Hungary’s “Last” Roma Fortune-Teller Preserves Traditions

Though the Roma are the country’s largest ethnic minority, they face discrimination in their everyday lives—now, some of their oldest customs and traditions are fading away.

Hungary’s “Last” Roma Fortune-Teller Preserves Traditions

Sztojka, by his own account Hungary’s last Roma fortune-teller, is working to preserve his culture’s traditions that are slowly vanishing in the Central European country.

Photo by AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

Zoltan Sztojka, by his own account Hungary’s last Roma fortune-teller, lays 36 weathered tarot cards on a table at his home in the village of Soltvadkert and peers at them from beneath the brim of his large felt hat.

As he turns the cards with his heavily ringed fingers, he presents his clients—whom he calls “patients”—details of their past, present, and future, a skill of divination he says he inherited from an “unbroken family lineage” of fortune-tellers dating back to 1601.

“They were fortune-tellers and seers,” he says of generations of his ancestors, who were “chosen by God” to practice the gift of fortune-telling.

Sztojka, 47, whom friends and locals call simply “Zoli with the hat,” uses cards and palm reading to divine information about his clients, a trade he has been practicing for 25 years. His skills at seeing the unseeable, he says, were apparent from childhood.

“You’re either born with it or you inherit it, but to say you can learn it is humbug,” he said while seated in a room filled with burning candles and religious icons, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Sztojka is a member of Hungary’s large Roma minority, which some estimates place at as many as 1 million people in the Central European country—roughly 10 percent of its population. Present in virtually every country in Europe, many Roma face racism, segregation, social exclusion, and poverty.

The Roma people are Hungary’s largest minority ethnic population, but face discrimination in their everyday lives.

The Roma people are Hungary’s largest minority ethnic population, but face discrimination in their everyday lives.

Photograph by AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

First migrating to Hungary in the 15th century, Roma were known historically for their skills as craftspeople and musicians. They long spoke their own language and maintained numerous dialects and customs related to their trades—metalworkers, horse grooms and traders, musicians and fortune-tellers, among others.

But in the mid-18th century, Habsburg empress Maria Theresa ordered the forced assimilation of the Roma, outlawing their nomadic way of life and the use of their language, Romani.

Roma children were removed from their homes and placed with non-Roma families, while use of the Hungarian word for Roma—cigany—was also forbidden. They were dubbed “New Hungarians.”

This and other processes of marginalization mean that most Roma in Hungary are no longer able to speak the Romani language, and many of their traditional trades—like fortune-telling—were lost, said Szilvia Szenasi, director of the Uccu Roma Informal Educational Foundation.

“Traditional occupations are very much on the wane,” Szenasi said. “It is important to preserve them for the next generation, because it is through them that the Roma people can live their own identity.”

>>Next: Chinese Street Opera Stages a Comeback in Singapore

Hungary correspondent for the @AP, Texan in exile. Currently reporting in #Ukraine.
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