May 16th: Romani Resistance Day

“The Forgotten History of Romani Resistance,” Open Society Foundations, by Pierre Chopinaud

“On the evening of May 16, 1944, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, SS guards armed with machine guns surrounded the area of the camp designated for Roma and Sinti prisoners. Their intent was to round up the nearly 6,000 prisoners there and send them to the gas chambers. But when the guards approached the area, they were met with armed resistance from the inmates.

The prisoners had learned of the planned ‘liquidation’ and fashioned weapons from sheet metal, wood, pipes, rocks, and any other scraps of material they could get their hands on. According to the memories of survivors and witnesses to the incident, the inmates forced the guards into retreat, and though some prisoners were shot that night, the act of resistance allowed the Roma and Sinti prisoners to put off execution for several more months.

How can such an epic episode have been lost to history? Who knows about the Sonderkommandos revolt of August 1944? Who knows about Witold Pilecki, who infiltrated Auschwitz to organize its resistance network? Keeping alive the memories of these events could help prevent such crimes from happening again in the future.”

Read the rest of this fascinating article here. If you want to help spread awareness on social media, use these hashtags #RomaniResistanceDay #RomaniResistance #may16. I like to throw in #Gypsy too because that hashtag is (mis)used so much to perpetuate absurd Gypsy stereotypes that it’s helpful when something real comes up under that umbrella.

Image courtesy of ternYpe, the International Roma Youth Network

Image courtesy of ternYpe, the International Roma Youth Network

On being a ‘Gypsy’ Witch

Fox-Frazier Foley, writer and curator of The Infoxicated Corner of The The Poetry Blog, solicited an essay about Romani poetics and language, and immediately I knew I would write about Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s poem “The Apparition of Choxani,” from the anthology The Roads of The Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers. Fox has mixed Romani heritage too, so the project felt like a gorgeous act of unity and cultural collaboration.

For me to better understand “The Apparition of Choxani,” and write what became my article, The Magic Word:
‘Gypsy’ Witchcraft, Love, and Breaking Tradition in Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s Poem “The Apparition of Choxani,” I had to look at my Romani family’s history as well as our traditions—not those that endured, but rather those that were extinguished.

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With a headband that my lovely Romani friend, writer Norma Szokolyai, gave me when we taught in France together on the CWW Yoga & Writing Retreat

My entire Romani identity is invested in my grandmother and what she taught me, and her identity springs from what her family could pass on to her while simultaneously obscuring their ethnicity and shedding their culture, attempting to avoid the gas chambers or a bullet in a ditch. They had a unique opportunity to do this, namely that some of the Romani family had already married gadjé and assimilated for love, and my beautiful and resourceful great-grandmother decided to re-marry a cruel-but-useful gadjo (non-Roma) and bring her three children with her to his farm in the countryside. There are whispers that her papers were forged and documents were signed by Hitler, but the details were lost a long time ago. This saved our line but left holes in our Romanipen (The Romani Way)—we lost parts of our Roma soul. I never learned Rromanès, because my grandmother wasn’t allowed to speak it—how could they explain to the suspicious Nazi officers who burst-in from time to time why their children spoke Gypsy-tongue? Most Romani families affected by the Holocaust did not break and bury their traditions. Fate tossed my great-grandmother a bone and she took it, but most Roma in WWII Europe knew that they could not assimilate and would not be allowed to. They spoke Rromanès and Romani women wore dikhle (traditional head coverings), even in the concentration camps. In the camps, there are accounts of Roma singing traditional songs and even dancing to keep their spirits and their dignity. What else is there to do in the face of utter hatred and persecution but dance? Recently, a Belgian village hired a DJ tried to try to (illegally) oust Roma from their camps with loud music, and the Roma danced then too.

My grandmother taught me our family trades, dancing and drabaripé (fortune telling, and healing magic), and although I didn’t learn about Choxani until I began researching my more about my cultural heritage as a young woman, she taught me about a different kind of witch— the drabarni, or healer or adviser. Usually the drabarni is a woman in the Romani community who uses prayer, amulets, herbs, and energy work to heal physical, emotional, and spiritual illness. Some of these practices survived in my family because far down the line there was a drabarni in my grandmother’s family. Romani magic is quite real within the culture, but it looks nothing like the “Gypsy Witchcraft” books you can get at B&N. Romani writer and scholar, Qristina Zavačková, has an incredible blog post on Romani magic, titled “Magic and Magpies—Akhaljiben the Kakaraske.” Even though our family assimilated and we lost so much, even though I went to school with gadjé children where I didn’t learn anything about the history of my people, not even the fact that Americans enslaved Roma alongside African Americans in the Old South, I was still different. I was still stoned till I bled on the playground after I leaked the truth about my family roots when I was six years old and too proud of my grandmother for my own good, despite her many warnings to stay quiet. I was still given detention by my fifth grade teacher for being a “witch.” I started wearing the epithet like a mantle. I proudly practiced my family trades when I was a teen, through college, and whenever I was in a tight spot. But it was still nothing like the fantasy Gypsies in story books– it was real, gritty, and sometimes heartbreaking. It was an identity that I claimed with such mixed feelings that, for years at a time, I would refuse to crack open my deck of cards because I couldn’t be a Gypsy freak-show for one more day. And other times, I felt like I was making my ancestors proud, that I was my grandmother’s blood, and I was grateful for my beautiful and complex culture.

