Wednesday, January 02, 2008
The Candle is All Flame
One late spring day around 1934 Jan Yoors, a Belgian boy of twelve, overcome with curiosity from his father's stories, wandered up to the grassy periphery of a gypsy camp on the edge of town. Boys from the kumpania approached him, and engaged him in conversation, showing him their horses. Though they barely could understand a word between them, a natural ease set in - they were at an age when such things were possible. Jan would gradually realize that he had freely slipped through a door between cultures rarely traversed and if he had been older or much younger, there wouldn't have been the ghost of a chance.
The pull was so strong that Jan seemingly forgot that he had a warm,well-furnished home and two loving parents to return to - one night with the gypsy kids out under the stars led to another and soon he was accepted by the elders and traveled freely with the caravan. It took a great deal of time for Jan to shed the veneer of "civilization", and adjust to the constancy of travel:
"On a few occasions I was distressed when we left a particularly pleasant or convenient camping spot...Rupa chided me for this, in her gruff way; she said I would, by losing it, cherish the memory of this place even more, with the tenderness reserved for incompletely satisfied longings. She said in time I too would learn to possess the single passing moment more passionately, more fully, without regrets. She tried to tell me that the Rom lived in a perpetual present: memories, dreams, desires, hungers, the urge toward a tomorrow, all were rooted in the present. Without now there was no before, just as there would be no after.
She said that 'to the Lowara (their Gypsy branch) a candle is not made of wax, but is all flame'. In the stories they told, the Rom praised extravagant lavishness and most of them practiced this all consuming generosity, at times to the extreme of outright squandering. In their language thriftiness, or any other word denoting carefulness, was translated as stinginess. They strongly disapproved of saving, with the result that between red-letter days, worthy of legend, there were hollow ones, more frequent than bargained for."
Fortunately, his parents were a liberal-minded pair; his mother Magda, a human rights activist and his father Eugene, a renowned stained glass artist. When Jan finally returned home they reached an agreement that he could live with the Rom half the year and live at home, attending to his studies.
Yoors wrote "The Gypsies", describing his life with the Gypsies and also a connected book "The Crossing" which deals with his work - in tandem with the Gypsies - as a resistance fighter in World War II. He was arrested twice and narrowly escaped execution by some paperwork foul-up by the Nazis. A majority of his dear traveling companions were less fortunate, and perished in the death camps.
Amongst the companions lost to him was his Gypsy "father" Pulika.
This from Jan's son Kore's reminiscences of his father's stories in the introduction to "The Heroic Present: Life Among the Gypsies" a compilation of Yoors photos and writings:
"One day in the 1930's, as winter approached and Jan was preparing to return to his parent's home, he asked Pulika to pose for a photo. Pulika asked, "Why do you need a photo of me? Are you going to betray me to the police?" Jan replied that he wanted the photo to remember him by.
Pulika responded, "If you need a piece of paper to remember me by, forget me!"
Jan Yoors is the tall, very white, teenager second from left in the top photo.