History of the World Roma Congress 1971


London April 8-12, 1971

By Grattan Puxon
Most were unknown to each other before that long April weekend. By the end of it delegates to the 1st World Roma Congress had turned a page in history.
The event that took place at Cannock House, a private school in south London, is now celebrated by Roma communities around the globe. For adherence to a culture, yet there is great diversity; to a common language though many don’t speak it; to a unity which never existed but is gaining reality through the worldwide web.
The political significance of 8 April 1971, the opening day of the Congress, grows exponentially each year.
Decisions were taken that are considered irreversible. They concern status. Delegates declared Roma to be a nation. A nation with ambitions to achieve self-determination. None could say what degree this might reach. But the process was set in train by their call for an end to all those misnomers which signify denigration. Among them cigani, Zigeuner, gipsy. Each a pitch-cap torturing succeeding generations. Disfiguring the image of a people who trace ancestry to Mother India.

Once enslaved in the Balkans and more recently the victims of genocide by Nazi Germany, Roma at the time of this congress were still hampered by the barbed wire and rival ideologies of a divided Europe. Despite the Iron Curtain these delegates came together for a purpose which continues to defy political orthodoxy. Yet it was a humble enough affair. It garnered modest media attention and few photographs survive of Congress sessions, protest activity over the death of children in the West Midlands, or the culminating pre-billed Gypsy Festival on Hampstead Heath, featuring Raya Bielenberg, former artiste of Moscow’s Romen Theatre.
For those of us active within the Romani movement of the last century, that first congresswas the most significant happening since the end of the Second World War.
Tentative steps had been taken at a 1934 Bucharest congress but the event in London proved to be the one that counted. Forty years later Margareta Matache, a fellow at Harvard, could say that 8 April 1971 was the date when Roma chose the symbols of their nationality; flag, anthem and national day. Ðorđe Jovanovic, director of the European Roma Rights Centre, has written of it as the most historic for all of the estimated twenty millions in the worldwide Roma diaspora. Quote: Nothing could oblige us to mark 8 April more than the moral imperative and hunger for self-definition.
There is a widespread conviction that the London Congress marks a vital moment in the Romani emancipation movement. The blue and green flag, embossed with a red ashok chakra is seen everywhere, adopted by countless NGOs and other bodies. Lately, 8 April has been the occasion for the European Union’s Roma Summits in Brussels, for debate in the British House of Lords, statements by Hilary Clinton, while US Secretary State, and much other official fanfare. This fulsome recognition continues to grow. Yet one notes a subtly downgrading of original intent. Roma Nation Day is now frequently referred to as International Roma Day, or simply Roma Day. I conclude there are those who want to see Roma nation progress stalled by the rising anti-Gypsyism of the new millennium.
The dearth of records must account in part for the myths which have grown up around the Congress in the intervening years. Drawing on memory and minutes taken during the plenary and commission sessions (which have remained in my possession as its elected general secretary) I here attempt to recall the main facts and the personalities involved.
To begin with it must be remembered that the Nazi plan to exterminate Gypsies had cost a huge number of lives. Eichmann is heard to say in the transcript of an oral interrogation […] recorded before his trial and execution in Israel that half a million were rounded up and transported between 1943 and the end of the war alone.
The figure suggests that the often repeated estimated total of half a million deaths must be too low. Survivors carried the scares of those years of relentless hounding, when many hands were turned against them in the occupied countries. Alienated, afraid, bewildered by post-war chaos and continued hostility, few were in a state of mind to organize let alone seek reparations. Latter efforts were, in any case, confined in East Europe and the Soviet Union to state authorities. Hence political activity was slow to recover.
As to the Gypsies in Britain, the Nazi menace drew closest in 1940 after the defeat at Dunkirk. Invasion under Operation Sea Lion would have brought death.
The Gypsy Council, which hosted the London Congress, did not come into existence until 1966. Frederick Wood, its first president, had been with a British Army unit at the liberation of Bergen Belsen, one of the big concentration camps on German soil. That experience made a life-long impact on Wood. When opportunity came he was keen, with others, to make up for lost time.