In short, it matters when the word “Gypsy” is appropriated and redefined by outsiders. It’s our heritage, it’s our genocide, it’s our right to reclaim the ethnic slur used against us. If we are witches, it is because we have not been understood by outsiders–we are not magical, but we have a powerful culture. So be it.

My love letter to “Political Punch” and Gypsy poems

I don’t know if you read Juan Vidal’s NPR essay “Where Have All The Poets Gone?”— it’s a smart, well-intentioned lament of the lack of American political poetry since the Beat Poets. Many readers, myself included, respectfully and optimistically disagree. Perhaps, since all of the poets he mentioned were white men, Vidal’s scope was too small, because it seems to me that political poetry is thriving on the voices of the systemically oppressed rising-up. But I think Vidal and I both agree where it really counts– we need more political poetry in America and we need more people to read it and care.
In response to Vidal’s essay, Fox Frazier-Foley curated “Political Punch.” It’s a week-long series of diverse American political poets, featured at The The Poetry Blog in The Infoxicated Corner. The poets included thus far are CA Conrad with a poem about LGBT representation, Anne Barngrover with a poem about the rape of Daisy Buchanon, and Christopher Soto (aka Loma) with a poem about the need to revolutionize the prison system. These poets, whom I am honored to be listed among, are a reflection of the many types of poets who write their art and politics, who speak up, shake it up, and rise up. Vidal, by the way, has been very supportive of the endeavor and extremely kind.
Here’s the link to my Opre Roma-style political poems “Murder and Tradition” and “Transfiguration of the Black Madonna” http://www.thethepoetry.com/2014/09/infoxicated-corner-political-punch-poems-by-jessica-reidy/ “Murder and Tradition” is inspired by real events that transpired in Italy— Roma girls Violetta and Cristina really did drown, and that camp really was torched– it’s all too terrible. And I wrote “Transfiguration” at the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Yoga and Writing Retreat, so all those craft talks, workshops, and inspiration exercises paid-off! It’s about the Romani Goddess/Saint Sarah (Kali Sara), and the non-Roma’s mythology of the Romani people. Click here for more about the Romani Goddess.
Picture taken by Sarah Sullivan during a Quail Bell Gypsy fashion shoot http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/the-unreal/photo-tale-free-spirits

Picture taken by Sarah Sullivan during a Quail Bell photo tale shoot for “Free Spirits”  http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/the-unreal/photo-tale-free-spirits

“How to eat like a real Gypsy” in the Daily Meal for Roma & Traveller History Month. Learn to cook like my Gypsy grandmother taught me, plus, tea leaf reading!

Ok, so I’m really excited about this because I love The Daily Meal and I’m psyched that my recipes/article “How to eat like a real Gypsy” appeared in it just in time for Roma & Traveller History Month! The best part about writing this was talking food with grandma. I’ve been living far away for a while and it’s been too long since we had her breakfast blini and read each other’s tea leaves. Fortune telling, by the way, is something that most Roma almost never do for each other but my family is weird. Find out the history and the family tale (plus a crash-course in my grandma’s method) in the article. http://www.thedailymeal.com/how-eat-real-gypsy

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Opre Roma! Gypsies should… be recognized as equal.

Opre Roma! Gypsies should... be recognized as equal.

Inspired by the UN’s powerful campaign to spread awareness of sexism using Google’s auto complete search function, I did an experiment using the word “Gypsies” instead of “women” to take a look the mark of antigypsyism on the Internet. This is what I found: “Gypsies should be shot… Gypsies should be killed… Gypsies should die.” I decided to create an image in the spirit of the UN Women campaign to promote the Roma Rights movement and to shed light on what it is that we, that is, every humanitarian, is fighting against.

Which brings me to this: in the midst of this painful show of hatred, I need to acknowledge my many, many wonderful, loving friends who care about human rights for everyone. Y’all make me so happy about the world. I’m so glad you’re with me.