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COLUMN ONE : Gypsies Feel Curse of Hatred : The collapse of Stalinist rule has loosened the restraints on extremism against Europe’s most despised ethnic group.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aranka Ponczok’s dark face looks haunted and guilty as she signs with an “X” for a registered letter from the police. The mailman has tricked her into opening the door of her squatter’s apartment by claiming to have a package.

“It’s a punishment,” the 27-year-old Gypsy cries in protest, wincing from the envelope like a frightened child. She hands it to a visitor to read.

Ponczok, jobless and illiterate, is being summoned by local authorities on a charge of rummaging through trash bins without an entrepreneur’s license.

Scavenging scrap metal and discarded clothing is how Ponczok earns a few forints each week to feed herself, her unemployed common-law husband and five children from a labyrinth of relationships.

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But neither police nor Hungarian neighbors in the squalid tenements of eastern Budapest want visible reminders of the gnawing poverty and repression endured by their largest minority in the reputedly democratic, post-Communist age.

For Ponczok and many other Gypsies, Europe’s most despised ethnic group, being poor and desperate is now as much cause for resentment as if they were committing a crime.

The governments of struggling former Soviet satellites, powerless to halt the decline of living standards even for their “own” people, are unable to offer Gypsies housing, unwilling to give them jobs and often openly hopeful that the stateless minority will choose to move on.

“The situation now is worse than under communism. In the former system, we were slaves, but at least we got wages. Now, we still have the status of slaves, but we are unemployed,” said Aladar Horvath, a member of Hungary’s Parliament and head of the independent association of Gypsies known as Phralipe.

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“In the former system, racism was forbidden and punished,” Horvath continued. “Nowadays, in our misunderstood democracy, everyone is free to be racist, to write against Gypsies in the press, to be a skinhead and beat up minorities.”

The collapse of Stalinist rule has loosened the restraints on ethnic extremism, subjecting Gypsies to pogroms unheard of in Europe since the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

Whole Gypsy villages have been burned down in Romania. Neo-Nazi gangs have attacked Gypsies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, consumed in a bloody fratricide, have chased entire Gypsy communities into exile in their drive for ethnic supremacy.

Police and media, both struggling to define new roles after decades of manipulation by Communists, blame Gypsies for spiraling crime and the legions of beggars blighting their streets.

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With little government action to deter nationalist excesses and none to discourage bias, Gypsy leaders say their people have become scapegoats for all of Eastern Europe’s mounting social ills.

Amid resentment so prevalent that persecution of Gypsies is ignored even in the developed West, Gypsies fear becoming targets of a genocide unless affirmative action is taken to help them escape their miserable nether world.

Even in Hungary, where Gypsies are more integrated than elsewhere in Eastern Europe, half of all Gypsy children never finish grammar school. At least 60% of Hungary’s unemployed are Gypsies, and 80% of the half-million-strong minority lives below the poverty level.

“If parents are unemployed, they can’t feed their children properly. This damages the intellectual and physical abilities of Gypsy children, which is why they often have difficulty competing with Hungarian children at school,” said sociologist Jeno Zsigo, a Gypsy activist. “What is needed is a system of positive discrimination that would give Gypsies priority for jobs, and the concept of tolerance has to be taught even at elementary-school level.”

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At least two-thirds of the world’s 8 million to 10 million Gypsies live in Eastern Europe, most of them in destitution that is the legacy of centuries of mistreatment.

While few are still nomadic, colorful Gypsy wagons can still be seen plodding along roadsides in Romania and rural areas of the Balkans. Dilapidated and fetid Gypsy settlements, reminiscent of post-Civil War shantytowns in which liberated slaves lived in the American South, can be found on the fringes of many Eastern European cities.

The Gypsies are believed to have come to present-day Romania in the 13th or 14th Century. Their language, Romany, and their physical attributes indicate that they originated in India. The name Gypsy was mistakenly applied by medieval Europeans who thought all dark-skinned peoples were Egyptian. Most prefer the name Roma, instead of Gypsy or its Slavic equivalent, Tsigan.

Gypsies were enslaved in the Balkans and often regarded by their keepers as subhuman. They gained their freedom little more than a century ago, when many began wandering in search of work.

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Social prejudice hampered integration, perpetuating a nomadic lifestyle that Gypsy historians contend was one of necessity, never of choice. Roving clans formed along trade lines, banding tinkers, horse breeders, basket weavers, circus animal trainers and musicians in tribes that survive today.

Under communism, dictators forced the nomads to settle and work as unskilled laborers on “hero projects” and in backward factories. Many of those jobs have disappeared in today’s regionwide transition to market economies.

