I’ll never let anyone slander the Gypsies

Zdenka SvobodováPragueJuly 2000
I heard this story from Tomáš Szalay, an eighteen-year-old student whom I met at a festival of Hungarian films. Afterwards we sat down in a park on the Kampa and had a chat in Hungarian – a language in which the word "Gypsy” does not have a negative connotation.
“I was born in the Czech Republic but my father comes from Hungary and lived there until he married my mother. As for the following story, I learned it from my grandmother. My father has never mentioned the events described in it.
When Communism was at its worst, back in the early Fifties, there was a wave of arrests and internments in Hungary. Being interned basically meant having to move somewhere and staying there as long as the authorities liked.
In those days nearly everyone kept a suitcase ready, just in case. For all you knew, you could be the next one to be awakened by the secret police and told to report for transport within twenty-four hours with a suitcase of no more than twenty kilos. When your turn came, you weren’t allowed to inform anyone: not even your relatives.
This treatment was reserved for doctors,lawyers, civil engineers: for the nation’s élite.
These people were mostly transported to the ruins of some deserted farmhouse in the middle of “puszta” [a barren landscape typical of parts of Hungary]. They were left there in total isolation and forbidden to contact or to meet anyone. The penalty for doing so was death. No one else was allowed to get in touch with them either.
That’s what happened to our family.
One night those people came to my grandfather, an architect, and informed him that he was a persona non grata, whose existence and activities were harmful to the whole nation. Together with my grandmother and their two children he had to leave the flat and report for transfer.
My father was only four then and my uncle was twelve.
They were allowed to take only some warm clothing and a bit of food.
It all happened in winter. It was freezing cold, and everything was covered by layers of snow.
After a long and exhausting journey, the train they were on stopped in the middle of nowhere: there was no station in sight.
Then the guards took my grandparents to their new home: the ruins of a one-room hut with a few mattresses on the floor. Naturally nobody had heated the place, and no wood was to be seen anywhere around.
They were exhausted and frozen, and it had got dark in the meantime. The only thing they could do was to huddle up to each other and wonder what the future had in store for them – assuming that they managed to survive the night.
Sometime after midnight they heard a scratching at the door.
They were frightened and puzzled. What could anybody still want from them?
When they opened the door they saw several Gypsies. They whispered that they had brought some wood and matches. No one could survive such a wintry night without heat.
My grandparents were surprised that anybody had noticed their arrival. They hadn’t seen anyone on their way from the train.
The night visitors told them that they were always on the look out for internment transports and tried to help the internees. ‘We know that what they do to you is wrong.’
‘But it’s very dangerous! They could kill you!” my grandparents protested.
But the Gypsies told them to stop worrying. They were much cleverer than the ‘bad ones.’
None of the white people in that area ever got in touch with my grandparents. The Gypsies were the only ones.
They visited my family several times more, and helped them survive that horrible winter.
Of course they never got anything in return. My grandparents didn’t have anything to give.
They were risking their lives just to save four unknown ‘convicts’ from certain death.
My grandmother always says: ‘I’ll never forget what they did for us. And I´ll never let anyone slander the Gypsies. I’ve never encountered such unselfish helpfulness.'”

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