The Hidden History of Our Roma Ancestors

The mechanisms of anti-Roma racism have silenced our families’ stories. To publicly acknowledge this moral rupture, reparations are essential.

By Magda Matache
Illustration by Renata Mihaly
Translated by Monica Cure
15 December 2021

Magda Matache is the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. After leading the NGO Romani CRISS for seven years and playing a central role in projects for the desegregation of Roma children, Magda left for the United States in 2012 on a scholarship. There, Magda began researching the social and economic gap created by 500 years of enslavement, and her work shifted in the direction of anti-racism and reparations. Magda agreed to curate this series in order to remind us that the first step to healing any wound of the past must be acknowledgment and the acceptance of responsibility by authorities and citizens alike.

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’ve long felt a gaping hole inside of me; I feel like a part of me is missing, because I hardly know anything about the stories and circumstances of my ancestors. Every time I return from the United States to the village where I was born, 1 Decembrie (formerly named Copăceni-Mogoșești), I still hope to find fragments of history, older and more recent, from the lives of my ancestors. But all that we have left at home are a few black and white photographs from our grandparents.

Romania and the Romanians who hold power in historical and cultural spaces, in the archives and in education, have labeled even our history as inferior and insignificant, burying, denying, or distorting it over the years.

Documenting the stories of Roma families is difficult. The archives containing the histories of enslaved families have not been digitalized. The research is arduous and very few Roma individuals have the resources to undertake it or know specialists who could assist them. Many people, including a lawyer and renowned professors and historians, helped me reconstruct a part of my family’s history by identifying archival documents.

In March 2017, after a few months of searching and struggling against bureaucracy, the lawyer, Parota, wrote me in an email that he found the marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, Marin Ioana Ghiță and Maria Nicolae Ghiță, from 1906, in which their status appears as “emancipated” 50 years after the abolition of slavery. In the period after 1856, as historian Viorel Achim later told me, the term “emancipated” remained in use for two or three generations.

When I received the marriage certificate, my great-grandparents’ fingerprints shook me to the core. I printed out the civil document and kept it on my desk. Immortalized on this aged piece of paper, my great-grandparents’ fingerprints take on various meanings for me in different moments, sometimes paradoxical ones: a symbol of the history of injustice in education; a substitute for the photographs and stories that never made it to me; the seeds of pain, illnesses, and mistakes of yesterday and today in our family.

The marriage certificate of Magda’s great-grandparents, which they stamped with their fingerprints. Image from Madga’s personal archive.

Nevertheless, this marriage certificate convinced me to continue my research in the Ilfov and Giurgiu municipal archives. With the help of historian Bogdan Jitea, I was able to retrieve a collection of civil documents from the archives, but not my family’s stories. And of all those who were stamped as “emancipated” in their civil documents, including after emancipation, the unknown story of my great-great-grandmother, Ioana Ghiță Tudor, born in 1855, probably enslaved at birth, continues to gnaw at me.

All that we have left of her is file 509 bis / 1905–1908 Deaths: d. December 29, 1905, Copăcenii de Sus – unmarried, of Romanian nationality, emancipated. Her name also appears in the marriage certificate of Maria and Marin, who was her son. The collection, like all civil documents, includes the names of all the mothers and fathers, with the exception of Marin’s father’s name, which isn’t mentioned in a single record. And, each time I return to the archive, I ask myself: was my great-great-grandfather Roma, or a wealthy boyar enslaver, or a traveler from or en route to the Ottoman empire? Slavery didn’t mean only power and exploitation, but also rape; in our families, however, these kinds of unspoken questions remain hidden inside the old chest of stigma, shame, and forgetting.

Giurgiu was a gateway into the country, so many foreign travelers crossed through Wallachia from or toward the Ottoman empire through rural towns with enslaved people, including the villages that made up Copăceni-Mogoșești. I don’t know if their accounts captured fragments of the lives of my ancestors, but their writings, beyond the obvious prejudices, clearly captured the violence of slavery, or more precisely, the violence of those who forced Roma people into enslavement and kept them there. In the 1830s, Eremit von Gauting wrote: “Oftentimes the nobility call over the gypsy children and, at festive gatherings, have their children whip the little gypsies. It is said that this education is something common; the parents kill and mutilate them as they wish; the children have to become accustomed with this early on and have their own enjoyments.”

Many of these kinds of horrors were related by foreign travelers, but they didn’t remain in the collective memory of the Roma people. Trauma, pain, and humiliation were often hidden. How can you tell your descendants about these brutal, inhuman forms of cruelty and evil? Even those who were present and merely witnessed these acts of violence against the enslaved Roma people refused to retain these kinds of memories and they distanced themselves from the cruelty. Ürmösy Sándor, a Unitarian priest in Cluj, made two journeys to Wallachia, in 1841 and 1843: “Horrified, I hurried my steps, to outpace something which each nation remembers with shame, despising the inhumanity of their forefathers.”

I believe and feel that a good part of my family history and those of other Roma families was lost also because, when it was possible, family members felt obligated to protect one another from what had happened and to hold space for pride and hope, concealing their experiences to the detriment of much truth, struggle, and pain which was buried over time.

The coping strategies of these families fit in perfectly with the mechanisms of racism. Racism is the reason why the oppressed begin internalizing their doubts and fears and, in the end, bury instances of oppression which they experience as personal weakness and cause for shame. But our silence serves and empowers the system of oppression. Many of my family members lived and prevailed in the face of racism as if it were something unheard of, exceptional and individualized, as if it couldn’t have happened to anyone else, as if it were our fault, as if we had triggered the dehumanizing behaviors, as if we deserved to be treated as pariahs.

