Roma, called Gypsies, traveled around rural areas in the 1930s. Many Roma from Russia and the Balkan countries came to the U.S. and Canada during the late 1800s. Experts believe Roma originated from northwestern India, but hundreds of years ago they were labeled Gypsies because people incorrectly thought they came from Egypt. Gypsies were persecuted by the Nazis during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nearly 500,000 Roma people died in concentration camps.
Elroy Hoffman remembers when the Gypsies, also known as Travellers, moved through York County in the 1930s. “They had the covered wagons, and they pulled them with horses. And then they’d park somewhere along the line to feed the horses, eat there along the road,” he says. “They come up to our place to get food, something to eat. Mom would give them all kinds of eats, I guess. And I can remember, we walked to school. I wasn’t a very big kid. And this lady says, she pointed at me and says, ‘Could I have that little boy?’ And I said, ‘By God, I ain’t walking to school today.’ [Laughs.]”
During the 1930s Gypsies moved through rural Nebraska. They were known as shrewd horse traders, and according to Kenneth Jackson, farmers said there was usually a good reason a Gypsy was willing to sell a horse.
Mildred Opitz remembers being afraid of Gypsies who sometimes camped near their farm. Country people were suspicious of the nomadic clans, and neighbors told stories about the Gypsies to farm children.
The Gypsies dressed differently, spoke a different language, and looked different than York residents. Gypsy men were often horse and mule handlers and traders, and women made jewelry or baskets to sell or told fortunes. The close-knit Gypsy clans moved through the countryside in brightly painted wooden wagons. They camped near farms and sometimes brought horses or told fortunes at county fairs.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.