Hungary’s “last” Roma fortune teller preserves traditions | Arts and entertainment
Zoltan Sztojka, who claims to be the last Roma fortune teller in Hungary, lays 36 weathered tarot cards on a table in his house in the village of Soltvadkert and looks at them under 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” – with details of their past, present, and future, a divination ability inherited from an “unbroken family line” of fortune tellers back to 1601.
“They were diviners and seers,” he says of generations of his ancestors who were “chosen by God” to practice the gift of divination.
Sztojka, 47, whom friends and locals simply call “Zoli with the hat”, uses maps and palmistry to guess information about his customers, a craft he has been practicing for 25 years. His ability to see the invisible was evident from childhood.
“You are either born with it or you inherit it, but to say you can learn is humbug,” he said as he sat with a cigarette dangling from his mouth in a room full of burning candles and religious icons.
Sztojka is a member of the large Hungarian Roma minority, who, according to estimates, live in the Central European country up to 1 million people – around 10 percent of the population. In practically every country in Europe, many Roma face racism, segregation, social exclusion and poverty.
The Roma, who first immigrated to Hungary in the 15th century, were historically known for their skills as artisans and musicians. They spoke their own language for a long time and cultivated numerous dialects and customs associated with their craft – including metalworkers, horse grooms and traders, musicians and fortune tellers.
But in the middle of the 18th century, the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa ordered the forced assimilation of the Roma, forbade their nomadic way of life and the use of their Romani language.
Roma children were removed from their homes and placed with non-Roma families, while the use of the Hungarian word for Roma – cigany – was also prohibited. They were called “New Hungarians”.
This and other marginalization processes mean that most Roma in Hungary no longer speak the Romani language and many of their traditional professions – such as fortune telling – have been lost, said Szilvia Szenasi, director of the Uccu Roma Informal Educational Foundation.
“Traditional professions are very much on the rise,” said Szenasi. “It is important to keep them for the next generation, because through them the Roma can live their own identity.”
For Sztojka, preserving Roma culture goes beyond preserving centuries-old fortune-telling. Every day he dresses in brightly colored vests and shirts decorated with folk floral patterns, and wears a traditional long, dark mustache.
As a devout Catholic, he only takes off his broad-brimmed hat – a trademark of the Gabor Roma clan from Transylvania – when eating or visiting church.
“It is terribly important to preserve our culture and traditions because if we don’t have a culture the gypsy community will cease to exist,” he said. “I try to pass it on to many people so that they really get to know us, because they only know that there are gypsies, but they don’t know anything about us.”
While the word gypsy is considered an offensive term in several cultures, Sztojka prefers to use it for Roma.
He and his family belong to the Lovari subgroup of Roma and speak the Lovari dialect of Romani – something he believes is “critically endangered”.
“People don’t really want to speak the gypsy language. Everyone adjusts as if they suddenly wanted to be Hungarian, ”he said.
In addition to his clairvoyance, Sztojka inherited his 150-year-old tarot cards from his great-great-grandmother, who was herself a fortune-teller at a time when tradition was a much larger part of Roma identity.
Beatrix Kolompar, one of Sztojka’s relatives, said that the traditions of her people “can mark us as gypsies, as Roma”.
“Since we don’t have a country of our own, we carry on the world we live in, the Roma way of life through our traditions,” she said. “The dancing girls, the colorful dresses, the fortune teller and the fortune teller, that is the proof of who we are.”
However, Szenasi, the director of the Uccu Foundation, says that the preservation of such traditions “requires a cultural recognition, which is very lacking in Hungary”.
Without “institutional culture” such as museums and other cultural institutions, she said, “Gypsy traditions are slowly being lost, and these values will unfortunately disappear.”
Sztojka says he lost around half of his business during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of his “patients” are returning visitors who are convinced of his clairvoyance.
Sztojka makes a living from fortune telling and charges 15,000 Hungarian forints (US $ 50) per session, although he says he doesn’t turn away poor people. But he also sees it as “a mission” that enriches himself and his customers spiritually.
“Reading maps is an absolute blessing for me. This is how I can help my fellow human beings, ”he said.
Despite the disappearance of the centuries-old way of life of his culture, “Zoli with the hat” says that he will never give up continuing the mystical craft of his ancestors.
“My parents didn’t assimilate, my grandparents didn’t assimilate, and neither did I. If you have no past, you have no future, ”said Sztojka.
“I believe that I was born a gypsy and will die a gypsy.”