The totalitarian regime left its mark on me

Eva RidajováNové Strasecí
The totalitarian regime left its mark on my childhood. I come from a Romany family, and the totalitarian system aimed at eradicating Romany culture. As far as our large family is concerned, they very nearly succeeded.
Our parents assimilated. They brought us up in the Czech way, as the regime prescribed. They wanted us to grow up as educated people. I know they were right, but in trying to help us succeed, they failed to teach us our own language, the Romany language.
When I was a child I did not realize that this was a problem. On the contrary, I integrated myself into Czech society. Having successfully finished elementary school I went on to study at the comprehensive. I had excellent grades, and was a model member of the Socialist Children and later of youth organisations. I eagerly absorbed all the Communist ideas. As a child I didn’t even know that I was Romany and belonged to people with a language, culture and traditions of their own. I grew up among Czechs, and my family were the only Roma I knew. I never met any others.
When I was in secondary school and had begun to grow up, I realized that I was different from the others, that indeed our whole family was different.
There were several such families in Kadan, where I grew up. Unlike ours, they had conserved their Romany character and traditions. We were on friendly terms with one of them, a family with two girls of my age.
One day when I was about seventeen, those girls dragged me out of my isolation and took me to meet some other young Roma.
Was I ever delighted!
When I heard Romany songs and language around me, I felt wonderfully free and happy. Their company made me feel good – whereas in the majority society I was like a caged bird.
I started seeing other Roma every day, and sometime later the logical thing happened. I met my future husband, a Rom marked by the totalitarian regime just as I was.
During the eighteen years of our marriage I’ve given birth to three beautiful daughters. Helena, the eldest one, is sixteen, Eva is fifteen, and Marie, the youngest, has just turned eleven.
When we were first married, my husband worked in the mine in Nové Strasecí and was given a flat here. We moved in, and left our families a hundred kilometers away.
I didn’t know then that by this move we were also leaving the Romany community behind. In our new home, where we have now been living for eighteen years, we were surrounded by the majority Czech society. Even now there are only three other Romany families in the whole town, all of them assimilated.
At first I found it very difficult to live so far from any other Roma. It took me a long time to get used to this. But I had already learned about my people, and I kept that with me.
In Nové Strasecí we made a new home, and made a lot of plans for the future. Assimilated as I was, I wanted to continue my studies.
When children came our way, my plans had to change – but that’s life. I began to raise my children and take care of our household, and I got a job. An ordinary life, you might think. So did I. Once again I was isolated from the Romany community, and followed the line of the majority. Still, we lived a happy life.
But the birth of our younger daughters changed everything again and gave a new dimension to our lives.
Both our younger daughters were ill – and they still are. The doctors told us that they suffered from incurable genetic diseases: from myasthenia and Keansoyre syndrome.
All our plans for the future once again vanished into thin air. I had to leave work and take care of my daughters, who have needed me ever since.
But in 1997 my life took yet another turn. I enrolled in a distance-learning program in social and legal work organized by the Evangelical Academy in Prague.
This school was the first one to institute a Romany class, a major accomplishment. It is co-financed by the Rajko Djuric Foundation, and by Mr. George Soros and the Open Society Fund.
The class is made up of mature Romany students from the whole Czech Republic. The average age of the students is thirty-seven, and many of us are parents of large families. The course focuses on work with ethnic minorities.
Most of us have already started working in this area, either as advisors for Romany affairs or as assistants in social services and schools.
The course lasts five years. I am now in the fourth year, and I firmly believe that I will complete the program and pass the final exam.
When I was in the first year I didn’t have any self-confidence at all. I was very withdrawn, and it was only at later stages of the program that I livened up, gained more self-esteem, and finally found myself.
Now I know what I want and deep in myself I have rediscovered my long-lost Romany identity. Now I realize that although my parents never mentioned it, they passed it on to me.
Finally I have found myself. I am a Rom and proud to be.
At the beginning of July I readily accepted the invitation to take part in this project, the Stories Exchange Project. I find this work very interesting. And I think that this type of written record can help us Roma become more visible. Both other Roma and people from the majority society can access and read our stories on the Internet. This is the main idea of the project, and I think it’s great.
We have to open people’s eyes, make them aware of the fact that we aren’t just "black Gyppos,” thieves and antisocial types. They should come to realize that we’re people just like them with a right to live, people with normal problems, worries and joys.
When I look back now, in a way I am glad that I have been through so much in my life. The clouds in my life have had a silver lining. Thanks to my education I can help my people. I can pass my experience, not only to my children but also to others.
I’m trying to give my daughters as much as I can. I help Helena, my eldest one, cope with her coursework at the secondary school she has started this year. I’m trying to make up for all the things I have missed in my life. I teach my daughters about Roma and try to pass our beautiful Romany traditions on to them. I hope they will grow up knowing where they belong and one day they will be able to say: “I’m Romany and proud of it!”_______On 16 May 2002 Gabriela Berkova and Ruzena Lazova of Usti nad Labem responded:
I agree with you. I think that you should be proud of being Roma.Good bye Gabriela Berkova

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