Roma Slavery: from Recognition to Reconciliation

Reconciliation between Roma and non-Roma can only be achieved once both parties have admitted to and acknowledged a painful past.

By Delia Grigore
Illustration by Renata Mihaly
Translation by Anca Bărbulescu

Ethnologist and anthropologist Delia Grigore is the director of the Amare Rromentza Roma Centre. After 30 years of Roma activism, during which the movement tried to supplant and develop all the public services and policies the Romanian state was not providing, Delia feels that the efforts of Roma intellectuals rarely make their way into the public eye. Reconciliation between Roma and non-Roma can only be achieved, she believes, once both parties have admitted to and acknowledged a painful past whose consequences persist to this day.

This essay is part of a project called The Way of the Land, a journalistic initiative documenting the impact of 500 years of Roma slavery on relationships between Romanians and Roma today.

In the’90s, when I joined the Roma movement because I wanted to write a doctorate thesis on traditional Roma culture and hoped to support the reconstruction of ethnic identity from the perspective of a budding activist, I knew almost nothing about slavery.

I had only heard old Roma people tell stories about how they used to “work for the boyars” or, in Roma lore, things about how “Mother and Father weren’t slaves anymore”, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what slavery had meant in the history of Roma in Romania and in the country’s history, about how many centuries it had lasted, and even less so about the legal, socio-economic and, most importantly, spiritual consequences it had had.

I knew too little about Roma slavery when I shyly stepped into the Ministry of Culture’s department for National Minorities. “I’m Gypsy, I graduated from the Faculty of Letters and I want to write my doctorate thesis on traditional Kalderash customs,” I said when Vasile Ionescu – himself a Roma and as a counsellor on Roma subjects – asked me what I was doing in his office. “We don’t work with Gypsies here, only with Roma,” his answer came, drily. I thought it both harsh and unfair – after all, I intended to write about Roma people and was convinced it was a good thing to do.

Later I understood that the history of anti-Roma racism in Romanian culture begins with the fake name they were assigned: ț*gan (G*psy). This word does not exist in Romani. It comes from the Middle Greek term athinganos, or athinganoi, which meant “pagan”, “untouchable” or “impure”. The word was first documented in 1068, at a monastery in present-day Georgia, in a monk’s writings on the heresy of the athinganoi, whom he described as star-diviners and wizards, advising his fellow Eastern Orthodox believers to stay away from them.

Document from 1695 in which Constantin Brâncoveanu confirms the property of several Roma settlements gifted to Horezu Monastery. Image from the album Romania – A History in Documents, edited by The National Archives of Romania in 1992.

In Mediaeval Romanian territories, “G*psy” meant “slave”, and was by no means an ethnic label. Already we see two meanings for the word: it designates first a heresy, then a state of being outside the societal hierarchy. The slave / “G*psy” was not a part of the social structure, but rather an outlier, a mere object of barter, owned by a master who could be a prince, a boyar, or a monastery collectively. Later, the word “G*psy” was preserved – both in the collective Romanian mentality and in the common language – with a deeply offensive meaning.

After reading the woefully few history books that had dared to broach the difficult subject of Roma slavery and, most importantly, after studying archive documents, I understood that the current identity of the Roma in Romania was structured on the foundations of a history of social exclusion and institutionalized racism. From the first documented evidence of Roma presence in the Romanian territories, in 1385 (which, already, marks them as enslaved); through the Romanian Holocaust, whose perpetrators carried out their intention of exterminating dozens of thousands of Roma; through the forced assimilation or the cultural ethnocide of the Socialist period; through the killing of Roma people and burning of Roma houses in the ethnic conflicts of between 1994 and 2000; and all the way to the police abuse, persecution and violence against Roma communities from the 1990s to the present day, when such acts proliferated overwhelmingly during the pandemic.

Excluded from the human condition by the laws and “ways of the land”, in a state of dependence which was not only economic (in the case of the indentured peasants known as iobagi) but also, and most poignantly so, personal and legal (the most grievous form of servitude in the history of mankind), enslaved Roma were considered walking goods and, as such, could be exchanged, traded, gifted, inherited and subjected by their owners to forms of abuse and violence that went as far as rape, torture and murder.

Roma families were not recognized as a community structure, but rather as a method of multiplication, similar to the breeding of livestock. Slavery deeply affected Roma children as well, since it meant they were separated from their families as their owners saw fit, exchanged, gifted or sold, often for prices lower than those of animals, because they weren’t considered apt enough for work.

Document from 1374 emitted by the ruler Vladislav Vlaicu, outlining gifts for Vodița Monastery. Forty Roma families owned by Vodița will become the property of Tismana Monastery in 1385. Image from the album Romania – A History in Documents, edited by The National Archives of Romania in 1992.

