My mother said to me: “You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.” There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: “You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.” My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food. We were very poor.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: “Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.” A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back, I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were. I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of the kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, and it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: “This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!”
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: “What do you want here?”
“Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.”
“You?” He started to laugh. Look at that skirt on her! “Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?”
“I will study! I will come to school, I will!”
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school, that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with golden roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would open the path wide for Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: “Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.” And so I only dared to go into the village when there were a few of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half-past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the gadjo boys and girls came into my class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and they put their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed there sitting in the front desk, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. The teacher still did not arrive. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last, the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. “Who put you there?” She pulled me out of the desk, and sent me to sit at the back. “That will be your place.” In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was the Romani one. “The Gypsy desk.” Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone would sit next to me. But I was alone, all by my little self.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: So how was school? “Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.” My mother slapped me. “Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going there, so that they don’t take your father and lock him up.”
The next day, I washed my feet again, and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my darling. At night, I was unable to fall asleep, for all the seven-times table dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: “Go on, count!” And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: “What do they cultivate in Hungary?” I knew. Peppers, melons.
“You are not stupid,” said the teacher. “If you had a reader, and an exercise book, and a pencil, you could learn something. Why does your mother not buy you a reader?”
“My mother has no money.”
“Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!”
“There are many of us at home, and there is no work.”
Then, one day, I did not go to school. “Where were you?” asked the teacher when I went back.
“You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.” The teacher’s eyes popped out. “I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.”
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One time an order was given that all “Gypsy” children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: “Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you do not go! Who will support us?”
The children went. They all put on their “very best” clothes. Their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. “Go on, run, you Gypsy rabble!”
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jumped up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. “How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,” he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: “You go there, you there, you there!” So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beói, who was one year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. “Where will I put you!” At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children, so that we could not have fights with them. We were unable to study.
One time, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: “I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.”
Bango said: “We don’t eat in the morning, either.” That was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: “What have you eaten?”
“Wow!” my eyes opened as wide as stars. “If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake . . . !”
“How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?” the teacher cut into my fine speech. “Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!”
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: “I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.”
The teacher went red, said nothing and went away from me.
A year went by. Everyone said that I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There was not a single C grade on it. And I was very proud! I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: “Mummy, I only have A’s and B’s.”
“I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!” That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour out my heart to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: “Listen, you will go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!”
I said: “How can I go, if we don’t have any money?”
And they said: “Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.”
We went over to the church. In the front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money to it. And Šulo said: “What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.” They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. “Banga, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,” said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
“The priest is coming!” I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. “Swallow it! Get it down!” I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me in the back.
“What are you doing here, you devils?” said the priest.
“We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,” lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: “Come here, I will give you a bit of holy water.” He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
“Bango said: “We need to think of a way of getting the money.” But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo, who had chickens. “Do you know what?” the boys said, “You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.”
I did not know what to do. “Banga, you go!”
“Alright,” the boys said. “You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.”
I climbed the pear-tree – the dog did not bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do.
But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! The gadjo came straight for me. “Is that how you thank me for giving you work?” The gadjo picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I was just looking to see whether Bango and ulo would run out of the hen house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it did not go into my leg, but I tore my skirt. At the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. “We need a patch to sew it up!” said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
“Do you know what,” said Bango, “you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no-one will see your bottom.” So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. “What on earth is that? Look how she’s coming with a boy! Stuck right up against him? Does an honest girl walk like that?” (I was about seven or eight years old). As I came nearer, my mother said: “Is that how you go about, my girl?!” She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: “You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?” We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, “Wait, we’ll do it somehow.” She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: “What kind of chicken do you have?” Their shells were very thin. “You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.” The Jew would not buy the egg from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: “Oh! I am so disappointed! I will never go anywhere. I’m going home.”
“Aha!” said the boys. So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!” Šulo caught me by the ear. “Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.” But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
“Let us go and see what we can do,” said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was. The place was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: “Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.” Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: “Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!”
The circus manager pushed me forward: “Hop! Run off, then!” I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my own mind, I did everything alongside her. I would show everything to the boys!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little, than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I can do a flip, as well. There was one thing I was unable to do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first class was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: “You were at the circus, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was.”
“You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!”
I said: “The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.”
“Tell me how our great God was born.”
“I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.”
“Come straight out of your desk, you’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!”
“Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!” I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
One week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: “Come with me.” I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to demonstrate the circus. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
“So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them the circus. Wait here!” I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It is buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. “Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?”
“There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!”
“So I will take all the Romani children!” said the new teacher. But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!”
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the “Gypsies”. Not a single gadjo had ever come among us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: “Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!” He even said “aven avri”, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. “Get going, get going, run along to school!” When we got to the classroom, he asked: “Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.” He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed their hair.
“Why haven’t you combed your hair?”
“We don’t have any combs.”
“Have you washed?”
“We don’t have any towels.” One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have. “Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!”
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
“Who hasn’t eaten anything?”
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: “Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.” At noon, he bought food for us again: bread and margarine. He asked us: “What do you want to be when you are older?”
“I want to dance and sing!” I said.
He slapped me. “You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.” Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. “What do you want to do?”
“Me – a blacksmith.”
“Good, you will be a blacksmith.”
“I want to be a musician like my dad.”
“That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.”
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said, “Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!” He asked me: “Do you know how to sing?”
I sang a big romantic song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
“Who taught you that?” the teacher asked.
“My father sings that to my mother at night,” I said.
“Which of you can recite a poem?”
“Meeeeee!” I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem, which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
“Good,” he said, “you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.”
The boys brought violins and basses, and whatever they could, from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: “Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?”
“Wow! I’d love that.”
“Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot turn my anger towards those who treat you in such a way, so I have to turn it towards you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honorable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.”
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: “Now let me introduce my pupils to you.” The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished by me. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. “We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.” Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I finished school in my third year.