By Oksana Marafioti,
(An excerpt from “All Of Us Fragile And Brave”)
Lina and I boarded our bus in Prague and arrived in Brno, where later that afternoon, I was scheduled to read from my book at the Brno Museum of Romani Culture. Lina, as my book translator, would be reading in Czech.
Before this visit, I’d never even heard of the town, but I liked it immediately. It reminded me of the early childhood years I spent in Riga. Brno didn’t look as glamorous as Prague, its functionalist buildings holding the same volatile history but with fewer adornments. Where Prague masterfully covered its dark past with its many tourist attractions, Brno’s old dresses were showing a bit more. This city and I were strangers. And yet, as I merged with the foot traffic heading to the famed Zelnak or the Vegetable Square down winding streets, I felt more at home here than in many American cities I’d visited where neither my American citizenship nor decades of residency could fully erase the immigrant in me.
Usually, when I visit a new place, I walk the streets, mostly looking up and smiling like a silly person as I take in the sights, or so I’m told. But this time, for some reason, my eyes frequently drifted to the sidewalk’s changing terrain, in some places smooth while in others checkered with aged, gray bricks. I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. A small square brass plaque pressed into the ground. Then another, and another. Finally, I paused in front of one, thinking these might be markers for important historical figures.
“Lina, what is that?” I pointed at the ground. “We’ve passed a few already.”
She stopped abruptly. The passersby parted around us, I’m sure not too happy with us blocking the flow. “Oh, these are the stolpersteine, or how you’d say it… Stumbling Stones. They mark the victims of the Holocaust. See? You can read their names if you look closer. They’re all over town. And some are even on buildings themselves.” Her voice revealed her familiarity with the sight that felt shocking to me.
I inhaled, stomach heavy with devastation. In Europe, the Holocaust didn’t end in the history books. It stretched its ugly fingers and gripped the descendants of all involved, and would for generations. I just didn’t expect it here, now. On this day bathed in sunshine.
“This is terrible,” I said, not sure the words were enough. But what do you say to tiny names inscribed on tiny brass squares at the center of a busy sidewalk?
Eventually, we entered Zelnak, strewn with bright red umbrellas of the merchant stalls and humming with conversations and music. It would’ve been easy to distract myself with shopping, but I couldn’t keep my mind off the stones. Lina told me about the thousands of Roma and Sinti citizens, many of whom were local business owners and not camp dwellers, who were rounded up and deported from Brno to various concentration camps at the start of WWII, and about the unassuming spot on the sidewalk in the eastern district where one could find the stolpersteine of Amálie and Jan Daniel, the first known Roma victims of the Holocaust, both of whom died in Auschwitz in 1943. In fact, most of the Brno Roma—fully assimilated and therefore easy to pick out—perished in the camps, and the few that survived, eventually returned to their hometown. So much death in this history, I thought. In our collective history.
About an hour later, Lina and I parted ways as she went to meet with a friend, and I set out in search of the Brno Ossuary, said to be second in size only to the Paris Catacombs. The air was fresh and cool, and the sounds of the city relieved some of the anxiety that crept into me after seeing the Stumbling Stones. The strangers going about their lives raised my spirits. We were all alive still. For a brief moment, I felt a sense of calm and contentment as I strolled along the narrow streets, taking in the sights and sounds of this beautiful city.
I studied the buildings around me, advertising KFC and Victoria Secret merch, and the distant shape of the Spilberk Castle with its crimson spires soaring toward the sky, but I also imagined the area before cities, in the Neolithic Age that gave birth to human life in the area, and wondered, how much has humanity really changed since then?
Eventually, the tourist center’s vibrant energy gradually faded, and I followed the tram tracks all the way to my destination—a fascinating and eerie sight. The ossuary is an underground chapel, located beneath the Church of St. James. It contains the bones of more than 50,000 people arranged in intricate designs. As I descended the staircase that led into the main chambers, I felt a sense of awe and reverence. The dim light cast dense shadows on the bones and skulls that lined the walls and ceiling, creating a haunting atmosphere.
These remains spoke of both the fragility and the resilience of human life. As I walked through the softly lit corridors, a profound sense of connection to the past gave me goosebumps. Here were the bones of people who had loved and suffered, who had dreamed and hoped and feared, and now were a part of the rich and complex history of our shared human experience.
Even in silence, they told stories.
