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Czech Republic: Romany Exhibit Hopes To Promote Understanding

  • Tony Wesolowsky

As part of a new Czech government Campaign for Tolerance, an exhibition on Romany (gypsy) history is currently on display in Prague. But RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky reports that antipathy for Roma among many Czechs goes deep, and is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Prague, 10 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Pavel Vondra stands motionless, his eyes intently scanning the captions accompanying a series of black-and-white photos and drawings. Under a weather-worn tent tucked away on a quiet square in the Czech capital Prague, the 24-year-old Czech is getting what he admits is his first lesson in Romany (gypsy) history. Most of it is a tragic tale, spanning centuries. Vondra says: "I really like this exhibit a lot. It's too bad it wasn't here earlier, because we know very little about Roma history. I had only seen parts of it before, and now I'm seeing it all. Maybe it would make sense to set up a small museum from this not only in Brno [the Moravian capital, where there is a small Roma museum] but in Prague."

The Czech Republic is considered a relative success among the former East Bloc nations for nimbly navigating the uncharted waters of capitalism. But when it comes to the country's handling of relations with its 300,000-strong Romany minority, most objective observers agree that the Czechs have run aground on a shoal.

Those observers include the international human-rights group Amnesty International, the 54-state Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, and the U.S. State Department. All of them have criticized the Czechs for doing little to better the lot of their Roma, who routinely face discrimination in housing, employment, education and inadequate police protection. And the 15-nation European Union has suggested that Prague's poor treatment of its Roma could complicate the country's bid for EU membership.

Prejudice toward Roma is hardly unique to the Czech Republic. A report last month by the OSCE on Roma living in its European member-states said that discrimination and exclusion are fundamental to their experience. The report's author, Walter Kemp, warned: "Ten years after the Iron Curtain fell, Europe is at risk of being divided by new walls. Front and center among those persons being left outside Europe's new security and prosperity are the Roma."

More than 5 million Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe, where most of them settled after migrating from northeastern India about 1,000 years ago. Historically, the Roma have been Europe's most disadvantaged ethnic group.

In his book, "Roma, Gypsies, Travelers," Jean-Pierre Liegeois writes: "The state, officialdom, and local populations have always seen gypsies and travelers as a threat of disorder, be it political or psychological. Gypsies are seen not so much as strangers who are difficult to categorize, but as embodiments of the strange and the different which must be driven out to be overcome."

Driven out the Roma were -- and, in several instances, hunted down. In the Czech lands of Bohemian and Moravia in the 17th century, Liegeois writes, Roma were hanged along the border as a gruesome warning of the punishment awaiting any who dared cross into Czech territory.

Nor did much change for European Roma in the 20th century. During World War II, the Nazis systematically killed a half-a-million of them in what the Roma call their "Holocaust" ("Porajmos").

After the war's end, in then Czechoslovakia -- as well as in Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania -- the Roma were treated as a social group with a dying ethnic identity. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist regime declared that the Romany language was little more than slang and banned it from classrooms. Roma were prohibited from setting up folklore ensembles and clubs, from printing in the Romany language and even from recounting Romany stories on radio or television.

In the 1950s as well, the Czechoslovak Communist regime attempted to end the Romany nomadic way of life by killing their horses and stripping the wheels from their carriages. Communist officials sought to integrate the Roma through what was called their "dispersal and transfer" from settlements in Slovakia to the Czech lands, where only some 600 Roma had survived Nazi massacres.

The Communists' open aim was "to spread [Roma] as thinly as possible throughout the republic." Roma concentration was not to exceed 5 percent in any village. As a result, many Roma families were split up.

To many Czechs, this dark chapter of their history remains unknown. For Veronika Kamenicka, one of the organizers of the Roma history exhibit in Prague, understanding the past will go a long way toward solving today's problems between Czechs and Roma:

"The aim of this exhibit is to bring Roma history to the [Czech] public, because I think barely anyone knows it. There are things that are simply unknown by the majority, and I think knowing them will help understand the present situation and help to solve [current problems]."

The exhibit is part of the Czech government's $260,000 (10 million Kc) "Campaign for Tolerance" to counter prejudice against Roma in Czech society, one of a number of governmental programs addressing the issue. Earlier this year, under a special budget item, Prague set aside more than $500,000 for new Roma-related social and educational programs, marking the first time an ethnic minority had been granted its own item in the Czech state budget.

The Czech government has taken other recent steps to right wrongs inflicted on the country's Roma. Last year, in a major breakthrough, the 1993 Czech Citizenship Law was amended after both domestic and foreign critics found its treatment of Roma offensive. The law made it possible for thousands of Roma to be denied Czech citizenship following the split with Slovakia in January 1993. In addition, the Czech Republic's top watchdog for human rights, Peter Uhl, proposed establishing a special department for the rights of Roma and other ethnic minorities.

But many observers say fundamental change for Czech Roma will come only by getting at the root issue -- changing public perceptions. That's the declared goal of the current Campaign for Tolerance. But critics say the campaign has less to do with fighting racism at home than with convincing the EU in Brussels that Prague is doing something to tackle the matter.

Another reason why many doubt the tolerance campaign's success is that a similar program failed miserably three years ago. In the spring and summer of 1997, large black-and-white billboards promoting Czech tolerance toward the Roma appeared on walls throughout Prague. Accompanied by photographs of striking Roma faces, the billboards carried strong but simple messages. One said: "Every day, Roma become victims of racism. This is not a solution. Think about it, and stop racism." Another -- with a haunting photo of a Roma child -- asked simply: "Born Guilty?" ("Narozena Vinna?")

Within weeks of their posting, however, many billboards had been defaced. Some were covered with insulting graffiti or had their subjects' eyes gouged out.

The responses of several people strolling by the current exhibit on Prague's Market Square indicate the current tolerance campaign may face similar hurdles. A man in his mid-20s was typical:

"I'm not interested in the Roma-Gypsy issue, not at all."

In January, an opinion sample by the Prague-based Opinion Window polling group found that 50 percent of Czechs felt some "antipathy toward Roma." The group's director, Ladislav Koppl, said the poll indicated a growing intolerance in the Czech Republic toward not only Roma, but also toward many immigrant groups -- particularly Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, and Vietnamese. More than a few exhibits and posters will be needed to change that kind of mentality.