Milena Hubschmannova: a champion of Romany language and culture dies|
The Czech Republic's foremost expert on Romany culture and language, Milena
Hubschmannova has died at the age of 72. She was involved in a car crash in
South Africa in which one other person was killed and several were injured.
As David Vaughan reports, her death is a huge loss, and not just to the
Romany community to whom she devoted much of her life.
Last year Milena drove me to the town of Rokycany to meet some Romany
writer friends of hers. After a fascinating day, we were driving back and
she told me with great excitement about how - during their conversation in
Romany - the writer Andrej Gina had used an unusual form of a third
declension noun. She was so enthusiastic that she quite forgot to look at
the road, and a car swerved round us hooting its horn. At the time we
joked that she should take better care of herself, because as the founder
and leading light of the Romany Studies Department at Prague's Charles
University, she was quite irreplaceable. Now that she has gone it will not
be easy for the department to survive.
Milena Hubschmannova studied Hindi, Urdu and Bengali in Prague, and in the
early 1950s became increasingly interested in the Romany language, which
also has its roots in India. To learn the language she lived among Romany
families, and made many Romany friends. She had great difficulties with
the regime in the hard line 1970s as she strongly opposed official
attempts to force Roma to assimilate.
Milena played a huge role in reviving and recording the Romany language in
Czechoslovakia, and was the author of the first ever Czech-Romany
dictionary. She also encouraged her many Roma friends to write. She
recalled to me the moment when her friend, now a very celebrated Romany
poet, Tera Fabianova, first came to write in Romany:
"We were going somewhere by car, and all of a sudden she began not so
much to recite as to shout out a poem. It was so beautiful that I
immediately stopped and took a piece of paper and a pencil, and I asked
her to repeat it. So she repeated it and I put it down. She was composing
poetry before, but never in Romales - the Romany language. Then it was
published in a bilingual booklet, which was the first book to be published
in Romany, a selection of poetry by seven Roma who wrote."
Tera Fabianova was one of the first of many Roma writers who Milena
supported over several decades, including all those who we have featured
over the years in Radio Prague's book programme "Czech Books".
After the fall of communism she was the main force behind the launching of
Romany studies at the Charles University and also edited the department's
periodical, Romano Dzaniben, as well as helping to get several Roma
She was not from an ordinary family. Both her parents were imprisoned by
the Gestapo during the German occupation. With her Virginia Woolf good
looks and aristocratic lack of interest in the introverted materialism
that came to prevail in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s - and still
holds sway today - Milena seemed very genuinely to feel home among Roma.
She will be hugely missed by Roma and non-Roma alike. As one Romany
organization wrote on its website: "We knew her as a good woman, and
as such we shall always remember her" - Mi del o Del amara Milenake
loki phuv! Soha na bisteraha!