Bury Me Standing – A Book Review

Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca
New York: Vintage Departures. Vintage Books,
Random House, Inc. 1995

Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing is the result of a four-year study of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe. Visiting dozens of Roma (Gypsy) communities in the former Eastern bloc, Fonseca is amazed by their ability to survive. For these are a people “without a written tradition,” or “a sense of historical past”; they are “a book without an author.” They are without a national identity or a homeland, nor do they appear to desire either. For centuries the Roma have been the targets of slanderous prejudgments, the scapegoats when economically desperate nationalists have turned to violence, and the victims of the “devouring,” the Nazi purge of a half-million Gypsies, whom they found “unworthy of living.” Fonseca describes her poignant encounters with Albanian Gypsy families, with Bulgarian women trapped by both their own communities and the surrounding society, and with Romanian communities burned in modern-day pogroms. This study is a very readable account of who the Gypsies are, how they have come to be this way, and where they seem to be headed.

Throughout the Balkans, Fonseca finds great social instability and incredible poverty—“an unending torpor of deprivation and shame.” But among the Dukas, the Gypsy family with which she lives and through which she savors the life of the Roma, she finds a tight-knit subculture, a “…buoyantly confident group, settled in their skin and not needing outsiders.” Although this is one small group, Fonseca finds it representative of the many Roma communities that she has visited throughout Europe— more than 12 million people scattered by several diasporas, yet somehow united through a fierce “familial-type allegiance.”

Underlying this allegiance is a system of beliefs, which Fonseca compares to a religion, “strictly and unquestioningly honored.” “These beliefs are the tightly woven taboos and forms which guard against contamination—of the group, the person, the reputation.” Adherence to this code has enabled the Gypsies to endure centuries of persecution and drastic change, and to still retain their identity, separated from the societies in which they live—whether by their own choice or imposed segregation. Gypsies everywhere have “highly regulated and restrictive codes” about relations with gadje (non-Gypsies), and these codes are tantamount to a self-protective isolation.

Living with the Albanian family, Fonseca discovers a microcosmic portrait of the lives of modern Gypsy women. The women do basically all of the work in the home; in the Dukas family, the mother runs the household, directing her daughters-in-law through the daily drudgery of endless tasks—the daughters-in-law vying to outperform each other in every task. These women, says the author, “had the comfort of having a clear role in the world of unemployment without end. It was the men, jobless and bored, who looked the worse off.” In fact, Fonseca observes that because of the Gypsy women’s industry and productivity there is a greater disparity between themselves and their men than there is among their “gadje” counterparts throughout Eastern Europe.

In Bulgaria, Fonseca interviews three women, who reveal their struggles for “a sense of place.” Their struggle “… has everything to do with the human landscape, and in respect of its large Gypsy population, Bulgaria is barren—a tundra of human intolerance.” Antoinette is a Gypsy woman who has attempted to achieve racial anonymity by coloring her hair, outfitting herself in gadje fashions, changing her name, and even adopting a local religion. Though her attempts have been somewhat successful, she never really seems to blend in; consequently, she appears to be an outcast among her adopted people as well as a pariah among her own people. Elena, a gadje, has learned much about suffering through association; she had had extreme difficulties earning her PhD because her chosen area of specialization, the Gypsies, was considered “unsuitable” by most universities. After accumulating much data and analyzing her results, Elena still is not allowed to publish her findings due to “economic reasons.” “Economic reasons [have] neatly replaced political ones.” Emilia, a Gypsy, was forced to marry when she was barely a teenager, only to have her husband inducted into the military and then sent to prison. Rather than submit herself to the demands of her husband’s clan, she returned to her parents in defiance of tradition, thus scandalizing the Gypsy community. When she remarried a man in another clan, which considered itself superior to hers, Emilia was treated as a pariah. Eventually she delivered a child, but was then exiled by her husband’s clan, which also abducted her child. She now lives a horrible exile, rejected by all the clans she has previously lived with. In each of these three cases, the Gypsies are viewed as “outsiders,” never fully acceptable to their “host” nation, and continually subjected to hierarchical prejudices, even within their own race.

For centuries the Roma have been targeted by states throughout Europe as scapegoats in difficult times. The most horrific period was during the Nazi holocaust in which half a million Gypsies died; added to this horror was the diabolical scientific obsession that Third Reich scientists had with Gypsies, studying “to establish the hereditary character of criminal and asocial behavior.” The extermination, called “the devouring” by Roma, did not end violence against these people. As late as the 1990’s, there have been outbreaks of murders, burnings of Gypsy homes and villages, all of which have been overlooked or even justified by local officials because of the “unsavory” victims. Fonseca finds this behavior widespread in Romania. Nations have written laws preventing a people from living nomadic lives; other nations have established quasi-economic policies intended to halt Gypsy immigration. It is little wonder that a frustrated Gypsy leader has paraphrased a proverb: “Bury me standing; I’ve been kneeling all my life.”

Fonseca is sympathetic to the Gypsies’ plight throughout her study. She admires their colorful independence, their strong sense of values, their pride in the face of derision and slander, their allegiance to clan and family, and their amazing resilience. She also finds hope for these people because their losses are finally being remembered: a memorial to their dead has finally been erected at Birkenau; in 1987, the Chancellor of Germany finally acknowledged the truth about the Gypsy holocaust. Leaders of many Roma clans have begun working together in a parliament in order to better define and unite their culture, the largest minority in Europe. Unfortunately, the dialogues resemble “crabs in a basket,” but at least there is finally communication among a family long broken by diaspora and oppression.

Ted Odenwald and his wife have lived in Oakland for 39 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust.