Katarina Taikon was an author and a leading figure within the Roma civil rights movement and in the struggle for human rights during the 1960s and 1970s.
Katarina Taikon was the youngest child in a family of four children. She was born in Almby, Närke in 1932. Her mother, Agda Karlsson, was a farmer’s daughter from Härryda who, when aged 21, had met the significantly older Johan Taikon at the Lorensberg restaurant where they both worked. She was a waitress whilst he was a violinist. The couple had four children together: Paul, Rosa Taikon, Pauline, and Katarina. Katarina Taikon was only 9 months old when her mother died of tuberculosis, only aged 29. Johan Taikon married a second time in 1945 to a woman who inspired the character of Siv in Katarina Taikon’s books about Katitzi. In 1945 Katarina Taikon was separated from her siblings as she was placed in the care of a couple called Kreuter who lived in the Skellefteå area and who were known to her father through the entertainment industry. Katarina Taikon spent two years living with the Kreuters but when Johan Taikon refused to allow the Kreuters to adopt her she was placed in the Umebygden children’s home. A few weeks later Johan Taikon collected Katarina Taikon and the Taikon family was reunited.
During Katarina Taikon’s childhood the family led a nomadic lifestyle. The family survived on the money Johan Taikon made from musical performances and working at the fun-fair, as well as fashioning items out of pewter as demanded. He was also a silversmith, and Katarina Taikon’s elder sister, Rosa Taikon would follow in his footsteps as an adult – this was a move which went against tradition where being a smith passed from father to son. As Rosa Taikon herself has clarified, the reason behind her unusual step was that her big brother Paul Taikon was murdered in 1962. Katarina Taikon helped with household chores wherever they lived, finding wood for the fire and fresh water. Sometimes she and her oldest sister Pauline headed off to try and sell the copper bowls their father had made.
Johan Taikon tried to get his children into local schools but faced racist opposition due to the structure of the welfare system along with the racist views held by local educators, representatives of local authorities, and the wider population. Nomadic people, such as the Roma, were not welcome to remain for any given time at one place if they could not prove that they were in regular employment – the types of jobs Johan Taikon took on did not fit that definition. Further, the family’s sphere of work entailed a forced ‘move’ as soon as the local market was saturated. This made it very difficult for the children to gain a solid education. The first time that Katarina Taikon sat at a school desk was in 1942. In order to contribute to the family finances she would sell Christmas cards which she had bought at Åhlén & Holm. She also, aged only 13, tended to all the household chores as by then her siblings had all moved on. In 1945 Katarina Taikon began to attend a summer school which the Stiftelsen Svensk Zigenarmission (Swedish Gypsy mission foundation) had set up.
Life was hard for Katarina Taikon during her teenaged years. According to her own accounts she was often abused by her step-mother whilst her father turned a blind eye to it. The family moved to Tantolunden and Katarina Taikon began to attend fourth grade at Mariaskolan. The following year, aged 14, Katarina Taikon was married off to a man who was six years her senior. This was an unhappy marriage and it was not long before she ran away from her husband. Following a succession of fleeings and reunifications, and with the help of the child-welfare agency, Katarina Taikon came to the Stadsmissionen home for girls in Gamla Stan. Her father died shortly thereafter, which enabled Katarina Taikon to begin a new life. She gained employment in Stockholm and began to earn money for herself.
In 1948 Katarina Taikon was given the lead role in Arne Sucksdorff’s film Uppbrott. She, like her brothers and sisters and many other Roma people, appeared in several other films including Christian Jaque’s Singoalla, which was based on Viktor Rydberg’s eponymous novel. Singoalla presents a racist and stereotyped version of the Roma as thieves and uncivilised people, leading those Roma who had acted in it to regret their decision to do so. Katarina Taikon’s and her sister Rosa’s struggles on behalf of the Roma began once they had been educated and could read what was written about the ‘gypsies’ in various contexts. According to the Taikon sisters’ own accounts it was their education combined with their recent knowledge about the UN declaration on human rights which set them on their paths as activists.
Acting in films had opened up a new world to Katarina Taikon. During the 1950s she began to move within Stockholm’s artistic circles and became part of the capital city’s club and café culture. She took every job she could get, anything from an extra to waitressing and other short-term jobs. When she and Rosa found themselves without a place to live in 1952 the actor Per Oscarsson, whom they had come to know through a theatre job, invited them to move into his large house in Ulriksdal. They lived there for several years. This was their first experience of living in one place for an extended period of time.
