Why are Romanians associated with gypsies?

. . . and who still needs tinkerers today?

On International Roma Day on April 8th: In many European countries, members of this people still live in catastrophic conditions. Many have not been able to adapt to today's living conditions.

On April 8th of each year, Roma Day commemorates those victims who were murdered or who starved to death in the so-called gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. Nobody knows how many there were exactly. The estimates vary between 250,000 and 500,000. That leads me to the question of what we even know about this enigmatic people.

Where do the Rome peoples, as they are called, come from? How many live in Europe today, and what does the word Roma mean in their own language, Romani? Until three years ago I knew that the Roma and Sinti originally came from India, and I have estimated the number of this largest European minority at two to three million. In fact, there are up to twelve million.

"I am a zigan"

I initially associated the term Roma with Romania. But it means men in their language. Rome is the man and Romni the woman.

Three years ago I was commissioned to improve the Order of Malta’s activities to integrate these still marginalized people. Most Roma live in unworthy dwellings, often without electricity or running water. In many parts of Central Eastern Europe they still call themselves Gypsies, and a mayor in southern Hungary admonished me sternly: “Don't say Rome to me. I'm a Zigan. ”That's what they call themselves in other parts of Europe: Zingari in Italy, Gitanos in Spain or Gitannes in France.

But at the first international world congress in London in 1971, Roma was defined as a uniform name for all Rome peoples and a flag and an anthem were created. Since then it is no longer correct to say gypsies.

But I will stick to the Nobel Prize winner from 2009, Herta Müller, who declared after a trip to Romania (she comes from the Banat) that we best do justice to the dignity of every person if we Gadsche, as they call us non-Roma, she address the way he / she wants to be addressed. An Austrian or German of this people will therefore always be called Rome or Romni, a Hungarian or Romanian in Transylvania "Gypsy".

Speaking of names: The English word Gypsy is often mistakenly associated with Egypt. In fact, parts of this people spent a long time on their migration from India via Asia Minor to Europe in the Peloponnese, at the foot of Mount Gype. This area is called Little Egypt. Already in a chronicle of 1427 it says that when asked where they came from, they answered truthfully, “from Little Egypt”. Only then, as now, nobody knew that this area was in Greece.

Not a homogeneous group

Since the Rome peoples are anything but a homogeneous group, it is understandable that there are many different tribal names. The largest group in France is called Manuches, which simply means people; in Hungary Lovara, because Lo is the Hungarian word for horse and this people lived mainly from the horse trade. In Romania the largest group is called calderash, which is derived from cada = cauldron. This people was and is still known today for tinker-patches and other metalwork.

The word gypsy has different meanings. One of them says that there was a tribe with a similar name in Asia Minor and the meaning was "stranger". And with their nomadic way of life, their customs and their dark skin color, they have always been strangers. Therefore, to this day in Spain one often says Cale, or in Wales Kaale, which means black.

Today only about five percent live as a traveling people because the prerequisites for this no longer exist: We no longer live in a recycling society, but in a throwaway society. Nobody is interested in boiler patching, broom binding or knife sharpening anymore.

Apathetic and marginalized

Those who still roam the country with their caravans and large cars today are a tiny minority. Most of them live apathetically and ostracized in the settlements mentioned above. Illiteracy is extremely common. Ever since I've seen settlements like this, I've known that there is still a level below poverty: outrageous misery.

It is my job to help these people out of their misery, to strengthen their self-confidence and to support them to build a humane future in our society. You will now ask: Is that possible, and do you even want to? They have lived with us for 600 years and nothing has changed! To do this, one has to take a look at recent history: after several attempts, serfdom was abolished in Wallachia and Moldova in 1856. Many could not deal with the newly gained freedom, and without initiative, education or future orientation, this often led to a deterioration in their living conditions.

The collapse of communism in 1989/1990 brought another turning point: the cynical term workers' paradise led to Roma being forced to earn low wages in factories as unskilled workers, but after the fall of the Wall it was precisely these people who were the first to get theirs Lost job.

Persistent wave of emigration

Finally, the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU, where the Roma make up around ten percent of the total population, brought about the last major wave of emigration that continues to this day. Many use the right to freedom of movement and look for jobs in the richer countries of Western Europe. But without education, this quickly leads to unemployment, and many eke out their existence as beggars.

So no chance of a change in the situation? Yes, there are. To name just one example from one of the now twelve Maltese Roma centers: Köröspatak in Transylvania, Romania. There is one of these indescribable settlements with around 1000 Roma. For a long time we thought about where to start. Then the head of our community center had the idea to offer school children riding lessons.

140 children from the surrounding schools have volunteered - Romanians, Hungarians and Roma. The most talented twelve were taken - all of them are Roma. That was in December 2014. Today there is a vaulting group, general riding lessons, carpentry, weaving, lessons in hygiene and social behavior and of course tutoring for the school children.

After a year or so, we wanted to know what has changed in the behavior of these children. The answer: higher self-esteem, clean and polite, and significantly better in school.


Franz Salm-Reifferscheidt (born 1944 in Vienna) studied law. Worked for six years in a bank, 30 years as managing director of a baby food company. He was responsible for the development in Eastern Europe, so he was in constant contact with Roma. Today honorary Ambassador at Large for Roma People of the Sovereign Order of Malta.


("Die Presse", print edition, April 6th, 2017)