Tuesday, 4 June, 2013

June 2013 marks Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month in the UK: a celebration of Gypsy culture and history, and an opportunity to discuss contemporary and historical prejudice towards Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Roma and Sinti Gypsy communities were targeted for annihilation by the Nazis in an event which is known as the Porrajmos.  At least 200,000 people were systematically murdered.

We are at the start of our journey towards 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day 2014, the theme of which is just that: Journeys.

Many of us instinctively associate Gypsies and Travellers with journeys and nomadic lifestyles, although many in modern day Britain now live in houses and settled communities.  However, in pre-war Germany most Gypsies lived in the traditional way.  Amongst them were the Bocks, a German-speaking Sinti family of travelling horse dealers.  In 1928 the extended family split in two: one half moved to Czechoslovakia while the other half continued travelling in Germany.

With the rise of Hitler, the introduction of discriminatory laws against Gypsies and the outbreak of war in Europe, the Bock family experienced a change from journeys of choice to journeys of compulsion.  Thirty-nine members of the Bock family were sent to Auschwitz, only three of whom survived.  As another Gypsy survivor describes,

We were lucky we were put on a passenger car instead of a cattle car… The children were excited about the train ride… We had heard nothing of Auschwitz before.

Gypsies in other parts of Czechoslovakia were 'forcibly evacuated'.  They were thrown out of towns and forbidden to live anywhere bordering on a public highway.  As Darina Olahova recalls

We went into the forest and hid. We slept out in the woods.  Once we went a long way, and some white people let us shelter in their cowshed

After the war, the Bock family experienced another change: from journeys of compulsion to journeys of fear.  František Bock survived Auschwitz as a child, only for his son Vilém to be routinely assaulted by skinheads in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s. Vilém recalls,

If I went to a village in the van, I was hardly ever not attacked.  As we arrived, it was 'Gypsies, what are you doing here?'.

The Bock family emigrated to Canada, but had to return to the Czech Republic when Vilém’s mother was diagnosed with throat cancer.  They then drove to the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Poland in search of asylum, before finally seeking refuge in Britain.

The Bock family have been settled in Manchester since 2004.  They have spent most of their lives fleeing persecution and prejudice, simply because they are Romani.

Prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers is still rife in the UK, as was illustrated by the killing of 15 year old Johnny Delaney in Cheshire in 2003.  The police believe Johnny was murdered because he was a Traveller.  This prejudice is reflected by the frequent negative newspaper coverage of the challenging issues around Traveller sites.

In this film Vicky Botton, Chair of the East Nottinghamshire Traveller Association, describes another recent attack on a Traveller community.  A mob of 80 to 100 people was only stopped by the desperate pleas of Vicky’s husband,

What have I done to yous? I’ve played golf with you. I’ve taken you out to work with me.

Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month presents an important opportunity for us to learn about the stories of individuals and communities who have suffered and who continue to experience hatred because of their heritage.   It is also a chance for us to tackle contemporary prejudice by highlighting the wealth of positive contributions Gypsies and Travellers have made to life and culture here in the UK, from Welsh international footballer Freddie Eastwood to Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. 

Find out more