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Gypsy power

Czechoslovakia's Gypsies are flocking to Prague for steady work and the promise of respectability, but they are finding the same prejudice they met on the road.

"If there is a fight in a pub, people say Gypsies started it. If there is trouble, it was the Gypsies," says Gypsy leader Lado Goral, a blacksmith from rural Slovakia who came to Prague as a construction worker.

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To shake off the scapegoat image, Gypsies, who are by habit loners, are banding together with common aims, using education as a key building block for Gypsy power.

"We must find a new, better way of rearing our children and educating them," Goral said recently over a Gypsy meal of malusky, a meat casserole, and apple cake. "We must teach them a different style of living. Many Gypsies have their children earning money instead of educating them. Let them stay in school."

Goral, a wiry, dark-haired laborer who works part-time as a counselor in a government program for Gypsies, is the first to admit his people have locked themselves into a caste of ignorance and backwardness. "There are good and there are bad Gypsies," he said. "It will take 50 years before anyone treats us an individuals, but we must begin now."

He also criticizes the state, which he accuses of doing little toward solving its problems with the nation's 400,000 Gypsies.

"For 15 years now, things have been done only on paper," he said, impatiently rapping his fist against a freshly starched white shirt.

Goral's recipe for change starts with a grass-roots movement for unity among the country's new urban Gypsy population. He explained that the labor shortage in the cities has lured thousands of Gypsies into densely sttled areas like Prague, where they can choose from a thick file of job openings.

But despite money in the bank and a better living standard, the Gypsy tendency toward isolation is reinforced by hostile neighbors who cling to the stereotype that Gypsies are con artists and baby stealers, Goral said.

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In fact, Gypsies in Czechoslovakia conform to few stereotypes, according to educators who have studied the group. Significantly, they are less and less nomadic, as are their Hungarian counterparts. This trend has been encouraged by a 1953 law that requires all Czech citizens to have a fixed address.

Czech law also prohibits the establishment of separate educational programs for Gypsies because the group has not been classified as an ethnic minority. To the bureaucrats they are Czechs or Slovaks, depending on where they live in the federated state.

One Czech social worker who wrote a master's thesis on modern Gypsy culture said the Gypsies' already low self-esteem is reinforced by the failure to recognize them as an ethnic minority.

"They don't identify with themselves, and they don't help themselves," she said. "They won't even call themselves Gypsies -- often they say they are Hungarians," a defensive attitude born of centuries of deep discrimination.

Today, the country's Gypsies are mostly from Slovakia, which collaborated with the Nazis in World War II and was spared much of the horrors of occupation. In other Central European countries, more than 400,000 Gypsies were hauled off to extermination camps.

"They have always been the hunted," the social worker said. "In the 15th and 16th centuries, you could kill a Gypsy and get paid for it. It's no wonder that they are used to living for today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow you may die. They are very dreamlike because of it. They dream of a Gypsy state, but it all ends up as talk."

Several Czechs working among the Gypsies said there was clearly a drive for acceptance in the Gypsy community, but many individuals seemed stymied by superstition, ignorance, and debilitating folk tradition.

Even at Goral's apartment, where politics had the floor, the conversation drifted regularly to mulo,m the Gypsy rite of magic. Veronika, Goral's wide-eyed , bashful wife, was unusually animated as she enumerated magical solutions to life's setbacks:

A mother with a newborn child must place a needle and thread under the infant's pillow to ward away witches who will try to steal the baby. If a teen-aged daughter stays out all night, burn her shoes.

Goral rejects such beliefs -- but only because the mulo rites once failed him.

Gypsy children, though increasingly exposed to Czech playmates, believe in folklore, said one university student who has worked with Gypsy youth at state-sponsored summer camps. Even as adolescents, they are afraid of the dark and, like their parents, they speak of ghosts and supernatural dangers.

She said it is hard to shake their primitive beliefs, harder still to teach them practical know-how: They are bewildered by trams and maps, schedules and street signs. And many campers who learn new habits revert to old patterns of behavior once they get home.

One young Gypsy, returning for his second summer in camp, held up his toothbrush and announced proudly: "You see, I have my brush from last year.I hid it in a good place to I would have it ready for camp."

Lacking esential social skills, Gypsy children enter the classroom with a mark against them. They test so poorly that about 30 percent of them are placed in schools for the retarted, said a teacher at one such facility.

"They are not really retarded," she said. "They have a communication problem and are socially retarded. Lots of Gypsy children don't know how to speak Gypsy , but they also don't know Czech,"

She was sharply critical of the government, which she said announces periodically that the Gypsy "problem" is solved, when the advances toward better housing, education, and hygiene are, in fact, minuscule.

Goral would like to see less government involvement. He blames the state social service system for some of the troubles in the Gypsy community, saying it encourages Gypsies to take handouts and promotes a ghetto mentality among them.

"They are getting used to being supported by the government," he said, stressing that the state cannot instill values that must be learned at home.

By way of example, he points to his own life. He has teen-age children who are good students, a spacious apartment he renovated himself, and such success with his counseling work that he has been asked repeatedly to join the Communist Party -- a proposal he has declined.

Despite his evident pride in his people, Goral said the Gypsy's place in society can improve only through assimilation. To grow, they must accept Czech society, not fear it.

He said the Gypsy way of life is narrow and its language marred by a small vocabulary -- limits he says should prompt Gypsies to borrow from other cultures.

But asked if he would accept a non-Gypsy for a son-in-law, he looked stunned, laughed, and replied, "This is a difficult question. There are always problems in marriage between two nationalities."

Still, his formula for Gypsy growth is a mixture of tradition and assimilation. "Our folklore is rich, this can help us a lot," he said. "We must not be second-class citizens."

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