Another key player was Weer Rajendra Rishi, then an attache at the Indian High Commission in London. He had earlier served in Moscow, acting on occasion as interpreter for Khrushchev. Contrary to some reports, India did not assist the Congress. Rishi attended in a private capacity and contributed greatly then and in the following years.
The Congress was paid for out of private pockets and in practical terms owed its location and logistical needs almost entirely to one man. Bryan Raywid, a Welsh Traveller and occasional contributor to the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. Having broken off his itinerant life Raywid had become a cook at Cannock House School. He prevailed upon the headmaster, Mr Baker, to let the Gypsy Council have the use of the residential school free of charge for this international gathering. Raywid fed us all, working in the kitchen and leaving himself little time to attend the plenary sessions. All for no reward except the satisfaction of contributing to these unique four days in Romani political history.
Aspiration for such a congress had been building up in Paris for a decade. The French capital was a magnet for Roma from many countries. For performers from Spain; Roma with roots in Russia, Romania and Hungary, most of them also musicians. The biggest influx in the late fifties was from Yugoslavia. Alone of the socialist countries, nonaligned Yugoslavia allowed citizens to travel to the West. Thousands of Roma lived in the shanty-towns of the Paris suburbs. One of the largest bidonvilles existed in Montreuil-sous-Bois. It was here that Vaida Voevod, nom de guerre of writer Ionel Rotaru, opened an office and founded the organization known in French as la Communauté Mondiale Gitane. Born in the Ukraine, Rotaru arrived around the time of the publication in French translation of his novel La Rhapsodie Roumaine, written originally in Romanian. He had lost both parents, three brothers and two sisters, in the Nazi-led war-time genocide.
Vaida’s leadership role was still paramount when he visited me in Ireland in the mid-1960s. The CMG wanted to unite all, across clan and class barriers, in a national movement.
He believed war crime reparations could pay for the establishment of Romanistan, a Romani state and promoted this idea wherever he went. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany. People in Mitrovica, Kosovo, remember him. There is speculation that in Bulgaria he met with Shakir Pashov, founder of Ekhipe (Unity), an organization that predated the CMG and pursued similar aims. At a 1964 London press conference Vaida announced the CMG would seek recognition by the United Nations. A world congress would be held at the UNESCO Palace in Paris.
For the next several years plans for a congress were discussed with varying degrees of reality, hope and expectation. Recruited to the CMG (and later CIT) directorate I was party to such talk, both with Vaida and his successor Vanko Rouda (an alias of Jacques Dauvergne). The possibility of creating a Romani colony, or token mini-state was pursued with diminishing prospects. Canada, Soviet Siberia, Somalia, Djibouti, and lastly the Kingdom of Bhutan visited by Rouda, dropped away as conceivable locations.
Looking back the debate seems futile. However, the draw of obtaining a recognizable territorial entity remains. In theory. After all mini-states exist. Vatican City has a seat in the UN.
By mid-summer 1970, nine months before the London Congress, plans had been modified. Comité International Tzigane, led by Rouda, was concentrating on obtaining global status. In terms of UN recognition the CIT did not succeed. Meanwhile Vaida, and with him the Romanistan ideal, had faded from view. Legally registered, the CMG had become a target of the French authorities. It had enemies in the establishment due to its campaign against the Law of 1912 which obliged nomadic Roma (mainly Manouches) to carry a special anthropometric identity card.
More embarrassing was the CMG claim against West Germany. In 1967 the CMG was deregistered and members questioned by the police. A parting between Vaida and Vanko became inevitable.
The small publication La Voix Mondiale Tzigane, which had first appeared in 1961 became the organ of the CIT. Individual compensation cases were filed in the Germany courts and became a resource for research into Nazi war crimes, in which I participated.
