In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day this January 27th, we bring you an interview with Naomi Puzzello (MPA ’18), a Romani-American activist who participated in a major world gathering in Poland last year to raise awareness about the genocide committed against the Roma people during the Holocaust. She speaks about the Romani identity, history, and struggle; her experience in Poland; and the intersection of anti-Gypsyism with other forms of oppression. Since graduating from the MPA Program at CCNY, Puzzello has built a career in city government, working for City Councilmember Jumaane Williams and now serving as a press officer at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Who are the Romani people?
Romani are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, originating from northwest India. We are a diasporic people without our own country. We migrated through Persia, Armenia, Turkey, Greece, and all over Europe. Today we live all over the world but the highest concentrations are in Europe. We are anything but a monolith; there are many different groups of Roma, each varying in its traditions, language, religion, and culture.
Please tell us about the struggles the Roma people have endured.
It’s very little known that Roma were enslaved for five hundred years in Wallachia and Moldavia. Slavery was not abolished until 1855. But here’s the kicker: at the end of Roma Slavery a sum of 10 pieces of gold was set as compensation for each slave’s former owner.
From the first migrations of Roma, “Anti-Gypsy” laws were passed in nearly every European country. In 1637 in Sweden, the Hanging Law made it legal to kill any Roma found in the kingdom. In 1666 in France, Louis XIV decreed that all male “Gypsies” were to be arrested and sent to the galleys without trial. In 1747 in Spain, 10,000 to 12,000 Roma were interned in a single day as a way to deal with the “Gypsy Problem”. In 1773 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a decree was issued prohibiting marriages between Roma, and children over five years of age were taken from their parents and given to Hungarians. During the 19th century, eugenics and racist theories were accepted as scientific fact, suggesting that alleged criminal activity of “Gypsies” was the result of a genetic predisposition for criminality. And in 1927, the First Czech Republic passed the Law on Wandering Gypsies, which restricted the movement of Roma and forced them to apply for identification.
Also, critically under-represented in discussion of the Holocaust, Roma and Sinti were the second-largest group of people killed on the basis of race. After the war, the West German government blocked calls for reparations, claiming the Nazis had targeted Roma because of their “criminal and asocial elements”, not their race. It wasn’t until 1979 that the West German Federal Parliament recognized the Roma Genocide as racially motivated, and Roma were not recognized at Germany's annual Holocaust day of remembrance until 2011.
What is one unique cultural tradition of the Roma people that you’d like people to know about?
I’d like to highlight the resiliency of the Roma people. We are so diverse that there are few cultural traditions that are universal, but we do share the tradition of being able to maintain cultural traditions in the face of a whole history of oppression. We are just starting to explore that history and how it created our present realities. In the face of adversity, genocide, forced assimilations, and sterilizations, we are still here; Roma people are survivors. Our very existence is a display of Roma resistance.
Please explain the main purpose of the conference in Poland on August 2.
The Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau planned the liquidation of the “Zigeunerlager” or the “Gypsy Family Camp” for May 16, 1944, but the Roma and Sinti prisoners learned of the plan and revolted, making weapons out of found materials. This act of resistance, which we recognize as Romani Resistance Day, held off the liquidation of the camp for a few months.
However, on the night of August 2, 1944, the Nazis carried out their liquidation plan, murdering nearly 3,000 imprisoned Sinti and Roma in gas chamber V in Auschwitz-Birkenau. August 2 is now recognized as Roma Holocaust Memorial Day. Dikh He Na Bister (DHNB), meaning “Look and don’t forget”, is a six-day youth event around August 2 aimed at raising awareness about the Roma Genocide. Through analysis of the past and comparison to the present struggle of Roma, hundreds of youth learn about the mechanisms of antigypsyism and are mobilized and empowered to self-organize in their communities nationally and internationally.
What made the strongest impression on you at the conference?
How little we know about our own history of oppression. We are aware of present-day realities that many of us face, such as the rising far-right movements in Hungary, the eviction of camps in Italy, segregation of schools in Romania, and murders of Roma by white supremacists in Ukraine. But we know much less about our history. Despite being the largest ethnic minority in Europe, Roma history is generally not part of formal education, since the same state institutions that have historically oppressed us now control our narratives and decide whose history is valued. Learning about our own history is not only empowering; it’s key to understanding and combatting the mechanisms of antigypsyism today.
Tell me about one of the workshops you facilitated.
As the only Romani-American facilitator at the conference, it made a lot of sense to me to facilitate a conversation about Black American history. There’s a feeling of loneliness, not only in not knowing your own history, but also in not knowing others’ struggles with oppression and how they relate to yours. So, I used a session called “Past and Present” to show some similarities and differences between Roma history in Europe and Black history in the US, in hope that participants would see the importance of international solidarity among us, to know that we aren't alone in this.
The workshop also addressed how these histories of oppression have created and reinforced stereotypes and have worked to criminalize both groups over time. I provided materials about anti-Gypsy laws, Jim Crow, Black Codes, Romani Slavery, American Civil Rights movement, Dachau Hunger Strikes, First Romani World Congress, as well as examples of specific individuals, such as Malcolm X and Johann Trollman. Then we discussed how to incorporate activism of the past into today.
