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Faces of Courage, Yojo


Gypsies, also known as Rom, Roma or Romany people, traveled North from India during the Middle Ages, first arriving in Western Europe in the 10th century. They settled in Armenia, Belgium, France, Germany, and many other countries. Wars and persecution forced them to search for places where they could live in peace with their own language and way of life. There are 60 different dialects of the Romany language. Gypsies practiced the trades they learned from their ancestors and were known for woodcarving, basket making, metal- working, pottery and other crafts. They are musicians, singers, dancers, animal trainers and acrobats and celebrate festivals and family gatherings with music, dancing and storytelling. Family ties are strong. They address one another as “brother” and “sister”.

The Nazis considered the Gypsies to be an “inferior” people. They persecuted and imprisoned them in labor and concentration camps and murdered close to half a million. The Romany word for Holocaust is “Porraimus”, which translates as “the Devouring.”

In June of 1936, the chief of police in Berlin arrested all the Gypsies in Prussia. Women and children, and old people were dragged away and beaten. Six hundred Gypsies were corralled under police guard and marched with their wagons, to a sewage dump in a suburb of Berlin.

Gypsies were arrested in every country the Germans occupied. In June of 1940, France was brought under German control. Part of France had its own government under Marshall Petain. He collaborated with the Germans. Gypsy men and boys over the age of 15 years were forced to work for local farmers and industrial factories.

It was difficult and dangerous for Gypsy families to meet up with one another for celebrations and festivals. They were not allowed to camp in any one place for more than 24 hours and were forbidden to travel in groups. When the police saw three or four Gypsy wagons traveling together, they separated them. French police raided Gypsy camps and imprisoned men, women and children in labor camps.

Many Gypsies were active in the Resistance (underground) movement.

Yojo sat next to his father in the front of the wagon as they traveled along the winding road bordered by orchards filled with the blooms of apples, peaches and cherries. They were on their way to meet up with other Gypsy families. The road widened as they turned toward the woods. Yojo saw a police car parked at the side of the road and warned his father.

“The police are everywhere, but they won’t find us.” his father replied. “Don’t you see the police car is empty? We’ll be gone before the policemen come back.” Yojo’s father was the tribal elder. He arranged to meet up with other Gypsy families and was in a hurry to get to the campsite in the woods.

“Before the war began we were free to travel. We went north to Belgium and south to Spain and never missed a Gypsy festival. We Gypsies are a free people. We know how to live a good life.”

“We were in Belgium when the war began,” Yojo said, remembering the black billowing smoke that covered the campsite close to the border between France and Belgium.

“We got away from those bombing raids and went back to France. But it did us little good,” his father said. “The Germans occupied France a few months later. We came south to get away from German soldiers, but the French gendarmes ( the police) are as bad as the Germans.”

Under the Nazi rules of the Petain government, Gypsy men and boys were forced to work on farms or in factories. Yojo and his father worked on farms and orchards. Gypsy families were not allowed to camps in any one place for more than 24 hours and were not permitted to travel together.

Before the war, Yojo’s father was a carpenter and horse trader. H worked in the villages in the winter, but every spring and summer, he took the family to Gypsy festivals and family gatherings.

“We Gypsies are a proud people and refuse to live in fear.” His father often said Yojo knew his father was fearless. The only precautions his father took when the family traveled was to keep to the back roads and hide in the woods at night. On the road, Yojo’s mother and three younger brothers stayed inside the covered Gypsy wagon.

“We Gypsies are one big family. At the campsite we’ll see our brothers and sisters, we’ll eat Gypsy food and dance.” Yojo’s father grinned. “It’s been too long since we’ve had been at a Gypsy feast.”

In his mind’s eye, Yojo could see his people gathered around a campfire, the women in their colorful dresses with their shiny black hair in braids, the men in colorful shirts and scarves. Barefoot children would be running around the campsite and the horses tethered to long chains so they could graze at the edge of the encampment. Yojo could almost smell the delicious aroma of meat roasting on the fire.

As they got close to the campsite Yojo saw two other covered wagons with their high wheels parked at the edge of the woods. Yojo’s father jumped off the wagon and tethered the horse. The women were greeting one another. The children were already playing . The men were taking carts of food out of the wagons. Yojo’s mother climbed down from the wagon and went to greet the other women. His brothers went to play with the children. Yojo went into the forest to get wood for the campfire.

As he was coming out of the forest with an armful of sticks, he heard screaming and shouting. He saw the policemen pushing the women and children into a truck. His father was standing with the other men in a line. As soon as he saw Yojo, he gestured to him to run away.

Yojo turned and went back into the woods. Careful not to snap a twig or make any noise, he remembered his father’s words.

“There is no reason to wait until the sun meets the moon. Only the fish allow themselves to be caught twice by the same hook.”

Deep in the woods, Yojo sank down to the ground. Fear for his family flowed through him like ocean waves. He felt helpless. Seeing the police car was a warning. The car was empty because the police were in the woods waiting for the Gypsies to arrive. Yojo closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. After a while he crept back to the edge of the clearing to see if anyone was there.

The camp was deserted. Pots and scraps of food littered the ground. The horses were gone. Everyone, his mother and father and younger brothers, his aunts and uncles and cousins were arrested. With a heavy heart, Yojo went back to the forest. Alone and miserable, he lay down beneath a tree and finally fell asleep.

Early the next morning as the first rays of sunlight pierced through the trees, Yojo opened his eyes. The clear sky promised a warm day. Stopping only to pick up roots and wild berries to eat, he kept walking. He hoped there were other Gypsies in the woods who escaped and he searched the woods but could not find anyone. He was all alone.

When he came to a stream, he stopped and dipped his hands in the cool clear
water. Cupping his hands he took big gulps of water and washed his hands and face.

“Gypsies know how to live in the forest,” he told himself. “We know how to find food and shelter and make ourselves our home.” He was not afraid to live in the forest, but he wanted to find other Gypsies and help his family.

The trees were thinning and Yojo knew he was close to the edge of the forest. He saw a few farmhouses and remembered that he was close to the farming village where he worked with his father during the harvest season. The farmer’s name was Gaston.

Like many other French farmers, Gaston was sympathetic to Gypsies. In return for food and places to sleep, he only asked for help on the farm. Yojo’s father became friends with Gaston and helped him deliver food to resistance fighters who were hiding in the woods. Yojo decided to go to Gaston.

It was late afternoon. Yojo waited till it was dark before he went to the farm. He did not want to be seen. At sundown, he raced across the meadow to Gaston’s small stone farmhouse. Stopping to catch his breath, he peered through the window. Gaston and his wife were alone. Yojo knocked on the door.

Gaston opened the door and cautiously peered outside.

“Ah, it’s my young Gypsy friend,” the farmer seemed glad to see Yojo. ” Have you come back to work for me again?” Gaston took him inside.

“My family’s been arrested,” Yojo told the farmer.

“I heard about the raid on the Gypsy camp. You made your father proud by escaping.” Gaston said quietly and took him to the kitchen. “You walked a long way to get here. You must be hungry. Sit down at the table and we’ll give you some supper.” Gaston’s wife filled a bowl with soup and gave it to him with a chunk of bread.

Yojo had just begun to eat when he heard a knock on the door. He jumped up from the chair.

“Sit down, sit down and eat. You have nothing to fear.” Gaston reassured him and
went to answer the door.

He heard a man’s voice, but could not make out what he was telling Gaston. The farmer came back to the kitchen, “A couple of British planes were shot down and the pilots are being hidden by two families in the next village. The police are searching for them.”

“I can go back to the forest,” Yojo said. “It is dangerous for you to keep me here.”

“No, I want you to stay on the farm. I can use your help, but you can’t stay here looking like a Gypsy. You need to look like a farmer.”

Gaston brought Yojo a pair of black cotton trousers and a faded blue shirt and told his wife to cut Yojo’s hair.

“Clothes and hair don’t make the man” Yojo told himself as his hair was being cut. Then he put on his farmer’s clothes.

“Now you look like a farmer,” Gaston said , smiling at the tall Gypsy boy with his black hair and dark brown eyes.

