Since the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Roma activists and groups such as the International Romani Union and Roma National Congress have worked to transform the scattered Roma into a cohesive political force. Nevertheless, the Roma remain fragmented and continue to face social exclusion, extreme poverty and discrimination.
What Jews call the Holocaust, the Roma (also known as gypsies) call Porrajmos, their “devouring.” Between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma were murdered by Nazi Germany and its sympathizers during World War II. Despite the enormity of these numbers, the Roma experience during the Holocaust is not widely known, even among the Roma themselves.
Tied together through Romani, their mother tongue, and loosely organized in insular tribes, the Roma have traditionally served as craftsmen, musicians or seasonal hired hands, and have a reputation throughout Europe as thieves and swindlers. In an era when Europe’s birth rates have fallen to record lows, their numbers are exploding.
Yossi Leshem—the world-renowned ornithologist and champion of Israel’s environmental movement—resembles a cross between a linebacker and an academic. Frameless glasses perched precariously on his nose, he speeds through Jerusalem’s narrow streets, simultaneously leaning down to fumble for a pamphlet about owls, answering his cell phone and informing me that it is too cloudy to bird-watch.