Rom of Czechoslovakia

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Rom of Czechoslovakia

ETHNONYMS: Cikán, Gypsies, Tsiganes, Zigeuner


Identification. Rom is the name applied to people of Indian origin who migrated out of India about 1,000 years ago and today are commonly referred to as Gypsies. Although outsiders view all Gypsies as being the same, there were and remain castelike distinctions between different Rom groups based on occupational specialization and language. Although the Rom are now found throughout the world, caste-based restrictions are still followed by some, including the prohibition of marriage between members of different groups. The name "Rom" is derived from the name of an ancient Indian caste, "Dom," whose subcastes practiced occupations such as Blacksmithing, basket weaving, and music making. "Dom" is derived from the Sanskrit word damaru, meaning "drum." The label "Gypsy" is derived from "Egyptianos," incorrectly suggesting an Egyptian origin for the European Rom. The labels "Cikán," "Zigeuner," and "Tsiganes" all suggest ancestry among the athinganoi, a group of musicians in Asia Minor. In Czechoslovakia, "Cikán" was a derogatory term that was Officially replaced by "Rom" in 1989.

Location. Three Rom groups are found in the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic: Slovak Roms (about 80 percent of the Rom population), Hungarian Roms (about 10 percent), and Vlaxi (about 10 percent). About one-third live in the Czech part of the republic and about two-thirds in the Slovak section. There are also a few German Rom (Sinti) and Hungarian Rom families.

Demography. According to information from the National Committees (local, district and regional administrative centers), in 1987 there were 383,000 Rom in Czechoslovakia. This is probably an underestimation, as only those Rom who came to the attention of government social workers are counted. Thus, the actual number of Rom is probably close to a half-million. The Rom birthrate is about twice that of non-Roms, and projections point to a Rom population of one Million in 2020.

Linguistic Affiliation. Roms speak dialects of Romani, which is classified in the Indian Group of Indo-European Languages and which is related to Hindi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, and other Indian languages. Each Rom group speaks a distinct dialect. Dialect differences evidently existed at the time of migration out of India and have been further broadened through contact with different non-Rom groups in the Regions where Rom settled. In general, Czechoslovakian Roms are bilingual or even trilingual, speaking some combination of Romani/Slovak/Czech/Hungarian. While Romani has disappeared among the Czech Rom, a majority of Slovak Rom still use Romani, although its use is decreasing in the youngest generation.

History and Cultural Relations

As mentioned above, the Rom are descendants of groups who left India about 1,000 years ago. The first document written about "Gypsies" in Europe was by a Mount Athos (Greece) monk in the twelfth century and describes them as blacksmiths. A medieval legend about a "gypsy" blacksmith who made nails for crucifixions spread throughout Europe. Other ancient accounts note that "gypsies" were musicians, for example in the Turkish army. The first reference to Roms in the region that is now Czechoslovakia dates to the fifteenth Century. Because non-Gypsies (gadžos ) never distinguished the different Rom groups from one another, we do not have a record of which groups "came and went." The history of the Rom in what are now Czech versus Slovak regions differs greatly. In Czech areas, the number of Rom was always small and they remained largely itinerant, until they were exterminated at Osweinenczim during World War II, when the area was a "German protectorate." Of 8,000 Rom, only about 200 escaped death. The German extermination policy was the culmination of a long history of persecution of the Czech Rom. Various laws and directives dating back to 1539 decreed that "gypsies should be evicted/banished out of the country" or even killed. In 1697 King Leopold issued an edict declaring that Gypsies should be considered outlaws. And, as late as 1710, in the Czech town of Beroun, the law stipulated that one who "murders a gypsy, should not be accused of any crime."