“I want to help you, but I want to find my people too.” Yojo said.

“You have to stay inside the house until I can get you a new identification card. Then we’ll talk about it. I have a bed for you in the attic, ” Gaston took him up a short flight of stairs.

Yojo had never slept in a farmhouse before. He was used to sleeping in the open air or in the wagon. As soon as Gaston went downstairs, he took off his new clothes, folded them carefully and wrapped himself in a blanket. He lay down on the bed and fell into a deep sleep.

Early the next morning, Yojo got up, put on his farmer’s clothes and went down the kitchen. Gaston’s wife greeted him and gave him a hot breakfast of eggs, cheese and freshly made bread.

“There’s lots of work to do in the house, ” she told him. “Time goes faster when you are busy.” As soon as he finished eating, she gave him a pail of soapy water and a mop. “When you are finished mopping the floor, I’d like you to chop some wood.

Yojo did not mind the work, but he felt trapped. He wanted to be with his family in a Gypsy camp. He remembered his father telling him “You cannot buy what is not for sale.” Yojo knew he had no choice but to be patient and cooperate with the people who were hiding him.

A few days later, Gaston brought him an identification card with the name “Rene deBruche” printed on it.

“If anyone asks your name, you tell them it is Rene,” he said.

Yojo nodded and put the card in his pocket. “I want to go into the village and see if I can find some of my people.” Yojo said.

Gaston looked at him and said, “I need your help now. You speak a good French and you know how to drive a wagon. The farmers who are hiding British pilots need to have food brought to them. It is too dangerous for them to go to the market place without raising suspicion. They need to have the food brought to their homes,” Gaston explained.

“Who better than a Rom to bring food to hungry people,” Yojo replied with pride. . “Then you’ll stay with me on the farm,” he said. Yojo nodded.

“I’m going to make the arrangements and tomorrow you will begin to deliver packages of food,” Gaston told him.

Early the next morning, Yojo helped Gaston put a heavy carton of food in a small wagon, harnessed the horse and climbed in the front of the open wagon. .

“Stay off the main road” Gaston warned as Yojo was leaving.

The farmer’s wagon was much smaller than a Gypsy wagon and shook as the wheels rolled over stones and sticks in the lane. Yojo didn’t mind the rough ride. He was happy to be on the road.

Sticks and stones clogged the narrow lane. Afraid that the horse would stumble Yojo jumped off the wagon, took the reins and led the horse. The sound of a motor came from the main road that ran parallel to the lane. Yojo knew it was a police car. Gaston told him the road was patrolled by the French police. With the scarcity of gasoline, only military trucks or the police had supplies.

The sound of the motor startled the horse. It reared. The wagon swerved and tilted dangerously. Patting the horse to calm it, Yojo spoke softly, “We need to be calm. .We don’t want any accidents.” He walked close to the horse patting it as he brought it to the lane that lead to the farmhouse where the British pilots were being hidden.

As they got close to the farmhouse, Yojo was careful not to be seen and walked the horse to the far side of the farm and tethered it to the fence. Then he carried the carton to the back door of the farmhouse. He knocked on the door five times as he had been told. The door was opened by an elderly woman. Without a word, Yojo carried the carton into the kitchen, placed it on the table and turned to leave. The woman smiled and thanked him.

Back in the wagon again, Yojo drove slowly. The delivery went smoothly and he relaxed. The sweet fragrance in the air brought back happy memories. Yojo took his time coming back to Gaston’s farm. .

“It’s the good things in life that are important”, his father always said. Yojo wondered what would his father would think about him living like a farmer. French farmers were very different from Gypsies, but Yojo respected farmers like Gaston who placed their own lives in danger to help people.

Gaston saw how reliable Yojo was and gave him more deliveries to make. He traveled around the countryside and made deliveries three or four times a week. When he wasn’t delivering parcels of food, he helped Gaston on the farm

Yojo was still determined to find other Gypsies. On a trip to a neighboring village, he stopped at a tavern where he had often gone with his father. The tavern keeper was a friend of his father’s.

Yojo went into the tavern. The tavern keeper recognized him and asked about his father.

