Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I shared a compartment for the first fifty miles or so of my train to Prague with one other person, a pleasant young Serbian woman. A high school German teacher in a northern town that begins with a V, she was on her way to a two-week workshop in Berlin. Though she was a little anxious about leaving her husband and four year old son for two weeks, she was also clearly excited by the prospect of leaving her husband and four year old son for two weeks, and of spending two weeks in Berlin, a city she likes but hasn't visited in eleven years. 

Her English is far better than she knows, and we were -- from my perspective -- able to communicate remarkably well. Still, she became visibly frustrated when she looked for but couldn't find the English word to express herself, her thought. I am 56; I understand her frustration well.

I asked her if she liked living in Serbia (which, until the end of the First World War, when the Austro-Hungarian empire came out the loser, had been part of Hungary), and she said, yes, but quickly clarified, "northern Serbia, the northern part of the country."

"Why the northern part?" I asked.

"The southern part, it is dirty," she said meekly.

"Dirty? What do you mean?"

"It is, ... " she struggled, "Mmm. How do I say this without sounding bad?"

"What? Is it poor?"

"Yes! That is it! It is poor."

I didn't need to wait for her to answer my next question. I had been in Hungary long enough to know. "Are they Roma living there?"

She frowned and nodded. "They are. They are...dirty." She wasn't comfortable saying this.

We talked some more about the Roma, about how they were beginning to move into the north, into her town that begins with a V. She said that during the war in the 90s, Serbians had fled their homes and never returned, and that the government has been opening those vacant homes to homeless Roma from all over Europe. On the surface the Serbian government settlement plan seems almost humanitarian, but the young schoolteacher offered a more cynical explanation. 

She said that because ethnic Hungarians now make up about 70% of Serbia's population, the government has been luring Roma from all over Europe with free housing and government support. The government's strategy is to grow a population of grateful (and dependent) Roma who will eventually supercede the ethnic Hungarian majority and neuter its power. (The Hungarian government, some allege, has embarked on a similar strategy with its Roma. Obviously, while not looking to displace Hungarians in Hungary, the government seeks to build a loyal patronage in the Roma by providing government child support. Supposedly, this has spawned a population boom among the Roma. I have also heard it claimed that the government gives additional support for disabled children -- and that Roma women intentionally try to damage the fetus so that it will be born disabled.)

Since I arrived in Europe in late January, I have heard no one in Hungary, Germany, Poland, or Romania speak favorably of the Roma. Most don't speak of the Roma at all, as the word seemse to evoke continental squeemishness. It seems to be a subject very much on people's minds, but hardly ever on their tongues. 

When I have had a discussion about the Roma, "the Roma problem" as it is most often called, that is, when someone has broken the taboo against speaking aloud, the Roma have been described as dirty, lazy, ignorant, uneducable, unwilling to assimilate, irresponsible, welfare abusers, violent, thievish, etc. 

I don't know what of this is true. I suspect some of it is true, but, having met no Roma (that I am aware of) I have not even the slightest experience with which to confirm or disconfirm what I have heard. I am a pupil of hearsay.

I have to say that the stories I've heard about the Roma are pretty disturbing. And my encounters with Roma children begging in Berlin, or Roma mothers clutching toddlers in woeful still-lifes on Budapest's sidewalks angling for pity and pittance, made me angry. Even Gypsy Rose, that sweet Roma child I wrote about a few posts ago, she too, was, for lack of a better word, being pimped by somebody, somebody ruinous of that little girl and her future.

The question I am left asking: Is it possible that a whole people, a whole culture, can be as depraved as I have been told the Roma are?


I come from a long line of subhumans: Jews. I have known this vaguely throughout my life but learned it clearly over the past five months as I've visited various Jewish museums around Europe (and Israel).

It seems that Jewish subhumanity was first recognized in Europe sometime in the late middle ages, when it was discovered that we Jews had, on special  occasions, drawn the blood of Christian infants to mix with flour and bake into matzoh. Not a lot, mind you. Just enough to give the matzoh some zest and a tinge of color (matzoh on its own is very bland, both in flavor and visual appeal).

