Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Gypsy Hunts

For the last two days I have been working on the third draft of my novel Mother of Wolves It’s an alternative history novel. The alternative history being that of the Romanies.

The idea for the novel first came to me when I visited a castle in the Czech Republic. As is often the case in the Czech Republic the only way to visit the castle was on a guided tour. I was the only English speaker and stood at the back of the group of listening Czechs, reading a couple of sheets of A4 that was meant to be a translation of the tour. As the tour took an hour and I read the sheets in five minutes I spent a lot of time looking in cabinets and at prints.

In one room as the guide droned on in Czech and some annoying person kept asking questions I found myself examining three folk art pictures on the wall. They were not listed in the translation nor did they have any label. The guide did not refer to them and the rest of the party ignored them. They had no significance. But as I looked I was increasingly shocked by the subject matter. They were primitive but graphic pictures of the persecution of gypsies from, I guess, the 18th century.
It is two years since I saw the pictures, but I still remember them in detail. In one a man is hanging from a branch, while in the foreground a gypsy woman (perhaps his wife) is holding a babe while blood pours from her head where her ear has been cut off. As a historian I had known that the gypsies had been the victims of persecution through the centuries and that they too had been the subject of Hitler’s extermination programme. In the Great Devouring as they called the holocaust the numbers of Romany victims varies but it seems that it was at least half a million. But as I investigated further I was shocked by the untold history of persecution over centuries. Gypsy hunts occurred in many European countries. Very simply gypsies were hunted as vermin, no different than foxes. In Jutland in 1835 a hunt “brought in a bag of over 260 men, women and children.” A Rheinland hunter recorded in his list of game for the day “Item: A Gypsy woman with her sucking babe.”

It is a sad fact that no matter how horrific a story one can devise, that reality can always exceed its horror. The tragedy of the Romany people has in some ways always been overshadowed by that of the Jews. They were/are rural, often illiterate, and poor. They also do not have and never had a state or a leadership to speak for them. But what if there had been such a leader…

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