For fifteen years now the Museum of Romany culture in the Czech Republic's second city of Brno has been mapping the rich, but sometimes tragic and often misunderstood history of the Romany minority here in the Czech lands. Today the Roma are Europe's largest minority, but their life and traditions remain little known to many Europeans. Also in the wake of the Holocaust, and with forced assimilation in the second half of the 20th century, many Roma themselves have lost contact with their roots and traditions. But as the museum shows, Roma have reason to be intensely proud of their culture and history.
"Our big aim is to prepare a permanent exhibit; that means an exhibit about the history of Roma, the culture of Roma, from the far past in India and about the way they came to Europe, then about travelling and how they settled down in villages and towns. A special part is devoted to the Holocaust, which is a very sad theme, and then to the history after the Second World War until 1989."
That was ethnologist, Zdenka Pitrunova. But for years tight finances and uncertainty about the future meant that progress in setting up the permanent exhibition was slow, and despite numerous temporary exhibitions, the museum was unable to offer the broader picture that Zdenka talks of. But now with the support of the Czech Culture Ministry, and the Dutch government - through the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, part of the planned permanent exhibition has just been opened. Jana Horvathova is director of the museum:
"We're starting at the end, because the support that we managed to get from the Dutch government was focused on the post-war period - from 1945 to the present day. There are two rooms. The bigger of the two is devoted to the post-war situation, up to 1989. In part it looks at how the state treated Roma, and it also looks at what remained of Romany culture after the war - and managed to survive the huge pressure to assimilate.
"The second room is small, and offers a mosaic of different trends since 1989 - what has been going on in this country in the relationship of the state to Roma. It focuses in particular on the media - looking at what has been in the press, and also showing on monitors, extracts from news coverage of the Roma and of documentary films about Romany life in various European countries."
The section devoted to the tragedy of the forced assimilation of Roma is powerfully reinforced by photographs taken over several decades by the ethnologist Eva Davidova, who vividly recorded the impact of the communist years.
"It all started when I was a young student. I realized that my photographs would be documenting an episode in history. It started in the dreadful year, 1959, when a law came into effect to force the settlement of 'nomadic and semi-nomadic people' - as they put it. Violence was used to make the Roma settle. When the officials came round to register them, they would sometimes take away the wheels of their wagons or caravans. You can see some of this in my photographs - here's one picture where there is an old wagon next to a third class railway carriage - the old kind with wooden seats. In Central Bohemia, many Roma were forced to move into these carriages. It was dreadful."
The social and cultural consequences of such violent change were disastrous, and this is closely documented in the exhibition, but the part devoted to the rich strands of Romany culture that survive, has more a mood of celebration. As one of the authors of the exhibition, Jana Polakova, points out that even the bright colours in which the walls in this part of the exhibition are painted, have their symbolism:
"Red is seen by Roma as a magical and protective colour. That's why we decided on it. The other dominant colour, pink, is extremely popular among Roma to this day - you can see it in the colours they paint their houses. We have one photo here of just such a house, and that was the inspiration for the rest of the wall.
"Part of the exhibition is devoted to Romany faith. Another is devoted to family customs - including a baptism, a wedding and a funeral; then we have customs that have really expanded since the Second World War, like the way Roma celebrate birthdays, Christmas and Easter. There's also part devoted to where people live, to what they wear and to Romany crafts and of course music, dance and theatre. The most typical Romany craft, ironworking, has had to adapt, and now many Roma craftsmen focus more on artistic ironwork. It's the same with basket-making. With the industrialization of farming, baskets are no longer needed, so now Roma basket-makers have begun making objects like furniture, or newspaper stands. Some have been quite successful. "
The two new rooms are just the beginning. The museum's director Jana Horvathova again:
"We want to start back in India. There will be six rooms altogether. One will be devoted to the more or less mythical beginnings in India. Then we'll move on to their arrival in Europe, to the nomadic life. Roma crafts connected with nomadic life will be on show here. The next room will look at how Roma settled in different countries and which crafts they followed there. Then we have the Holocaust and finally the two rooms that have now been opened - the post-war period and the mosaic showing the present day."
And we'll leave Eva Davidova with the last word:
"We hope that people who see the exhibition will begin to think and understand, and that Roma themselves - especially young people - will begin to identify more strongly with their history, that they will stop being ashamed of being Roma."
Photo: Jana Sustova
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