“We are building a socialist order for the happy present and future of today's and future generations.” This is what Václav Nosek, the Minister of the Interior, told his fellow party members at the beginning of the Ninth Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in May 1949.1 His words exemplify how the formation of communist rule in Czechoslovakia (and elsewhere) was accompanied by the promise of a just order for all. And since, as it was said, “all people are equal in socialist society, whatever the color of their skin,”2 the situation of local Romanies was supposed to improve as well.
Most of the Romani population that had lived in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia before World War II had perished in the Romani Holocaust, but Slovak Romanies moved into the Czech part of the country after the war, attracted by the prospect of a better life.3
Their arrival provoked considerable discontent in the Czech regions. They were even labeled bedbugs and parasites by the Czech press.4 If Czechoslovakia was to build the promised just order as it was developing toward socialism, it needed to improve not only the difficult living conditions in the Romani milieu but also overcome the racist prejudices of the Czech public.
Czechoslovak policy toward Romanies took various forms once the Communist Party grabbed power in February 1948. In the first decade following the establishment of communist rule, during the 1950s, it oscillated between two poles. While the first half of the decade — filled with revolutionary élan — saw efforts to emancipate the Romani population, including the promotion of Romani culture, the second half was marked by attempts to assimilate the Romanies through restrictive measures.5
However progressive the initial intention might have seemed, the emancipation initiative was, in fact, paradoxical, to say the least: the representatives of the central, regional, and local administrations, as well as journalists, and educators involved in Romani emancipation, generally claimed they “knew very well” whom they were dealing with. They — and the general public with them — viewed the situation of the Romanies through the prism of an a priori belief in the civilizational superiority of mainstream society so that this knowledge of the Romani milieu allowed the thinking in racist stereotypes to continue. I therefore call this knowledge about Romanies degrading.
In the early 1950s, the topic of school education for Romani children appeared relatively frequently in the daily press and popular magazines. Educating these children was considered a key requirement for the Gypsy Question — as it was commonly referred to at the time — to be successfully resolved.
As long as Romani pupils met the requirements for school attendance, including hygiene standards, they were expected to go to standard schools along with other children. The state arranged for special classes or schools to be set up for those whom it regarded as having a poor education and an upbringing full of neglect. In these settings, Romani children were to fill the gaps in their knowledge as quickly as possible in order to be able to start regular schooling with their peers. Therefore, as one of the decrees of the Ministry of the Interior stressed, the state intended for special education to be a temporary measure and not a means of discrimination.6
It was in connection to the education of Romani children that the government directed a clear message to the Czechoslovak public: a change in the status of Romanies was not only desirable but, more importantly, already under way! It is questionable whether anyone at the time noticed the tricky undertones of such optimistic media messaging. For example, the popular women’s magazine Vlasta published a report about children from a school for Romanies in the village of Květušín tellingly titled “They Begin to Live.”7 The army magazine Obrana lidu [The People’s Defense] used the same title for an article detailing the efforts of a teacher at a Romani school in eastern Slovakia who was returning children “to life, to our world.”8 The magazine also published another story about the Květušín school, using this example of re-education to argue that the Romanies there were “no longer outcasts of human society.”9 All in all, it appeared that there was a “new generation of Gypsies growing up,” as an article about the education of Romani children in the town of Trutnov promised — naturally amid a colorful depiction of alleged Romani primitiveness, including the absence of hygiene habits.10
Official materials corroborate the idea that the government subjected Romanies to educational efforts because they were considered instinctive and antisocial in nature. For example, the author of a report about the school in Květušín that seems to have drawn significant attention did not hesitate to bluntly state that the only way the socialist system would be able to transform “a gypsy, an illiterate and backward man” into “a healthy and pure man of equal rights” was by re-educating both adults and children.11
Portraying the conditions in which the Romanies lived in Květušín, he then wrote, among other things, that he had seen their dwellings but refused to call them apartments. A room housed “several people in a tangle of rags, straw and hay.” A ruined stove filled the space with smoke, “and so adults and their children lived in a filthy and harmful environment.” Finally, he described the children as “frightened feral creatures infested with parasites, unwashed and half-dressed in rags.”12
The “re-education” of Romanies frequently mentioned in this article had not been clearly defined beforehand. Even so, the belief in the possibilities of positive educational influence on people that it exhibited could have been lifted from the teachings of the Soviet educator Anton Semenovich Makarenko (every man is educable!), whose work was widely translated into Czech at that time. However, we need to ask whether the vision of “re-educating” Romanies circulating through Czech society at that time was, in fact, a far cry from Makarenko’s pedagogical optimism.
