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Grappling with a Roma identity

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Life on the Edge: Looking for my Gypsy roots

By Steve Bradshaw
Executive Producer, Life on the Edge

It was just a passing remark, the first time I heard Arpad Bogdan talk about the Roma father who had left him in an orphanage, and wonder if he should try to find him.

Arpad Bogdan
Arpad Bogdan spent his childhood in a state orphanage
We were drinking late at night in a semi-derelict house in a Budapest side street. We had skipped over bicycles and rubbish to make our way inside. I should say this was not a doss house but a trendy Urban Minimalism club.

"He doesn't have to tell you this you know," whispered our mutual friend, director Antonia Meszaros. And it was then that I realised how conflicted Arpad is - how much of a dilemma his Roma inheritance has created.

Arpad is a much-garlanded young film director, whose feature film Happy New Life has won many awards. It is about a young Roma man's unbearable childhood in an orphanage. In the end, he can't hack it - unlike Arpad who emerged from his own orphanage into the University of Pecs and a promising film career.

"My film," Arpad says, "is about the dilemmas of someone who realises that in order to face the future, he must come to terms with his past - and that's something that I still have to do in my own life."

Arpad was one of thousands of Roma - or gypsy - children who were taken into orphanages during Hungary's Communist years. The truth is cloudy here, but it seems that in some cases their parents wanted this, in many they didn't.

Sense of identity

"In the orphanage, being Roma had no positive implications for us," Arpad recalls. "But some of the kids were visited by their parents and they brought smells and flavours that were strange to me and even a little bit frightening.

Hungary's Roma at an Easter celebration
The Roma people are Hungary's largest minority
"There was also something exotic and exciting about them. The smell of an open fire, the smell of freedom."

Like many of his peers, and like many people in a globalised world, Arpad is now unsure where he belongs. He certainly seems to have a stake in the metro-savvy, globalised world of Budapest's cafes, salons and grunge clubs.

But does he also belong - at some level - in the world of Gypsy Harlem, Budapest's District Eight? Or in the villages where he reckoned his parents must still live?

Soon after our meeting, using powers under new Hungarian laws, Arpad sets off - in our own film - to find his parents. He had a rough idea where they lived, and had set off on a voyage of discovery before, only to lose his nerve.

What he finds is extraordinary. Newly released records show his parents "liked a drink, [and] discipline their children by beating them".

He meets a brother, Laszlo, he had never met. He learns their mother is dead. And finally, he meets his ragged, handsome dad. A new young wife hangs back, in the shadows of the garden. Some 40 dogs bark and make our film crew nervous.

'Forgiving'

And then his dad smiles, and extends a hand, and says, "Which one are you?" He's so charming, it is impossible to take it the wrong way.

Whether I'll see my father again, well maybe I will, but definitely not on my own
Arpad Bogdan
He's called Laszlo too. He was in prison for 12 years.

"I had a mean punch," he says. "I always say better be accompanied by a prison guard than a priest on your way to the cemetery. Isn't that right?"

The elder Laszlo doesn't see much of any of his nine children anymore. "At least you came to find me," he says.

"As for the past, let's pull a veil over it, we should look to the future from now on."

Back in Budapest, Arpad must think about his own future. First he must decide what his next film is about. He's not really in a dilemma about whether to carve a career as a "gypsy director". He doesn't want to be typecast.

But he is uncertain about whether to stay in touch with his dad.

"I looked at my father, into his eyes, and I suddenly felt myself forgiving him. I let him go, along with all the bad things I used to blame him for," he says.

"After that, I could see him for what he is, I could listen to him. Whether I'll see my father again, well maybe I will, but definitely not on my own. I will have to take someone with me, someone from my own life."

We'll have to wait and see what he does.

So far, he doesn't know himself.

Life on the Edge is broadcast on BBC World News on Tuesdays at 1930 GMT. The films were made for the BBC by TVE.