By then a place existed which could provide a spiritual and cultural home. The township of Šuto Orizari, built after the 1963 Skopje earthquake, had a population of 30,000. A municipal council and its own MP. These gave Shutka a status no other mahala enjoyed.
Yugoslav media referred to Shutka, half in jest, as the Romani state.
The party brought by Vanko Rouda from Paris when they arrived late in the afternoon consisted of his brother Leulea, Žarko Jovanović, composer; Mateo Maximoff, novelist and evangelical preacher, and three delegates direct from Yugoslavia. Writer Slobodan Berberski, Macedonian MP Abdi Fajk, and Cuna Bedzet from Kosovo. Also with them, and whom I embraced most warmly, came Dr Jan Cibula. He had travelled from Switzerland.
We had got to know each other three years earlier during the Prague Spring Cibula was then the house-doctor at a state-owned factory. Expectations had been to a pitch. So that when I was brought to the home of engineer Anton Facuna, the atmosphere was electric. Only days before Bratislava had been the venue for a Warsaw Pact conference condemning liberalization. Now, under clandestine conditions, Cibula, engineer Anton Facuna and university dissident Milena Huschmannova, their long-term friend, planned the formation of a Romani organization. I got out of Czechoslovakia shortly before Russian tanks rolled in. Cibula fled the country. However, the union they created lasted until 1973 when it was forcibly dissolved.
Cibula remained with me at the door, while someone guided Rouda and the others to a dormitory on the second floor. He must have spotted a second party for he dropped his case and ducked out of the colonnaded porch. I saw him join the newcomers. Then they veered out of sight. From the voices, and gestures when they reappeared, I saw that these newly-arrived delegates were in a heated dispute with Cibula. One of the early tensions of the Congress resolved itself late that night. After we hosts had settled some forty people into the boys’ bunk dormitories, I sought out Cibula. It emerged that the official Czechoslovak delegation was objecting to his participation. Anton Holomek, a military prosecutor, and the milder Miroslav Holomek and teacher Anton Daniel, were expected to tow the party line. Cibula had become persona non grata. Eventually, Roma loyalties won over communist discipline and by midnight they were reconciled.
After the unfamiliar offerings of an English breakfast provided by Raywid through the kitchen hatch, delegates assembled in the school library for the session. Words of welcome flowed. Our guests then had to be warned of the presence in the locality of an anti-Gypsy vigilante group. At a protest meeting in the parish hall £4,000 had been raised. It was going to be spent on the erection of barriers to stop Gypsies camping on the roadsides. Some of them would be attending the Congress. Meanwhile, our meetings in Cannock House had to be kept secret.
Rouda rose to speak. His words caused consternation. He said the CIT had authorized the gathering as a forum at which would be discussed the holding of a world congress in Paris. Juan de Dios Ramirez responded in rapid Spanish. Donald Kenrick, who had volunteered his help as an interpreter, struggled to keep up. People looked at each other, perplexed and unhappy. The room became charged. There was a momentary damming up of expectations. A thwarted collective will.
Several delegates protested. Žarko Jovanović got to his feet. He had been in on CIT meetings and knew the score. He put his message forcibly, in Serbian and Romani. Žarko proposed Slobodan Berberski for president of the World Congress. Like himself Berberski had fought as a partisan. His influence within the Yugoslav League of Communists would be an asset. The congress, he said, must take place here. The relief was palpable. Though few of us knew this Belgrade intellectual, in the excitement of that morning we took Berberski on tust and elected him without hesitation. Vanko Rouda looked as pleased as anyone.
Berberski’s acceptance speech, quoted here from a published report, set the tone for the coming sessions:
“The purpose of this Congress is to unite and activate Roma throughout the world; to bring about emancipation according to our own intuition and our own ideals – to make progress at our own speed. A great deal needs to be discussed and worked out and we cannot say at once what methods we shall use, or what direction we shall take. But whatever we do will have the stamp of our own particular personality upon it – it will be amaro Romano drom, our Romani road.