Or rather, we need to ask what “re-educating” Romanies meant for the ideologues of the Communist Party, optimistic journalists, and the committed teachers aware of Makarenko’s ideas, on the one hand, and for representatives of local institutions and “ordinary” people, on the other — that is, people who were in contact with Romanies on a daily basis and also experienced some of the problems that helped fuel anti-Romani stereotypes. My sense is that the latter, at least, clearly understood Romani “re-education,” in its professed unconditionality, not as a dialogue between equals but as a manifestation of the aforementioned belief in the civilizational superiority of mainstream society, which imposed its own values and norms onto others and onto those who were different through disparaging descriptions of the Romani milieu. In my view, therefore, this is how the intention and the first attempts to re-educate Romanies should be interpreted.
In this context, these articles alluded to images of (past) alterity to form a bridge to the expected re-education, the vision of which was in line with the emancipatory ethos promoted by the communist dictatorship even as it was based on reproducing the degrading knowledge about Romanies. This also explains why the book Dějiny našich cikánů [A History of Our Gypsies], which was published in the mid-1950s and aimed at general audiences, noted that superficial people might ask whether Romanies would become human.13
Renouncing One’s Roots
“The communists made us human.” This sentence, attributed to Romanies who personally experienced the postwar period, is how Czech historian Matěj Spurný begins his book Nejsou jako my [They Are Not Like Us] on minorities in Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1960. Although he relativizes this statement by noting that many Romanies even today might say that the communists took away their freedom (with many parents indeed resisting the re-educational efforts directed primarily at their offspring),14 some Romanies do remember the first years of the communist dictatorship as a period in which “they finally became equal members of human society.”15
But what can be made of such statements by living witnesses that are framed by the belief that Romanies can only be human within the norms set by mainstream society? What might lead Romanies themselves to claim that they only became human thanks to the communists? Perhaps nothing less than the fact that many of them, too, have accepted the degrading knowledge about themselves and their people as expressed, among other things, in the contaminated language of “socialist re-education.”
Speech is not an innocent tool for describing the external world but a means of shaping the surrounding reality from an actor’s point of view. As I have already mentioned, the effect of the traditional undignified images of Romanies that were used to legitimize the need for their re-education has not been to refute but to reproduce the degrading knowledge of the Romani milieu that was prevalent within the public at large at that time.
Moreover, insofar as Romani children, in particular, were seen in this re-education as embarking on a new path, being returned to or saved for humanity, and beginning to live, they were perceived as having just set off toward some sort of future goal. However, the existing conditions were mostly depicted as anti-social, unhygienic, and uncultured. It seems that to be Romani meant to remain inferior despite one’s individual efforts.
From the Romani perspective, though, this obstacle was not fatal. As individuals, they had the opportunity to escape the stigma, even though making use of it could jeopardize their identity.
For Czechoslovak Romanies, to become equal human beings meant accepting the dominant culture as their own, including the categorizing perspective of us and them. A report on the situation of the Romanies in the Ústí nad Labem16 region in the northern part of what is now the Czech Republic confirms that this is not mere theorizing.
In November 1951, the subordinate District National Committee in Litoměřice informed the Regional National Committee in Ústí nad Labem that a Romani man who had arrived in Litoměřice in the spring of 1948 had been employed there as a blue-collar worker and had been “very successful workwise, so his earnings had been quite high.” He also had established a family, so he did “not like remembering his origins very much.” The people of Litoměřice recognized his exemplary life by granting him ownership of a family home, which he was said to have carefully tended.
This wasn’t the only reward he received. A very telling request appeared in the report to the superior regional institution: “As his public appearance today is in no way indicative of his origins, his only wish is that he should not be named anywhere, and that he should be left to live in peace with his family.” The District National Committee therefore requested “that, in view of the wish of the said person, his origins should not be mentioned anywhere.”17
The communist dictatorship of the early 1950s supported Romanies for principled ideological reasons and offered them the chance to become part of mainstream society. However, it presented this intention through degrading knowledge, which reproduced the power asymmetry between mainstream society and Romanies. The genealogy of the 1950s vision of Czechoslovak Romanies’ socialist emancipation thus reveals structures of racist thinking. Unfortunately, this thinking is still alive and well among the Czech public.18
Jan Randák is an associate professor at the Institute of Czech History, Faculty of Arts, Charles University Prague. He is currently working on the history of special education and defectology in socialist Czechoslovakia.
