What Stones and Walls Tell Us

A researcher identifies “places of memory”, where slavery left traces not only on the Roma community, but on society in general.

Adrian-Nicolae Furtună is a sociologist, a counsellor in the Research and Study Department of The National Centre for Roma Culture – Romano Kher, and the founder of the “Romane Rodimata” Centre for Cultural and Social Research. Since 2015, he has digitized hundreds of archive documents from the five centuries of Roma slavery at sclavia-romilor.gov.ro. He is working on his doctorate thesis on the social memory of Roma slavery. This essay reflects his research work and the need to retrieve information on slavery – an effort visible in his latest book, Sclavia romilor și locurile memoriei – album de istorie socială (Roma Slavery and the Places of Memory – album of social history).

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.

They say places carry the burden of the past. I remember my mother and what she used to tell me on the way from Râpa Galbenă to Copou, the year I was admitted to the university in Iași. She would show me the pavement stones and urge me to think of the number of scholars who stepped on them. Her words made me develop a fondness for those stones which, trodden daily by so many minds troubled by the anguish of answering to life’s fundamental questions, felt like they contained the noblesse of the very act of wondering. It was like they had the answer inside them, and all I had to do was dig.

I began to wonder as early as 9th grade: Who are we, the Roma, where do we come from, what is our history, why do I not recognize myself in what I see around me? In our first day of high school, our teacher asked us to write down on a sheet of paper what we want to be when we grow up. At our ten-year reunion, she brought back our sheets. None of us recognized them. I had written that I would study Roma culture and history. Looking back on the cobblestones in Copou and that sheet of paper, I can say I’ve answered some of my questions – now it was only my suffering that needed healing.

What suffering?, some of you may ask. The one I went through while looking for answers. As a child, I knew Roma had been persecuted during the Romanian Holocaust, but I didn’t have the faintest idea about the slavery.

I began my quest by researching the Holocaust, around 2007. I collected survivor interviews and dug up archive documents. After ten years (of both questions and answers), I needed to understand the history of slavery, too. This time I had no one to ask, the way I had interviewed Roma survivors of who had been deported to Transnistria in ’42-’44. So I started to ask the places, the walls, the stones.

Roma slavery was officially abolished in 1856. I could find no one to testify of those long-gone times. But I found it interesting that places can sometimes tell you more than people can. So it was that I found churches built especially for the enslaved “G*psies” by monasteries, villages whose names hark back to that period, or manor houses built near the Roma slave settlements.  This gave me the idea of an album of memory, and the Department for Interethnic Relations supported it.

The first part of the album contains 35 archive documents. The series begins in 1634 – with a deed through which “Matei Basarab, ruler of Wallachia, confirms for Neacșa, wife of Gheorghe, former High Chancellor, her right of ownership on Vasiu the Gypsy and his sons Neacșu and Stan” – and ends with a document from 1835 “informing of the whereabouts of a Gypsy, slave of Zlătari Monastery, who ran from his owners”.

A document about Roma people from the archives of Cozia Monastery, dated 12 January 1742.

The second part is made up of fragments of codes of law adopted in Moldova and Wallachia in 1817 and 1818 respectively. I thought what impressed me might impress readers as well. Article 28 of the Moldovan Code of Law showed that “Slavery and those which are to it beholden by ownership, though against the natural right of man, have been followed in this our Principality from the days of  yore”. In other words, in the early 19th century, the law itself admitted that slavery was against the natural human rights, but the mere fact that it had been practiced in the Romanian territory for a long time was considered reason enough to maintain it.

Chapter VII of the Wallachian Code of Law (Codul Caragea) is titled For slaves and Gypsies. I will only quote two articles from it: “1. Slaves are all those owned by others. Such are the Gypsies in Wallachia. 2. All those born of slave parents shall be slaves.” I was impressed by these legal texts because they lay bare the legal status of the Roma and the fact that slavery was transmissible from one generation to the next.

Beyond laws and archive documents, I wanted those who open the album to see how Roma were reflected in the press of those times. It is why I included an excerpt from an 1838 newspaper, reading “Selling Gypsy, 29 years old, not married, good coachman, able to drive four horses. Anyone interested in buying him is to inquire in the Merchants’ Neighbourhood with Mr. Alecu Boronescu, Appointed Server to the Prince. The price is 40 galbeni.” Such classifieds were quite common and show that the Roma were sold and valued according to their knowledge and skills.

The fourth part of the album, titled The Age of Liberation, includes a poem by Cezar Bolliac, Fata de țigan și fata de boer (The Gypsy’s Daughter and the Boyar’s Daughter), the 22 points of the Islaz Proclamation in 1848, a note of release from enslavement, two publications explaining the steps boyars had to follow to be reimbursed by the state, and a fragment from the play Țiganii (The Gypsies) written by Gheorghe Asachi to celebrate the end of slavery. Its introduction reflects the public condemnation of slavery and the Romanian society’s desire for emancipation: “The slavery of Gypsies, introduced in Moldova at a time when might, more than justice, was the law of the State, has long been tolerated as something interwoven with the interests of society. The extinguishment of this un-Christian abuse, long in the making, is crowned today through the order of H.H. Prince Grigorie A. Ghica. Thus, our country shows itself worthy of entering the family of civilized Europe”.

A fragment from the album Roma Slavery in Wallachia, in which you can read a complaint requesting liberation written by Roma in 1846.

The fifth part of the album describes places of memory – the walls and stones to which I directed my questions when I started this journey. Here are a few of them: Tismana Monastery, where the Roma are first documented, as its slaves; the church built by Ghiorma Banul, a man who apparently traded in Roma women in the 16th century; the Sf. Îngeri [Holy Angels] Church, built exclusively for the “G*psy” enslaved by the Horezu Monastery in Vâlcea County.

To see what archive documents can’t show, I invited Roma artist Kurt Vyo to imagine, in pictures, situations from the times of slavery – the separation of a child from their family, a enslaved Roma auction, or the flight of an enslaved individual from an estate and their capture. One of the covers features Barbu Lăutaru, a Romanian musical personality well-known to those in my generation, famous for impressing composer Franz Liszt with his music – or that was what I was told in Music class in 5th grade. Later I would learn that he was, in fact, an enslaved Roma, the leader of the traditional lăutari musicians in Iași.

I wanted to show that slavery left its mark not only in Roma communities, but in society as a whole. Our duty today is to ask ourselves questions and, when we get no answer, to ask the walls themselves. It worked for me.

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.