales, it's about convincing Czechs, and Romani people too, that we have our own language, our own wishes, our own yearnings, and that we know what others know. When speaking Romanes, one opens up and expresses all one's feelings and thoughts. Our music, traditions, "lačho lav" ["the good word" - Editor's note], "romipen" ["Romani-ness" - Editor's note] – this is all repeated in my poems and must never be allowed to disappear. Look, books and newspapers have been published in Romanes in this country for twenty years, but the Romanes language has lived without them for a thousand years and there is no doubt it will live another thousand years. It cannot be erased. It's our language, the language we sing in, and on the internet an English Rom can use it communicate with an American Rom, a Czech Rom, an Indian Rom or a Romanian Rom. How else should we communicate with one another? Romanes is "nekhguleder pro svetos" – the sweetest language in the world.
Q: How did you start writing?
A: I started writing at the end of the 1980s, and after the revolution I worked for the "Romano kurko" newspaper. That was founded by the Romani Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa), which I was engaged in, and a member of their board at that time was Milena Hübschmannová [a Romani Studies scholar who supported the development of Romani intellectual life - Editors' note']. Milena was our motor. We collaborated on publishing a Romani journal and I published my poems with the Petrov publishing house and another edition recently through Matice romské, run by my great friend, unfortunately now deceased, the late Vlado Oláh. Now I mainly write my blog and I also have some stories about my parents - maybe I will publish another book of them.
Q: What do you think the main pitfalls are for the relationship between Romani people and their non-Romani environment?
A: In my opinion the media are mainly to blame. Recently high school students responded to a survey saying that they hate Romani people and don't want to have anything to do with them. Where do they get this from? They don't have any direct contact with anyone Romani, but every day we hear reports in the media about what the Roma have done now, and their nationality is always mentioned. What white people do gets swept under the carpet. There is hardly any reporting about our positive characteristics, about our culture. Once a year there is the Khamoro festival, so some time toward the end of the year they report on that - not during prime time of course - and that's it.
Q: How do you believe this situation can be addressed today?
A: Many Romani people, even here at Janov, are addressing this by emigrating. The world is open today, so why should they stay here, where the public shows them on a daily basis that we Roma are neither wanted nor welcome? The people I have spoken with confirm that when they are in the West they have no experience of people labeling them "black" or whatever. Many people are remaining there. The main thing is that parents must guide their children toward education. I am known for writing very critically about Romani people: The fault does not only lie with those around us. No one will help us, so we must show, on our own, what we want. Every school, for example, has a "zero year" (kindergarten) where children can be prepared to handle first grade well.
Q: Is the church sufficiently deployed in this area, in your opinion?
A: The church does more in Slovakia. As far as I know, the Romani people there even have their own places where they gather. That is a very good and necessary thing, because most of us believe in God, and the churches have a great deal of power and resources for convincing the public that Romani people are their equals. Here in the Czech Republic that's not done much. There are a few exceptions, such as Father František Lízna, who even registered himself as being of Romani nationality. Where I live, in the north, the church is "playing possum", which is a shame. The Janov housing estate has no church. My family and I would attend church, but the one in Litvínov is five kilometers away, and you've seen yourself how hard it is to get out of here. However, the priest there is a nice person, and the sexton there is Romani. The Adventist preacher Petr Svašek of Most runs a community center here and convenes various children's and family events for Romani people.
Q: "Kamas Tut the kamaha, aver drom nane" – "We do love You and will love You, there is no other way", you say to Christ in one of your poems. What is your relationship to God?
A: I firmly believe in God. God made Romani people in His image also, and no matter how much we suffer, Jesus loves us and shows us this by keeping us together and protecting us. We don't have our own country, but we are all the richer for that, because we live all over the world, without borders. The others should learn this from us, Europe is already borderless by now anyway. Our ancestors, on their journey here from Radjasthan, crossed deserts and mountains. What other nation has done that? To this day we live in our own way, even though someone is always constantly doing their best to make our lives bitter, to push us somewhere we don't want to be. We're like the birds: We want to fly.
This interview was first published in Perspektivy ("Perspectives"), an insert to Katolický týdeník No. 26/2012 ("Catholic Weekly").
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