TARGU JIU, Romania – In late 2006, an American Yiddishist in Vilnius, Lithuania, Dovid Katz, explained to me why language is the connective tissue for any tribe.
“A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken,” Katz said during the interview.
I’ve now seen this theory in action in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. In the neighborhood of “Meteor,” the Kalderash Roma live together, practice the same traditions, and their womenfolk dress distinctively: vibrant skirt, head scarf and hair braided down the front. Just as important, though, is that they’re speaking their mother tongue, Romani.
Just outside of Targu Jiu is the quiet village of Ceauru, which is populated by both Roma and Romanians. The Roma here have a unique history, says the director of the local school, Cornel Somacu. He himself is Romanian, but he tells us he’s researched this because so many of his students, including some of his highest-achieving girls, are Roma.
For centuries, the Roma here were slaves owned by the local monastery. After emancipation in the 19th century, many remained in the village, living on separate sides from the ethnic Romanians. That continued until 1950, says Somacu, when the new Communist regime wanted to build a power plant nearby. The authorities uprooted the entire village, Roma and Romanians alike, and resettled them in new housing and new neighborhoods with utter disregard for who lived next to whom.
“This also mixed up the mentalities,” he says …
Just like the Jews of Eastern Europe and other ethnic groups I’ve written about, Communist pressure to conform created this “Lost Generation” of children whose parents refused to transmit unique cultural traits.
Romas and Romanians also became classmates, coworkers – even spouses. It was the Roma, though, who took strides to become more like the Romanians. They abandoned their language, and one-by-one, their traditions.
A Roma ex-student of Somacu’s, Oana Mirabela Sunci, told us her best friend is Romanian. But she also drew a blank when I asked which distinct group of Roma she hails from.
“I think the only difference today between Roma and Romanians is that they have their weddings on Saturday and Sunday, and ours are Wednesdays or Thursdays,” says Sunci, 20, a university student studying the Romanian and English languages.
Her parents, though, are part of the Lost Generation that now finds itself smack between: their parents, with historical memory of what they learned as children; and their children, who are so emboldened by democratic freedoms, they’re unafraid to explore the roots of their own ethnic identity.
When Somacu organized the first Romani-language class for students, 40 sets of parents registered their kids. Another former Somacu student, Ion Catalin Cidoiu, explained his motivation.
Cidoiu is also a university student, and supports himself by driving a taxi part-time. “When I get passengers from Meteor, they seem I’m Gypsy and ask me questions in Romani,” he said. “But when I tell them I don’t understand, they say I’m not a real Gypsy. I’m ashamed of that.”