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Sheila and the Gypsy

by Maureen Lapidus Falkowitz

My great-aunt Gloria was alone in her apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She looked very subdued when I entered her darkened living room.

Despite the gloom, her rooms were very flamboyantly decorated. Behind the couch was a large painting of a bullfighter in a ring fighting with a bull. There was also a huge, colorful statue of a female flamenco dancer that stood about four feet tall and had been made into a lamp; it was sitting on a side table. Another wall had several paintings of finely-dressed ladies from what was called “the Roaring Twenties,” and there was an Oriental rug covering the floor.

I was there to pay a condolence call; my grandmother Sheila had died a few days previously. I hadn’t known my grandmother well; I had only visited her a few times in my life. She had been living in a nursing home for the mentally ill for the last twelve years of her life.

My parents had divorced long ago, when I was a toddler, and my mother passed away five years previously, when she was in her early forties. My father, Grandma Sheila’s son, worked as a commercial pilot, and was usually transporting well-known celebrities in his single-engine plane from New York City to Los Angeles and back.

“Hello, Janelle,” my great-aunt greeted me. “The last visitor left a few minutes ago. I’m glad you were able to come to pay respects to your grandmother. There is so much food here; enough to choke a horse. I don’t know what I am going to do with it. Please help yourself.”

“Oh, thank you, Aunt Gloria. I came here right after my dancing class and didn’t have a chance to eat.”

I took an apple from a basket and sat down on the couch. Aunt Gloria sat down next to me and looked at me kindly.

When she spoke again, it was with tears in her eyes. “I miss your grandmother so much, Janelle. I used to visit her every week at the nursing home. It was difficult for me to see her like that. When she was young, she was so attractive. You cannot imagine how stunning she was. And what a wonderful Latin dancer! No one could compete with her. In her later years, she also belly-danced for her own and the family’s enjoyment.

“So many people, my students especially, think I am such an excellent dancer. Sheila far surpassed me.

“Your Grandmother Sheila was once a gloriously beautiful woman. She had long, black, curly hair, dark, twinkling and sparkling eyes, ample curves, and a clear, white complexion. She had a good sense of humor and was always laughing. She was delightful!

“When our family attended weddings and bar- or bat-mitzvahs, the two of us would draw a crowd when we both danced the Russian kazatska. Then, our cousin Marcia would join us and we were quite a sight. A brunette, a redhead, and a blonde, all natural beauties, but Sheila was the most beautiful of all!”

Then there was silence in the room. Aunt Gloria was deep in thought.

Suddenly, we heard a whistling sound. We couldn’t tell where it was coming from. At first it sounded like the steam from a tea kettle of boiling water, and then it became a hissing sound as though the heat was coming up in the radiators, and then a clanging and a knocking in the pipes. Then, it sounded like a monologue with a distinctive voice. We listened intently trying to hear the words.

My great-aunt said: “What is it? What is it? If I let my imagination run away with me, I might think it was Sheila’s spirit paying us a visit. She was unconventional enough to do such a thing. Can you hear her words?”

I did, to my amazement.

Just look at the two of them, my sister and my granddaughter. They’re discussing me when I was young. My sister Gloria thinks she knows all about me. I wish I could make them understand what my 18-year-old life was like, and the excitement I felt with my first true love, a handsome Roma.

I was so angry with my father then. He was adamant that I not see my boyfriend, Abednego Gitano. He just didn’t understand how I felt.

At the time, my father ranted and raved against Abednego and forbade me to see him. He would call him “the Gypsy,” even though I told him time and time again that the real name of Abednego’s people was the Roma, Romani, or Rom. The last thing my father was interested in was proper terminology.

Abednego fascinated me from the start. He was somewhat older than I; he was 20 when I was 16. He looked so sexy, exotic, and mysterious. He had what the girls referred to as “bedroom eyes.” His dark brown hair had the classical ringlets of Greek statues, his lips were full, and he had a dazzling smile. And those eyes! When I looked into them, they took my breath away. They were so deep and fathomless. When we walked down the street together, we made such a striking couple. All eyes would be upon us.

