In memory of Livia B. Plaks – Roma advocate and a voice for the voiceless
Livia Plaks, a woman whose contribution to the Roma cause cannot be overestimated, died suddenly of a heart attack on February 2 at her home in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. She was 65 years old. In her, we have all lost a passionate advocate for equality, minority rights, and Roma. Her intelligence, charisma and tireless work ethic helped to change perspectives on Roma issues across Europe. As co-founder of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), she was dedicated to preventing ethnic conflict in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet through dialogue and high-level mediation. In one of her last editorials she reflected: “Crises sometimes help to focus attention on possibilities for improvement by making clear how much there is to lose.”
Livia Plaks was born in Baia Mare, Transylvania, Romania, to Jewish parents. Her mother was a survivor of the Holocaust who went through a number of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, as did her cousin Elie Wiesel (later on a Nobel Prize winner in literature). Livia Plaks grew up on a street with Roma neighbours, among Hungarians and the Romanian majority. While still a young girl she left Romania with her parents, first moving to Italy, where they were held in a transit camp for migrants, and then to the USA, where she excelled academically and went on to study at Rutgers University.
Her multicultural upbringing, her family’s suffering in the Holocaust, growing up under the oppressive Romanian communist regime, and her migration as a teenager - these were her formative experiences. She was acutely aware of and sensitive to ethnic issues, especially to Roma, with whom she sensed an affinity because of a shared historic past and commonality of experience in the extermination of Jews and Roma under Nazism.
It is, however, her work following the fall of communism that made her so important to a whole generation of Roma activists and leaders.
PER was founded by Allen Kassof and Livia Plaks in 1991 in anticipation of the serious interethnic conflicts that were to erupt following the collapse of Communism. PER aimed to initiate and institutionalize dialogues between majority and minority leaders on sensitive issues of ethnic relations based on three principles: sustained and frequent dialogue is the best means of bringing about the long-term reconciliation of differences; dialogue must be removed from the sphere of partisan political competition to a protected space; continued dialogue not only provides opportunities for the discussion of divisive issues but also helps to transform such discussions from exceptional to normal events. With this approach PER was successful in improving the prospects for ethnic accord in several countries of Central and Southern Europe, especially Romania and Slovakia (relations with their Hungarian minorities), Bulgaria (the Turkish minority), Macedonia and Montenegro (relations with their Albanian minorities). It was especially active in the conflicts between Serbs and Albanians. And throughout the entire region, PER was the pioneer in raising the issue of the Roma minorities.
It was Livia Plaks who was in charge of the Roma portfolio at PER, first as PER’s Executive Director, and from 2005 as President. Trailblazing work with the Roma began in May 1992 when PER organized a landmark meeting in Stupava, near Bratislava, Czechoslovakia-- the first encounter between Central and East European officials and leaders of the Romani communities. This was followed in April 1993 by a gathering in Snagov, Romania that was organized in cooperation with the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
After the anti-Roma mob violence in Hadareni, Romania in 1993, it was she who pushed for an international field visit to Hadareni and other localities where violence against Roma took place, with a team of leading experts on ethnic issues including Donald L. Horowitz of Duke University and Valery A. Tishkov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. She took the initiative in focussing official American attention on Roma issues when, in 1994, she brought a group of four Roma leaders to testify on anti-Roma violence before the U.S.
House of Representatives Human Rights Subcommittee. PER was among main supporters in the creation of the Roma Contact Point at the OSCE at the Warsaw Seminar on Roma in 1994, and later funded the first Roma interns at the Contact Point. It was her idea to establish the PER Romani Advisory Council (PERRAC) - a team of prominent Romani leaders, activists and experts from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the United States that advised PER on its projects and helped to develop Romani policies for the international community and for national governments. PERRAC functioned as informal think tank, generating new ideas and concepts to address Romani issues. It was Livia Plaks who persistently encouraged systematic analysis and action by Roma scholars and activists, and who supported the preparation and publication of the 1997 study “Roma in the Twenty- First Century: A Policy Paper,” which became the key reference paper for many activists and policy makers.
PER held ground-breaking meetings in several countries of the region that led to the adoption of new policies. It brought government officials and Roma involved in policy-making to Brussels, where members of the European Commission discussed the importance of effective state policies toward the Roma with EU candidate countries during the pre-accession period.
PER and Livia Plaks helped to lay the foundation for the evolving Roma movement and the formation of its political leadership that represented us in dealing with national governments and the international community. Over the years, PER issued 33 reports and policy papers devoted to Roma; each report analyses and reflects on the most critical on-going issues and offers action recommendations. Most were edited under her supervision.
They form a body of knowledge and insight that students of Roma issues will refer to for many years to come.
Livia and PER were always for Roma, ready to support and provide space and voice to us and to our leaders. Livia knew most of us personally, whether old and traditional, or young and modern, whether in Romania, Bulgaria or Hungary or the Western Balkans.
Through her work with PER and her engagement and commitment to Roma, she earned our trust and respect. Her sudden passing is a sad day for us.
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