What we have to combat is exemplified by bureaucracy. Officialdom, now overgrown in every state, represents a monster whose job it is to squeeze out human feelings, monopolize decision-making and stifle initiative – qualities which are the very essence of our being. The administrative machine, concerned with standardization and control, cannot by its nature understand that national consciousness – the collective desire to be ourselves – is the well-spring that alone can refresh and re-new the world.
Our struggle, to evolve according to our own genius, is the same struggle for liberation being waged all over the globe – aiming to prevent the continents being turned into deserts by war, expropriation and misgovernment.
Our people must combine and organize to work locally, nationally and internationally. Our problems are the same everywhere: we must proceed with our own forms of education, preserve and develop our Romani culture, bring a new dynamism into our communities and forge a future in accordance with our life-style and beliefs. We have been passive long enough and I believe, starting today, we can succeed.
The deliberations of this Congress are of historical importance to our people. It is for every one of us to bear our responsibilities with dignity and pride and henceforth to encourage, help and counsel one another in times of need.
I ask you now to rise and observe two minutes’ silence for all of our people destroyed by fascism in the last war – and for all those who have suffered and died as the result of prejudice and persecution over the centuries of our dark past.”
Grief and hatred, prudence, pragmatism and a desire to find a way forward. All these elements vied in the hearts and minds of delegates as they filed out of that first plenary session. Strong emotions had been stirred. Much showed in their faces. Melanie Spitta, a Sinti from West Germany, who with Raya comprised the only female representation, had lost close family members in Auschwitz. Others too were children of survivors. At fifteen, Žarko had experienced a narrow escape from the blockade of his hometown Batajnica, close to Belgrade. In that 1941 action, five hundred Roma had been rounded up and murdered. Mateo Maximoff, writer and evangelist, had been interned in France. More such stories were shared over the coming days and nights. Meanwhile, it was with some relief we moved to the several ground floor classrooms for meetings of the scheduled commissions.
I followed Abdi Fajk to the room allocated for the Social Commission. You could feel a fresh intake of optimism. Here a reconstruction might begin. Elected chairman, Fajk said he was a son of the blacksmith and spoke of his own constituency, the district municipality of Shuto Orizari. The township had achieved a degree of self-governance. It was a melting pot of many groupings, with links to Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. He himself had relations in Izmir. From Shutka people were migrating to Germany, France and Belgium. He wanted to see an organization, institutions, created that could draw everyone together, stimulating self-reliance and emancipation.
The Social Commission tasked itself with drafting reports to the Council of Europe and the UN.
The reaction to Fajk was immediate, plain and unreserved. He had a presence and powerful leadership qualities. His words struck like hammer blows. One sensed a bitter undercurrent. But if beneath the surface, not always hidden, there existed a motivating desire to throw off the yoke of gadzo domination, Fajk held his feelings in check. He had confidence in the new road. He had a vision. If as I witnessed later he used a hard, disciplinary hand, there was enlightenment too. His methods helped drain off the internalized hostility, the black bile of fear and hate engendered by long distain, marginalization and overt suppression. I saw that Fajk stood in opposition to Vaida Voevod. He was the antidote. Vaida, with justification, had drawn on the well of hatred arising from the genocide. Both, however, viewed the extreme war-time experience as a source of a hot, goading energy which would be necessary for the achievement of liberation.
Vanko Rouda, who knew him best, remained tight-lipped about Vaida throughout the Congress. The notion of Romani statehood was a topic to be avoided. Ronald Lee, then an advocate of Romanistan, had recently emigrated to Canada. That afternoon, Rouda was in another room, participation in the Holocaust Commission. Donald Kenrick, whose Jewish family had suffer losses, steer the discussion there. I had made my choice to follow Fajk. I had no direct connection with the Holocaust. My war had been in London.
I remember Fajk chided Berberski for his incessant smoking and consumption of black coffee, which Berberski liked to lace with slivovica, the Yugoslav plum brandy. A man of middle-age and weak health, he was certainly shortening his life. Berberski died at seventy in 1989. During a span of forty years he created an abundance of literature and was considered a pioneer of Romani poetry. He is due our respect. The second night after Berberski’s election, Fajk acted out a cruel little charade of Slobodan tripping, tipsily across the dormitory in his loosened pyjamas.
