Vol 3, article posted February 18, 2015


by M. van Rheenen

A Dutch publication introducing Sinti (and Roma) culture is aptly titled Onbekende bekenden, loosely translated as “the acquaintances you are unacquainted with.” The publication is endorsed by the Landelijke Sinti Organisatie (National Sinti Organization) in the Netherlands. Sinti are among the Romany groups which have been in Western Europe for the longest. Records place them in Germany as early as 1414 (Matras, 2004: 70, Fraser, 1995: 62), Spain as early as 1425 (Fraser, 1995: 76) and Paris by 1427 (ibid 77) and the Netherlands around 1429 (ibid 78). They have survived bounty hunters, the “gypsy hunts” of the 1600s and 1700s, when in some areas being Romany was punishable by death (Luccassen et al, 1998: 61ff; Fraser, 1995: 147; 152), and centuries of persecution. Nazi death camps were definitely not the first attempts at mass genocide. Throughout the past 600 years, Sinti culture and Sinti people remain strong, in part because they have strong boundaries between themselves and the (usually hostile) gadje (non-Romany) culture around them. Out of respect for this protective attitude, what follows is only a very general overview of Sinti culture./1/

A key protective boundary is language. Sinti, like many Romany and related Domari- and Lomavren-speaking groups, live in several different nation states. They have no common homeland or centralized authority (such as a government) to represent them. What they do have is their language and culture. On several occasions, Sinti have explained that they want to keep their language to themselves because, “Our language is all we have.” As even an Internet question-and-answer cite notes, teaching someone the speech of the Sinti is breaking a very strong taboo:

Wer die Kultur des Sinti und Roma ein wenig kennengelernt hat der weiß, dass die Sprache niemals weitergegeben wird sondern nur in den Familien bleibt und das auch nur in den eigenen vier Wänden. Wer als Nichtsinti die Sprache erlernen möchte muss wissen, dass er gegen ein Tabu verstößt, denn das Unterrichten oder das lehren der Sintisprache lehnen die Sinti ab. Die Tradition verbietet den Schutz der Sprache zu brechen.
English translation: Whoever has even a slight acquaintance with the culture of the Sinti and Roma knows that the language is never shared but remains only in the families and only in their own homes. If you want to learn the language as a non-Sinti, you must know that you will be violating a taboo. The tradition prohibits breaking the protection of the language (www.fragsven.net).

My husband and I were pleasantly surprised the first time a Sinti household invited us in for coffee/tea. The head of the family turned out to be the head of that particular woonwagonkamp (trailer park specifically set aside for Romany or Dutch travelers). The family was practicing hospitality, but they were also checking out these strangers. When one of the women served us tea, my husband asked her, “How do you say ‘thank-you’ in your language?”/2/ She mumbled something in German and quickly moved on.

Local school children from the same community sometimes have had teachers who wanted to learn their language. The children, already schooled in the ways of the Sinti, would play along without giving any actual information. For example, if a teacher asked, “What do you call this in your language?” and held up a fork, the children would give the word in the national language with a Romanes-sounding ending much as, say Spanish-speaking children might say, “el forko” or Polish-speaking children might say “forkski.” The teacher was satisfied but none the wiser.

Later, an elderly woman began to make a game of teaching me Romanes. While she liked to show off what I knew, she also told me, “You know one word for ‘table’ and ‘cup.’ There are other words I could use, and you would never know what I was saying.” Some of this is immediately functional. Like many minorities, Sinti have been subject to more suspicion and harassment from authorities than members of the majority society. A linguist who was fluent in Romanes relayed that Sinti who were willing to share linguistic information with him drew the line on words related to, say, the police.

It follows, then, that Sinti have been adamantly opposed to having their language written down. A written language is easier for others to capture, to study, to learn. The publication of the New Testament in Romanes prompted strong reactions among Sinti. Statements from an online forum included, “Please tell us that this is not true . . . .” Others expressed concern that the book could get “into the wrong hands,” that it was not proper to make a book in Sinti available which Germans could also read (and understand and thereby learn Romanes), that Sinti law had been broken, and that even though Sinti had been writing in to each other in their own language in Internet forums, etc., that was quite a different matter than having gadje go over the heads of Sinti leaders and make the Romanes translation of one of the world’s most widely published books available to anyone (http://180250.forumromanum.com).

These concerns have a solid basis in Sinti experience. Several different people have described to me how, before W.W. II, a woman pretended to be very nice, learned their culture, took down lists of their families, and measured their noses. This measuring of the body, particularly parts of the head, was an aspect of physical anthropology which played into the Nazi’s fixation on racial types. The people who told me about Eva Justin, an anthropologist in the service of the Third Reich, did not know her name, but the entire community knew of her and how she enabled the rounding up of Sinti in Nazi-controlled territory (Fraser, 1995: 258ff)./3/ All of the people who relayed this story had been born after the war.

