Huebschmannova taught Romanies to be proud of their roots

Prague, 13. 9. 2005, 12:37 (CTK)

The founder of Romany studies in the Czech Republic, Milena Huebschmannova, who tragically died in South Africa last week aged 72, supported Romanies' self- confidence and taught them to be proud of their ethnicity, the daily Lidove noviny (LN) writes today. "As a highly educated and above all wise woman, she knew that only those people who are aware of their own value can be satisfied," Jana Horvathova, director of the Museum of Romany Culture in Brno, south Moravia, writes in LN.

She recalls Hubschmannova's contribution to the studies of the Romany language and culture and her sincere interest in the life of ordinary Romanies in the country.

From her childhood, Huebschmannova had a dream to learn Indian languages. At the age of 14 she started to learn Bengali, and a year later the Hindi and Urdu languages. Later she studied these three languages at Charles University's Faculty of Arts in Prague.

As a 20-year-old student, she started to visit Romany settlements where she uncovered another fascinating Indian language. And since then she has devoted her time to Romanies. "...all of a sudden I saw that Romanies looked like Indians. This was one thing which fascinated me. The other one was that I recognised Hindi words in Romanies' conversation. So I started, with great enthusiasm, to learn the Indian language...spoken all around me," Huebschmannova recollected in an interview from 2004. Her deep knowledge of Romanies' mother tongue opened her the gates to their relatively closed community in then Czechoslovakia. She decided not only to research into the Romanies' unknown culture, but primarily to understand their life and practically help Romanies at the edge of society. Huebschmannova was one of the first Czech experts pointing to the negative effects of the Communist integration policy which was to completely assimilate Romanies and thereby liquidate their roots.

After the failed reform movement in 1968, crushed by the Warsaw Pact troops' invasion of Czechoslovakia, Huebschmannova started to work in the first Romany organisation in the country, The Association of Gypsies-Romanies (1969-73), where she headed the social-scientific commission, Horvathova writes in LN. In a couple of years, the Communist regime, however, officially terminated the organisation's activities out of fear of Romany emancipation which was at variance with the assimilation efforts. Communists view Romanies only as a social group, or possibly as "a dying ethnicity," a stance which Huebschmannova opposed throughout her life.

She could not cope with the regime efforts to uproot the basis of Romanies' culture - their language, being convinced that "no nation can be understood without its language, in which the nation's soul rests," Horvathova says.

Huebschmannova focused on Romany language and traditions in a number of articles and studies. In 1993 she published a book We Can Communicate, disclosing the sources of conflicts between Romanies and the majority society.

"I was lucky to experience the Romany culture and language still integrated, working as harmonic, classified and comprehensive systems...Romany culture is inspiring for it goes beyond to other worlds. The civilisation under the sway of technology, rationalism and material values cannot find satisfaction. Only recently it started to search for and uncover these worlds again," Huebschmannova wrote in her book. In 1994, Huebschmannova founded the magazine of Romany studies, Romano Dzaniben, which has kept its high professional level ever since and enjoys respect abroad. She is also a co- author of the so far only one Romany-Czech and Czech-Romany dictionary.

Huebschmannova's work has been appreciated by many awards. In 1996, she received the Charter 77 Award of Frantisek Kriegel. In 2002, then Czech President Vaclav Havel presented her with the medal of merit, 3rd grade, and a year later she was awarded the medal of merit, 1st grade, by the Education Ministry.

However, Horvathova adds, no medals could fully express Huebschmannova's contribution to the reawakening of the "humiliated Romany self-confidence." She spent her time with ordinary Romanies and thanks to her support a number of them uncovered their hidden talent for writing, art and other intellectual activities.

"Huebschmannova is the real founder of the literature in Romany language," Horvathova says.

For over 24 years Huebschmannova was also teaching and inspiring hundreds of students. In 1975-91 she worked as a teacher at a language school in Prague. From 1991, following the collapse of Communism, she became a lecturer in Romany studies opened at the Indological Institute of Prague's Faculty of Arts where she educated a new generation of Romany scholars. Exactly Hubschmannova's enthusiastic students, devoted to her legacy, can guarantee that her work will continue in the future, Horvathova points out in the paper.