I had matured into a beautiful young woman. Others complimented me all the time, but I didn’t care about what they said; all I cared about was what Abednego thought of me.

Abednego entertained me with so many delightful and interesting stories. They reminded me of the Thousand and One Nights.

Abednego told me that his extended family had lived in the Balkans for centuries, so long that no one knew exactly how long it had been. They had traveled throughout Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, northern Greece and the northwestern part of Turkey. In the late 1800’s, his people abandoned their traveling ways and settled near the city of Skopje in what is now called the Republic of Macedonia.

There were scholars who had told the elders of his family that they had descended from people who belonged to a low caste and originally lived in northern India. There are many Romani words that are the same or related to words in an Indian language spoken in that part of the world.

His people also call themselves the Rom. It means “the man.” It is related to an Indian word “Dom” that has the same meaning.

He said many of the Roma had Biblical names. His two older brothers were named Shadrach and Meshach. I recognized all three names as coming from the Bible. In the Biblical story, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia was enraged at three young Hebrew men because they refused to bow down to a golden idol. He had them thrown into a hot oven. The flames were expected to consume them, but the three remained unscathed. The power of God protected them.

Abednego told me that it wasn’t only Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. Even though the Roma were considered Aryans by the Nazis, the Germans couldn’t accept the Roma as being in the same category as themselves.

Hitler and his henchmen decided that the Roma would also be singled out for racial persecution and annihilation. Therefore, there were no distinctions made between the Jews and the Roma, except that the Roma were sent to particular concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. Both peoples were also transported using cattle cars, except the cars carrying the Roma were often attached to the back of the cars carrying the Jews.

At the start of the Nazi occupation of Bulgaria in March 1941, Abednego’s family escaped to a section of Greece near Thessalonica. His family quickly realized they were not safe there either. It was as if the Germans were following them; the Nazis took over Greece in April 1941. The Gitanos quickly escaped to Istanbul by way of northwestern Turkey, using forests to sleep in at night and little-known paths through the mountains by daylight.

From Istanbul, they were able to contact a distant cousin who was living in the area that is called “downtown Brooklyn” in New York City. The cousin wired them enough money for them to get the cheapest tickets on a commercial freighter leaving from Istanbul and headed to New York. That was how the Gitano family came to settle in Brooklyn.

When I finally got the courage to ask Abednego if marriage was in the stars for us, he had answered by gently moving his head from side to side. He had a very serious look in his eyes. He explained that he wasn’t allowed to marry a girl who was a “guy-shay” — a non-Roma, which reminded me of the word “goy” — a non-Jew.

“That’s odd,” I thought, “I’m not allowed to marry you, either.” But I said nothing. I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

Our parting that day saddened me, but I hoped that maybe with time, things would change and people would change. It was a hope that I held deep in my heart. But Abednego and I would eventually go our separate ways; we would each marry people of our own kind, and we would someday have our own children and grandchildren.

“Aunt Gloria, Aunt Gloria, did you hear my grandmother?”

“No, I didn’t, Janelle. I could hear someone speaking, but I didn’t understand even one word.”

“That’s strange,” I said. “She spoke for a long time, and I was able to understand most of it. She was speaking about a Gypsy, someone whose name was Abednego Gitano. Did you ever hear about someone with that name?”

“No, I’m afraid I didn’t, Janelle.”

Author’s historical notes:

Genetic and linguistic studies indicate the Romani arrival must be dated much earlier than previously thought. The Romani migrated in one wave from northern and northwestern India 1,500 years ago, approximately 500 CE. They traveled through the Near and Middle East to arrive in Europe via the Balkans. — Mendizabal, Isabel, et al. “Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data,” Current Biology 22: 24 (2012), 2342-2349.

Šuto Orizari, or Shutka, is a municipality just five kilometers from the center of Skopje and is home to an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Gypsies. With its own Roma mayor and Romani as an official language, some consider it to be the largest “official” Roma community in the world.

See also: “Roma Victims of the Holocaust: A Project of the American-Israeli Cooperative.” Virtual Library.

Copyright © 2014 by Maureen L. Falkowitz

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