News Stories Dredge Up Old Stereotypes Of Europe's Roma

Oct 24, 2013
Originally published on October 24, 2013 1:25 pm
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

There's been a spate of stories from Europe recently involving allegations of child abduction among the Roma people, often referred to as gypsies. In Greece, authorities detained a Roma couple, then took custody of a blonde, fair-skinned, young girl who looked nothing like them. Later, DNA tests showed she is not their daughter. Publicity around that case led to tip-offs in other countries. In Ireland, two young, blond-haired, blue-eyed children who were taken from their Roma parents have now been returned. DNA tests showed the children are theirs.

Well, Jennifer Illuzzi is an assistant professor of history at Providence College in Rhode Island. Her research focuses on the Roma people, and she joins us to provide some perspective on these cases. Professor Illuzzi, welcome to the program.

DR. JENNIFER ILLUZZI: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Let's start with this idea that gypsies will steal your children, that they're child snatchers, which seems to be among the most common stereotypes of the Roma people.

ILLUZZI: Yes. There is a long history of the attitude that gypsies are child stealers. And there is this sense that, starting in my own research, in the 19th century, we see many stories of supposed kidnappings by, quote, unquote, "gypsies." And oftentimes, a few days later, a paper will publish a retraction, stating that, in fact, the child had run away from home, the child had wanted to go on an adventure and had left home, the child had been returned home safely.

BLOCK: So where does it originate? Where does this idea come from?

ILLUZZI: If we look back historically, we can associate it, in some ways, with the idea of blood libel, which is a common anti-Semitic trope of Jews stealing children to use them in ritual sacrifices. There is a sense that outsiders are a threat to the culture and the society and the unity of a people. And one of the ways in which they might be thought of as attacking those people is by stealing children and using them for ritual purposes.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the history of the Roma people in Europe. The Roma came from India, arrived in Europe as far back as the 14th, 15th century. And their history there has always been marked by discrimination and persecution, right?

ILLUZZI: Yes. Roma were enslaved in Moldavia and Wallachia, in what is today Eastern Europe and Romania, up until the middle of the 19th century. In Western Europe, they faced discrimination. For example, in Germany under the Holy Roman Empire, there were many laws legislating that gypsies, for example, who entered a town could be shot. There is a history in the 19th century of more informal forms of discrimination and persecution.

So, for instance, if a gypsy showed up in Italy, the assumption was that they could not be Italian. They were automatically excluded from Italian citizenship and were expelled out of the country. So this is - this has a long history. And as recently as a few weeks ago, we saw the French foreign minister claiming that Romanian and Bulgarian gypsies could not assimilate into French life.

BLOCK: We should mention, too, of course, that the Roma were a target for extermination by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

ILLUZZI: Yes, that is the obvious case. And one of the points that I think is important to make, however, is that there is a long legacy of this discrimination. This is not just something that happened during the Holocaust and the extermination of the Roma people. It didn't come out of nowhere. But the Holocaust is certainly the most obvious and traumatic example of discrimination against Roma populations.

BLOCK: Given the recent cases that we've been hearing, about these suspected cases of child abduction and trafficking among the Roma, would you be - would you expect that we'll be hearing more of these, that this is the kind of thing that ripples through the community?

ILLUZZI: Yes. I think one of the most disturbing aspects of this case is once it came up into the news and there's these images of this small, blonde, blue-eyed child in the news, that there is an immediate linkage to this discourse about disappeared children cases throughout Europe. It's incredibly problematic, and I do think that the tone with which this is being covered is going to put Roma at risk.

BLOCK: Professor Illuzzi, thanks so much for talking with us.

ILLUZZI: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: Jennifer Illuzzi is assistant professor of history at Providence College in Rhode Island. Her forthcoming book is called "Gypsies in Germany and Italy 1861-1914." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.