Teaching of Roma History is Distorted and Racist

Despite warnings of grave errors, the Ministry of Education continues to approve textbooks that minimize Roma slavery.

Cezara David works at the Center for Legal Resources (CRJ). She only learned about Roma slavery in the Romanian Principalities when she joined a Roma organization – and she has been learning about it for 20 years. She thinks that unfortunately the issue of slavery is non-existent at home and in school alike. You learn about it only by chance or if you are directly interested.

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.

I have been waiting eagerly for the new eighth grade Romanian history textbooks, which were finally replaced in 2020, after many years. For the first time, there is an obligation that they include major chapters that had previously been ignored: Roma slavery and the Holocaust. For the past 20 years, the projects I have worked on have included presentations on Roma history regardless of who the projects were for: public servants, teachers, lawyers, police workers, students.

A few times, I was interrupted during my presentation and was accused of giving out false information and told that slavery had never existed, that I was biased, that I was paid to say those things, that there is no discrimination against Roma or anti-Roma racism in Romania. Also a few times, these reactions were aggressive.

I was glad that something I had always fought for – the full and correct presentation of history in mass education – seemed to be finally happening. It turns out I had rejoiced too soon. The Ministry of Education continues to approve textbooks whose content is limited or discriminatory.

I had read the old ones in 2016, when the Center for Legal Resources analyzed them and drew some alarming conclusions. At that time, the only two eighth grade history textbooks approved by the ministry and utilized in schools since 2000 had serious issues: in the textbook published by Teora, the Roma community was only mentioned in a list of minorities in interwar Romania, as “gypsies”. The other textbook, published by Sigma, contained a short snippet on the history of Roma in the Romanian Principalities, a short reference with no information or historical sources to Roma slavery (when and how it started, when it was abolished, context). Students were only told that Roma existed in Romania and were described as “gypsy bondmen, who were owned by a master. The master had the right to sell them and freely dispose of their lives. In Moldavia and Wallachia, bondmen were numerous and could also be held by free peasants.”

Thus, a first reference to Roma history that reaches students uses the term bondage (robie in Romanian) instead of slavery and this error is perpetuated throughout further years of study.

The definitions in the Romanian Explanatory Dictionary (DEX) for bondage/bondman (rob/roabă in Romanian) and slavery/slave show obvious differences in meaning. Moreover, in the case of “bondage” there is no mention of Roma, even though the definition is given in the context of Romanian territories. And although “slavery” lists “bondage” as a synonym, the reverse is not true. I dare say that in Romanian the definitions for the figurative sense of bondman/bondwoman are even romantic: “a person who is very obedient, very devoted to someone” and “a person bound by a passion, an overwhelming preoccupation, an obligation”. These are meanings that do not apply to “slave”.

The term bondman in Romanian also carries a meaning of religious self-sacrifice: “(In Judaism and Christianity) Term that denotes a person who rises to divine grace through suffering”. If we extrapolate, it seems that bondage acquires a noble, honorable sheen, but it must be mentioned that the Romanian Orthodox Church has not publicly acknowledged this past although it owned enslaved Roma for nearly 500 years.

Slavery is universally accepted as a crime against humanity and is treated as such. Even though bondage was the term used at that time, it must be explained fully, put into context when used in the present and replaced with what we know it was, with the term that correctly describes history.

The other history textbooks analyzed in 2016, for the eleventh and twelfth grades, are still in use. The Ministry of Education continues to approve them despite the fact that it has been officially informed of the grave errors they contain. I shall mention just one example, which can easily be considered racist speech.

In the twelfth grade textbook, published in 2007 by Gimnasium, within the sub-chapter Modern Romania. Majority and minorities, students are given a few major coordinates: the arrival of the Roma in the Romanian Principalities, the “bondage” of the Roma, then the abolition acts in Moldavia and Wallachia. But the writing distorts slavery, placing blame on the Roma: “Ever since their settlement here, due to their backwards way of life and their physical appearance, the Roma were considered an inferior population. That is why, from the very beginning, they were marginalized and isolated.”

The picture used to illustrate this idea (which depicts a random very poor contemporary dwelling) emphasizes the message, cementing the belief that everything that happens to Roma, even today, is their own fault – not that of the majority. None of these textbooks should have been approved by the ministry. They require significant revisions (where revision is possible; otherwise they should be withdrawn immediately) before they are used in schools.

The first new eighth grade textbooks were published in 2020 and these are the ones I have so eagerly awaited. The Center for Legal Resources will soon publish a detailed analysis of these. Three textbooks have been authorized for the 2020–2021 school year. Preliminary data show that, like the old textbooks, they remain nationalistic and distort the issues of slavery and the Holocaust.

In its case study on “bondage”, the textbook published by Art Klett includes statements such as “Emancipated Roma continued to live in poverty, practicing their traditional crafts and way of life”, with no context or explanation. One of the exercises requires students to “debate the impact of prejudice on a community”, minimizing the significance of slavery and implicitly explaining it in association with prejudice.

The textbook published by CD Press talks about Roma in the Middle Ages as being “subjected to all sorts of injustices and abuse at the hands of their masters”, but continues by claiming “they lived among Romanians and were integrated in medieval society”. The case study includes a link to a short film of “Romas dancing on stage at a theater in Bucharest”, probably to show that slavery didn’t have such a strong impact.

The textbook published by Litera describes Roma as “bondmen” but with “preferences” regarding their work, suggesting that their status allowed them to choose. This textbook cites as a source a work by a priest, university professor, that contains an excerpt on “preferred crafts in the past”. The cited work doesn’t analyze the role of the Orthodox Church as owner of enslaved Roma but the history and music of Roma, and the speech is racist and associates Roma with “various thefts, begging and vagrancy” or “spreading the plague”, while priests and the Church are presented as saviors and mentors to those Roma with “musical talents” or “spiritual inclinations”.

The content of history textbooks must be revised and the ways in which they are written and approved must change. How many analyses do we need for decision makers at the Ministry of Education to get the Romanian education system to stop exclusion and discrimination? Regarding textbooks, for 2022 we wish that answer is: none. Textbooks are a reflection, alongside other tools, of the values of a society and a state. I wish human rights and respect for people and for diversity were reflected as a matter of priority.

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.