Milena Hubschmannova: a champion of Romany language and culture dies


The Czech Republic's foremost expert on Romany culture and language, Milena Hubschmannova has died at the age of 72. She was involved in a car crash in South Africa in which one other person was killed and several were injured. As David Vaughan reports, her death is a huge loss, and not just to the Romany community to whom she devoted much of her life.

Milena HubschmannovaMilena Hubschmannova Last year Milena drove me to the town of Rokycany to meet some Romany writer friends of hers. After a fascinating day, we were driving back and she told me with great excitement about how - during their conversation in Romany - the writer Andrej Gina had used an unusual form of a third declension noun. She was so enthusiastic that she quite forgot to look at the road, and a car swerved round us hooting its horn. At the time we joked that she should take better care of herself, because as the founder and leading light of the Romany Studies Department at Prague's Charles University, she was quite irreplaceable. Now that she has gone it will not be easy for the department to survive.

Milena Hubschmannova studied Hindi, Urdu and Bengali in Prague, and in the early 1950s became increasingly interested in the Romany language, which also has its roots in India. To learn the language she lived among Romany families, and made many Romany friends. She had great difficulties with the regime in the hard line 1970s as she strongly opposed official attempts to force Roma to assimilate.

Milena played a huge role in reviving and recording the Romany language in Czechoslovakia, and was the author of the first ever Czech-Romany dictionary. She also encouraged her many Roma friends to write. She recalled to me the moment when her friend, now a very celebrated Romany poet, Tera Fabianova, first came to write in Romany:

Milena HubschmannovaMilena Hubschmannova "We were going somewhere by car, and all of a sudden she began not so much to recite as to shout out a poem. It was so beautiful that I immediately stopped and took a piece of paper and a pencil, and I asked her to repeat it. So she repeated it and I put it down. She was composing poetry before, but never in Romales - the Romany language. Then it was published in a bilingual booklet, which was the first book to be published in Romany, a selection of poetry by seven Roma who wrote."

Tera Fabianova was one of the first of many Roma writers who Milena supported over several decades, including all those who we have featured over the years in Radio Prague's book programme "Czech Books". After the fall of communism she was the main force behind the launching of Romany studies at the Charles University and also edited the department's periodical, Romano Dzaniben, as well as helping to get several Roma writers published.

She was not from an ordinary family. Both her parents were imprisoned by the Gestapo during the German occupation. With her Virginia Woolf good looks and aristocratic lack of interest in the introverted materialism that came to prevail in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s - and still holds sway today - Milena seemed very genuinely to feel home among Roma.

She will be hugely missed by Roma and non-Roma alike. As one Romany organization wrote on its website: "We knew her as a good woman, and as such we shall always remember her" - Mi del o Del amara Milenake loki phuv! Soha na bisteraha!