Singen / DPA
Visit Alexander Fluegler at his house in Germany and you can’t help noticing one thing straight away — family and his Yenish ethnicity are vital to him.
The walls of his home office are covered in photographs; Fluegler with his wife, Fluegler with his children, Fluegler with relatives, friends, elderly people, and young people. All beam down from their frames.
The Yenish are one of Europe’s largest nomadic peoples, yet they are barely known outside their heartland.
For generations they have been on the move in gypsy caravans in southern Germany and Switzerland, making ends by hawking or fixing pots and pans, much like the better-known Romany people or Ireland’s Travellers, and were often in conflict with laws.
When Fluegler, who owns a cleaning company in the southern German city of Singen, is asked who he is, he answers firmly, “a Yenish man.” Being a German and a businessman come second.
Fluegler’s proud avowal is one that many fellow Yenish would be ashamed to offer to a stranger. They live in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Austria and Switzerland. And, like other gypsies, they have often been persecuted.
That’s why many Yenish in Singen, a town where many have settled down, don’t even like to admit to their origins, says 59-year-old Fluegler. They’re still afraid of discrimination and the deep-seated prejudice that they are roaming thieves.
“You do notice it both in business and in your private life,” says Fluegler.
He himself worked his way up in life from being a window cleaner to becoming an entrepreneur, and now owns his own substantial, villa-like house.
“But people say: How can a Yenish have a house like that? And I tell them, ‘Why, I get up at 5 am and work till 8 pm’.” It was all honest, hard work.
Identifying a Yenish, one of Europe’s most mysterious minorities, isn’t even that clear-cut according to Anna Lipphardt, an ethnologist from the University of Freiburg.
In Switzerland, for example, they’re recognized as an ethnic minority group, whereas no such recognition exists in Germany.
In fact, it’s not even certain how many Yenish live in Germany. Fluegler quotes government figures suggesting there are just 8,000, but he believes there are more.
There are also lots of theories about the group’s origins, since a lot of their history has been forgotten, but most scholars believe the group arose as outcasts who banded together for common support two or three centuries ago.
Though now many live in apartment blocks, they were traditionally travellers, always on the move in horse-drawn caravans in an area in the northern foothills of the Alps.
Even today you can sense it in them,” says Fluegler. “The Yenish want their freedom,” he says.
In earlier times they were often basket-makers or knife sharpeners, typical gypsy professions which are not in any demand nowadays.
To combat his disappearing heritage, Fluegler and an association want to set up a cultural centre for the Yenish in Singen, a town of 47,000 on the Swiss border.
Peaceful co-existence isn’t always easy for the Yenish. “It’s hard for the Yenish to integrate,” agrees Fluegler.
That’s a situation with which Ursula Garz, the headmistress of a Singen school for children with special needs, is all-too familiar.
Around 25 per cent of the children she teaches are Yenish and Sinti, another traveller ethnicity.
Many of the children’s families gave up travelling long ago and now live off benefits, she says.
Despite living in settled communities, the children still bunk off school, refuse to do their homework and generally have trouble fitting into the classroom structure, she says.
She is supporting Fluegler’s efforts to open the cultural centre, because she hopes that children will meet children from other families who don’t live off benefits.
That’s partly what motivates Fluegler, too. “We need Yenish role models,” he says.
He also wants the centre to put on exhibitions, offer workshops and advice in the Yenish language and put on concerts. The old Yenish spoke a type of German with a big admixture of their own special words.
The association is planning to hold a celebration of Yenish culture in May and if that goes well, he says, the chances of getting
support from the town hall to open up a more
permanent centre will increase.