As Jews only eat matzoh once a year for eight days during Passover, I think the Christian alarm was a bit hysterical. It's not like Jews ate matzoh all the time back then. Nor do we today, and so while I cannot say definitively that that ritual baking has ceased among Jews, I can say that I have never seen it first hand. My mother's matzoh was store-bought, and unless Manischewitz of Streits engage in factory bloodletting, I think the recipe has faded from the Jewish cookbook.

Speaking of cooking, while we Jews may be prohibited by kosher dietary laws from cooking or eating pork, apparently kosher does not rule out sucking on sow teets or tickling and licking pig anus, as medieval woodcuts of Jews prove.

Again, I don't know to what extent European Jews have carried  the tasting of such delicacies forward into contemporary times, but in all my years as an American Jew I never once saw an American sow's teet sucked or her anus licked; perhaps I am simply a Jew in denial, or maybe it's because I grew up in the suburbs and we didn't keep sows (there). 

Certainly, there are other traits and indicators of our subhumanity that we Jews have learned to so well conceal (our tails, for instance) or simply exorcize, though at the moment I cannot recall what they all are. I do know that Hitler, in his Mein Kampf and elsewhere, is pretty clear about what Jews are and where Jews stand zoologically. That book still has a significant number of adherents, and is, I'm sure, quite instructive to its faithful.


I spent this past semester in Hungary teaching a course, the American Civil Rights Movement, which was really a truncated history of the civil rights movement. I mostly focused on the civil rights struggles of southern blacks during the 50s up to the mid-60s. 

That subset of the civil rights movement was the campaign (or more accurately, various campaigns) to strike down Jim Crow, the segregation system of laws and mores born of a racial ideology convinced that blacks were subhuman, that they were not fit to mingle with white society. By nature blacks were not fully human and could never become fully human. As such, they could only be human contaminants, and without strict segregation, racial mingling, Jim Crow taught, would lead to rape of white woman by black men, and seduction of white men by black women, yielding a race of mongrels. Therefore, the races had to be kept separate. And not simply separate -- the blacks had to be kept low as was fitting their status in the animal kingdom.

Students in both sections of the course were appalled by the southern racism, and its castigation of an entire race. When I asked if there might be some parallels betweend Jim Crow perceptions of southern blacks and Hungarian perceptions of Roma, I was quickly told no, they were not at all similar. I was told that, because I am from the States and didn't live there, I simply couldn't understand. 

I wonder if a racist from the States might say the same to my students about their so-distant condemnation of Jim Crow.


As part of the Jewish Museum in Prague I visited The Old Cemetary. Many of the tombstones date back to the 1500s and 1600s, just about the time Europe was learning the true nature of the Jew.

Now, countless pogroms and one Holocaust later, the Jewish tombstones still stand, or at least many of them. Over the centuries the ground has rippled and heaved beneath them, so that some lean to the right and some leand to the left; some pitch way forward, some tilt way back. There isn't a perfectly upright tombstone among them.

Each tombstones probably serves as a pretty good moral compass or epitaph for the life of the person buried beneath it. Some really tilted toward the good, some really tilted toward the bad, and most listed waveringly in between.

Old black cemeteries tell the same story.

And old Irish and Japanese cemeteries, too.

Do the Roma even bury their dead?

Post Script: While wandering in Venice a few days ago I stumbled upon an exhibition devoted to the Roma and Roma art. Below is the website dedicated to that exhibition. Despite the its clumsy appearance, the website offers links to video remarks made by artists, writers, and others (most notably to me, author Salman Rushdie and philanthropist George Soros) on the plight of the Roma people. Call The Witness


1 comment:

  1. I found my way back to your blog & feel guilty for being so self-absorbed I did not follow the journey of my friend "Jerry the Jew."


    The last two posts in this blog are excellent proving very subtly as you often do that sometimes among humans there is no left & right only right & wrong.