It is necessary to provide more than standard educational care to Roma children, says Jana Horváthová, a graduate of the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University and the director of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno.
Your first study programme at Masaryk University was history. Did you start studying history because you were interested in it in general, or were you already actively interested in the history of the Roma people in the Czech lands?
I wasn’t at all interested in the history of the Roma when I was accepted into the university history programme. My origin was still a problem for me at that time. But history and historical objects have always attracted me, I would say almost magically. My father played a crucial role in this. He loves the past too, the same as I do. In light of when I grew up [under Communism], it’s clear that we didn’t travel abroad. But my family and I went all around Czechoslovakia, and wherever there was an interesting historical monument we had to see it. At the age of 15, I couldn’t wait any longer, and even though I was still not officially allowed to have a job, I arranged a summer job for myself as a tour guide at the chateau in Náměšť nad Oslavou. After that, I was a guide every summer, always in a different chateau. I only started to get involved in the history of Roma people during my studies. Once, my classmate Tomáš Knoz told me that Professor Ctibor Nečas was looking for students to help him in his research in the history of the Roma. I didn’t say anything to him at first, because I was a little surprised that Tomáš had probably revealed my Roma origins. But I kept thinking about it more and more. In the end, I signed up to work on the project. Professor Nečas was pleased, because in his innate decency he would never have dared to say to me, ‘Hey Holomková, I have been writing about your family for a long time, do you want to join me?’
Three years after your graduation, you returned to the university and started studying museology. What was your motivation?
At the beginning of 1991, I was part of the group of people founding the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno. I was actually the only full-time employee, as a historian. I wasn’t sure I knew how to found a museum, how it should work. I didn’t know the exact meanings of the magic formulas like evidence of the first and second degrees, the administration of collections, and so on. I always imagined that I would have a clever boss from whom I could learn everything. I couldn’t count on anything like this here, so I went to study museology. I didn’t want to make mistakes from the very beginning. In addition, I was on maternity leave and I wanted to take a bit of a break from my home duties. Fortunately, my mother is a very involved grandmother and makes it a full-time job at which she excels.
Your grandfather, the lawyer Tomáš Holomek, was one of the first Roma to graduate from university in the former Czechoslovakia. What do you think are the main reasons that still less than one percent of the Roma population today have followed him?
This question is fundamentally related to the whole set of problems which we have been accustomed to incorrectly address and summarize under the term ‘Roma’. For several reasons, Romani children in the first year of the elementary school are not starting from the same point as other children. If the Roma children are to succeed, they have to catch up very quickly with the others. What’s worse, they often have to meet this exceptional challenge without the help of their parents, who are often semi-literate with very little basic education themselves. This is the reason that most Romani children, even very talented ones, end up in schools for children with special needs. These are usually children who are only socially disadvantaged; they do not have mental problems. But from here, they can never get any further. They don’t get to learn or be trained for anything, and then they end up at the unemployment office, and the cycle keeps repeating. Most Roma people who managed to finish school were lucky in some way. Either they encountered excellent teachers who were willing to provide them with extra attention outside of the curriculum and spend free time with them, or they had parents who had already overcome a part of this struggle, so that their children could in turn follow them. The case of my family clearly demonstrates this. If we are genuinely interested in Roma integration, then this society, i.e. both Roma and non-Roma people, should be coordinated in their efforts and, above all, provide Roma children with extra attention, especially in the education system. Qualified people can succeed on the labour market, thereby avoiding poverty and its negative consequences, all of which positively affects their self-confidence. As a result of this, there would be a space for establishing healthy relationships with others in the society, with the majority. Still, it seems to me that the people who are in charge are turning a blind eye to this fact.
Do you think that our universities should introduce, for example, affirmative action for the Roma similar to what exists for different ethnic minorities in schools in US?
I don’t really know exactly how it works in the US. But I definitely support some kind of affirmative approach, because an increase in the number of educated Roma means an improvement not only for the Roma themselves but for society as a whole. Moreover, nowadays, the Roma graduates actually work in their community; in a way they come back to it. These people are totally different to those of the Communist era. Some Roma people then went along with the regime by assimilating themselves. They turned away from the Roma, and did nothing for their community. The Roma community thus did not benefit from these limited individual successes. In connection with the recent 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the media discussed the fact that children and students in schools are not learning much about the Holocaust.
