An article in this week's Slovak Spectator alerted me to the fact that I had missed not only the 100th anniversary of the birth of writer Ilona (aka Elena) Lacková on March 22nd but also the charming Google Doodle that honored the occasion. I read Lacková's autobiography several years ago and was fascinated. I'm a few days late, but I thought I'd honor her birth and her work by posting my 2008 review of her book here.
In A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia, Ilona Lacková and translator/researcher Milena Hubschmannová give us a unique view into a Romani (“Gypsy”) community of Slovakia and how it has changed in the past several decades. Ilona Lacková (1921-2003), a Romani woman, was born in a Romani settlement near Prešov to a Romani musician father and a Polish non-Romani mother. Milena Hubschmannová was a student at Charles University in Prague when in 1954 she decided to research Romani language and met Lacková. She began audio-taping Lacková’s story in 1976 and continued taping for several years, later selecting, transcribing, and arranging Lacková’s stories until she had a biography of a woman and within it a story of a culture.
Although Lacková had an upbringing fairly typical for her community, she was not a typical Romani child in that she remained in school where she developed a love of reading and writing stories and became fluent in Slovak. By the time of World War II she was a young woman, a wife and mother. She describes how after the war she had hopes that Communism would improve the conditions of the Romani communities, recalling her father’s insistence, “Remember, it’s only in the Communist Party that you won’t find people saying: I’m a gentleman and you’re a Gypsy! In the Communist Party you’re a comrade just like me!” Disappointed to find that the Party considered Romani issues to be among the lowest priorities, Lacková became obsessed with writing a play that would depict the experiences of the Roma. Cast with Lacková’s Romani friends and relatives, the play became popular and well-known in Czechoslovakia. By the time the play had completed a run of over 100 performances, Lacková and her husband were considered by Communist officials to be “advanced, socially-aware Gypsy citizens ... and they should be used in political and cultural work.” This led to Lacková being “trained and ideologically armed” and appointed as a cultural inspector, “the first Gypsy woman functionary.” Later, in her 40s, she became the first Romani woman to attend Charles University, studying and obtaining her degree in the Faculty of Culture and Journalism there.
Lacková unofficially added advocacy for Roma to her duties in the Communist Party, visiting settlements whenever possible as she traveled. She describes their wretched impoverishment, most poignantly in the story of a woman sending her children out on little errands as she boiled water in a lidded kettle while praying for a miracle of food to put into the kettle. We readers get a further peek into the issues of the community during a time of change when Lacková narrates the disagreements that she and her husband had over the issues of Roma assimilating into the larger culture.
Though she attained an undreamed-of status for a “Gypsy woman,” Lacková’s adult life was in many ways still typical for a member of a Romani community. Even her degree from Charles University could not prevent a downturn in the family’s economic situation and she found herself, post-graduation, making and hawking trinkets like any other stereotypical “Gypsy.” She struggled to find housing for her family and describes the thrill of their first apartment: a single basement room with a window at ceiling level, a cement floor, and running water because it had been a laundry room until the hour that she moved her family in. She details the conflicts of holding a full-time job while simultaneously meeting the expectations of being a full-time wife and mother. Through it all she constantly wrestled with her self-image as “black,” “Gypsy,” and “backward,” even after becoming educated and “enlightened.”
Lacková’s themes are love, music, community, deprivation, and marginalization. She gives us clear descriptions of the Romani peoples’ descent from poverty and disenfranchisement into abject misery during the decades of her life: of her visits to settlements during her years as a cultural inspector, she says, “... it all reminded me of my childhood and youth in the settlement, which I had cursed countless times for its squalor and poverty, and which I loved above all else for the love and respect for one another that our people shared, for the art of taking life as it came, and for the art of joyousness.” Of the wretched post-war life of the Roma, she describes “... worse than the material poverty was the fact that after five years of constant fear, uncertainty, chicanery, and maltreatment, those hungry, dirty, sick, lice-infested, illiterate people had stopped taking care of themselves, and nothing mattered to them, because they had come to know that not a single one of their wishes would be listened to, and that their every effort was in vain. The girls didn’t care if their hair looked like feathers and straw—and the greatest pride of Romani girls used to be their hair! The boys didn’t care that they didn’t know how to take up a violin in their hands—and the violin used to be the greatest aspiration of every young Rom.” We as readers are left wishing for a more thorough discussion of the reasons and events behind this terrible decline, but that is not the purpose of this book, and we are left to glean causes from Lacková’s story.
Hubschmannová wisely refrained from editing Lacková’s story into a smoothly flowing narrative biography, instead preserving Lacková’s own words (albeit translated) and story-telling prowess. A False Dawn is arranged in sections roughly by periods of Lacková’s life, and within those sections often by topic. The first sections describe her family’s background and personalities, and her childhood in the context of the Romani settlement: occupations, holidays, schooling, marriage customs, relationship to the outside Slovak community, and so on. The next section describes the war years and her time as a young wife and mother, a time of appalling economic and social hardship, and the birth of and loss of children. Her post-war pre-Communist career in theater takes up the next section, followed by her work within the Communist Party and her advocacy for Roma, and then a small section about her university studies and life immediately afterwards. The book ends with a section titled “Postscript,” describing her past fifteen years in retirement. Tantalizingly, she then talks about the “Vlach Roma” in a small essay of three pages at the very end of the book. The Vlach Roma are those Roma who lived and traveled in caravans, different and exotic even to other Roma and fascinating to Lacková herself. We are left with a sense that after 200-plus intriguing pages, we have in fact only begun to learn about the “Gypsies” of Slovakia.
A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia by Ilona Lacková, translated and edited by Milena Hubschmannová. Interface collection, 16. Paris: Centre de recherches tsiganes, 2000. ISBN-13: 9781902806006
My review originally appeared in Slovakia (Spring 2008 issue), the quarterly publication of The Slovak Heritage and Folklore Society International.