University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Gypsies: A Persecuted Race

Gypsies: A Persecuted Race

By William A. Duna

With an Appendix reprinted from
Land of Pain:  Five Centuries of Gypsy slavery
By Ian Hancock

P.  O.  Box 24051
Minneapolis, MN 55424

© 1985, Duna Studios
ISBN 0-942928-04-0

About the Author

William A. Duna is an American Gypsy descended from Hungarian musicians who emigrated to the U. S. in 1893. He continues to be active in the music field as a teacher, writer, performer and entertainment consultant. He is the director of Basipen, the Society for the Preservation of Gypsy Music.

Dr. Ian Hancock is a British-born Gypsy. besides teaching full time at the University of Texas, lie is the U. S. representative to the United Nations from the World Romani Union. He has authored many works about Gypsies and is a leading authority on the Romani language.

Mr.Duna and Dr. Hancock have both directed efforts to obtain recognition of the persecution of Gypsies in the Holocaust and throughout history. In the present day they continue to actively pursue Gypsy civil rights.



When Land of Pain: Five Centuries of Gypsy Slavery came to my attention I knew it would provide a more contemporary glimpse of the Gypsies and I thank Dr. Ian Hancock for his kind permission to reprint an excerpt here. This work is due to he released in 1986 by Edwin Mellen Press (NY) under the title "Gypsy Slavery and Persecution." A second work by Dr. Hancock titled "Gypsy Americans" is due co be released in 1987 by Chelsea House (NY). These books represent a significant shift in Gypsy research: they are written by a Gypsy.

It is my hope. that "telling the story" will foster greater understanding amongst the gaje (non-Gypsy peoples) and create greater freedom and opportunity for my people.

- Bill Duna -

Many books that have been written about the Gypsies have been slanted to highlight the stereotypes. Historians have neglected much. Therefore, we have received all inaccurate picture of Gypsy life; and we have an inaccurate account of the constant persecution they have endured. In order for us to understand the Gypsies we must look at the persecution and prejudice against them. I will briefly discuss their origins and the struggle they have faced throughout the centuries. The scope of this paper will trace the Gypsies in Europe from the time or their first migrations up to but not including World War II. It will lay the groundwork for the proposition that the Nazis' well-publicized persecution of Gypsies followed centuries of historical precedent by virtually all peoples of Europe

The Origin of Gypsies

The Gypsy race originated in the northern part of India near the Punjab Region [Demand 1980:31]. They refer to themselves as Roma which has mistakenly been called a cognate for wanderer. Roma is instead derived from the word, "Rom," meaning man. The Gypsy language is called Romani and is derived from the oldest written language, Sanskrit.

The myth that the Gypsies never had a country of their own is not logical or factual. The fact that these people had a language, an army, and shared common interests gives great evidence that a country did exist.

The speculation that they have always wandered and were nomadic has been disputed by the Gypsy scholar, Dr. Jan Kochanowski, himself a Gypsy. He has concluded that the Roma people were originally sedentary and did nut wander and were not a nomadic people . 

...most of the speculations can the origins of the Roma are unfortunately based on traditional linguisticsly reached a conclusion which had previously been neglected or not recognized, namely that a people or group of tribes who speak a common language must have lived in one country for many centuries, sharing common interest, a common administration and
T. z. an army: in short, that they must have formed a State.

It thus followed that the Gypsy people could not have been of nomadic origin. What is more, an analysis of the Romani vocabulary shows that its original speakers were more the 'home-loving' type: we find no words like cave, tent, bison, but on the contrary words like house, cow, pig, etc. [Kochanowski 1980:26]

If this is true, and we can assume it is, what happened to this State of the Roma? To find this answer we must yo to the 11th century in the Punjab Region of northern India.


It was in the 11th and 12th centuries in the Punjab Region that great turmoil arose. This region was constantly being invaded by Afghanistan resulting in many wars with the Romany people. The Afghans were successful in winning a major battle that caused the Roma to split into three groups. Two of these groups scattered in the Punjab Region. The third group, which called themselves Romane Chave [the sons of Roma] set off across Afghanistan toward Europe [Kochanowski 1980:27]. It was difficult crossing Afghanistan but the Roma were shrewd and cunning. As Dr. Kochanowski relates, "At this period, the two major factions of Islam, the Shiites and the Sunnites, were almost perpetually feuding; all the Roma had to do to ensure their free passage was to tell the Shiites that they were being pursued by the Sunnites and vice versa" [Kochanowski 1980:27]. Thus we have the beginning of the Roma on the move traveling through Afghanistan to Turkey, Greece and eventually to all points of Europe.

How European Prejudice Developed

To understand how European prejudice developed against Gypsies we must explore the European western mind in the medieval period. When Gypsies first appeared, Christianity had shaped the doctrine of war between light and dark and personified the white angels against the black devils. To the church the Gypsy culture was non-acceptable and their dark skin exemplified evil and inferiority. Hence in western Christian Europe the dark-skinned Gypsies became victims of prejudice as a result of this Christian doctrine.

The language of the Gypsies was another factor which bred prejudice. "The genuine mystery and widespread ignorance concerning the origins of the Gypsy language provided sufficient grounds for immediate suspicion and dislike" (Kenrick 1972:20]. A documented remark made by a Spaniard shows a typical response, "When I go to the market there in the corner stand the accursed Gypsies jabbering to each other in a speech which I cannot understand." (Kenrick 1972:20]. There were many who believed the Gypsy language was nothing more than a kind of gibberish invented to deceive others.

Upon entering Christian Europe, the Roma realized much resentment was building because of their skin and social structure. So, they fabricated the story that they were descendants of the Egyptians who had enslaved the Israelites, explaining that for this reason God had condemned them to perpetual wandering. (Kochanowski 1980:25]. The Roma knew that many European countries were persecuting the Jews and that this false story would take some of the pressure off them. The story worked and the Roma became known as "Gypsies" derived from the word Egyptian. Because of this story the Pope and King gave them letters of protection and they were allowed to travel about and practice their way of life. Soon, however, the tides turned against them as Church and kings became angered and suspicious of their carefreeness. The Church did not approve of fortune telling and the Gypsy customs, morals and way of life contrasted with the non-Gypsy Europe. This was the beginning of prejudice and persecution that exists until today.

During the medieval period anyone crossing the Turkish occupied lands into Europe aroused the suspicions of the Church who considered people in this region infidels and enemies of the Church. These lands were considered secular states and people coming through them were perhaps spies for the unknown enemies of the Christian faith.

Gypsy people were open for attack by Christian clergy and Moslem priests alike because they did not practice one or another of the prevalent religions of that region. Because Gypsies were regarded as nonreligious people they were scorned and held in contempt by religious sects wherever they traveled.

Early chroniclers wrote with revulsion of the blackness of Gypsies. The monk Cornerius of Lubeck, reporting on Gypsies he had encountered in 1417, refers to their "most ugly faces, black like those of Tartars." (Kenrick 1972:19). Another monk, Rufus, also of Lubeck, wrote disapprovingly of their dark skins. And, in both the Italian and Dutch languages there evolved the saying, 'black as a Gypsy.' (Kenrick 1972:19).