Katarina Taikon was briefly engaged to fellow actor Ove Tjernberg in the early 1950s. Their daughter, Angelica, was born in 1953. Later, in 1957, Katarina Taikon had a son, Michael, whose father was the artist Svenolov Ehrén. Shortly thereafter she met Björn Langhammar and he moved in with her in 1958. That same year she, along with her sister Rosa and Björn Langhammar, began a two-year course at the Birkagården public college. Now armed with a basic education Katarina Taikon was able to continue her studies and attended a business finance course at the Påhlmans Handelsinstitut. Once she had completed her studies she took on the running of the Vips American Ice Cream Bar on Birger Jarlsgatan in Stockholm. This ice-cream bar became a hub for many of her friends and acquaintances and her customers included both ‘raggare’ (a social type who favoured gas-guzzling American cars) as well as actors and artists. Katarina Taikon had her third child, Niki, in 1961, again fathered by Björn Langhammar.
During the 1960s attention was drawn to the various groups of people who either could not or were not allowed to benefit from the Swedish welfare state. This included the Swedish Roma. In 1963 Katarina Taikon published her first book, entitled Zigenerska, which generated a serious debate about the plight of the Roma and the role of the Swedish state in their situation. The book was polemical both in political and autobiographical terms. Katarina Taikon interwove her own experiences and her account of Roma traditions between her criticism of the state and the lax approach of the authorities, particularly the racist behaviour of “ordinary Swedes” towards the Roma. The book became a massmedia hit and served as the firing gun for an engaged, difficult, and wearing fight for Roma rights, run by Katarina Taikon, which lasted until the early 1980s when she suffered a heart attack and was left in a coma.
On several occasions during the 1960s Katarina Taikon, along with her sister Rosa and other activists, petitioned Prime Minister Tage Erlander – as well as other ministers and state bureaucrats. In 1964 Katarina Taikon met Martin Luther King when he came to Scandinavia in order to receive the Nobel peace prize. Their respective struggles for civil rights shared many common factors. Katarina Taikon’s efforts largely concerned providing information and influencing public opinion, which she did by giving talks, writing articles, and petitioning bureaucrats and municipal politicians. She travelled throughout Sweden and lectured and appeared in magazines, on the TV and radio, talking about the plight of the Roma both in Sweden and further afield. Her efforts were partly organised through Zigenarsamfundet (gypsy foundation) which Katarina Taikon had set up in 1964, with the support of chief editor Evert Kumm and the welfare doctor John Takman. Katarian Taikon’s sister Rosa was also an active member of the foundation which campaigned on behalf of the Roma and for their inclusion in society. At this point Katarina Taikon and Rosa shared the dominant belief that the lifestyle of the Roma was doomed to vanish within modern society and that they had to adapt and become integrated. They allied themselves with the left-wing movements of the time and attended the 1 May demonstration in 1965 bearing placards demanding education for adult Roma. During the later 1960s they began to question this perspective and instead adopted a more multicultural approach. Zigenarsamfundet was dissolved in 1966 as its various members now held such differing views that they could no longer work together. Katarina Taikon and Björn Langhammar then took over the publication of the organisation’s journal Zigenaren or Amé beschás (which is Roma for ‘we reside’), and their activism expanded from Roma rights to human rights in general.
In 1969 Katarina Taikon published her first children’s book about the Roma girl, Katitzi. By 1980 another 12 volumes had been released. She had long harboured the idea of writing children’s books. She would say when interviewed that if it is change one is after then it is the children who must be influenced. During the 1970s the Katitzi books were amongst the most popular children’s books in Sweden and the story of Katitzi was also released as a serial comic, on LPs, and as a TV-series.
Katarina Taikon divorced Björn Langhammar in 1981. By the spring of 1982 she was ill, worn out, and depressed. She suffered a heart attack whilst undergoing tests at a Nacka hospital and sank into a coma, from which she never awoke. She spent 14 years in a coma, and died on 30 December 1995. Her ex-husband Björn Langhammar had initially cared for her in their home until his own death in 1986. Then her care fell to her family, namely her sister Rosa and Katarina’s children Angelica, Michael, and Niki, who managed her care until she died at the Sveg hospital in December 1995.
Lawen Mohtadi published a biography of Katarina Taikon in 2012 called Den dag jag blir fri. This served as the basis for the documentary, Taikon, produced by Lawen Mohtadi and Gellert Tamas. Since 2015 there has been a street named after Katarina Taikon in Skellefteå where she had spent some time in a children’s home. Also in 2015 Stockholm city established the Katarina Taikon prize worth 100,000 Swedish kroner. The aim was to highlight and reward defenders of human rights who champion and protect human rights through their work in Stockholm city.