Several headstones stood propped up in front of the bone-covered walls. Most of the names were so faded, they became a whisper of chisel on stone. Others survived the full erasure of names and dates. I marveled at the effort some of the Brno residents took to restore and preserve the remains when the caves were first found in 2001. But something bothered me. An annoying question that pecked inside my head when all I wanted to do was enjoy this unusual site: why do we preserve bones, but not lives? Why do we spend so much time and effort ensuring that the dead are comfortable while so many living people continue to suffer? Death is inevitable. It’s the most plagiarized ending to a book we keep wishing to end differently. It never does. It’s not a mystery. It’s the only thing we know for sure.
But life, how we thrive despite the entropy that rules over us, is the most fascinating enigma of all.
Why, then, is death sacred and life dispensable? Have we lost sight of what’s truly important – not the preservation of bones, but the preservation of life? So focused on the physical trappings of death—the coffins and the monuments—we’ve forgotten the profound value and beauty of life itself. The stumbling stones scattered on the sidewalks above proved that.
In my ears, the dead whispered indiscernible stories. The ringing made me wince. So many lessons to convey, but how to do that without a living voice? Sadness and frustration stung my eyes. Turning my head away from a handful of visitors meandering about, I pressed my fingers to my lids. The air, stale and tight, lumbered through my lungs. I squinted at the low arches above my head, taking in big, panicked gulps. The sudden realization that I might be having an anxiety attack didn’t come until a mature woman with a cane and a rich French accent asked if I needed help. Yes, I nodded, I need help to find the stairs, the light. She took me by the elbow, and together we gently ambled out of the ossuary’s belly.
As I emerged, disoriented by the intense sunlight and fresh air, a clarity of sorts struck me. Yes, the dead can have their cautionary tales, but the living storytellers are what give our world meaning. A call to cherish and celebrate every moment that we are given lingered all the way to the Museum of Romani Culture. The range of my emotions cast a wide net. Between fear and inspiration, I also found that old companion of mine, still seeking an answer – What does it mean to belong?
Half an hour later, inside Café Beng, I tried to get a good angle for a selfie with Lina. We finally surrendered the phone to the museum’s director, Jana Horvathova, who patiently instructed us to act like we were on vacation and to post in the IG stories for a wider reach. The selfie was an odd version of reality. What I experienced that day shook my ground, but what the image captured was Lina’s tired eyes sparkling and me glancing off-camera in surprise, eyebrows raised as if I was on the verge of an answer to a worn-out question.
The coffee shop resembled a large dining room in a family member’s house, with white lacy curtains in the windows. Yellow walls with a painting of a lounging woman in a blue dress complimented the tiny kitchen area from where the café manager, Isaac, offered up freshly brewed espressos, teas, and pastries with the generosity of a fussy grandma.
A small glass-covered shadowbox inlaid into the middle of our table contained three playing cards, fanned out and fancy. I ran my fingers over the glass. “I want my table to look like this,” I said, already trying to figure out how I could actually accomplish that, considering that home projects were my kryptonite.
“It’s a nice touch,” Lina agreed. “Made by a local artist.” She waved at a woman walking by with an armful of folding chairs. She seemed to know everyone by name.
We were minutes away from my talk, and though I no longer got nervous about public speaking, this one felt special. Like I was about to chat with close friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. Another reason for the nervous flutters in my stomach had to do with the location. The museum housed roomfuls of historical Romani artifacts, including artwork, costumes, and jewelry that steeped me in familiar narratives, like the strong tea Isaac kept bringing us along with a plate of sweets I couldn’t resist. It had been decades since I sat in a place, surrounded by this much Romani essence Wide-eyed and exhausted, I took in every snippet of conversation fluttering between guests and museum guides, the Czech-Romani music that bounced out of the speakers in the corner. All of it reminded me of early childhood when things were much simpler.
Lina and I sipped and chatted about the hour we just spent roaming through the museum’s multi-level exhibits. This visit contained a weirdly large number of ‘firsts’ for me. Not only had I never heard of Brno nor seen an ossuary, but I had also never been to any museum that devoted as much as a single stand-alone display to Romani culture.
No, I take that back.
