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On Assignment Among the Gypsies
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Roma Population

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By Peter Godwin Photographs by Tomasz Tomaszewski

Romanticized as free spirits, hounded for being different, the people who call themselves Roma fight for their place in a world where there are few welcome mats.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

At night the Gypsies turn the town into one huge series of parties. A favorite venue is Les Vagues (the Waves), a small bar that buzzes until dawn. As I arrive, the din of chinking glasses and smoke-scratched voices dies down at the imperious strum of acoustic guitars, and seven men launch into an up-tempo, flamenco-style ballad. This is a family sing-along by the Reyes family, the chart-topping Gipsy Kings, who come from the nearby city of Arles.

A few days later, in another Gypsy pub, the gloomy Bar L’Écluse (the Lock), on the side of the highway near Arles, I find Jean Reyes, the patriarch of the musical dynasty, his face now lined with drink and age. He feeds a slug of pastis through a gap in his gray beard, pats his Chanel bandanna, and adjusts the sunglasses that ride high on his wild spume of white hair. “My family always used to make their living with horses, buying, breeding, breaking, betting,” he remembers. “My father was very strict—he wanted all of us to work—which is very unusual for us Gypsies.” He signals for another drink, using his left hand—his right hand, injured in a fall, is bound in a polka-dot sling. “My best horse of all was an Arabian stallion—I went to Algeria myself to find him. I used to ride without saddles or reins—just holding on to the mane. But life has changed so. When I was young, I couldn’t sleep in a normal bed. Now most of my children have nice houses. But me? I couldn’t live in a house; it would be like a jail for me.”

*   *   *   

George and Veronica Kaslov live in New York’s East Village, in a tiny first-floor apartment sandwiched between tattoo parlors and falafel joints. The front room is Veronica’s fortune-telling parlor, equipped with crystal ball, tarot cards, and a map of the palm of your hand. “Real Psychic Reader” declares her handbill. “Advisor To Your True Destiny—For Peace of Mind—Discover your internal power for happiness and success.”

“There’s a will within us to survive as a people,” says Kaslov, whose grandfather, a Vlax Gypsy from Russia, arrived almost a hundred years ago. "All the other ethnic groups who came to America, they tend to assimiliate after a few generations; they lose their customs and language. But not the Rom. We hold out.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Sights and Sounds
Travel through the world of Gypsies with photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski.

We offer this forum board in Spanish and English. How are Gypsies similar to other minorities and immigrants? How do such groups retain their culture while being pressured to assimilate? Tell us your stories.

Presentamos este forum en inglés y en español. ¿En que forma son los gitanos similares a otras minorías y a otros inmigrantes? ¿Cómo mantienen estos grupos su cultura mientras se siente presionados a asimilarse al resto? Compartan su historias con nosotros.

Online Extra
Jews were not the only ones to die in the Holocaust. Thousands of Gypsies were sent to the gas chamber.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Until the mid-19th century, Gypsies were held as slaves in parts of present-day Romania. Different groups of slaves had different names, reflecting the kinds of jobs they performed. For example, the Papineshti were goose herders (papin is Romany for “goose”). Those names still identify clans among descendants of Gypsy slaves, many of whom now live in the United States. Of course, members of the Papineshti clan are no longer goose herders, since there’s not much demand for that skill. But some members of the Kalderash (coppersmith) clan—once makers of metal pots—are now in the business of scrap metal.

Interested in a general overview of Roma history and culture? This site has a time line, information about current events, a glossary of Romany words, and excellent illustrations and stories. In addition, you can access Ian Hancock’s book The Pariah Syndrome.

European Roma Rights Center
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) is an international public-interest law organization that monitors the human rights situation of Roma.

Roma News
News reports, commentary, and updates on the Roma.

Gypsy Lore Society
This site promotes the study of Gypsy culture and contains information on the society’s resources and publications.

The Smithsonian Institution
This site provides a good overview of the different groups of Gypsies in the U.S. today.

The Holocaust Museum
The Roma have been one of the world’s most persecuted groups, enduring banishment, slavery, and organized “Gypsy hunts.” In the 20th century they fell victim to the Nazis’ racial scapegoating, and perhaps half a million perished in the Holocaust. More information about the plight of the Roma under the Third Reich can be found on the United States Holocaust Museum’s website.

The Stories Exchange Project
Funded by the World Bank, The Stories Exchange Project is an experiment in generating global dialogue about the Romany experience and tensions between the Roma and the white majority worldwide. Visitors to the site are invited to comment on articles and discussions and to share their own stories. Available in English and Cesky, the site offers summaries of workshop discussions, text excerpts from dramatic performances, video clips of the film Stories Exchange Project, as well as poignant passages from interviews of project participants.


Crowe, David M. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. St. Martin’s, 1996.

Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing. Knopf, 1995.

Fraser, Angus. The Gypsies, 2nd ed. Blackwell, 1995.

Hancock, Ian F. The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Karoma Publishers, 1987.

Sway, Marlene. Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Sutherland, Anne. Gypsies: The Hidden Americans. Waveland Press, 1975.


Davenport, William. “France’s Wild, Watery South, the Camargne,” National Geographic (May 1973), 696-726.

Dale, Bruce. “When Gypsies Gather at Appleby Fair,” National Geographic (June 1972), 848-869.

McDowell, Bart. “Hungary: Changing Homeland of a Tough, Romantic People,” National Geographic (April 1971), 443-483.

McDowell, Bart. Gypsies: Wanderers of the World. National Geographic Books, 1970.

Marden, Luis and others. “Gypsy Cave Dwellers of Andalusia,” National Geographic (October 1957), 572-582.

Kammerman, Eugene L. “The Camargue, Land of Cowboys and Gypsies,” National Geographic (May 1956), 667-699.

Marden, Luis. “Speaking of Spain,” National Geographic (April 1950), 415-456.


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