Yojo told him about the police raid. “My whole family was arrested.”

“Too many of my Gypsy friends have been arrested.” The tavern keeper said. “I miss then, especially your father. He always had good stories to tell.”

“Can you help me find my people?” Yojo asked.

“I don’t know of any Gypsies around here. I heard there were a few Gypsies hiding in an old abandoned building not far from here.” The tavern keeper gave him directions to the building. “Don’t get your hopes up. I doubt they are still there. There have been too many police around here.”

Yojo shook the tavern keeper’s hand and thanked him and went to find the building, The tavern keeper was right. There was no one there. The building was deserted.

Fear and worry about his family never left him, and not finding any other Gypsies made him restless. He went back to the farm and told Gaston he wanted to join the Resistance and help to rescue people.

“Patience, my young friend, Gaston said. “You are doing a good job with delivering food. Delivering food to people in hiding is important rescue work.”

One morning after Yojo placed a large parcel of food in the wagon and began the journey to a distant village, a farmer who lived down the road came running towards him, shouting,

“Are you going to the village? I need a lift. I broke the wheel of my wagon and I need to do some errands”.

Before Yojo could say anything, the farmer climbed up on the wagon and sat next to him.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

” I’ll be passing the village and I’ll drop you off”

“You haven’t been in the village very long, have you?” The farmer looked at him, “Say, you’re not a runaway Gypsy, are you?” the farmer asked.

Remembering his father’s words, “With silence you can fool even the devil.” Yojo did not reply.

“What’s your name?” the farmer asked.

“Rene,” Yojo replied in a soft voice.

“How come I never saw you before? You look like a Gypsy. Are you a runaway or something?

The farmer kept asking questions. He wanted to know where Yojo was from, how long he had been in the village. Yojo did not answer the questions. As soon as they came to the next village, the farmer jumped off the wagon without saying anything. Yojo had a feeling the farmer was going to make trouble.

When he returned to the farm later that afternoon, Gaston was waiting for him. .

“The farmer you gave a ride to this morning is telling everyone you are a runaway Gypsy It’s not safe for you to stay here any longer,” he said. “We can’t take any chances. If they follow you, they’ll find out who is hiding the pilots. Another British plane was shot down today and German soldiers as well as French police are searching the village.”

“I can go back to the forest,” Yojo offered.

Gaston shook his head, “If you want to help with rescue operations, now is your chance.” Gaston explained that American and British pilots were being helped to escape into Spain across the Pyrenees.

“If you want to join the rescue operation, you must meet the man who is making the arrangements. I told him about you. His name is Gerard. He is waiting to meet you in the tavern.”

“How will I know him?” Yojo asked.

“Look for a man with gray hair and a black suit. He’s wearing a tie with red and white stripes.” Gaston said and pushed a wallet with some money into his hand.

“We’ll meet again one day, my young friend”, Gaston said, giving Yojo a warm handshake.

Yojo walked back to the village and went into the tavern. He saw the man fitting Gaston’s description sitting at a table in the back of the tavern. As soon as the man saw the young Gypsy in his farmer’s clothes, he got up and introduced himself. His name was Gerard.

In the back room of the tavern, Gerard asked Yojo many questions.

“Tell me about the countryside near the Pyrenees?” he asked.

“My father used to take us to festivals in Spain. We crossed over the Pyrenees many times. To get there we went through the vineyards. There are many vineyards in the hills on the road to the Pyrenees,” Yojo replied.

Gerard nodded. He could see that Yojo knew the region well.

“Do you now about the Garonne River?” Gerard asked.

“We are close to the Garonne and can follow the river to the Pyrenees.”

Gerard gave him some paper and Yojo drew a map to show Gerard the route he would follow. .

Satisfied that Yojo knew his way to the mountains, he told Yojo, “The Germans have increased their patrols and we have to keep changing the routes we use. There are smugglers willing to take people across the mountains for a great deal of money, but I prefer to rely on someone I can trust. With your knowledge of the country, you’ll make a good escort. ”

“That’s just what I want to do.” Yojo said smiling. Taking people across the mountain paths suited the young Gypsy much better than working on a farm. . .

“Two British pilots are waiting for an escort.” Gerard said. ” I am going to take you to them now. You will begin the journey tomorrow.”

As they walked to the house where the pilots were hidden, Gerard told him about the route they would follow.

“First you will take them to a safe house that is not far from Toulouse. The pilots will be given identification cards. You’ll need to be very careful There are German soldiers patrolling all the roads that lead to the mountains”

Gerard took him to an old farmhouse at the edge of the village. A young woman
opened the door and invited them inside.

The pilots were sitting in the parlor and got up when Yojo and Gerard came into the room. Gerard introduced them to Yojo. Their names were Glen and Fred.

“They don’t look much older than me,” Yojo said looking at the two men dressed in farmer’s clothes.

“Glad to meet you,” Fred said in English. .

“I’m happy to know you too.” Glen said. Gerard translated their words into French. Yojo guessed they did not speak French.

“How can I lead them if I cannot speak to them?” Yojo asked.

“Not to worry,” he said. “They know they have to stay close to you and follow you. When you get to the Spanish border, they know where to go.”

Gerard gave Yojo a paper with a few English phrases written on it, “Come this way”, “Wait”, “Hide” and “Run.” Next to each English word, he wrote the same words in French. Then he said the words out loud in English. Yojo imitated him. The pilots laughed. “Good enough,” Glen said.

The pilots smiled at Yojo and he smiled back. “If only I could talk to them,” he thought to himself.

The young woman served them dinner. There was stew with vegetables and meat and lots of good French bread. After they ate, Gerard showed them where they were to sleep.

Very early the next morning, they were given cheese and bread for breakfast.

“Here’s a bag with sandwiches and fresh fruit” the young woman gave Yojo the bag. “Don’t eat it all at once. The food has to last you all day,” she said.

Fred and Glen climbed into the wagon. Gerard helped Yojo cover them with a blanket. He poured a pile of hay on top of the blanket and put a basket of eggs and a box of chickens on top of the hay.

“Have a safe trip,” he said as Yojo climbed on the wagon and began the journey. They passed abandoned farms as they traveled south along a narrow road close to the Garonne River.

When the sun was high in the sky, Yojo stopped the wagon near an empty field. After he moved the baskets of eggs and the box of chickens, he pushed the hay to one side and pulled the blanket off the pilots.

Fred and Glen leaped up and jumped off the wagon. Happy to breathe the fresh air and move around, they followed Yojo as he walked around. Yojo stretched his arms and walked around the wagon. Fred and Glen imitated his every movement. Yojo knew he was communicating with them with movement and gesture. Grabbing the bag of sandwiches he motioned them to sit down.

“Mangez” he said, smiling. “Eat” Glen said. “Mangez,” Fred repeated. They laughed as they began eating. Yojo knew they trusted him.

Back in the wagon, Yojo was careful to spread the hay evenly over the blanket and put the basket of eggs and box of chickens back on top of the hay.

The countryside changed when they left the river road. Blooming vineyards bordered the path.

Close to the city of Toulouse, where the safe house was located, it began to rain. A French policeman came out of a tavern. He stopped Yojo and demanded to see his identification card.

“What are you doing out in the rain?” he asked .

“Oh just making a delivery.” Yojo replied. “I’m delivering some chickens and eggs.”

” I never saw a farmer delivering chickens in the rain,” the policeman said.

Yojo tried to smile and spoke in a quiet voice, “To tell the truth, I don’t like making deliveries in the rain myself.”

“Your chickens are getting wet,” the policeman laughed as he handed Yojo his identification card.

Yojo could feel the knot fear in his stomach loosen as he grabbed hold of the reins. They were south of Toulouse and close to the Pyrenees mountains. The rain was coming down harder, but Yojo did not stop until they reached the safe house, an old stone house at the far edge of town.

As soon as they reached the house, he jumped off the wagon, tethered the horse and took the eggs and the chickens to the house.

“I’ve come to deliver your chickens, .” he told the gray haired man who opened the door.