- Protokol IX. řádného sjezdu Komunistické strany Československa: v Praze 25.–29. května 1949 [Minutes of the IXth Ordinary Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in Prague, 25–29 May 1949] (Prague: Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, 1949), 32. ↩︎
- Jiří Weiss, “Na nové cestě [The New Path],” Květy, September 11, 1952, 7. ↩︎
- About 15,000 to 20,000 Romanies came to the Czech part of the country from Slovakia in that period. See Matěj Spurný, Nejsou jako my: česká společnost a menšiny v pohraničí (1945–1960) [They Are Not Like Us: Czech Society and Minorities in the Borderlands (1945–1960)] (Prague: Antikomplex, 2011), 239. ↩︎
- Ibid., 240–241. ↩︎
- Ibid., 266–267; for more detail, cf. 274–276. ↩︎
- Věstník ministerstva školství, věd a umění [Bulletin of the Ministry of Education, Sciences and Arts] 8, no. 11 (April 20, 1952): 153. ↩︎
- Jaroslava Weissová, “Začínají žít [They Begin to Live],” Vlasta, June 26, 1952, 7. ↩︎
- Jaroslav Kašpar, “Začínají žít [They Begin to Live],” Obrana lidu, March 3, 1952, 6. ↩︎
- Jiří Černý, “Vojáci cikánským dětem [Soldiers Providing for Gypsy Children],” Obrana lidu, September 13, 1951, 5. ↩︎
- Milena Majorová, “Roste nová cikánská generace [A New Gypsy Generation is Growing Up],” Vlasta, November 29, 1951, 8–9. ↩︎
- As quoted in Barbora Šebová, “‘Škola Míru’ v Květušíně 1950–1954 (a její pokračování na Dobré Vodě u Prachatic) — kritická reflexe v historickém kontextu 50. let” [The ‘School of Peace’ in Květušín 1950–1954 (and Its Continuation at Dobrá Voda near Prachatice) – A Critical Reflection in the Historical Context of the 1950s] (Master’s Thesis, Charles University, 2009), 55. ↩︎
- Ibid., 55. ↩︎
- Zdeňka Jamnická-Šmerglová, Dějiny našich cikánů (Prague: Orbis, 1955), 105. ↩︎
- This included the Květušín school, where the situation was described in one source as follows: “Many Gypsies do not want to understand the benefits of cultured life. Why deprive children of their freedom? Why should they have to learn something their parents never needed? ‘Make your own children,’ they say, ‘and then educate them!’ Many children would fight back with their nails and teeth, or run home. … Their parents would be shouting under the windows, threatening, swearing.” Jiří Weiss, "Na nové cestě," Květy, September 11, 1952, 7. ↩︎
- Spurný, Nejsou jako my, 9. ↩︎
- The administrative reform of 1948 divided the territory of Czechoslovakia into regions governed by Regional National Committees. Lower territorial administrative units called districts were governed by District National Committees. ↩︎
- SOkA Litoměřice/Lovosice, fond Okresní národní výbor Litoměřice [Litoměřice/Lovosice District Archives], collection “Litoměřice by District National Committee,” box 730, Cikánská otázka, Cikánská otázka v kraji Ústeckém – zpráva, 12. 11. 1951 [The Gypsy Question, The Gypsy Question in the Ústí nad Labem Region]. ↩︎
- Sociologist Daniel Prokop has argued that some Czech parents today are sensitive to the presence of minorities in their children’s classrooms. He says they even report that some parents reject a school as soon as there are only two Romani pupils in their child’s class. Therefore, in many Czech towns and cities, a system including three types of primary schools has evolved: one for “good families,” one for “normal families,” and, last and least, one for Romanies and other disadvantaged groups. One of the reasons many Czechs consider this system to be normal is the dehumanization of the Romanies. According to a public opinion poll, the average Czech ranks Romanies at 48 on a scale of humanity from 0 to 100. As Prokop comments, “denying Romani children the right to a quality education” is facilitated by the fact that, apparently, “a large part of the population doesn’t consider them to be fully human.” Daniel Prokop, Slepé skvrny: o chudobě, vzdělávání, populismu a dalších výzvách české společnosti (Blind Spots: Poverty, Education, Populism and Other Challenges Facing Czech Society) (Brno: Host, 2020), 79. ↩︎