Adopted following pressure from Western European abolitionist movements staggered by the perpetuation of such a retrograde, inhumane institution as slavery in the progressive 19th century and in the context of the Romanian Principalities’ efforts to curry favor with Western Europe, the Roma’s release from enslavement in 1856 was a difficult, relatively protracted process, made even slower by the strong opposition of the Eastern Orthodox Church and most boyars.

Still, the abolition of slavery by law did not lead to any fundamental change in the Roma’s status in society. The reform program of the 1848 movement and the policies of the governments that followed neglected the economic dimension (particularly landowning) and moral aspects, limiting themselves to legal emancipation and the (often forced) settlement of Roma people. There were no policies to include them as citizens of the Romanian Principalities, which led to their relapse to their previous status and drew a stigma on their ethnicity.

The consequences of slavery are still apparent in the collective mental model inherited by the dominant ethnicity, rife with prejudice and stereotypes. The study of a significant part of Romanian folklore, particularly proverbs, anecdotes and magic tales, denotes a thinking defined by irony and contempt towards the Roma. They are mostly seen as representatives of evil, wicked, thieving, murderous, non-human – in one word, villains.

This negative mental heritage, the absence of any institutions to form and represent a Roma cultural model (with the notable exception of the The National Centre for Roma Culture – Romano Kher), and the absence from school curricula and from the public space of correct information on the Roma lead to the stigmatizing of Roma identity, to the internalization of the resulting stigma and to the rejection (often by the Roma themselves) of belonging to this ethnicity.

This is the new form of slavery that has taken hold: spiritual slavery, which no law can abolish without the determined, concerted contribution of all actors in society, from public authorities to opinion-makers.

Being aware of all this, our association, Amare Rromentza, has attempted to contribute to the spreading of knowledge and the promotion of a better understanding of Roma history and culture, particularly among the young public – both Roma and non-Roma –, by the writing and staging, between 2007 and 2008, of the play titled Rromanipen, created with Roma students in the Romani section of the Foreign Languages Faculty of the University of Bucharest and in other faculties.

The first reaction of the Roma and non-Roma public was stupefaction. It also sparked rejection among the non-Roma, who were skeptical upon learning of their ancestor’s history as enslavers. We presented them with evidence of this historic truth. There were also angry reactions among Roma youth, who were wondering why their enslaved ancestors did not rebel. We told them about the legal fight for freedom of some of the Roma slaves who had been released according to the law, but were abusively kept on by their former owners.

The reaction of the scientific community, particularly among Romanian historians, was to downplay the gravity of Roma slavery by referring to it with the word robie (“bondage”) which, though a synonym of sclavie (“slavery”) was described as less serious and more similar to the status of the iobagi, or indentured peasants, though the differences were fundamental: being enslaved meant being owned as a person, while the status of the latter was limited to an economic dependence.

In my work Direcții strategice de incluziune etno-educațională a rromilor (Strategic Directions for the Ethno-educational Inclusion of Roma People), I proposed a series of measures for the dissemination and understanding of historic truth, for the removal of the stigma on the Roma ethnic identity, and for the promotion of a correct image of Roma people. Thus, our association created the concept of ethno-educational inclusion, an approach through which the educational system officially includes Roma people by recognizing, promoting, guaranteeing and cultivating their ethnic identity at all levels of education and in the continual education of adults. It is a novel educational strategy which can be applied to any ethnic group or national minority.

As part of this vision, from our point of view, a Roma pupil with good results, who attends a school with every amenity and with highly qualified teachers, does not benefit from truly high-quality education if the identity component is missing from their school environment.

After such a tragic history, Romanian society has a staggering moral and material debt towards the Roma, which prominently involves the acknowledgement of slavery and the establishment of its memory in the Roma and Romanian collective mentality. This involves far more than the establishment of a special day celebrating the Abolition of Roma Slavery (the 20th of February), which is what we are seeing at present.

It takes national research programs, national publishing plans, a complete and fair representation of Roma history and culture in school curricula, handbooks and libraries, in the mass media, in any type of adult training, in public monuments, in institutions for researching and promoting Roma cultural memory and the Roma cultural heritage (research institutes, museums, theatres, regional and local cultural centers, Roma collections in public libraries etc.).

A reconciliation between the Roma and the majority in society – in other words, between the formerly enslaved and the former enslavers – can only be accomplished through the acknowledgement and acceptance of history by the ethnic majority and the state institutions and through the institutional reconstruction of Roma identity with the aim of regaining their ethnic dignity.

All this is envisioned in the hope that there are still chances for the sons and daughters of Roma to finally be citizens with equal rights and for the sons and daughters of Romanians to no longer be enslaved to their own delusions about alterity.

This essay was also published in print in DoR #46, as part of a series curated by Margareta (Magda) Matache, the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. Because healing the wounds of the past has to start with recognition and reconciliation.