At the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, I remember pausing in front of the well-known black and white photograph from a documentary about the Westerbork transit camp. Studying the image of Anna Maria ‘Setella’ Steinbach, a Sinti girl in a headscarf, I wondered how it was possible to whittle down the catastrophe of the Romani Porajmos to this single, named victim, the story of us reduced to barely a hint in history – a murdered young woman behind whom no other Roma stood. That image told two stories. One, the number of Roma who perished in the camps wasn’t significant enough to garner more than a cursory notice. And two, Romani is a story of victimhood with barely registered triumphs.
The Brno Museum, however, reminded me of the stories of triumph and the sprawling history of my grandfather’s people. The main permanent exhibit room looked like Holi – the ancient Indian Festival of Colors – a visual brush of popping hues. There, tiled with glass walls and floors, the timeline of Romani history was a floor-to-ceiling expanse that displayed everything from brightly decorated clothing to instruments and tools to shiny gilded jewelry to carefully preserved photographs. With many items attached to ceilings and walls or suspended in mid-air by invisible wires, the entire place felt like a giant floating Romani space station with zero gravity and no time to restrain it.
But of course, a closer examination did expose a timeline, strewn together with displays of various sizes that followed the exodus from India over 1500 years ago and the migration to Europe and beyond. Dioramas of women, children, and men relaxing by the fire in front of giant wooden carts, on their way into the depths of the continent that would rewrite their lives in ways unimagined, converged with my own immigrant experience. Immigrants – we are always running into the unknown in search of something that will heal us. I floated through the mirrored space, from exhibit to exhibit, indistinguishable from the other objects in the room.
As I stopped at each display, I listened to the sounds of crackling fires and soft hoofbeats coming from tiny speakers around me. The voices of storytellers shared stories I had last heard over thirty years ago from my grandparents.
It struck me that Romani groups who had separated on their journey over fifteen hundred years ago and had kept no written records until the 20th century still bonded, and still told a common history. Romani oral storytelling traditions, especially, maintained our endangered culture much like the Brno ossuary preserved its bones.
The oldest written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is dated to 2100 BC. It’s treasured and studied as an impressive model of ancient literature, but our world’s oral traditions, far older and more impressive than any book, are less revered, demoted to unrefined entertainment. We seem to think that it’s the physical (written) experience that gives our lives meaning and dismiss the rest. To the ‘practical’ mind, real pain takes the form of a broken leg, and real learning happens in the classroom. Only recently have we begun to take seriously what oral storytellers have known for centuries: we can learn a lot by listening to a story where the pain of a broken heart and the abuse of a cruel remark are just as palpable as a punch in the face. Oral traditions are the first tools humans used to make sense of this world. Wisdom and memoirs are carried by these narratives like oxygen.
Invisible but essential to our survival.
Places like the Brno Museum have a dual purpose: to educate the public and to build a sense of belonging for a group that might lack it—a home of sorts. Every person I met at the museum cared about it as if it were their home. From Isaak, who waved at every customer, to the elderly volunteers handing out brochures with pride, to Jana, who excitedly spoke about the museum’s future.
In the café, physically, I was about to drop from my earlier adventures. Emotionally, after viewing the museum’s contents, I was the dry desert soil of Nevada where I lived, finally drenched in the rains of my ancestral wisdom. Mentally, I was flooded with intention. The museum was teaching me something about what I could do, and my own sense of belonging formed a new shape.
When the time came for my reading, Jana led us to the room that exhibited photographs by Lucia Sekerkova, who captured images of modern Wallachian Romani women using cell phones to transform centuries-old traditions of practical witchcraft. All around me, I saw stories, in images, in sounds. They gave me a feeling of kinship— a soothing flutter inside my stomach. In the photos, the women held playing cards (the original tarot) and cellphones side by side, the two objects connecting the archaic to the modern or perhaps just telling me they are both a way to connect.
Lina and I sat side by side in front of our audience. I began the talk by reading an excerpt from my book with Lina repeating the same passage in Czech. Her melodic voice connected me to the listeners as I studied them. Twilight, my favorite time of day, glowed gently through the French doors to my left, shedding soft rosy streamers of light onto the walls and the faces of the elderly couple napping in the front row. The audience was small but somehow dear to me, like old-time friends coming together to catch up.
I’d never been a big fan of lecturing, so we arrived at the Q&A quickly. I loved this part, hoping we’d all share tales and anecdotes.