The mechanisms of anti-Roma racism buried and silenced the pain and stories of our families. The racist state didn’t need to make any extra efforts to erase family memories and stories, and that allowed it to concentrate on the continuous erasure and distortion of the history of slavery and our culture.

Examples abound: the Romanian government hasn’t created a museum dedicated to the remembrance of Roma enslavement, or any monuments, street or building names, or funded books or documentaries that search out and keep alive the harsh lessons of this human catastrophe, the memory of its victims as well as the benefits others derived from it, from the fortunes amassed by enslavers to the construction of monasteries, churches, etc. In the absence of these markers of historic truth and without the memory of these painful lessons, the descendants of those who accustomed their children to violence against Roma children born and forced into enslavement, today teach their children not to play with their Roma neighbors, not to share a desk with their Roma classmates, in other words, to ignore the humanity of Roma people and to become desensitized to the sight of violence and the injustice of racism.

Romania still hasn’t begun a conversation about this at the national level nor has it shaped initiatives that show interest in reparations regarding the atrocities of slavery. Ignorance about reparations – apologies, compensation, restitution, memorialization, processes of commemoration and of historical truth – is not an accidental oversight. It’s the product of the erasure of memory.

Jean Baudrillard said that “forgetting extermination is part of extermination.” And in Romania, its institutions and the Orthodox Church are responsible for the establishment of this process of dismemory, in spite of the efforts of several Roma politicians who, occupying positions of power though not necessarily possessing power, did the little that could be done: a law that calls for the annual commemoration of the enslavement of Roma people on the 20th of February and a memorial plaque with a timid text, so as not to upset Romanians, at Tismana monastery, the place where the first written attestation of the enslavement of Roma people was recorded – in 1385.

Racism and structural inequities continue to remind us every day of the aspects of Romania that are unjust, ugly, and cruel. Reparations are essential, however, not only as a way of making amends for structural injustices and pain, but also in order to publicly demonstrate a moral break with a brutal past, with the moral and human catastrophe that is slavery.

Sometimes I imagine that we, as a country, would have become more educated by now in the spirit of diversity and anti-racism, and more sensitive to historic truth if, 14 years ago, the governmental commission for the study of slavery had persisted, if it had been Roma-led, if it had been adequately funded, and if the history of the Roma people had truly mattered to the decision-makers; but the commission quickly and unjustifiably failed. This kind of commission remains a crucial step toward documenting the legacy of slavery, and especially for putting reparations into practice. The commission must be shaped and led by Roma people; as must the processes of making reparations for the past and healing.

Understanding the concept, the processes, and practices of reparations also implicitly entails changing from a colonial mindset and set of practices, in which the white majority “makes an effort to integrate” Roma people, to an approach that is anti-racist, centered on understanding privileges and exploitation, on the elimination of racism as a system of power and oppression. This kind of approach would clarify and address the strong link between the oppressive past and the unjust present of the Roma people and would reorient national policies which ignore slavery and its impact toward righting the wrongs of the past, including through programs that ensure an equitable start, one that is non-discriminatory and just, in school.

This kind of approach would lead to the recognition and immediate rejection of the cultural racism often evident in public policies which, for example, originate from the idea that Roma people, as a whole and as a culture, don’t value education. Embracing anti-racism and reparations, we would move past the false panacea of “enrolling Roma children in school” toward the transformation of schools into an equitable space for all children.

For this, however, we also need courage, the courage not only to become anti-racist and to ensure that the truth is told and memorials built, but also to rewrite Romania’s history, through the significant and undistorted incorporation of slavery and its consequences, including in textbooks and public education.

We need courage to discover and accept many facts about slavery, and to do this, all of us, Roma and Romanian, will have to convince the state to prioritize and support research projects, history books, novels, local and national memorials, films and documentaries, expositions, artwork, youth initiatives, and formal and non-formal anti-racist education. We will all have to petition and convince state institutions to rename towns, villages, schools, buildings, universities, parks, squares, and streets after people, both Roma and non-Roma, who fought against slavery, and after the people who suffered under enslavement. Romania will have to prioritize the founding of a national museum of enslavement, the inclusion of the history of slavery in local and national history museums, and the digitization and publication of all the archives relating to slavery. All of this because we must not forget, because, morally speaking, we have an obligation not to forget.

Moreover, state institutions and the Orthodox church need courage to accept and redress the sin of slavery. Clear proof of their right standing in relation to slavery would consist of public apologies, honestly asking for forgiveness, acknowledging and admitting the harm done and accepting responsibility for it.

In Romania, Roma people are almost always portrayed as being poor and lazy. Laziness is a prejudice of those in power, used to justify oppression. We can’t continue to ignore that for 500 years, Roma people were exploited, working without any compensation, contributing their skills to the development of unique crafts, all the while inflating the wealth of enslavers and others. And the poverty of Roma people must also be viewed in relation to the impossibility to accumulate wealth over the span of five centuries. This extreme form of exploitation can be redressed only when the state and the Orthodox church offer compensation in the form of money and land to the descendants of enslaved Roma people and collective financial compensation in a variety of forms, including housing, health care, education and scholarships, research, and funding for the arts.

All these processes of addressing the past and making reparations must be carried out in the villages and towns in which Roma people were enslaved.

In my village, steps like these – memorial plaques, commemorative street names, and other symbols which acknowledge the local history of slavery – would help people understand the past and speak with empathy, not contempt, about the fate of Roma people who were born in shanties built underground.

And my family would come to know and keep alive the memory of our great-great-grandmother, Ioana Ghiță Tudor, whose story, which ended abruptly after the age of 50, had been shattered.

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.