Called Gypsy, Tsigan, Gitane, Cygane, Zigeuner, the Roma people have wandered the world for a thousand years—their mysterious origins a source of fascination as well as suspicion. They’ve been romanticized but also brutally persecuted by the more settled and orderly cultures they’ve traveled through and enriched.
One of the most unique collections in the Visual History Archive of USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education is eyewitness testimony given by more than 400 Roma and Sinti survivors of the Holocaust, most of who were born into Romani-speaking communities. Their life stories describe families, traditions, Christian and Muslim religious observances, relations among different Roma groups, and relations with non-Roma communities. (Watch Roma and Sinti surivor testimonies on Youtube: Wellesina McCrary Part 1 | Part 2, Julia Lentini)
In addition to preserving memories of Roma survivors of the Holocaust, the Institute supports scholarship, education, and awareness related to their experiences. On April 23, the Institute and Hillel at USC presented a multimedia interpretation in words, images, music and dance of Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, an acclaimed, book-length poetic sequence composed by USC poet Cecilia Woloch. Intertwining Woloch’s personal journey of identity with the larger forces that have shaped the Roma people’s fate and fortunes, Tsigan both eulogizes and celebrates the lives of Gypsies, a people who have endured centuries of dispossession, exile, poverty, and genocide.
Documentary filmmaker Paula Fouce produced the performance, which included a reading from Tsigan by Woloch against a backdrop of archival footage depicting the history and travails of the Roma people. This backdrop featured Roma testimonies from the Visual History Archive, film and still images from the U.S. National Archives and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and was edited by USC film students under the direction of Professor Lisa Leeman. The performance was interwoven with music and dance by JoseÌ CorteÌs, Ethan Margolis, and Cihtli Ocampo, including guitar accompaniment in the Flamenco tradition developed by Spanish Gypsies to express duende, the sorrow and passion of the soul.
Eloise Klein Healy, poet laureate of Los Angeles, introduced the Tsigan performance. It concluded with a conversation between Woloch the foremost Romani scholar in the United States, Dr. Ian Hancock; Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Institute, moderated the conversation.
Tsigan was presented by USC’s Visions and Voices arts and humanities initiative. It was organized by Cecilia Woloch, Lisa Leeman, Alfredo Avila, Andrew Ramirez, and Paula Fouce.