My inclination towards attentive listening may have been influenced by my upbringing, steeped in the tradition of people sharing stories. My grandfather referred to that storytelling part of the human essence as the Radiant Body. He believed that everyone was a storyteller and that those who nourished their Radiant Bodies left the world more fulfilled than those who suppressed or ignored it. As a child, I often sat on the porch and imagined what my own Radiant Body looked like, wondering if I would ever become as good a storyteller as Grandpa. Later in life, as I began meditating, I realized that the Radiant Body my grandfather described was what the clergy referred to as the soul and quantum physicists as the magnetic field. For a storyteller, Radiant Body represents the universal narrative that flows through us all.
When the Q&A time arrived, some people asked about my past. ‘Tell us about your Roma family in Russia, about your immigration to America.’ All familiar requests. I answered enthusiastically, even though my answers no longer felt new. Then, a young Romani woman wearing black head-to-toe took the mic. She glanced about shyly before speaking in a low, smooth voice.
“Dear Oksana,” she said. “I have a frustration to share.”
Her shaking hands made me nervous. Did I somehow cause her present state?
“The Czech book industry avoids publishing Romani narratives,” she said, and immediately others nodded and lamented knowingly. “They claim our writing is too provincial, crude, unrefined, and that we write as if we’re speaking and meandering in circles, not making sense. As a writer, I feel suffocated. I mean, our language is getting lost, fewer kids speak it. Shouldn’t we work to preserve it?”
You’d think I would relax, that a question about publishing was so basic that I’d have a clever answer and move on. But this confession struck a painful chord. The entire room felt it. The woman and I shared a countenance of lost sailors, eyes peering wearily at a murky sea. Her words represented a much bigger problem than the small odds of publishing. Before this visit in 2018, I had learned that Lina had to fight for my book to be translated for this very reason. Having heard that the author was Romani, the publisher was going to pass even before cracking the book’s pages.
“I wish I had a resolution to this injustice,” I finally said, a touch lost because I realized I was no sage and had no great wisdom to impart. Even in America, I was a Romani writer who still had to prove her worth. “You’re right. A Romani writer isn’t taken seriously by the local publishing industry, and from what I understand, by European publishers generally.” I read the disappointment on the young woman’s face and wished I could uplift her. “All I can say is this, just because we tell our stories differently doesn’t mean they hold less value.”
An elderly man in the front row suddenly uncurled in his chair and raised his hand with a shaking passion. “Romani publishing houses, that’s what we need. Teaching our kids to write stories, that’s what we need. Give them the power of word and pen.”
Yes, yes! Voices exclaimed, and mine too. As the lazy sun kissed us with its rosy lips and the patter of rain whispered against the open French doors, we swung from sadness to purpose. It was the very purpose I felt after leaving the ossuary earlier. To appreciate the ability to tell stories while still alive. Everyone had something to say about the state of our stories. So many storytellers in our midst, and children of storytellers and grandchildren, knew their potent magic. And the place where we sat was proof that no establishment dictates how we preserve our spirit.
The presence of hope at that moment was so strong that the tears in my eyes made the room float, and this time, I let them roll down my cheeks. “Our stories connect us to the world and make us visible. Every human being needs to be seen, and for us, it might take more work, but it might be the most important work we do. For us and for our kids.” I had flung the words out like a prediction, and only then did it register that I had just repeated the very same advice my grandfather imparted long ago.
During the many concert tours across the former Soviet Union territory, my grandfather opened each show with a Romani tale – love stories, camp stories, survival stories – and they enthralled the audiences. I don’t recall his stage stories in their entirety; more so than not, it’s the emotions that some of his words evoked in me that remain. What I do remember is how diligently he prepared for that first number of the show. In the mornings of my early Riga childhood, when I woke up, I knew it was concert day even before opening my eyes, by the sound of his baritone drifting through the open window from the garden below, where Grandpa walked while reciting his lines. His first audience was the apple and cherry trees, the blackberry and gooseberry bushes, the strawberries peeping from under their leaves, and the black tulips my grandmother planted with a tender touch.
I’d jump out of bed and run to my window, crossing my arms on the sill, getting low enough to remain undetected, as if I were witnessing something deeply confidential. Grandpa wandered around the garden, randomly changing direction as words flowed into the air like music. “Ladies and gentlemen!” He would begin, his bright face turned up to the apple tree branches that he seemed to mimic with his own upswept arms. “Welcome to an evening of love and merriment.”