In Slovakia conditions were better. The Hungarian noblemen who ruled the region allowed Rom to settle on the outskirts of villages and work for the peasants as blacksmiths, basket weavers, and musicians. They were also drafted as soldiers in the various regional armies. Thus, the Slovak and Hungarian Rom were sedentary as early as the 1700s. Only the Vlaxi remained peripatetic, until 1959 when a sedentarianization law was passed. In 1761 the Empress Maria Theresa enacted an "assimilation decree" that Gypsies in both the Czech and Slovak regions be assimilated into the general population. Toward this end, "Uji-Magyar" replaced Gypsy as the official group label, Rom were forced to settle on farms, Rom surnames were replaced by Christian ones, the speaking of Romani was outlawed, and Rom children were placed with non-Rom farm families for reeducation. Although this effort failed, the Slovak and Hungarian Rom slowly have been assimilated, largely through economic relations with their gadžo neighbors. During World War II, while the Slovak Rom did escape mass extermination, they too were persecuted: men were sent to labor camps, they were banned from cities, Rom settlements were moved to isolated locations, and some settlements were burned and Rom killed as punishment for participating in the partisan movement. After the war, many Slovak Rom emigrated to Czech regions where they settled near towns, often in areas previously inhabited by the Germans who were exiled.

In recent times, Rom officially were labeled "citizens of gypsy origin" by the Socialist government and were viewed as the "relics of a decaying ethnic" and underdeveloped culture that blocked the national goals of social integration and assimilation. This official position led to attempts to disperse the Rom among the general population and to ban the use of Romani. In 1969 a group of educated Rom formed the Union of Roms (Svaz Cikánu-Romu) and demanded official recognition of the Rom language and culture. The union disbanded in 1973, but informal Rom ethnic identity efforts persisted, such as amateur theater groups, a Romani language school in Prague, and petitions to the government. In 1989, the assimilation policy was reversed when the Presidium of the Communist party supported a new policy encouraging ethnic freedom for the Rom.


As noted above, the Rom are now largely sedentary. In the Czech region of the republic they live mostly in towns, Scattered among the gadžo. In the Slovak area about 70 percent live in villages, although some isolated settlements still exist.


In the past, the Rom provided specialized services such as blacksmithing and basket weaving for the nearby rural Peasant and villager populations. They were usually paid with food; only the lavutara (musicians) were paid with money. However, because of assimilation and a high Rom birthrate, this economic relationship gradually declined in importance and was replaced by unskilled or semiskilled wage labor such as seasonal farm work, brick making, and well digging, as well as recycling scrap materials and peddling small wares. Thus, many Rom have been absorbed into the national economy, with the notable exceptions of the úri lavutara (gentleman musicians who play in wine bars and cafés) and the handlara (pig dealers). Pig dealers were often men who had emigrated to the United States to earn money and then returned home and used their wealth to establish a pig-dealing business. Some became very wealthy, even to the point of lending money to gadžo villagers. While high rates of illiteracy (70 percent for Roms over 60 years of age) have kept the Rom at the low end of the occupational scale, the number of middle school and university graduates is increasing rapidly.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by the parents of the man and the woman. Cousin marriage was forbidden and was considered the worst of all crimes. Upon marriage, the wife went to live with the husband's family and became a bori (daughter-in-law and sister-in-law) in that Family. Women were subordinate to men, although women procured everyday food for the family. On the other hand, daj (mother) was a sacred position and the high-status baro phral (eldest son) protected her from inevitable violence by her husband. As she got older, a woman's status increased and she was often respected for her knowledge of healing and dreams.

Family. The familija and the fajta were and still are the basic organizational units. The fajta is a patri/matrilineal lineage group. The familija is an extended family of from three to five generations, the members of which used to all reside in the same kher (house) or in the same neighborhood. Familija and fajta are also economic units; music bands consist of fathers, sons/brothers, and cousins, and in blacksmith families, the fathers did the smithing, mothers peddled the products, and children helped to blow the bellows. Families commonly sikhavel zor (showed their strength) by having the sons stand in front of the dwelling and lift heavy objects.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Caste relations regulated contact Between different Rom settlements. A basic division was that between the žuže Roma ("clean" Roms who did not eat "polluted" meat) who would never visit a settlement of degeša (those who eat horse and dog meat). Žuže Roma were usually lavutara (musicians), charti (blacksmiths), or handlara (pig dealers) and they were generally wealthier than the degeša who were butakere (day laborers), brick makers, or scrapmaterial recyclers. Despite the high level of economic assimilation, social distance between Roms and gadžos is maintained and intermarriage is rare.