Read a selection of your comments on this story:

I'd like to express my heartfelt thanks to Mr. Bogdan for his courage in sharing what must have been a diffcult and personal experience. As the mother of an adopted Roma daughter from neighbouring Slovakia, I was moved to tears not only by Mr. Bogdan's articulation of his own emotional struggle, but by the corresponding knowledge, that one day this may be my daughter's too. Thank you for helping me to understand what she may one day feel.
LJC

Heartfelt story... shedding a ray of light on another's ancestry's history, completely different than my own.
Terisia, Bend, USA

Thank you so very much for your soul - it is truly reflective of the Hungarian artist. My family is one generation from Hitler's horror, and my independant spirit has faced enormous terror to comply with "americana". However, I don't for I am proud of my heritage and of my family. Hungarians are a strong and independant people with a good and kind soul, not to be mistaken for foolishness. Formerly I built databases from raw data, now I study journalism with the hope of using my BA in International Relations overseas. To display the cruelties of americana life, I paint. I have sold one painting at the Las Vegas First Friday art fair. Hungary and its people are brilliant, and forever must shine (beyond national tragedies inflicted upon us). I love your spirit - shine on!
Jacqueline Reynolds, nee Rakoczy, Las Vegas USA

The relationship between Hungarians and Gypsies is a strange one. All our folk songs praise the gypsy love of freedom, music, and nature. I could list many. In one the gypsy girl rejects a rich suiter for a penniless old, in an other an old gypsy whishes to entertain just for the last time before he dies the Hungarian gentleman and he is thrown out, etc. Also, in 1956, the most heroic freedomfighters were the kids at Corvin, half of them gypsies. Also, where Hungarians are in the minority (Slovakia, Romanis, Serbia) ALL the gipsies consider themselves Hungarians. Yet, on the other side, Gipsies are considered by the wider Hungarian society as outsiders, parasites, people who steal, do not work, live off others. It is sad. Both sides should pay more attention to the other. An important film. Where, when can I see it?
Béla Lipták

I have interest in Human diaspora and I spent lot of time trying to find about the Gypsy diaspora. I feel sorry for arpad Bogdan in having to endure life in an orphanage and I would also miss it if I were in his shoes. Gypsies were from northern India and migrated between 2nd and 10th century. Earlier migration I am not sure were caused by what, but later migrations were people who were trophy of the war and were taken as slaves. They had been discriminated over the centuries all over Europe and they were bound in slavery in Russia and other east European countries as Serf. Which was abolished in 18th century. They have been discriminated even till today for example in Finland. People have to wake up and realize that it was not there fault that they ended up in their country but should understand history of Roma people and study the circumstances which caused their migration and accept them as what they are and not pass unpleasant remark about where they are from.
Vijender Arora, Spring Lake Park,USA

Although I am not gipsy, I also belong to the minority in Hungary. Many people of "my group" keep complaining how much discriminated we are and they name this the only reason that keeps them back from socialising with the majority. Yes, dicramination against us does exist, but I think showing how much common values we share with the majorities conveys a more positive message than simply confronting the majority with their discriminative thoughts and then running back crying to our isolated world. I went and showed people that I was as cool as they were. Most of them appreciated it. As a result I always had more friends from the "normal" world. And I am happy that my "issue" is not an issue either for them nor for myself.
Norbert, Budapest

I admire Arpad for his diligence, persistence and strength so he could educate himself to become a film director. Coming from a troubled family, raised in a communist orphanage, he must have an unique insight into the world of Gypsies just as much as into the cruel world of an orphanage. I think he is one of a kind. Hungary would need a lot of educated Gypsy who would help the non-Gypsy population to understand this ostracized and much blamed minority and help them to better integrate into society. I have a lot in common with Arpad. Born into a middle class family in the early 50s in Budapest, from an alcoholic Gypsy mother and a Jewish father. Orphaned at age of 9 ended up in a communist orphanage, the famous or should I say infamous "Children's Town". It took me 30 years to come to terms with my also troubled, "multi-ethnic" past. My first novel, about 5 years in a state institution, which was published in Hungary last year, struck cord with many and stirred emotions. I wonder if Arpad has read the book. It would be wonderful to be able to have email contact with him. I am sure we could tell a lot to each other, even if I live in Australia in the past 17 years.
Judit Mitro, Sydney, Australia