Traditional livelihoods such as metalworking and brick-making have been wiped out by technological advancements, and their centuries-old skill in trading still suffers the Communist brand of “speculation.”

“Traders were considered parasites and not real workers,” said Zoltan Csorba, a Gypsy social worker in Budapest.

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Complaining of “moral double standards,” Csorba said that under communism “everybody stole, because it was from the state. Gas attendants stole gasoline. Butchers stole meat. It wasn’t really considered stealing unless it was done by a Gypsy.”

Jobless and desperate in an unstable region that lacks any social safety net, increasing numbers of Gypsies are forced to survive through begging or crime, reinforcing myths and stereotypes that Gypsies are a society of tramps and thieves.

Along Budapest’s boutique-lined Vaci Street, amid the traffic and pollution of Belgrade’s Marshal Tito Boulevard, on Prague’s romantic Charles Bridge, Gypsy women trailing rag-clad children hound tourists for spare change.

Scorn for Gypsies has risen apace as their desperation has become more visible. Recent articles in the Hungarian and Romanian press have cast Gypsies as genetically corrupt and predisposed to anti-social behavior.

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A Hungarian police official, Gyula Borgulya, stirred controversy in Parliament this month after an interview in the Budapest daily Pesti Hirlap in which he blamed 80% of crime on Gypsies and accused them of selling their children.

As with most stereotypes, prejudice exaggerates a kernel of truth. Hundreds of babies adopted by Westerners in Romania over the past two years were Gypsies, many given up in exchange for money to support the remaining family. Police in Yugoslavia contend that 90% of the 20,000 children sold into bondage each year are offspring of the nearly 1 million Yugoslav Gypsies.

“Whenever someone is on the margin of society, he has a greater propensity to be drawn toward crime,” explained Csorba. “If Gypsies commit more than their share of crimes, it is because they have more than their share of poverty, not because they are Gypsies.”

Csorba estimated that three-quarters of the prostitutes in Budapest’s seedy Eighth District are Gypsies.

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“Of course, these women would rather make a living in some other way, but they shouldn’t be condemned for trying to get by in the only way available to them,” said Csorba, nodding in acquaintance with several thinly clad streetwalkers as he made his rounds on a bitter December day. “Most of them are supporting four people--themselves, their landlords, their pimps and the policemen they bribe to leave them alone.”

Anti-Gypsy prejudice is probably most deeply ingrained in neighboring Romania, which has the world’s largest population of Gypsies, estimated as high as 3 million.

Impoverished and morally damaged by a quarter-century of despotic rule, Romanians have become increasingly violent toward minorities in the two years since depraved dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and executed.

Tens of thousands of Romanians rioted in the Transylvanian city of Tirgu Mures in March, 1990, yet nearly all of those prosecuted for possession of weapons or disturbing the peace were Gypsies. Three months later, club-swinging miners summoned to Bucharest to put down anti-government riots focused their wrath on the capital’s Gypsies.

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Discrimination, with official encouragement, has intensified this year. After a Gypsy accused of stabbing a Romanian was arrested in the village of Bolintin Deal in April, the mayor and local priest led a mob of several thousand Romanians on a rampage, setting fire to Gypsies’ houses and stealing their property.

Nicolae Gheorghe, head of Romania’s Roma Democratic Union, attributes Romanian resentment to his people’s eagerness to resume private trading, which was viewed during the Communist era as profiteering at the expense of the masses.

“Today’s free market is seen by others as a black market, something illegal, something to do with a corrupted form of trade,” Gheorghe said. Where Gypsy traders see their business as vanguard capitalism, Romanians view them as parasites feeding on the body of the working class.

As with many Eastern Europeans desensitized by Communist repression, Romanians are unabashed about their prejudice.

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A college-educated Bucharest translator visibly sneered at Gypsy women recently when they danced around a group of foreigners in the port of Constanta, then sent the smallest girl to ask for a tip.

Asked why he dislikes Gypsies, the Romanian replied without the slightest hesitation: “Because they are lazy, they smell bad and they refuse to work.”

Contempt for Gypsies, whether destitute or successful, is one of the few remaining similarities among the countries of Eastern Europe.

A Times Mirror poll conducted earlier this year showed that 79% of Hungarians interviewed harbored unfavorable feelings toward Gypsies. The negative rating among Bulgarians was 71%, and among Czechs, an astounding 91% said they disliked Gypsies.

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During the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, Gypsies were often forced into remote ghettos, euphemistically referred to as collective workers’ housing. The Prague government paid Gypsy women to be sterilized in a campaign to curb the growth of their population, according to Horvath, the Gypsy leader in Hungary’s Parliament. Industrial cities with large numbers of Gypsies, such as Teplice, north of Prague, have become hotbeds of crime and magnets for extremist attacks.