One of the most fulfilling moments was when one participant, after reading the Black Panthers’ “Ten-Point Program” out loud with the rest of group, said, “it sounds like they were just asking for human rights.” Her ability to see that so clearly within a few minutes of exploring a social movement shows how much we can exchange and learn from each other.
How was it being the only Romani-American facilitator?
I was incredibly anxious, especially as a facilitator, since I was expected to enable and encourage others’ learning processes while I simultaneously had so many questions about my own identity. I prepared for the worst, which to me was not being perceived as “Roma enough” since I don’t speak the language and my family has lived in the US for generations.
Fortunately, I felt extremely welcome. Many participants were shocked that I traveled from New York, and they appreciated my travels. One Romni was in such disbelief that I was there that she asked to hug me, as if American Roma were a myth, and I couldn’t possibly be real. There’s a lot of beauty in that to me, to see and realize we are everywhere.
As an American Roma, there was also something extremely powerful about being in a majority Roma space in an unfamiliar place, to be able to sit down with Roma from countries across Europe and relate to each other. The only way I can relate to how I feel about the whole experience is maybe to how Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about Howard University as his Mecca.
In what ways does anti-Romani prejudice manifest itself most strongly today?
I think antigypsyism is perpetuated most strongly today by governments, hate groups, society, and the media, in conjunction with one another. Of course, the media reinforces stereotypes, which influences public opinion; public opinion often shapes public policy and of course makes hate groups more acceptable. You could also put those in any order because these pieces all play a role in upholding antigypsyism.
Tell me about the ‘G’ word and the different perspectives on its use.
It’s important to start with understanding the history of the word “G*psy”. When Roma arrived in Europe about 1,000 years ago, Europeans began to call us “Gypsies” because it was thought based on our dark features that we came from Egypt. So, this word is not of our own creation but imposed on us by Europeans. It is important to note that our language, Romanes, does not even have a word for “G*psy” because it is not our self-designation. The root of our name is “Rom”, meaning “human” or “person of Roma origin”. I think it is also interesting to consider the word “G*psy” in other languages, for example in German language “G*psy” is “Z*geuner” and in Hungarian “Cz*gány”, which are derived from a Greek word for “untouchable”, which perpetrates the rumor that we descended from the lower caste of “untouchables” in India.
The discussion around the usage of the ‘G’ word is very complex and can mean something entirely different to Roma and non-Roma. In 2017, I wrote an article on the perspective of the ‘G’ word as an American Romani. In the US, the discussions around “G*psy” are largely ones of fighting for recognition of our ethnic identity and against stereotypes associated with the word, and to stop non-Roma profiting from it. Compounded with the usage of a misnomer, many people continue to use the word with a lower case “g”, which makes it seem like this is a lifestyle choice, one with negative stereotypes, rather than a legitimate ethnic group. However, in the UK, it’s completely different, the word “Gypsy” is used a lot because the community is typically self-described and described by others as Gypsy, Roma, Traveller or GRT. Alternatively, in the rest of Europe, people are aware the word has negative connotations and Roma is used instead.
How does anti-gypsyism intersect with feminism, immigrant rights, anti-racism, and other movements, in the context of rising racism and xenophobia?
This question reminds me of the work of Mihaela Draga. She's a Roma actress, artist, and playwright, who started a progressive feminist Roma Theater in Bucharest in 2014 and is working on a new project called Roma Futurism. It’s performance art, a manifesto, and play about vindicating the images of Roma witches, since the label “witch” is often used to portray Roma women as uneducated, stuck in the past, etc., while the same does not happen to white women. Basically, Roma Futurism reimagines Roma women as techno-witches, inventors of advanced technology with powers to transcend time to intervene and change the history of Roma people.
In Roma communities, as in many social justice movements, it’s often been men heading anti-racism work, while women are marginalized and left out of conversations even around feminist activism. Just to highlight one specific issue, a big issue in feminism is obviously the right to choose, but we don't talk about how these issues impact women of color, and specifically for Roma women, our history of coercive or forced sterilization across Europe.
Roma are oppressed throughout Europe and portrayed as the ‘other’, even though we have shaped many European cultural traditions, including ones that countries use to attract tourists and consider the pride of their countries. For instance, in Spain, Flamenco would not be as it is today if it were not for Gitanos, settled Roma families in Andalusia, as it’s a Romani cultural expression of pain through dance. Roma very much have a dual identity, which is shaped from being Roma as well as their nation of origin.
What can people do to become more aware of these issues, and how should they show their support?
People in the US can help by learning more about Roma and educating other people when you hear them use “G*psy” or “g*pped”. Push for Roma Studies in academia; the Roma Peoples Project at Columbia University has events and is trying to increase awareness about American Roma and give us a platform to share our own narratives and challenge stereotypes. If you read this and think about links to other marginalized groups, connect with Roma activists. If there's an event around the Holocaust, put pressure on for Roma recognition and inclusion of our voices. Bring our perspective into discussions around criminalized identities. Follow organizations that produce accurate written materials about the current situation of Roma, such as the European Roma Rights Centre and Open Society Foundations, and share these with others.
Naomi Puzzello, thank you so much for your time and for your passionate work to raise awareness about these issues.