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The Myth of the Child-Kidnapping Gypsy, Anti-Roma prejudice, and the Baro Porrajmos

This time last year (on 22/10/2013), it was reported that Irish police had seized a blonde-haired girl from a Roma family in Dublin. According to the report in the Times newspaper, “the blonde girl with blue eyes, believed to be aged seven, was taken from her Dublin home after a tip-off to police that she did not look like her parents or siblings, who have dark hair and complexions.” The report in the Times noted similarities with other recent cases. For example, it noted that police arrested a Roma woman in Greece in 2008 and accused her of kidnapping a blonde girl. DNA tests later proved that the Roma woman in Greece was the parent. According to Siobhan Curran, the co-ordinator of a Roma support project, “old stereotypes” are being resurrected that could lead to a “witch-hunt” [1]. According to a BBC news report on the following day (23/10/2013), DNA tests proved that the blond girl was the daughter of the Roma parents. A statement by An Garda Síochána (the Irish Police service) observed that “protecting vulnerable children is of paramount importance”. [2] On the surface the statement seems reasonable enough. However, if tip-offs based on little more than children being blonde-haired are sufficient to lead to them being removed from their Roma parents by police, then Siobhan Curran’s concerns about old stereotypes and a witch-hunt are not without foundation.

As Peter McGuire (lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College Dublin) has observed, the child-kidnapping “Gypsy”, like the ritual murdering Jew, is a character from myth and folktale. For centuries, Jews and Roma have been branded as thieves, parasites, sorcerers, plague-bearers, child-kidnappers and child-murderers. Whilst traditionally Jews have also had the singular dishonour of being branded the murderers of Christ (“the deicides”), the “Gypsies” have been the subject of a similar legend. According to some Christian legends and folktales, a “Gypsy blacksmith” was the only person willing to forge the nails used to crucify Christ. As a parallel to the Wandering Jew myth, there is a legend that whenever the descendants of the “Gypsy blacksmith” find comfort in one place, one of the nails reappears in their tents, causing them to flee in terror [3]. In some cases, deprecating narratives about “the Jews” have been explicitly linked to narratives about “the Gypsies” [4]. McGuire concludes, quite rightly, that it is sad but true that “societies are notoriously resistant to accept or even consider evidence which challenges the ancient prejudices expressed in folklore” [5]. The fact that Roma and Sinti continue to be vilified, and child-kidnapping folktales continue to circulate today in Western Europe, testifies to the resilience and durability of such cultural myths and stereotypes.

The child-kidnapping folktale, a persistent cultural myth, is not the only reason for the persecution of Roma and Sinti. Again like the Jews, the Roma and Sinti have been portrayed as racially inferior, and on this basis persecuted and murdered. During the Second World War, like the Jews, they were subject to a program of extermination. However, according to Simon Wiesenthal, despite the tragedy experienced by Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust, “the tragedy of the gypsies has never really sunk into public awareness” [6]. He was right (as the continued presence of the myth of the child-kidnapping “Gypsy” would seem to demonstrate). Whilst the actual number of Roma and Sinti murdered during the Holocaust (the Shoah – i.e. “the Catastrophe” – for the Jews; the Baro Porrajmos – i.e. “the Great Devouring” – for the Roma) was smaller than that of Jews, a huge proportion of the Roma and Sinti in territories controlled by the Nazis was annihilated. According to Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin, “of the estimated ca. 20,000 Romanies in Germany in 1939, fully three quarters had been murdered by 1945. Of the 11,200 in Austria, a half were murdered. Of the 50,000 in Poland, 35,000; In Croatia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Luxembourg, almost the entire Romani populations were eradicated.” [7]

Significantly, like the Jews, Roma and Sinti were regarded as biologically tainted according to Nazi racial laws, and sexual intercourse and mixed marriages with “Gypsies” were forbidden on the grounds that they led to racial defilement. According to Holocaust historian Robert Wistrich, “two thirds of the Polish gypsies died under Nazi occupation” and “between 250,000 and half a million gypsies were sent to their deaths between 1939 and 1945.” Wistrich explains that “the Nazis were particularly hostile to the gypsies as an ‘anti-social’ element and as ‘people of different blood’ who fell under the Nuremberg race laws of 1935.” Whilst some scholars have tried to mitigate the genocide of “Gypsies” on the grounds that they were targeted only as a supposedly anti-social element (a stereotype that has been applied to Jews and Roma), as Wistrich observes, “the Nazis regarded ‘the fight against the Gypsy menace’ after 1939 as ‘a matter of race’ and insisted on the need to ‘separate once and for all the gypsy race (Zigeunertum) from the German nation (Volkstum)’, to prevent the danger of miscegenation.” Wistrich goes on to note that for the Nazis, there was a link between the so-called “Jewish Question” and the so-called “Gypsy Question”: “there was an ideological link between the murder of Jews and gypsies, both of them forming part of a composite Nazi vision of radical ethnic cleansing or ‘purification’ of the Volksgemeinschaft.” [8] Ian Hancock has examined the attempts (often successful) to mitigate and dismiss the genocide of the Roma in some detail, observing that “earlier writings on the Holocaust, … failed to [recognize and] understand that the ‘criminality’ associated with our people was attributed by the Nazis to a genetically transmitted and incurable disease, and was therefore ideologically racial; instead, writers focused only on the ‘antisocial’ label resulting from it and failed to acknowledge the genetic connection made by the Nazi race scientists themselves.” Like “the handicapped [and] Jews,” the “Gypsies” could not “escape their fate by changing their behaviour or belief. They were selected because they existed.” [9]

