I didn’t want my family to live the way I had to

Zdenek RidajNove StraseciJuly 2000
My father-in-law was born in Slovakia in the village of Cicmany. He is one of thirteen brothers and sisters, and the oldest of the boys. He is now sixty-three, and doesn’t like to recall his childhood. It was very difficult.
Recently he paid us a visit. I told him I was recording stories about Romany people, and used the occasion to ask him if he could tell me a story about his life. I know that his stories could easily fill up a book. He’s experienced a lot.
He agreed, but I had to promise that I wouldn’t use his name.
I began by asking how he managed to learn a trade when times were so difficult, especially for the Roma.
"Well, it’s hard to tell,” he replied. As he looked at me, it was clear from his eyes that he was racking his brains for old memories.
He took a deep breath and started to tell his story.
“You know, it wasn’t like it is today. When I wanted to go to school, I had to walk barefoot, and often hungry too. But I liked to go there. I remember that our neighbor’s wife was our teacher: they were big farmers. At the beginning there were just a few Romany children at our school. The kids mostly had to help their parents.
When I was in the third grade, we Roma had to sit at the last desks in the classroom.
I had problems with language at school. We spoke only Romany at home. When I didn’t know an answer, when I said something wrong, the Gadje [non-Romany] children always started laughing. I was ashamed. I was terribly ashamed.”
Here my father-in-law paused. It seemed as if he would not go on.
But after a while he started speaking again.
“What I liked was that the teacher always called the mockers to order. She was nice, and helped me a lot.
Once she came to our home. I was fourteen then. She told my father that they should have me become an apprentice. I was gifted, she said, and I should learn a trade.
Father followed her advice, and I got ready to become an apprentice. I had to go to school and graze cows and goats at the same time.”
I interrupted him: “Why?”
“Why? Because Mama didn’t have money. I had to earn enough to buy shoes, clothes and books. Imagine: I studied in the pasture. I tied up the books like this.”
He showed how he tied them around his waist with a scarf.
“Oh yes: it was tough, not like today when parents can give their children almost everything and the kids don’t appreciate it at all.
After three years I went to the town of Trenein, and after three more years I was qualified in agricultural equipment maintenance.
Thanks to this, my children were well off. They didn’t know what poverty was.
Then I found myself a well-paid job in Bohemia. I didn’t want my family to live the way I had to.
I was also afraid they would have problems with the language at school, so my wife and I never taught our children to speak Romany.
Now they reproach me for that.
Maybe it was a mistake. Who knows?”

3 Responses to “I didn’t want my family to live the way I had to”

  1. we have some problems in my family as well when the children later on hate us for not teaching them romany, because romany is so different from so many other languages it is hard to learn others, so we do what is best for our children

  2. Thank you for sharing these stories in a format accesible to such a vast audience. I wonder if anything has been attempted in the United States to preserve the Romany language? Are there, for instance, language classes for Rom children within their own community (assuming that English is spoken at school)? I would like so much to help, I only cannot think where I might begin.



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