Even in Germany, and most pronouncedly in the prosperous western areas, 59% of the poll respondents said they had unfavorable attitudes toward Gypsies.

“Everyone Hates the Gypsies,” summed up the main headline in a report last year by the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. As conditions in their traditional strongholds in southeastern Europe have decayed and driven more westward, this antipathy has grown.

“It’s a question of history,” said Herbert Leuniger, spokesman for the German minority rights organization Proasyl. “They’ve always been a rejected people. Like the Jews, they’ve always been seen as scapegoats.”

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The Soviet Union’s quarter-million Gypsies have been increasingly oppressed as nationalism has spread in recent years, and Bulgaria’s roughly half-million Gypsies are treated even worse than the 1 million minority Turks.

Gypsies enjoyed a more respectable status in Yugoslavia during the latter years of Marshal Tito’s Communist rule. They were generally accepted in the Balkans’ ethnic crazy quilt and allowed to study and teach in their own language.

But Tito’s death and the gradual erosion of what proved to be a veneer of ethnic tolerance have exposed Yugoslavia’s Gypsies to the worst of the raging conflict. Unlike other ethnic groups driven from their homes by the roving combatants, Gypsies are seldom allowed into refugee camps set up along Hungary’s southern border.

Both Serbs and Croats have abused the Gypsies, sometimes drawing them into the fight with empty promises of a share of the spoils--captured housing--at the end of the war.

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One night in early December, a drama unfolded at a Gypsy settlement in the Croatian village of Torjanci, on Hungary’s border. But the fantastic and contradictory stories told by the Gypsies given refuge by Serbs in nearby Beli Manastir defied any determination of what actually occurred.

“The Ustasha (the name given Croatia’s World War II fascists) attacked our village, and my husband is missing,” declared Djulca Bogdan, a thin woman in a black lace kerchief who described herself and the 156 others given shelter in the community basketball court as “Catholic Croatian Gypsies.”

“They burned a horse alive,” another woman added.

“And they slit the throat of a dog and said, ‘This is what we do to (Serbian) Chetniks!’ ” a third insisted as the entire gymnasium got into the recollection act.

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Reciting as if from a script, the Gypsies claimed that three of their fellow villagers had been killed, then gradually upped the death toll to 10.

They said the attackers were Croatian fighters disguised in federal army uniforms who had slipped in through Hungary in a commandeered truck, although there is no road into Torjanci from Hungary. The chorus of witnesses claimed that the invaders had mined their houses, then said their houses had been burned and that the attackers had stopped in the middle of the melee to inject themselves with drugs.

“They killed my son,” said Eva Ivanovic, as if suddenly remembering. “They shot him with dum-dum bullets when I wasn’t more than 100 meters away.”

A Serbian journalist who had begun taking notes on the reported atrocity smiled as he tucked away his notebook.

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“Gypsies!” he said, with both disgust and amusement. “They can be manipulated to say anything. Who knows what really happened?”

Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Berlin contributed to this article.

EUROPE’S SHADOW PEOPLE

ORIGIN: Gypsies are believed to have migrated from India more than a millennium ago, settling first in Persia, then arriving in Europe in 13th or 14th Century. Name “Gypsy” was mistakenly applied by medieval Europeans who thought all dark-skinned people came from Egypt.

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NUMBERS: Routinely underestimated in census-taking because they often claim other nationalities, Gypsies are believed to number between 8 million and 10 million worldwide. Half-million are believed to have been killed in Adolf Hitler’s extermination camps during Holocaust.

LOCATION: Two-thirds of Gypsy population lives in Eastern Europe, concentrated in Balkan states. Romania has largest number, 3 million by some estimates. Demographers estimate nearly 1 million in Yugoslavia, 800,000 in Czechoslovakia, at least 500,000 in both Hungary and Bulgaria, 250,000 in old Soviet Union and smaller numbers scattered throughout Europe.

LANGUAGE: Romany, an Indo-Persian language still spoken by many Gypsies, has at least 17 dialects. Written language was developed only after World War II, for both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.

HISTORY: Gypsies were enslaved in Balkans when they arrived 600 years ago. Gained their freedom, under pressure from the West, only in latter half of 19th Century when states emerging from Turkish rule sought international recognition. Although freed, they were rarely allowed to settle among other Europeans, forcing them to roam in caravans in search of work. They were forcibly settled and given work in construction and heavy industry during Communist period, but most of those jobs have disappeared in shift to market economies.

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