A higher percentage of Roma and Sinti died at the hands of the Nazis than did Jews (Hancock 2009). For example, of the 245 Sinti and Roma deported from the Netherlands to Auschwitz, only 30 returned (Fraser, 1995: 266). Sinti homes rarely have old family photos on display, so when I saw a framed, sepiatoned photograph hanging on the wall of a caravan, I asked the lady of the house about it. The six or so young men in the photo were her brothers. They had all been killed in the war.

There is, thus, good basis for the Sinti to keep protectively separate from the surrounding society. This may be one reason Sinti individuals tend to have at least two names: an outside required by the outside gadje and one used inside the community. The outside name appears on ones passport and is used by officials like the teachers in school. The other name is the name used so extensively by family and friends that they may not even know the “passport” name./4/ The other name may be a common first name or a descriptive nickname. It is this other name which really matters, just as it is the community recognition of a marriage which really matters and decisions by Sinti judges which really matter.

Marriages are not arranged, though family approval for most life decisions is important. A young couple who decides to marry may simply disappear to spend at least one romantic night together. Afterwards, the community recognizes them as married. Registration within the gadje system is a secondary matter (Wisse, 2004: 73).

Sinti view themselves as members of an extended family first and as individuals second. They prefer to care for the sick, infirmed, and elderly within the family and view gadje institutions such as nursing homes with disfavor (Spangers, 1998: 23). Where Sinti live near one another, the extended family households are fluid. We once visited a Sinti musician in his home. A woman we recognized was also there. She offered us tea, then went next door to borrow sugar from her daughter-in-law. We assumed our hostess was married to the musician. A long time later, we discovered our error. She was his sister and did not even live in the same woonwagonkamp as the musician and his wife. She was there, and she served us. Likewise, if she or one of her children had been in someone else’s home when a meal or other food was prepared, they would have been served.

The head of the extended household is usually male. The eldest men may exert considerable influence. Like many related societies, men and women move in such distinctly different spheres that an outsider (like ourselves) may be loosely associated with a community for some time without being able to discern which men and women who actually do interact are married and which are siblings. The example above was by no means an isolated incident. In a social gathering, men and women tend to gather in distinct groups. In some church services, men sit separate from women, though children may move freely between the groups. In a home setting, men (and guests) tend to be served first.

Sinti children learn excellent social skills early in life. When our children were younger, I would bring a carefully filled bag to entertain and distract them during long programs. Sinti parents at the same programs would simply bring themselves. Distraction and entertainment came from social interaction, not from things like toys and coloring books. Sinti children felt free to move from one relative to another, to talk with each other, or even leave and return. Social contact and group participation was the most important factor—more important, for instance, than school schedules or clock time. A program set to begin at 4 o’clock began when the community had gathered (usually at least a quarter of an hour after four) and ended . . . . when the community was finished. Family gatherings, whether celebrations or funerals, are more important than regular school attendance for children and more important than previously schedule appointments for adults. The family, the community, are the source and center of life.

People within the community follow Sinti law or custom: they are clean. Outsiders, gadje like myself, are uncouth and ritually unclean. We do things like talk about pregnancy in mixed company, eat horsemeat,/5/ and follow professions which put us in regular contact with blood. Sinti recognize that anything below the waist is unclean, and anything below a woman’s waist is especially unclean. While girls might wear pants, a proper Sintesse wears a skirt, preferably quite long, which covers her from the waist down. Some very elderly women will even double-cover themselves by wearing a decorative apron over their skirt.

Proper Sinti take care to remain clean. When they are unclean, they take care to avoid making others unclean. At tent meeting, where many Sinti had gathered in their travel trailers, we and a Sinto friend of ours from another country were invited into a trailer for refreshments. At the time, our friend had been declared unclean by his Sinti community. He politely informed our host who then got out a disposable cup for the unclean guest. Later, when all of those at the campground were enjoying a picnic potluck in the main tent, this same friend remained discretely outside. Someone filled a (disposable) plate for him and brought it to him.

Serious matters of Sinti law or custom are determined by Sinti judges, respected men from the Sinti community. Given the importance of family and community, the worst punishment for Sinti is to be cut off from that community by being declared permanently unclean. Examples of this happening include people who are continually exposed to blood (doctors, nurses) and Sinti who choose to be in close contact with such irrevocably unclean people by, for instance, eating and drinking with them.

There are differences from group to group and even from camp to camp. Sinti from the former Yugoslavia say that during WW II and after, under the dictator Tito, they were not able to follow all of the rules for ritual cleanliness. Sinti and their Manouche brothers/sisters are spread throughout Germany, France, and Austria with smaller populations in the Lombardi region of Italy, the Netherland, Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and Siberia. The “Czech” Sinti moved from Czechoslovakia before W.W. II. The Romenchals of the British Isles are also related. While Sinti are quick to differentiate themselves from Roma, I have heard them describe the Romenchals as “our people, but they have lost their language.” A number of the mysterious “Black Dutch” in North America can trace their roots back to Sinti who immigrated singly or in groups (Acton and Gallant, 1997: 19).