Sometimes the Latvian and Russian neighborhood boys with frayed holes in their pants climbed the high wooden fence, eyes darting at first with mischief before settling down, legs swinging over the edge, to watch my grandfather rehearse. I imagine this was as close as most of them ever got to a live theater performance, which in the former Soviet Union was a luxury many could never afford. They listened with the attention of a firefly with a night light on the front porch.
But Grandpa never seemed to notice any of us. So concentrated he was on his lines that you would have to do cartwheels for him to react. Every performance had a theme. “Today, our songs will lead us to the riverbanks where Pushkin found warmth by Romani fires. Even further back, to the country inns where Gogol’s merchants were rumored to make deals with devils, to the cities where lonely folk sought love in the distracted hearts of strangers. Now it’s a curious thing: memory.” He’d tap a finger to his temple. “Kazhetsia shto pamiat zhivet v golove, (It seems that memory resides inside the mind),” and then a hand to his chest. “No me chyvstvyem to ey v yshe, pravda? (But we feel it in our soul, don’t we?”) He’d pause and squint at the strawberries, ear listening to an audience responding with contemplative agreement. “Same is true for stories. There are ones we think we remember, and then there are those we feel. Like the terrifying tragedy of World War II every one of us here has survived. Not alone, but together.”
Later that night on the stage, his voice boomed to the low thrumming of the guitars as he slowly led us through some Romani tale, where he raised his fist and said things like, “The war set fire to the ground beneath our feet.” The group members fanned out around the stage, women sitting on chairs or the floor with wide skirts spread like flower petals, and men kneeling or standing behind them. I remember the listeners hypnotized by the power of Grandpa’s emotion, gaping from their theater seats, leaning in, fragile like those boys on the fence. Children, captured by memories in their adult bodies, people with whom we shared experiences that shaped us all.
There was one story we all shared, even the youngest of us who’d never had to run into bomb shelters—the story of WWII. The strangers in the audience and the people so dearly familiar to me on the stage seemed to take on the same mannerism when Grandpa painted an image of the war and the story of Rubina and Gosha, my favorite of them all. Separated by battlefields and death, the two ill-fated lovers fought to find their way back into each other’s arms.
Along with the audience, I waited to hear if they’d find each other, my heart rapping tiny bumps against my ribcage as if I had never heard the story before, as if I didn’t know that in the end, love prevailed. I’d let out a breath of relief when Gosha swept Rubina into his arms, and they jumped into the river to wash away the ash of the war from their skin.
The story taught me about resilience, but not everyone approved.
Once, during an aftershow group meeting, one of the dancers, Nico, complained about Grandpa’s old-fashioned ‘by-the-campfire’ approach.
“Where are the pumping lights, the fireworks?” He spread his arms and fingers wide, eyes bulging with hilarity, executing a decidedly non-Roma dance move. “We should be more like Earth, Wind, And Fire. Not like, old crones sitting in the front yard, gossiping.”
He wasn’t the only one. The hipper group members shared his sentiment, trying to vote Grandpa’s storytelling bit out of the show. My grandfather always listened with full attention, and his response was always a version of this: “If we want people to understand Romanies, we must share our stories. It is true that music is a universal language. But stories allow strangers to experience your world, to breathe in the unique atmosphere of your soul, to understand the intricate workings of your mind, and to feel the highest joys and the lowest anguishes of your heart. Stories help us see the shapes of each other’s radiant bodies, and suddenly, we can experience a life of a stranger. What is unseen becomes vivid, and what is unfelt becomes felt.”
During that Brno reading, Grandpa’s words resonated as our group bonded with compassion and insight. I sat in the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, in front of a mixed audience of Romani and non-Romani listeners, and we talked about our lives – a ruffian band of storytellers. My words exchanged meaning with theirs, across generations, across cultures, across genders and life experiences, responding with bursts of sadness and laughter. In this room, our Radiant Bodies embraced.
Oksana Marafioti is an award-winning American writer and activist of Romani, Ukrainian, and Armenian descent. She aligns strongly with her cultures, and her writing – widely published, as in Rumpus, Slate, LA Times, and Time magazines – often explores themes of identity, belonging, and multiculturalism. Her memoir, American Gypsy, was published in 2012 by FSG Originals. Oksana is the recipient of the 2013 BMI – Library of Congress Kluge Center Literary Award, the 2020 Picador Literary Award, and the 2022 National Endowment for the Arts grant. She is currently working on her second memoir about healing a multiethnic identity fragmented by cultural and intergenerational trauma.