Slovak Romani villageOur houses leaned against one another on the hillside like tired soldiers – this one missing a window, this one a door – remnants of a battle I was too young to understand. I always saw them in the summer, the mountain air still bitter, the trees standing guard over the sky. Colourful clothes roped their way through the village, drawing my eyes from the missing glass and patched walls, wisps of smoke puffing into the sky like the breathy sighs of old men in the snow.

The Carpathian mountains have held my relatives in their hands for generations. They hid us under their skirts from all sorts of evils – during the duj mariben (Second World War) most notably. But, these mountains had not become our home by choice. When I was small, I thought that summer brought our families here like flowers to the meadow, raucous and full-faced. It wasn’t until I was older I learned the stories of our footsteps etched into the hillside and it was when I was older still that I learned the names of the executors of this terrible estate.

After walking for generations, we stood still, living in smart cottages near Spišsky, working as game beaters for the nobility. Chasing the poor birds and deer out for the rich bastards to shoot. Sometimes, they didn’t even eat what they killed, preferring instead to lament over their poor luck. The older people made brush and broom, baskets and stools, selling them to farmers and upper-class housekeepers both. The oldest, most wise woman in our village, Baba Jamila sucked her empty gums as she spoke. Her memory fragmented into vast chunks of before the war and after the war. Each thought filling up her hollow eyes until they flowed over, bright and blue, running down her cheeks.

For a while, our life was warm. But, it quickly grew cold under the assimilationist regime of Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. Our families were torn apart, children ripped from mothers, sons forced into the army, our language and culture illegal. So, we walked again, into the mountains and over them. Into Poland, into France, into Ukraine, and back again. The First World War came and went, barely touching my family as we hunkered down in small villages. Uncles got work herding baljiče (pigs) and made a good living. Again our families stopped walking and laid a roof over their heads like a blanket.

Before the war washed over us, Baba said another part of our family brought news of life in Angljija (England). They said it was a good, quiet life. Some of the older men who’d spent time in France decided that it would be worth the trip. My Prapapu (great grandfather) Frančišek Zavacko wanted to go with them. He was a young man at the time. He was tired of the mountains, he said. So, our family split apart like an overripe fruit, the seed spinning away into the unknown. Turns out that it was a good thing. They didn’t know what was coming, but it was worse than anything they could have imagined.

… to be continued.