I was born here.
Or rather, close to here, further up the valley.
A late February snow dusted the roofs and children scuttled between the shacks gathering wood or water. At least that’s what I was told. I remember visiting with Maami and Bibi Lemija, standing a while up the valley, reminiscing about the osadas that no longer existed. The ones that were replaced by trenches and tanks during the war. The ones that vanished in smoke and screams.
Things have changed now. There are blocks of flats and council houses, and a better access road, but mostly things are still the same.
It’s easy to dismiss it sometimes. The empty windows stare like the hollow eyes of a forgotten generation and I wonder what it would be like to go back. But, I remember that I was born close to here and not actually here. A difference that is huge. The here where I was born no longer exists. Changed, morphed, bulldozed, lost. Many of the people moved down the valley, here – and here is where I visited more than once.
When I was small, Maami talked about “our home” often, as though it was still just within reach, waiting around the corner. Truth of it was, our home only existed in our memories.
Papu’s family were from the Polish side of the border. Two of his sisters had married Maami’s brothers, so it was pretty much a certainty he’d marry Maami. She should have gone to live with them, but the war came and everybody ran. Papu stayed to help his sisters, as well as Maami and her family. His own people ran the wrong way, right into the mouth of the dragon. In that moment, we were lost.
Nostalgia has a weird way of painting the world. Instead of the poverty and sadness, we remember the music, stories, dancing. I barely can think about the osadas anymore. I came from there, but I am not from there. My heart is too white (jekh parno jilo), my life too far distant. Even when I think of returning to England, to the area I grew up, I feel too disconnected. I fought hard to get out of poverty, alcoholism, out of a culture swallowed by trauma. The cinematic myth of “poor but happy Gypsies” didn’t apply to my family. Yes, we had some small happiness, but we were poor and broken and struggling. The media told us that nomadism = delinquency, poverty = delinquency, Roma = nomadic and poor = delinquent, violent, and backwards.
We were poor, that’s all. We were not violent, backwards, immoral, or corrupt.
I don’t know.
The death of my cousin Marek (Mark) touched me deeply. Barely fifty-one years old – too young. Another young man lost to the cultural heritage we all carry. Not some defect in our genetic structure, but a defect in society that surrounds us. We are blamed for being corrupt and immoral on a base level, “born to be thieves”, “born liars”, as if our DNA is itself malignant. I used to tell our mother that my blood was black and that this meant I was a bad person. She’d laugh and tell me that my blood was the same as everyone else’s.
Society blatantly ignores the historical, political, and social issues that have led Roma here, to this moment. After fleeing the Holocaust, and in some cases surviving against all odds, my family continued to be treated like animals – not victims and survivors. Our way of life was still illegal in many places. Our wagons, tents, shacks, osadas, families, all of them gone. To rebuild, in many cases, took more than they had left to give. It’s said an uncle of mine collapsed and died on returning to his village after surviving the war only to find nothing. No other survivors, no houses, nothing.
We were seen as vermin who deserved to die.
Even today, the same rhetoric is used against Romani everywhere and I sit here, tears falling, saying rudime for my cousin. We are a lost generation – staring into empty windows and carrying the cost of generations of trauma.
And it feels like there just aren’t any answers.