Political Organization. The nature of Rom-Czechoslovakian relations is discussed earlier in the section on History and Cultural Relations. Within the Rom settlements, the leader is the chibalo/vajda who serves as an intermediary with the local government officials. Despite wealth distinctions between communities, strong pressures toward equality minimize status distinctions within communities.

Conflict and Social Control. Although serious disputes might lead to fights, people try to avoid open conflict. A peacemaking formula is to say "Roma sam" ("We are Roms"), meaning, "Let us be united," "Let us not fight." Ethical principles, unwritten laws, various sanctions, and the concepts of "pativ" (honor, respect, proper behavior) and ladž (shame, dishonesty) are central forces in maintaining ethnic identity and social order in Rom communities. Rom conceptions of the ideal male and female are especially well defined. A "Pativalo Rom" is a man who shares food with others, offers shelter to a stranger (Rom), doesn't offend anyone, may be unfaithful to his wife but doesn't leave her, cares for his children, drinks but doesn't get drunk, doesn't get polluted by eating taboo foods, etc. A "Pativali Romni" is a woman who is never unfaithful to her husband, never leaves her children, is an obedient bori, can anel maro ("bring bread," i.e., procure food), is žuži (is clean, i.e., follows all the complicated rules of ritual cleanliness), etc. traditional sanctions included ladž (public shamejeering at, spitting at, or mocking a wrongdoer) ; mariben (beatings) for women; and cutting the hair of an adulterous woman. The most severe punishment was excommunication (Vlaxi call it marime, Czech Roms call it prastapen, while Slovak Roms have no word for it).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. Rom religion is best described as a set of beliefs rather than as a system of organized belief. Many features of Hinduism are still apparent. For example, the belief that whatever you do will sooner or later "come back to you" reflects karma law. Older Roms believe in rebirth, with the soul of a deceased Rom born in the body of a child. Most common is the belief that mule phiren (spirits of the dead) can influence the affairs of the living by taking revenge, fulfilling a wish, bringing a warning, etc. Roms use the services of local clergymen for life-cycle events such as bolipen (baptism) and burial, to witness an oath, and to exorcise a mulo.

Arts. Rom art forms are rich and varied and are manifested in čardašis (dance), gila (songs), paramisa (tales), and narrations, riddles, proverbs, etc. Songs are sung by women and especially by young girls. Čorikane gila are traditional, slow songs full of emotion, speaking about hunger, poverty, sorrow, loneliness, etc. Čardaša are amusing couplets that accompany dancing. Through these songs, feeling are expressed, messages conveyed, improper behavior criticized, and important events described. Each singer usually adds some improvised lines to the standard lyrics. Today, elements of popular music are transformed by Rom musicians into creative new forms for performance by Rom folk groups. Traditionally, paramisa were told by men at gatherings that lasted for hours. Today, with families more widely dispersed and televisions in every home, paramisa gatherings are no longer regular events and take place mainly at wakes. Rom literature and Rom graphic and plastic arts are recent phenomena, with Ruda Dzurko's glass pictures being the bestknown example.


Horváthová, Emilia (1964). Cigáni na Slovensku. Bratislava.

Hübschmannová, Milena (1972). "What Can Sociology Suggest about Origins of the Rom." Archiv Orientální. Prague.

Nečas, Ctibor (1939-1945). Osudy Českych a Slovenský ch Cikánu. Brno: UJEP.

Romské Obyvatelstvo Podle Sčítání Lidu, Domu a Bytu (1970). Prague: Federal Statisticky Urad.