The fact that German-speaking regions form a center of Sinti life is reflected in the number of German loan words in their language, Romanes. A Dutch friend who is also fluent in German was amazed at the amount of German she could pick out in Romanes. Recognizing a word here or there, however, is a long way from knowing a language. The complicated grammar of Romanes has many features radically different from Germanic languages. Basic vocabulary (numbers, family members, food, drink) stem from the ancient roots of all Romany languages rather than recent European borrowings./6/

Sinti recognize several distinct versions of Romanes. Many of those in France chose not to continue speaking Romanes after the war. Their Romanes has far fewer German loan words than German, Czech, or Yugoslavian Sinti. Anglo-Romany (used by Romanchal) has retained some Romanes vocabulary (Acton and Gallant, 1997: 13). Romanes-based words have even become part of standard English—“pal,” “lollipop,” and possibly “dad” (Acton and Gallant, 1997: 11).

Traditionally Sinti moved from place to place and from country to country in caravans. “My father lived like a king,” one Dutch Sinto told us. “He went wherever he wanted.” Dutch Sinti still prefer to live in woonwagonkamps where their houses have wheels under them and can, at least theoretically, be moved (Spangers, 1998: 22). Since the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries, the use of land, including housing, is carefully planned and regulated. Romany and Dutch Travelers are the only people who, officially, may live in woonwagonkamps. In other European countries, Sinti live in regular housing, the exception being France where Romany may still live and move in caravans. The French government does provide camps with sanitary facilities for them.

Sinti traditionally followed occupations associated with traveling: horse trading, furniture repair, scissor sharpening, peddling from door to door, and entertaining either as musicians and singers or in the small traveling circuses and carnivals still found in Europe. A number of these are no longer viable sources of income (Kuba and Melo, 1990: 20, 49; Spangers, 1998: 13). The Sinti I am acquainted with still prefer to be self-employed or to work in people-related fields. Examples include furniture-making; sales; businesses ranging from pizza parlors to second-hand shops; collecting and selling scrap metal; artists, artisans, and musicians. Django Rheinardt, the famous jazz musician, was Sinti/Manouche (Spangers, 1998: 29). Others, such as the Rosenberg Trio, follow in his footsteps.

A good place to hear Gypsy Jazz is at the International Gipsy Festival in Tilburg, the Netherlands, held every year in early May./7/ Another annual gathering of primarily Sinti and Manouche occurs on May 24 and 25, in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France./8/ Romany from across Europe come to honor Sara, the patron saint of Roma and Sinti. A huge religious gathering of another sort also occurs each summer in France. While Sinti are traditionally Roman Catholic, in recent decades many have joined a Pentecostal movement, Vie et Lumiere (Light and Life). Thousands of Sinti and Manouche turn an old air force base into a caravan city. The focus is the large tent where meetings are held throughout the day and evening punctuated by Christian music of all sorts./9/ The Rom and Sinti have thoroughly organized the event with sanitation, policing, the daily sale of fresh foods, and suitable vendors.

These very public events appear to show the Sinti and their way of life to the world. But, like the woman who taught me a few words of Romanes (a language which I never mastered and have not successfully retained) made clear, there are levels of Sinti culture which are not and perhaps never will be publically displayed. While we gadjo may become acquainted with Sinti, Sinti remain purposefully unknown.

/1/ Much of this is based on 18 years of interaction with Sinti and Sinti communities. Though I am trained as an ethnographer, my interaction sprang from common interests and goals rather than a systematic research. In this I have attempted to respect Sinti desire to remain, to some degree, onbekend.
/2/ Note several assumptions which could have been totally incorrect: a) that this language had a term for ‘thank you’; b) that this culture had the custom of saying ‘thank you’; c) that our hostess would want to share that word with us.
/3/ For a photo of Eva Jenkins measuring a Romany woman’s head, see http://www.holocaust-trc.org/sinti-and-roma/dr-robert-ritter/.
/4/ My husband once arranged travel with a gadjo friend and his Sinti co-worker, known as “X”. These two had worked together for several years. My husband did not know the Sinto personally and pointedly asked the gadjo several times what the other man’s official name was. Oh, his real name is “X”. When all three met at the airport, it turned out that the name on “X”’s passport was NOT “X.” They had to pay extra fees to change the ticket.
/5/ I don’t, personally, but horse meat is for sale in many European supermarkets.
/6/ Speaking of borrowing, 30% of all vocabulary in contemporary English shares the same roots as contemporary French. The languages are clearly unique, however, as any native English-speaker who has tried to learn French (or vice versa) can attest.
/7/ For more information, see www.gipsyfestival.nl or the related Facebook page.
The term “Gypsy” is offensive to some, but this is the name Sinti (and, to a lesser extent, Roma) have given the annual festival.
/8/ Additional information available at www.avignon-et-provence.com/saintes-maries-de-la-mer/gypsy-pilgrimage/.
/9/ Photos from the event, with French commentary, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPZYmjlDoUk


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