Book of the week

A FALSE DAWN: My life as a gypsy woman in Slovakia. By Ilona Lackov . Edited by Milena Huebschmannov. University of Hertfordshire Press. pound;11.99. Orders:

At a time when "bogus" and "dirty gypsy" are being used as epithets in playgrounds up and down Britain, the publication of the story of a Romany woman's life is timely. A False Dawn is Ilona Lackov 's story of her life as told over 10 years to Milena Huebschmannov , a Czech academic. It is one that deserves to be heard by all who disbelieve the claims of Romany asylum seekers knocking on Britain's doors.

Lackov was born in 1921 into poverty and grew up surrounded by hatred. But her life has been one of joy, as well as tragedy, partly because of her determination to make the most of her educational opportunities.

A mother of five, Lackov became the first Roma to write and produce plays; she compiled a collection of Romany fairytales; she was awarded a degree by Charles University, Prague, in her forties. As a Communist party official, she became an advocate for the rights of her people, touring schools to tell Slovak children about the Romanies. And, with this book, she becomes the first Romany woman to write her own story.

She was one of nine children, and her birth was inauspicious. When her white-skinned Polish mother clapped eyes on her baby's dark skin, she took fright, and nearly tore the newborn to shreds in an attempt to whiten her with lye and a scrubbing brush.

Hers was a world of extremes and contradictions. She was raised in a hovel with a dirt floor where life was circumscribed by superstition and folklore: a drink of animal manure mixed with milk was the cure for pneumonia, the evil eye was blamed for disease and misfortune, a girl who reached 16 without attracting a husband was "curd cheese gone bad".

But unlike many of her peers, especially the girls, she finished her education. She graduated from high school when other children would drop out by the time they were eight. She attended only in the winter; in the spring and summer she did farm work for peasants, like the rest of her family. Midway through her first year, her mother asked why her daughter didn't seem to learn anything. The next da, the teacher said to Ilona in astonishment: "So you want to learn something!" She had assumed the Romanies were ineducable.

Ilona proved her wrong. At 14, she had poetry broadcast on the radio and was interviewed and photographed by her favourite magazine. But even while she was relishing her triumph, the new Slovak state passed laws against gypsies which effectively made them into non-persons. The article was never published.

Ilona grew up a natural activist, possessed of a fierce sense of justice. When the Nazis started deporting Roma from her village, she walked miles into town to demand an explanation from the Slovak chief of police. Her audacity could have meant imprisonment and death, but instead it was met with respect.

When the fascist Hlinka guardsmen came after Ilona and her mother-in-law to shave their heads, as they did to humiliate all Roma women, she stopped them by declaring that the commander of the gendarmes had forbidden anyone to touch them.

She eloquently describes the travails and strengths of her people: the grief in the village when Slovak peasants poisoned them with beer contaminated with furniture polish for a joke; how her family, themselves starving, would help Slovak orphans who had even less; the vivid memories of Roma and Jews begging for water from the cattle cars transporting them to death camps. It is clear that her tough life never depleted her store of humanity.

For the gypsies of Slovakia, the trouble didn't cease when the Soviets took over. A Roma proverb says it all: "After every dawn also comes the darkness." The Communists set out to complete the Nazis' plan of obliterating Romany culture - children caught speaking their own language in schools had their heads shaved; playing gypsy music was forbidden; children were taken from their parents in the name of socialist assimilationist policies.

Ilona Lackov wants one more thing before she dies. "I'd like to write...about the truth of the Romany heart and I believe that I'll live to see the day when that heart will win a good word from the rest of the world." In today's hard-hearted world of immigration policies, it's hard to believe Ilona will see her dream realised.


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