“The man nodded, “I’ve been expecting you” he said and took the basket of eggs and box of chickens. That was the signal that it was safe to bring the pilots to the house.

Yojo ran back to the wagon to get Fred and Glen. Shivering in his wet clothes, Fred turned to Yojo, grabbed his hand, shook it and made a victory sign.

Inside the house, there were three other men and a woman. The woman brought them towels.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” she said. “We are ready to eat.” She said and invited them to come to the table. There was soup, cheese and big chunks of bread on the table.

Yojo wondered about the other men. The gray haired man explained that they were refugees and did not speak French. They were waiting in the safe house until their escape could be arranged. .

Yojo guessed that the grayhaired man was in charge of the safe house. He spoke to the pilots in English. No one knew the gray haired man’s name. Yojo knew the man’s name had to be kept secret. If everyone who came to the house knew his name, there was the danger that a traitor would give his name to the police.

After they had eaten, the gray haired man took pictures of the pilots with a small camera. The pictures were needed for the fake French identity cards. Fred and Glen received their fake French identity cards with their pictures attached the next day.

The woman was the resistance leader’s wife. She gave Yojo and the pilots climbing boots with heavy spiked soles, thick woolen socks, heavy sweaters, and two pounds of sugar cubes. Yojo remembered how cold it could get in the mountains.

“You can’t carry food with you in case you are stopped and searched, ” the resistance leader explained. “Sugar cubes can be carried in your pockets.”

“We’ll have to eat a very big breakfast before we leave, ” Yojo told Fred and Glen. The leader smiled and translated Yojo’s words for them.

“The biggest risk of discovery is when you leave the town and begin to climb up the mountain. There are German soldiers and French police patrolling the main roads. Look like you work in the vineyards and do not walk together,” the leader cautioned. He wished them luck as they left the house early in the morning. . .

Yojo walked in a leisurely way through the vineyards. Fred and Glen kept their distance behind him. As they trudged up the terraced vineyards, Yojo could see the hills that rose on both sides of the road. The cliff walls rose in front of him. They were at the beginning of the mountain path. Yojo searched for the narrow steep gravelly path that ran parallel to the main road. The path was known as the smuggler’s road. It was used by smugglers who traveled back and forth between France and Spain. Yojo remembered where the path started and he found it behind thick brush. He gestured to Fred and Glen to follow. They began to climb.

The path became steep and slippery and curved around a narrow ledge. Yojo could see the fear on Glen’s face and knew he had never climbed a mountain before. He took his arm and walked more slowly. When the path narrowed, he let Glen go ahead of him still holding his arm. Fred did not seem to mind the steep climb. Near the top of the mountain peak, the rise became more gentle and Glen relaxed. Every once in a while, they stopped to rest and eat a few sugar cubes.

When they reached the summit, Yojo grinned and waved his arm in an arc toward the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. far below. The steep cliffs fell away in a sheet of brilliant turquoise revealing the Spanish coast.

Yojo had taken them as far as he could. He pointed to the land below. “Espagne” he said. “Spain” Fred repeated in English. Fred and Glen were to go the rest of the way by themselves. Yojo waved to them and watched them make the climb down the Spanish side of the peak before turning back to the road.

Slowly he made his way back across the Pyrenees back to the safe house.

Yojo helped more than one hundred people escape. He brought British and American pilots, Jewish people, refugees and resistance fighters safely across the Pyrenees.

Yojo never stopped looking for his people. After the defeat of the Germans, Yojo located other members of his family. He learned that his mother, father and brothers taken to the Auschwitz death camp and were murdered. He found some of his aunts and uncles and went to live them. At family festivals, he could almost hear his father telling him, “Tonight we will sing and dance and enjoy our Gypsy way of life.”

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, Isabel Fonseca. Vintage Books, Division of Random House, NY, 1995.

Gypsies of the World: A Journey into the Hidden World of Gypsy Life and Culture, Neboojsa Bato Tomasevic and Raijko Djuric, NY Henry Holt. 1988

Crossing, Jan Yoors, NY Simon and Shuster, 1971
Gypsies An Illustrated History, Jean Pierre Ligeois, Al Saqi Books, London, England, 1986.