A new chapter is unfolding in a two-year political controversy surrounding the memory of more than 500,000 Gypsies murdered in Nazi death camps during World War II.
In recent years, political activists representing America's Gypsies, who call themselves "Rom" and their culture "Romani," have been laboring to bring attention to their people's tragedy.
"Our dead cried as loud as the Jews'," Gypsy activist James Marks said recently of Holocaust victims, "and we still mourn them."
The focus of Gypsy efforts over the last two years has been the 65-member U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which has never included a Gypsy. It was established in 1980 to oversee the planning of the Holocaust Memorial Museum scheduled for completion on the Mall in 1989.
In January, the terms of 11 members, including the chairman, author Elie Wiesel, expired. The Reagan administration has not announced their replacements.
The Gypsy activists formed the U.S. Romani Holocaust Council in 1984 and have engaged in aggressive lobbying. "This is the first time in Gypsy nation history that something like this has been set up," said Marks, the group's vice president. "This is something very dear to all of us."
Marks said the group is particularly anxious that Gypsies have input in planning aspects of the Holocaust museum dealing with the Gypsy massacre. "If we don't tell our own story in the museum, it won't be told the right way," he said.
Marks said he hoped that Gypsy activism will become more commonplace. "We'd like to have more of our young people get involved with the mainstream of society so that it [the Holocaust] could never, never happen again," he said.
The Gypsies' failure to gain Holocaust Council representation has led to increasing frustration, and the activists blame the council for not resolving the problem.
Council leaders have said they would like a Gypsy to be included among the new appointees but insist that ultimate responsibility lies with the Reagan administration.
Wiesel said he had "urged the White House to appoint a Gypsy" in recognition of "their terrible tragedy." But, he added, "it's not my prerogative; it's the White House's prerogative."
Micah Naftalin, the council's acting executive director, said that he regrets omission of Gypsies but that the council has done all it can to remedy the problem.
"The Council believes this is an oversight that should be fixed. [Gypsies] should be represented. We have made a strong recommendation [to the White House] that a Gypsy be appointed," he said.
However, Gatton Puxon, a non-Gypsy scholar who serves as the Romani organization's secretary, said, "I've met many times with Naftalin. He's appeared to support the idea of Romani representation, but he's done nothing concrete."
Relations between Gypsy activists and the council appear strained. "The Holocaust Council was set up to honor all the victims of the holocaust," Puxon said, "and we consider this discrimination."
"The problem [regarding Gypsies]," Naftalin said, "is that they're not well-schooled. They're quite naive and, to some extent, distrustful."
Asked to speculate as to how new Council members might be chosen, he suggested that politics would very likely play a major role.
"They're probably rewarding their friends," he said. "This is kind of an honor. Naturally, they're going to be turning to the big givers . . . . That's what President Jimmy Carter did, and there's certainly nothing wrong with it. Here's a wonderful way to thank supporters, and that's probably what they're going to do."
Wiesel said of the initial round of Carter administration council appointments, "There were some political appointments, and I was not so satisfied. I had hoped, and I still hope, that this would transcend politics."
Numerous calls asking for White House comment were not returned.
The activists said they would like to see five Gypsies appointed to the Council. Naftalin said he considered it "unlikely" that the administration would appoint more than one, adding that a prime candidate, before his death last year, was actor Yul Brynner.
The most likely Gypsy candidate now would appear to be Dr. Ian Hancock, an English professor at the University of Texas. "He's the only Gypsy I know of with the academic background," Wiesel said, "although there must be more."
Hancock, author of numerous scholarly works on Gypsies and other subjects, is nominally associated with the Holocaust Council as "special adviser to the chairman." But he said he had "never been invited to be a part of anything" since his appointment last May. Naftalin confirmed this and said Hancock's post is fundamentally honorary in nature.
Hancock also said appointment to the Council of only one Gypsy, though a positive step, would not satisfy Gypsy leaders. "Whoever is appointed will not be content with that and will try to get at least four more," he said.
Gypsies are a widely dispersed, often nomadic people whose origins are generally disputed, although they are believed to come from a northern province of India.
There is also disagreement as to their numbers, but authorities said there are probably between 6 million and 7 million worldwide and at least 250,000 in the United States.
Gypsies have been widely persecuted throughout the world over many centuries. They were incarcerated, enslaved and killed in virtually all of the Nazi death camps, and some were also subjected to medical experiments at Auschwitz.