“You are nothing, you cannot do anything, you are the bottom of the pile.” This is what members of the Sinti and Roma communities in Germany have been told for centuries, sometimes openly and sometimes subtly, said Sebastijan Kurtisi.
As one of the interviewers for the latest RomnoKher study, Kurtisi investigated Sinti and Roma living in Germany, including Germans and immigrants. RomnoKher is the national association of Sinti and Roma for the promotion of culture and education, and the study – which involved 614 interviews – was funded by the “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” foundation.
Like all interviewers, Kurtisi himself is a member of the largest minority group in Europe. There are around 6.3 million people in the European Union, who speak the Romani language.
“ Why are my people stigmatized as thieves, fortune-tellers and beggars? ”: Sebastijan Kurtisi
EU Member States are required to actively promote group participation in the education system. The vast majority of all survey respondents believe this promotion is necessary, with over 80% finding education very important.
“Why do they think I’m like this?
Sebastijan Kurtisi was born in Macedonia, raised in Serbia and graduated from a technical school before migrating to Germany with his parents at the age of 17. He now has a German passport. In the western city of Aachen, he worked on the development of desulphurization plants, and now he mentors people facing special social challenges.
At one point, he realized the number of prejudices against Sinti and Roma. “My people are only thieves, musicians, fortune tellers and beggars … why do they think I am like that?” He asked.
The authors of the study refer to racism, anti-gypsyism and discrimination. Some 40% of those surveyed reported discrimination against their children – including in the classroom – by teachers and peers. Two thirds of all respondents feel discriminated against because they belong to a minority, including in the education system.
But in schools where teachers had high expectations of Roma and Sinti children, on average they obtained higher diplomas.
Interviewer Manja Schuecker-Weiss, herself a German Sintesa, saw this in her work. She told TBEN about the mother of a student with a German name who was being treated quite normally over the phone. When she and her husband appeared at school, with “dark hair, dark skin [and] wearing a skirt, “strange questions were asked. Suddenly the boy had to take remedial lessons, even though he was getting good grades.
Manja Schuecker-Weiss, a Sintesa from Germany, saw children in her community confronting teacher prejudices
“I often see cases like this,” she explained. Despite good grades, many report receiving less ambitious school career recommendations from their teachers.
Her own daughter, who attends high school, told her mother that she was glad she had blonde hair and blue eyes. That way she doesn’t have to explain herself to anyone. When police in the southern town of Singen recently took away a handcuffed 11-year-old Sinti child without telling parents, many in the community were shocked.
‘Shocking difference’ from the general population
Overall, the RomnoKher study shows a lot of educational progress over previous studies and in comparison to previous generations, according to Karin Cudak, education expert at the European University of Flensburg and one of the authors of the study.
All the children in the communities now attend elementary school, but the study also shows “that a large part of the people questioned still leave the education system empty-handed” – one in three does not have a school diploma, nor professional qualification either.
As a result, many only find low-paying jobs. Among the youngest respondents, only half of them did not graduate compared to the older respondents. But this proportion remains significantly higher than in the general German population: only 5% of all adults in Germany do not have a high school diploma.
Despite all the progress made, especially among young respondents, there is a “surprising difference from the national population average”. For example, fewer minority children attended daycare and far fewer had graduated from college or university.
One reason could be that families are often unable to provide for the needs of children and do not have access to offers of help, as the survey shows.
Long-term consequences of Nazi persecution
RomnoKher co-founder Daniel Strauss published a first educational study on Roma and Sinti in 2011. His father, one of the few survivors of the Nazi Auschwitz extermination camp, was illiterate due to the ban on schooling for certain minorities.
“He made his children go to school, even though he himself had not been allowed to do so,” Strauss said.
However, half of the concentration camp survivors did not send their children to school. They were concerned that their children had to face “the same racist tendencies, the same materials, the same school leadership, the same teachers who excluded their parents”. As a result, many families have missed out on educational opportunities for another generation.
Germany has rejected the introduction of targeted support programs – as demanded by the EU – with the argument that the German school system is open to everyone. “Not everyone experienced the genocide,” Strauss stressed. But to ensure equal opportunities, additional support is important – and all of this takes time, he explained. The Sinti and Roma organizations have therefore set up mediator projects.
“ The word was tattooed on the skin of our people ”
Sebastijan Kurtisi is annoyed by the debate in Germany around the use of the word “gypsy” (“Zigeuner” in German, editor’s note).
“It’s not a question for me about the correctness of the word. It’s how much this word stigmatizes us. What primitive fears and traumas it arouses in us,” he explained. “The word ‘Zigeuner’ got tattooed on our people’s skin. And then they got gassed.”
“If I say to someone, ‘Please stop stepping on my foot, it hurts,’ then they can’t just say, ‘Why should I? This is how we have always behaved.
He and others are not only concerned about the ‘Z word’ but also about ‘the growing number of the neo-Nazi scene, their supporters, the murders in Hanau [where members of the Roma and Sinti community were among those killed by a gunman in February 2020] and reports on the police officers who operate in these circles. It’s traumatic and awakens those primitive fears that we carried with us for centuries, which peaked between 1939 and 1945. ”
The diversity of ethnic minorities must be understood, said Daniel Strauss, co-founder of RomnoKher.
Empowerment and inclusion of the positive
Study author Frank Reuter examined how the minority was alienated long before Nazi persecution across Europe and how anti-Gypsyism continued in many institutions thereafter. The genocide was not even recognized until 1982.
Reuter quoted a son of survivors: “The children called me a ‘dirty gypsy’. Some of the teachers “were former Nazis”. Reuter has shown that some textbooks in this sense reinforce stereotypes about the group, while positive narratives are virtually absent.
The history of the persecution, as well as the success stories of the various Sinti and Roma cultures and the Romani language should find their place in the teaching material, Cudak believes. So far, this has only happened in isolated cases.
In Baden-Württemberg, these topics have been formalized in the program since an agreement signed in 2013 by state lawmakers, Strauss said. But hardly anyone has signed up for the teacher training courses that have been offered around the subject.
Strauss calls for an educational fund for all of Germany; more information on identity, culture and anti-gypsyism; and more empowerment to “develop something on the group’s own terms”. Where there are “Romno Power Clubs” for young people, he said, educational prospects are also increasing.
As with the Sorbian or Danish minorities in Germany, cultural identity must be experienced from kindergarten onwards. The diversity of the entire group needs to be understood, Strauss said.
“A Bavarian is not only a Bavarian – but also a woman, or a man, a Catholic or a Protestant, a Muslim or a Jew; tall, short, fat or thin,” he said. “With the Roma and Sinti communities, many people think: ‘If you know one, you know them all’. It’s not like that!”
This text has been translated from German.