This is one of those books that fits perfectly with the goal of my book-from-every-country project: to learn about the lives of people living in different cultures. The Romani people (a preferred term to Gypsy) are a minority people in many parts of Europe with their own distinct culture. I wanted to include them in my reading project, but their culture has primarily been one of music and of oral story-telling and there aren’t many books written by Roma. Luckily, a little hunting led me to A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy* Woman in Slovakia, the autobiography of Ilona Lackova who lived through World War II and the implementation of Communism in Czechoslovakia.
The book was written as an oral history- Ilona Lackova tape-recorded her memories in interviews with her friend Milena Hubschmannova, who organized and transcribed them and translated them from Romani into Czech. They finished the book in 1986, but were unable to publish it because it was critical of Communist policies. (Though the criticism seemed pretty muted to me.) The book was finally published in the 1990s after the fall of Communism. Carleton Bulkin did the English translation which was published in 1999.
Ilona Lackova grew up in a Roma settlement near a small town in Eastern Slovakia. Her childhood stories highlight both the poverty and discrimination faced by the Roma and their tight-knight community in which children could go to any house to get fed. Ilona was a bit better-off than most (families that didn’t own a sewing needle or a spoon came over to borrow theirs) because her father was a successful musician (apparently the better-off Roma tended to be musicians or pig traders) and her mother was extremely hard-working. Unlike most of her friends, Ilona completed grade school, but World War II prevented her from going further. Slovakia was allied with Germany in WWII and the Roma were declared to be “outside the law”. They were forbidden from entering the larger towns and were only allowed into the nearby village from noon to two. The Roma settlement where Ilona lived was torn down and the community had to live in hastily built shanties in the woods. Many of the men were sent to labor camps.
Despite all the discrimination she experienced in her life, Ilona never drew the conclusion that all people in a given group were hateful. She talks about the local people who were fair and generous with her as well as ones who mistreated her. Even amongst the German soldiers, she found that some were kind and honorable.
After the war, Slovakia became part of communist Czechoslovakia with mixed effects on the Roma people. On the one hand, the Communist egalitarian ethic promoted equal treatment of the Roma. On the other hand, laws forbidding the private hiring of labor prevented the Roma from working on local farms, which had been of one of their main sources of income. Plus the Roma were still living in the settlements they had been forced into by the Germans in which conditions were poorer than their settlements before the war.
This is the time when Ilona’s life really begins to blossom. Married, and the mother of small children, she wrote and produced a play about her community’s experiences during World War II. The play was very successful and with the support of the Communist government they ended up performing throughout Czechoslovakia. The fame from being a Romani woman playwright got Ilona a job in the regional government. This was probably the most inspiring part of the book for me- seeing how she was able to use her position to help fight discrimination against many Roma communities.
I thought it was interesting how many insights in the book could be applicable to other discriminated-against minority groups. For example, Ilona talks about working with Roma communities where the people have lost hope in the face of their on-going challenges and slid into dysfunction. Alcohol and drug abuse become problematic. Communities lose touch with their traditions, such as music-playing and storytelling. Another example is that even the simple lack of small signals of respect can take a big toll. It means so much to Ilona to be addressed with the respectful form of speech or to be offered a seat when she comes into an office.
One challenge to me in reading A False Dawn was in accepting that Ilona was a product of her time and culture and that it is understandable that she holds opinions that are jarring to me. For one, she embraces what I see as a superstitious view of the world and why things happen. But more troubling for me was her acceptance of violence towards women. She says, for example, that her grandfather never beat her grandmother, but that he should have because her grandmother deserved it. She doesn’t take objection to her fiancee’s threat to kill her and another man if he ever suspects her of flirting with someone else. And then there’s her description of her parents’ meeting. Ilona’s father bribed the landlady to let him into Ilona’s mother’s room, where he hid under the bed.
“Papa crawled out from under the bed and said, ‘Máňa, from this moment on you are my faithful wife and I your faithful husband.’ Then he did with her what he wanted. Mother was afraid, she cried, but Papa said, ‘Never in my life will I let you out of my arms.’ And that’s how it happened. The two of them grew old in their love and when Mama died, Papa died six weeks afterward, because he could not exist without her.”
A few pages later, Ilona expresses confusion as to why her mother ran away from her father in the early months of their marriage!
A False Dawn ends with the mid-1980’s, but the challenges faced by the Roma in Slovakia and other European countries persists today. In fact, The New York Times published an article a few weeks ago about segregation in Slovakian schools, where Roma children are put into separate ‘remedial’ classes and aren’t even allowed to use the school cafeteria or the same playground. Roma life-expectancy is 15 years less than that for the general population and only 28% even start high school. Many Roma are still living in isolated settlements that date back to the Nazi laws in WWII which expelled the Roma from towns and cities.
*It’s interesting that the publisher chose to use the word “Gypsy” in the title, when Gypsy is primarily used as a derogatory term throughout the book.