Notes

1. “Police seize blonde girl from Roma in Dublin,” The Times, 23 October 2013, p.5. This article was originally posted online late in the evening on 22/10/2013 (link here). Many similar reports were published in the other daily newspapers.

2. “DNA tests prove Dublin Roma girl is part of family,” BBC News Europe, 23 October 2013 (link here).

3. Bernard Glassman, Protean Prejudice: Anti-Semitism in England’s Age of Reason (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998), 112-113 (see also pp. 111-119).

4. For example, G. K. Chesterton linked the antisemitic stereotype of the greedy Jewish usurer with the myth of the child-kidnapping Gypsy (link here).

5. Peter McGuire, “Do Roma ‘Gypsies’ Really Abduct Children?”, The Huffington Post, 24 October 2013 (link here).

6. Simon Wiesenthal, “Jews and Gypsies,” in Justice not Vengeance (London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1990), 256-261. Simon Wiesenthal rightly concluded that “Auschwitz is branded into their history as it is into ours.”

7. Ian Hancock, “Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend to Minimize the Romani Holocaust,” review of The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, by Guenther Lewy (link here). Professor Tony Kushner and professor Donald Bloxham referred to the Porajmos in their examination of scholarship on the Holocaust. They note that the persecution and murder of the Roma during the Holocaust has received minimal attention and recognition. Referring to the uncertain figures for how many Roma were murdered, somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000, they justifiably reason that “the uncertainty about the numbers casts light on how easily Europe gave up these people” and “how little the loss has been addressed.” This is not the only such lacuna in the historiographical scholarship, as other non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, such as the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Freemasons, and Jehovah’s Witnesseshave also received comparatively minimal attention. See Donald Bloxham and Tony Kushner, The Holocaust: Critical Historical Approaches (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 30-31, 84-85, 143.

8. Robert S. Wisrtich, Hitler and the Holocaust: How and Why the Holocaust Happened (London: Phoenix Press, 2002), 10-12.

9. Ian Hancock, “Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation and Overview,” in Dan Stone, ed., The Historiography of the Holocaust (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004), 383, 394 (see also pp. 384-396). An online version of this chapter is available (link here).

G. K. Chesterton and the Myth of the Child-Kidnapping Gypsy

It was reported in various newspapers yesterday (23/10/2013) that Irish police had seized a blonde-haired girl from a Roma Gypsy family in Dublin. According to the report in the Times, “the blonde girl with blue eyes, believed to be aged seven, was taken from her Dublin home after a tip-off to police that she did not look like her parents or siblings, who have dark hair and complexions.” The report in the Times noted similarities with other recent cases. For example, it noted that police arrested a Roma woman in Greece in 2008 and accused her of kidnapping a blonde girl. DNA tests later proved that the Roma woman in Greece was the parent. According to Siobhan Curran, the co-ordinator of a Roma support project, “old stereotypes” are being resurrected that could lead to a “witch-hunt” [1].

According to a BBC news report today (24/10/2013), DNA tests have now proven that the blond girl in Dublin is the daughter of the Roma parents. A statement by An Garda Síochána (the Irish Police service) observed that “protecting vulnerable children is of paramount importance”. On the surface the statement seems reasonable enough. However, if tip-offs based on little more than  children being blonde-haired are sufficient to lead to them being removed from their Roma parents by police, then Siobhan Curran’s concerns about old stereotypes and a witch-hunt are not without foundation [2].

Significantly, G. K. Chesterton, currently being investigated as a possible candidate for sainthood, also repeated this myth of the child-kidnapping gypsy. He combined this anti-Roma myth with that of the anti-Jewish stereotype of the “Hebrew usurer”. According to Chesterton in The New Jerusalem: “It is absurd to say that people are only prejudiced against the money methods of the Jews because the medieval church has left behind a hatred of their religion. We might as well say that people only protect the chickens from the Gipseys because the medieval church undoubtedly condemned fortune-telling. It is unreasonable for a Jew to complain that Shakespeare makes Shylock and not Antonio the ruthless money-lender; or that Dickens makes Fagin and not Sikes the receiver of stolen goods. It is as if a Gipsey were to complain when a novelist describes a child as stolen by the Gipseys, and not by the curate or the mothers’ meeting. It is to complain of facts and probabilities. There may be good Gipseys; there may be good qualities which specially belong to them as Gipseys; many students of the strange race have, for instance, praised a certain dignity and self-respect among the women of the Romany. But no student ever praised them for an exaggerated respect for private property, and the whole argument about Gipsey theft can be roughly repeated about Hebrew usury.” [3]

