This dispatch is unconnected with the Middle East. The British newspaper, The Guardian, despite my regularly criticizing them for their Mideast coverage, asked me to write an obituary of my friend, Milena Hubschmannova.
Hubschmannova was one of the most brilliant and admirable people I have had the privilege to know.
This is a slightly longer version of the published obit.
-- Tom Gross
Czech champion of the Roma, their language and culture
By Tom Gross
September 19, 2005
Milena Hubschmannova, who has died in a car accident aged 72 while on a visit to South Africa, was professor of Romany studies at Prague’s Charles University, and one of the leading experts of her generation, if not of all time, on Roma (Gypsy) culture and language.
Although not of Roma origin herself, Hubschmannova spent most of her life studying and helping the Roma, winning their respect and intense affection through her warmth and sensitivity. “She helped us to find dignity in ourselves, our culture and our history,” said Jana Hejkrlikova, a Roma activist.
Roma are a distinct people who have preserved their language and culture since migrating to Europe from India in the 10th century; and, contrary to legend, the vast majority of Europe’s six to eight million Roma have not lived a nomadic lifestyle for centuries.
In the former Czechoslovakia, where Hubschmannova lived and worked, hostility towards the 750,000 Roma remains acute. During communist times, when the authorities broke up Roma communities, tried to ban the Romani language, and even forcibly sterilised some Roma women, Hubschmannova was one of a tiny number of non-Roma who tried to keep Roma culture alive.
Born into a middle class family in Prague in 1933, she first became interested in the Romani language after she had graduated from Charles University, where she studied Urdu, Hindi and Bengali.
When the communist authorities sent her on students’ working brigades in Moravia, she came into contact with Roma communities and to her surprise, found that she could understand much of their language. “I was astonished that I was able to recognise words extremely similar to Hindi,” she said.
“I had studied Hindi but the communist regime made it difficult to travel to India, so instead I discovered India here in Czechoslovakia.”
Hubschmannova began a lifelong quest to learn about the Roma and to help them promote a better understanding of their culture in the outside world. Since it was forbidden to learn Romani in those times, she mastered it through conversations with native speakers with whom she became close friends.
She spent long periods living in impoverished communities in eastern Slovakia and northern Bohemia, recording Romani speech, songs, proverbs, folklore and tales, in notebooks and on hundreds of tapes. She mastered many dialects of Romani, not only Czech and Slovak, reaching a point where she could speak in their own language to Roma friends from as far a field as Albania, Spain and Argentina.
In the more liberal atmosphere resulting from the Prague spring, she helped establish the Union of Gypsy-Roma in 1968, and (until it was banned by the communists in 1973) co-edited their Romani language journal – a rarity for a people who until then had been largely illiterate.
Following the fall of communism in 1989, there was a flowering of Roma culture and of expressions of Roma identity throughout much of eastern Europe. Hubschmannova played an important role in encouraging these developments.
She was the driving force behind the opening in 1991 of a Romany Studies department at Charles University, which she chaired until her death. The department offered the first undergraduate university course specifically devoted to Romany studies anywhere in the world.
Taking place as it did in a society that had done so much to repress Roma identity, and that even today continues to portray Roma in a negative light, this was an extraordinary initiative.
Hubschmannova invited ordinary Roma who had been unable to enter university because of discrimination in the Czech school system to take part in her classes, in order to learn about their own history and share their experiences and stories.
She fought to overcome the prejudice which is still widespread even among supposedly liberal fellow academics. “Be careful, they’re quick with their knives,” one humanities professor warned her.
She published extensively, writing essays, contributing to many books, and helping to compile the first Czech-Romani dictionary. She also spent a great deal of time encouraging Roma to publish their own works.
Hubschmannova was an exceptionally good-natured woman, generous, modest, energetic, loving and much loved. She is survived by her daughter.
• Milena Hubschmannova, linguist, Romologist and folklorist, born July 10, 1933; died September 8, 2005