Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey ought to be required reading for anyone who believes they know a thing or two about European history. As it turns out (speaking from personal experience), one might even possess an advanced degree in the subject and still need educating about the history of this intriguing European population. And this, to a large degree, is Isabel Fonseca's point - the Roma (or Gypsies), historically-speaking represent a practically invisible group of people, even though they live in nearly every nation in Europe (with smaller populations in Africa, Asia and the United States). Since their arrival in Europe some 600 years ago, the Roma have been in turn exploited, marginalized, ignored and persecuted. The xenophobia and nationalism of various European regimes over time, as well as the Roma's tendency to shun both the written word and contact with outsiders (that is, with non-Roma or gadje), has rendered the history of the Roma little known, even to themselves. As Fonseca observes repeatedly, most Roma with whom she spoke only possessed historical knowledge going back three or four generations; that is, to the age of the oldest living member of their group.
This reliance on oral culture, even while living in the highly literate nations of Europe, is at once fascinating and frustrating. Obviously, it makes studying Roma history a profoundly difficult task. The Roma have, by and large, left no written record about themselves. The records that do exist were created by majority European populations who filled them with the kinds of misinformation, fear and hatred one might find in Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda. And Fonseca indeed points out the many similarities between the historical treatment of Jews and the Roma in Europe, although she is careful to delineate the independent path the history of the Roma has taken, including systematic and often state legislated persecution well into the 1990s. At any rate, Fonseca pieced together her history of the Roma people through careful study of the racist documents generated by individuals and governments alike for the last 600 years, but also through countless hours spent living with Roma families in numerous European countries, including Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Germany.
Fonseca spent, cumulatively, years in the early 1990s traveling in Europe, living with Roma families, scouring archives, witnessing the omnipresent prejudice against these people, and frequently getting the runaround from government officials. Through engaging and well-written prose, she assembles a complex, nuanced and ambivalent image of the Roma people. From their hazy and contested origins (most scholars point to India), through centuries of slavery, forced settlement, punitive legislation aimed at their way of life, and the resulting cycles of poverty and imprisonment, Fonseca traces the cultural outlook of a people who value the story for story's sake; who willfully spread misinformation about themselves as a means of protection; who are born capitalists, living in the moment, not saving but trusting in their ability to eke out a living tomorrow; who value family and cohesion above all; who, even when settled, live in a mental space more attuned with the nomadic ways of life of their ancestors. What emerges as the most shocking aspect of the Roma's history is how their systematic and governmentally-sanctioned persection continued into the last decade of the 20th Century...and no one seems to care.
Roma have been subject to the kind of oppression and violence that, historically, has been inflicted upon Native Americans (i.e., in several countries Roma children were forcibly removed from their families to be raised Christian), African Americans (i.e., Romania legally enslaved the Roma for centuries, and to this day in many counries Roma are sometimes lynched or their homes burned, while the authorities sit by and do nothing), and Jews (i.e., in addition to fairly common pogrom-like eruptions of violence against Roma in many European nations, over 500,000 Roma were murdered by the Nazi death machine during the Holocaust). Additionally, in hundreds of smaller ways, governments and majority populations in Europe continue to discriminate against the Roma, to relocate them, to hamper their ability to make a living at traditional Roma occupations, and to deny their cultural legitimacy, not to mention their civil rights, as a minority population. Ironically, one of the reasons all of this discrimination and suffering has gone so unnoticed (or been so disregarded) has to do with the Roma themselves. That the Roma culture has remained so largely oral, so dependent on living memory, has meant that the Roma of any one country neither know their own extensive history of persecution nor identify with (or even are aware of the existence of) Roma populations in other countries. To historians, ethnographers and linguists, the cultural unity of the Roma throughout Europe is clear, but most Roma do not know or particularly care about this. With some inchoate and recent exceptions, there has been no Roma civil rights movement, no united front. And so their suffering, their culture and their very existence remains unknown or ignored.
However, lest I paint Bury Me Standing as a bleaker work than it is, Isabel Fonseca observes throughout that despite the persecution and even because of it, Roma culture remains resilient, cohesive and vivid. It possesses a soulful, longsuffering aspect that offers a lesson in endurance and in embracing the now. It reminds us that adversity, too, is part of living.