Brief news reached me that night from the other commission meetings.
A full account appeared in the June issue of Race Today, journal of the London-based Institute of Race Relations. There I hinted that in seeking a new direction the Congress could not do otherwise then put its faith in change. Change would come in Europe and, hopefully, the Romani movement could advance with it.
Before I could turn in, there was a phone call from Pop’s Johnny Connors, then leading the Gypsy Council campaign in the Birmingham area. He was expecting us the next day in Walsall.
The lurching of the coach as it burrowed its way through the swirling smog silenced the cheerful jocularity of the East Europeans. High spirits gives way to a fuggy anxiety. For them we are on the wrong side of the road. Congress delegates have no notion where they may land up, nor what they are getting into. I had booked this bus two weeks before determined to bring what political benefits there might be from the Congress to the Gypsies and Travellers in the West Midlands. The police and local authorities are on their backs daily. Jackboot Justice Pop’s Johnny Connors calls it.
Anti-Traveller policy had commenced with the eviction by Birmingham City Council of fourteen council houses in the Sparkbrook area. The city’s Labour Party leader had posited the proposition that “One has to exterminate the impossibles.” Since then a hot lava of harassment has been poured over the whole region. Walsall town lies at its volcanic centre. Three children have been burned to death there in a caravan fire following an eviction.
From behind the driver, one can barely see ahead. The headlights burn a short yellow funnel. He is navigating by the cats eyes. The bulk of a huge articulated lorry seems almost to brush the windows. I wonder at the risks I am taking. They are a disparate lot the people filling the coach. Different out looks, mixed ideas. Expectations of which I am not yet aware. For those from the socialist countries, nomadism is outdated. Already in the past. These delegates may look askance at the Travellers. They look a poor lot camped out on bits of wasteland.
Rows back, the Yugoslav contingent have come to life again. Žarko is strumming his balalaika. He stops frequently, as if interrupted by the constant pitching. He is writing something. Now he pulls himself out of his seat and starts down the gangway, the balalaika above his head. He announces to all that he has composed the lyrics for a Romani nation anthem. He wants us to sing along. By the time the bus reaches Balsall Heath Dzelem Dzelem, to the tune of a traditional melody, is adequately rehearsed. We pile out onto a hilly piece of ground dotted with caravans. Visible on the rise the buildings of Birmingham University. The Travellers are waiting. A bender tent has been erected and Congress delegated gather round as it is set alight. The flames leap up. We sing the anthem, a tribute to the children of Walsall; to all who have perished under persecution. Someone holds a make-shift poster.
There is no time to eat the sandwiches laid out in a local hall. The party press on to Walsall police station. Officers are aghast at our sudden appearance. It’s an occupation. Miroslav Holomek introducing himself as a Czech military prosecutor, confronts them with the facts. Caravans towed out from Slackey Lane. No court order. An illegal operation. The children still inside. Left on George Street, a caravan catches fire. Through a translation, and prompted by Johnny Connors, Holomek, accuses police and council of conspiring together to run the Travellers out of town. He calls it a pogrom. Connors leaves promising that “That my heavy curse will fall on your jackboot mob.” Later he gives an account of the deaths to the European Commission for Human Rights.
Back at Cannock house, the Congress draws to a close. The final plenary session in the assembly hall is packed out. Gypsies from the local roadsides have come to participate. They had lost Corke’s Meadow and been towed out of Darenth Wood, stopping places used for generations. Now many were camped on the side of the A2, menaced by the heavy traffic, and frequently visited by the police. Jasper Smith was there and Abe Cooper, along with others who had joined the Gypsy Council. Women held infants in their arms. Children were soon kicking restlessly among the chairs. They had been told of the visit to Walsall and expected a similar intervention here in Kent. Some of the items went over their heads.