I was born in 1933, in the dead center of the world-in Budapest. At least it was the center of my world. I grew up in the turbulent years of Nazi and Communist,German and Russian occupation of Hungary, and a World at war. Into these diabolical times I brought a family-heritage of four differing factors: the Jewish and the Christian, the German and the Hungarian. Without knowing what being Jewish meant, I was a Holocaust survivor who was raised as a Lutheran Christian. In 1957 I emigrated to the USA. With this heritage I can understand and feel for Arpad's dilemma. Many of us in East Central Europe, specifically in Hungary had childhoods earmarked by these uncertainties, conflicts. Yes, facing and accepting our own roots, while at times difficult and even painful, is necessary to find inner peace and self acceptance. I have had friends, schoolmates, army buddies, been in love with Roma girls in my younger years.For the majority it may be true, they are still living in the dreamworld of a somewhat more romantic nomadic life. And I many times envy them for it. Our so much more "civilized and cultured" life really is not so much of a plus. Families falling apart, politics, crime and all the wars... I hope, I will be able to see these films.
Leslie Eloed, Covina, California, USA

As an American of Magyar decent, (My grandparents came from Tislak in 1917), I think Lazlo is a strong proud example of the Hungarian spirit and it people, Roma, Magyar or Slav! The passion of our nation resides in this resilient young artist, and I'm confident the whole world awaits him! Overcoming is the Hungarian/American way!!
Jeffery Miller, United States

What a marvellous, brave story! I too have a father who is Romany, whom I haven't seen for 22 years. Like Arpan Bogdan I feel trapped between the two cultures: living in one (in my case the English home of my mother) but not being part of it; and not knowing the other yet instinctively understanding it. Well done for saying it aloud and "cushti bok" for the future! Thank you BBC for focusing on the Roma of Europe at a time of persecution.
Catherine Fariba Swinscoe, Paris, France

In my opinion, i think this is high level of wickedness. In my country, there are so many people that are looking for children, but could not get, and yet someone is abandoning God's gift. Such person should have a re-think.
christy ovia, kaduna/nigeria

Even though i am not roma, I feel the say way as Arpad Bogdan I must say. In this supposed melting pot New York, my parents emigrated from China and i was raised here since i was one-year old baby boy.. growing up in school i always felt white inside- a twinkie. i had white school associates.. Now that I'm grown i find myself very much alone. not really accepted or fitting in by the white americans, not really fitting in withe the chinese either. Still I feel and observe, social discrimination against asians everyday. I feel for the roma, deep rooted discrimination has caused some not to want to integrate.. which is key if they want to succeed instead of succumb to living day by day in todays world.
tommy, new york, usa

The Roma in Italy are not being victimized. They are a problem and don't even try to adapt. We have so called, "conventioned housing", which is subsidized housing and they don't even want that. Instead, now we are building them a 9.1 million housing block just for them because they don't want to live with normal people.
Luke, Tyrol, Italy

Dear Judy from Norfolk, as a Hungarian immigrant I feel for your desire to know your history better. Why the "Gypsy problem" all over Europe? I attribute it to the effects of centuries of feudal tradition, and all European countries were feudal at one time or another. For seven centuries, Gypsies fulfilled a useful function as itinerant labour, and as a safe "lightning rod" for resentment by the majority. Hating them allowed the lowest peasant to feel superior. Had they not existed, Europe's' leaders would have had to come up with some other despised group! Oligarchies and dictatorships need a "fall class" to divert attention away from the rulers. Under feudalism, the people were slaves tied to the land and could not travel around. Thus the Gypsies, with their nomadic ways, fulfilled a need for temp labor. Europe's rulers and owners thus didn't feel it in their interest to change or reform the lives of these people. It has a lot of sad fall-out to this day Judy. Bogdan's story is just one of many.
Laszlo, Chicago, USA

I read with great sadness, then deep admiration for his ability to at last understand his parent's anguish. Nine children ! The Romas have suffered so much for so long. May he be blessed with inner peace.
R-Lou Barker, Springfield USA

Conflict is the human condition. This young man will have to fight his way through the world just as we all must, and his success or failure is not assured. How he sees himself, his belief in his own life and self worth, will dictate the outcome of his story. He has friends, that is a very good start.
Randall, Shaelton Wa, USA

A USAmerican, I'm half-Hungarian. My father, who spoke fluent Hungarian, never had been to the country in which his parents had lived and left for the promise of better lives in the USA. As most folks, including Arpad Bogdan, I want to know more about my history. Therefore, I thank BBC for this interview/article and video of Arpad's life, feelings, plans, and search. His is a story I doubt I'd have known without your wisdom and work.
Judy, Norfolk, USA

The roman government should be to uterlast their resource even to the poor.
rindap lamsing nansak, langtang nigeria

I read once the Roma were (are) ancient Europe's nomadic group.
Geoff, New York





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