The International Day of the Roma, celebrated around the world this Thursday, has also been the occasion for a number of events to celebrate Romany history and culture here in the Czech Republic. This year a series of specially commissioned children's stories depicting Roma life down through the ages is being broadcast to coincide with the event.
For decades, the signature tune of Vecernicek, an early-evening children's bedtime show, which has thrilled and entertained young Czechs for generations, has brought little faces crowding around Czech TV screens. Vecernicek has been broadcasting short, animated children's stories since 1964 and it is regarded as a national institution. Now, for the first time, it is broadcasting a series of fairytales devoted exclusively to Roma history and culture.
The series comprises six episodes in a Roma cycle of tales with wooden puppets, which is dedicated to Romany stories and legends, The tales have been commissioned to raise awareness among children of Roma culture in the run-up to International Day of Roma.
Jarmila Balazova, editor of the Roma magazine Romano Vodi, is enthusiastic about this development:
"This is really an excellent chance to change the social attitudes to Roma people among the majority[of the population]. I think that - at this point in time - many Czech people are able to accept this sort of thing in a programme for children. I think that there is an excellent chance that these stories by Kateriina Lillqvist will also be of interest to Czech people and not just Romanies."
Balazova dismisses comments in some quarters that the series is just a token gesture, which will have no impact on the negative attitudes to the Roma people that pervade Czech society. She also thinks that the Roma themselves will be delighted with the programme:
"I believe that the Roma community will be really happy and enthusiastic about it, because Czech TV doesn't have many programmes like this. I think that Roma children really need some motivation for themselves, and Maruska - the little girl in these stories - is a really perfect inspiration for Roma children."
One criticism that has been levelled at this series is that the content of the stories is a little bit dark and gloomy for children's fairytales. The shows depict Roma persecution down through the ages and one programme even has a scene involving gallows.
The serious content of the tales has been defended by many, however, who maintain that it simply reflects the historical experience of the Roma. Jarmila Balazova also claims that children are a lot more open to issues that adults would shy away from.
Vecernicek is one of the longest-running children's serials in the world and has been on the air for 40 years. The Roma meanwhile have been part of Czech society for centuries. So why has it taken so long for a series on Roma history and culture to be produced?
"It's a very difficult question. I think the basic problem with the Czech Republic is that we don't have any experience with a multicultural society or with multicultural education. That's why we really need more books, more radio and TV broadcasting and more children and people of different origins presenting products in advertisements. Now we are going to be in the European Union, I hope that the situation will improve."
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