A decision had to be made on the adoption of a flag. Rouda had brought one from Paris and now exhibits it aloft. Two plain fields, blue and green, divided horizontally. It has a fringe of gold. He tells us this is the flag he carried at the Arc de Triomphe, when with Vaida Voevod (mentioned for the first time) Roma had laid a wreath. From the podium, Dr Cibula says this design has the authority of the pre-war Bucharest Congress. A hubbub of discussion arises. From the back of the hall, a woman’s voice calls. She wants a red flame added. It will signify a new start. Their civil rights campaign. I recognize the flushed face of Louise Brown, next to her young husband Solly. They are on a site at Star Lane, which the local council has tried to close. Other delegates want to hear from Rishi, the attache from the Indian High Commission. They have in mind to forge a symbolic link with India. A national minority needs the protection of its motherland. Thus argues Berberski, asserting his authority as Congress president. He has not been at ease chairing the session. He speaks now with new confidence of the friendship between president Tito and prime minister Indira Gandhi, both leaders of the non-aligned. It will work in favour of Roma aspirations.
Rishi responds in Russian, the second language of the east bloc delegates. He has interpreted for Jawaharlal Nehru, for Khrushchev too. In his professional element, his voice is soft and authoritative. Rishi proposes the Congress embellish the flag with an Ashok Chakra, a version of the wheel on the Indian flag. “This is the way to re-engage with India,” he exclaims, eyes on the podium. “The wheel represents truth and motion, forward movement. Public and politicians will understand your intention immediately.”
A feeling of approval travels through the hall. Hands are raised. Whether a vote has been called, or merely more questions no one knows. Seeing the confusion, Dr Cibula intervenes. He is next to Berberski on the platform. His dark face wreathed in uncertain good humour, Cibula insists that the wheel shall be red. The fitness of this idea is instantly apparent. Hands are again in the air. But this is more than a simple vote. One is aware of something exalted happening. With unanimity comes discovery. During these minutes the metaphysical reigns. We are in the realms of the unseen. A standard has been raised. A profound faith is being placed in this flag. It will fly in the vanguard. Around it the Roma nation will gather.
Only the local Gypsies have been left aside. They remain restless and unsatisfied. What is a nation to them? Nobody has come to them at the verge side camps. Abdi Fajk sees what has occurred and addresses the back rows. “Any of you blacksmiths?” he asks, scanning their faces. Hearing the translation, old Abe Cooper has something to say. “We don’t know that trade no more. Me puro dad beat out copper. But that’s gone a long time.”
“All right,” continues Fajk. “I’m no blacksmith now but my father was. And a disciplinarian. He had us sweat at that anvil. He taught us that if you want something you have to beat it out yourself.”
He went on to put this into a parable. Not the version you will find in the New Testament. Fajk was a Marxist with a Muslim heritage. His message came from his own experience. He said if he were fisherman he might spend all day and at the end of it feed a few of the world’s hungry. They would soon be hungry again. “No my brothers, what we have to learn, and learn collectively, is to catch fish for ourselves.”
It was, he said, a big sea, an ocean that confronted the Romani people wherein they must catch and secure their universal rights.
Before his departure on the final morning, Fajk sought me out. He had those reports to write and needed my help. We collected mugs of coffee from the kitchen hatch and found an empty classroom. People were milling about in the lobby saying their goodbyes. Outside a tepid morning light had spread over the Cannock House grounds. He had been surprised at my knowledge of Serbo-Croat and I spoke now of several previous visits to Yugoslavia. I had once tried to hitch-hike across Macedonia. Seen a wedding in progress in Skopje. Fajk recounted how the new Romani settlement was growing up.
At the end he urged me to come and stay with him in Šuto Orizari. That invitation awoke a desire to return to Yugoslavia. Perhaps permanently.
We shook hands on it before he left. I was excited. Next month was the Gypsy festival at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. I would go there, as I had once before as a child, and then head for Yugoslavia.