The myth of the child-kidnapping gypsy who steals chickens and children (linked to a caricature of “the Jews” and “Zionism”) can also be found in Chesterton’s newspaper. According to G.K.’s Weekly:The idea of Zionism may be impossible, but it was certainly ideal. It consisted of the perfectly true conception that in the quarrel of Jews and Gentiles there had been faults on both sides. It is rather as if the authorities had gone to the race that we call Gypsies and said something like this, without the least malice or prejudice and with a desire for a settlement: ‘We think it is absurd of you to say that none of you ever steal chickens; and we suspect that there is some truth in the story that some of you stole children. On the other hand, we think it abominable that you should be knocked about from pillar to post, and hunted by landlords and magistrates, and we make a proposal. We will give you a great piece of common land where you often camp and build you houses there and hope we shall all be friends.’ That was the implication of Zionism; the world as a whole had some persecution to apologize for; the Jews as a whole had some usury and similar things to apologise for.” [4]

As Peter McGuire (lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College Dublin) reports, the child-kidnapping gypsy, like the ritual murdering Jew (another antisemitic myth that Chesterton seemed to embrace [5]), is a character from folktale. For centuries, Jews and Roma have both been branded as thieves, parasites, sorcerers, child-kidnapers and murderers. McGuire concludes, quite rightly, that it is sad but true that “societies are notoriously resistant to accept or even consider evidence which challenges the ancient prejudices expressed in folklore” [6]. The fact that Roma and Sinti continue to be vilified, and child-kidnapping folktales continue to circulate, testifies to the resilience and durability of such cultural myths and stereotypes.

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Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Myth of the Child-Kidnapping Gypsy

1. “Police seize blonde girl from Roma in Dublin,” The Times, 23 October 2013, p.5. Similar reports can be found in other English daily newspapers for 23 October 2013.

2. “DNA tests prove Dublin Roma girl is part of family,” BBC News Europe (link here).

3. G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1920), p.232. Page numbers in other editions may vary but the page can be found in chapter XIII.  The strange spelling of “Gipsey” is found in the Thomas Nelson and Sons 1920 edition of The New JerusalemSome later editions of The New Jerusalem have changed “Gipseys” to “gipsies.”

4. [G. K. Chesterton], G.K.’s Weekly, 2 May 1925, p.126.

5. G. K. Chesterton and his brother Cecil Chesterton both believed that whilst the accusation could not be levelled at all Jews, some diabolic secret societies of Jews engaged in ritual murder. In 1914, in the New Witness, in response to the Beilis blood libel, Cecil Chesterton characterised Russian pogroms as something horrible, but also something to be understood as part of an ongoing “bitter historic quarrel” between the Jews and the Russians. The evidence, Cecil Chesterton argued, points to a “savage religious and racial quarrel.” He suggested that it was sometimes the “naturally kindly” Russians who were “led to perpetrate the atrocities,” and sometimes it was the “equally embittered” Jews, who, “when they got a chance of retaliating, would be equally savage.” Referring to the Beilis affair, he stated that: “An impartial observer, unconnected with either nation, may reasonably inquire why, if we are asked to believe Russians do abominable things to Jewish children, we should at the same time be asked to regard it as incredible … that Jews do abominable things to Russian children – at Kieff, for instance”. In response, Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish author and playwright, wrote a letter to Cecil, rightly arguing that following Cecil’s flawed logic we should have to accept that if hooligans throttle Quakers then Quakers must also be throttling hooligans. In reply, Cecil Chesterton stated that no sane man would suggest that ritual murder was a religious rite of Judaism, but “there may be ferocious secret societies among the Russian Jews,” and “such societies may sanctify very horrible revenges with a religious ritual.” Cecil Chesterton also revived the anti-Jewish host desecration myth. He argued that in the case of Kieff, “the Jews may or may not have insulted the Host, as was alleged. I do not know. But I do know that they wanted to; because I know what a religion means, and therefore what a religious quarrel means” (Cecil Chesterton, “Israel and ‘The Melting Pot,’” New Witness, 5 March 1914, 566-567; Cecil Chesterton, “A Letter from Mr. Zangwill,” New Witness, 12 March 1914, 593-594). In 1925, G. K. Chesterton stated that “the Hebrew prophets were perpetually protesting against the Hebrew race relapsing into idolatry that involved such a war upon children; and it is probable enough that this abominable apostasy from the God of Israel has occasionally appeared in Israel since, in the form of what is called ritual murder; not of course of any representative of the religion of Judaism, but by individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews” (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, London: Hodder and Stoughton, [1925], 136). For more on this, see Simon Mayers, “From the Christ-Killer to the Luciferian: The Mythologized Jew and Freemason in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century English Catholic Discourse,” Melilah 8 (2011), pp.48-49. Melilah is the open access peer-reviewed journal of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester (link here).

6. Peter McGuire, “Do Roma ‘Gypsies’ Really Abduct Children?”, The Huffington Post, 24 October 2013 (link here).