What is the general awareness of Czech people, including students, about the Roma in the Holocaust?
Unfortunately, it’s still not good. Not only for children, but even for adults which is particularly sad. Sometimes even people with university-level educations have no idea about how it was with the Roma during the war. The Museum of Romani Culture in Brno is one of the few institutions that try to cultivate a general awareness among the majority of the population about the Roma ethnic minority.
Could you say how successful you are?
We are not happy, and we can’t be satisfied because we are still unable to get enough people to visit the museum. The greatest interest comes from university students. This might be a result of our series of lectures at the Pedagogical Faculty and Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University. Still, I have to say that when a test on the history and culture of the Roma took place in the museum after a semester of lectures on the subject, my colleagues and I were sometimes quite surprised about the extent of the students’ knowledge, on a scale from less than nothing to really high scores. People are different ...
You have been working in the museum since it was founded in 1991. Would you say that public interest in the museum’s activities and projects has increased since then? And a related question: Looking back at your fifteen-year career at the museum, what are you most proud of, and were there any failures?
Definitely interest has increased, that is clear. I am most proud of the fact that we were acknowledged by the Czech state as a specialized institution, putting us among the state contributory organizations, and of our seven-year travelling exhibition called ‘The World Through Roma Eyes’ - E luma romane jakhenca, which has been going on for so long because people are still interested in it, especially abroad.
And any failures?
Of course, there are several smaller ones every week. But, as for the crucial ones, they’re not failures, just reflections of the tremendous amount of work that is ahead of us. Mainly, we need to teach our neighbours from the Roma ghetto, at the centre of which is the museum located, to visit it. Children come every day, but their parents, usually unemployed, have completely different problems and interests than culture. Every day, they need to work out how to support their families.
You have been the museum director since October 2003. What are your future plans and ambitions?
The museum wants to become a professional institution. Surely, we are still at the beginning, but we want to be a quality museum that would globally and objectively document the culture of the Roma as an ethnic group living in a diaspora. We would like to address the public, both Roma and non-Roma, in the same way.
You organise events in and out of the museum related to the exploration and popularization of Roma culture. In the 1990s, you often worked as a script editor, including with Czech Television (CT). Would you say that CT and the public service media generally cover the lives and problems of the Roma in our country sufficiently, or do you see some room for improvement in this area?
Sure, there’s room. At the end of the 1990s, there was a programme called ‘Children of the Moment’, which was a series of documentaries about Roma culture broadcast from Prague, Brno, and Ostrava. These documentary films were beneficial and educational for many people. Today, there’s nothing like that on TV. Given the seriousness of the issue generally referred to with the umbrella term ‘the Roma’, it is in my opinion narrow-minded to argue that there are or used to be programmes, such as ‘Velký vůz’ or ‘Kosmopolis’, about national minorities. The relationship between Roma and non-Roma people is particular. It is often very difficult to compare it with any other ethnic or social relation between minority and majority. I must admit, though, that Czech TV has made great positive steps toward the objectivity of information about the Roma in recent years.
In 2001, you ran for membership on the Czech Television Board. Would you do it again?
Definitely not! I would have to end it in the museum. Unfortunately, I don’t have any time left for activities other than this main one of mine.
PhDr. Jana Horváthová (1967)
She studied history (1990) and museology (1997) at the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University. In 1991, she was at the founding of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, of which she has been the director since 2003. She is trying, among other things, to create a permanent exhibition in the museum. She prepared exhibitions such as ‘The World Through Roma Eyes’ and ‘Searching for Home’ (for the Moravian Museum). She participated in a project aimed at collecting recordings of Roma witnesses of World War II in the Czech Republic for the Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She was involved in the indemnification of the Czech Roma for racial persecution during the war. She has worked with Czech Television as a professional consultant and script editor for documentaries (e.g. Cikánské obrázky [Gypsy Pictures], Margita a Lenka [Margita and Lenka], and Khamoro [World Roma Festival]). Jana Horváthová is a member of the Government Council for National Minorities. In 2001-2004, she was a member of the Scientific Board of Masaryk University. In 2002, she published Kapitoly z dějin Romů [Chapters from Roma History], which is often used as a secondary school textbook.
Muni.cz, February 2005, p. 8
Text: Václav Štětka