By Tony Wesolowsky
Pavel Vondra stands motionless, his eyes intently scanning the captions accompanying a series of black-and-white photos and drawings. Under a
weather-worn tent tucked away on a quiet square, the 24-year-old Czech is getting his first lesson in Roma history, most of it a tragic tale spanning centuries. "I really like this exhibit a lot," he says of the "Seven Days of Roma Culture" display, part of the Czech government's new $250,000 campaign to counter prejudice against Roma. "It's too bad it wasn't here earlier, because we know very little about Roma history." Some of Vondra's compatriots don't exactly share his enthusiasm. "I know enough about them," snickers one woman, as she and a friend quickly make their way past the tent. A man in his mid-twenties scoffs at the notion of the Roma having a history at all. "I'm not interested in the Roma, Gypsy, whatever you want to call it, issue. O.K.?"
Historically, the Roma have been Europe's most disadvantaged ethnic group. Five million Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe, where most of them settled after migrating from northeastern India about 1,000 years ago. A March report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) notes that discrimination and exclusion are fundamental aspects of the Roma experience. "Ten years after the Iron Curtain fell, Europe is at risk of being divided by new walls," warns Walter Kemp, author of the report. "Front and center among those persons being left outside Europe's new security and prosperity are the Roma."