Sunday, 24 November 2013

Papusza: a key to understanding the Roma issue

With Britain in a state of unease about the full opening of its borders on 1 January to Romanians and Bulgarians, the question of Roma (or 'Gypsies' if you are not of the politically correct persuasion) has come to the fore in the UK media. Romania and Bulgaria are home to the largest Roma populations in the EU, and the opportunity for them to travel freely to the UK strikes fear into the heart of every right-thinking Daily Mail reader - and many others.

For most European citizens, the idea that a nomadic ethnic group several million strong that still exists to this day by begging and busking is difficult to comprehend.

Here in Poland (with a low percentage of Roma within its borders compared to Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic or the aforementioned Romania and Bulgaria), some enlightenment has come in the form of a film and a book. Though both have the same title, Papusza, they are entirely different works, though both about the same subject -  the Gypsy (she disliked the term 'Roma') poet, Bronisława Weis.

The book is by Angelika Kuźniak, is a reportage based on interviews, letters and published materials, interspersed with excellent photographs (the best by Jerzy Dorożyński, for the ethnographical museum in Tarnów, taken in the early '60s as the decision to settle Poland's Gypsies was taken). Below: my favourite photo from the book - a tabor (convoy of caravans) winds through a poor Polish village, 1963 (click to enlarge).

The film - made by husband-and-wife team Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze - is beautifully shot in black and white and tells basically the same story, though with minor differences. The film took six years to make - most of the time spent in painstakingly researching the subject to achieve a true story that looked authentic on screen. We travel from pre-war Wołyń to post-war Gorzów Wielkopolski, touching upon the Porajmos - the Roma holocaust in WW2. Like the book, the film was meticulously researched. Below: a still from the film. Many of the scenes are carefully framed tableaux, set against beautiful Polish countryside.

Papusza was clearly a powerful voice in 20th Century Polish poetry; her writing was no primitive folklore but multi-layered, intense and deeply original. The film mirrors this beautifully. The scene showing Papusza's birth, in a forest; a young woman is lying in the undergrowth, calling for her mother... in the foreground, things are stirring... a thousand butterflies? No... it is the wind picking up fallen leaves - a magical scene.

The natural beauty of the forests, the streams, the sky, the wild animals; I think that Papusza, like many poets, was born with a form of synaesthesia - cross-sensory hypersensitivity to stimuli which in her case would be readily transformed into words.

A second factor marking Papusza as outside of the ordinary was that she refused to take illiteracy as her predestined condition. As a child, she taught herself to read, aided as we see in the book and in the film by a Jewish shopkeeper. Her family would try to stop this foolishness, tearing up scraps of newspaper from which she was teaching herself.

And then there was the coincidence which brought her into the public eye. Jerzy Ficowski, a Polish writer and former AK soldier, hiding from the communist security services in the late 1940s, just happened upon her tabor (group of caravans travelling together). Meeting Papusza, he recognised her rare talents; they kept in touch; she sent him poems which he translated and had published in Polish literary magazines. The great Polish poet Julian Tuwim persuaded Ficowski to publish a major work on Poland's gypsies, which appeared in 1953. This book caused Papusza a great deal of grief, as it was believed that she had betrayed to Ficowski the secrets of Gypsy laws and customs to the gadzios - everyone who was not Roma.

Papusza was ostracized and lived apart from her people until her death in 1987, having endured several spells in mental hospitals.

The book and the film show Roma life in realistic terms - the superstition, the patriarchal nature of their society (Papusza is shown to have been bought as a 15 year-old bride by a man 22 years her senior, who was often abusive towards her), the way that Gypsy women and children would go into towns to beg, tell fortunes and steal what they could (chickens, sweets, purses). The men would earn their way by playing Gypsy music (very well shown in the film) and horse-trading; then drinking (always vodka), while pouring scorn on the settled lifestyle that revolved around work. Women do the work - the washing, the feeding, the child-care - after a long day's begging or chiromancy in the gadzio towns. Education was frowned on; a waste of time.

And yet much of lyrical beauty of a bygone way of life  is captured in Papusza's poetry and in the film. Poland's Gypsies were forcibly made to settle by the communist government in 1965 after a long campaign to encourage voluntary settlement.

While the book and the film go a long way to increase understanding of the Gypsy way of life, they do not offer any solution to the problem - of a people that do not wish to be integrated into mainstream society, yet needs that society in a parasitical way for alms, and now increasingly, EU money.

Below: Roma beggars abuse people's sympathy and basic human kindness. A girl, around 17 or 18, hoiks her three year-old daughter /sister /niece from one tram to another, extracting alms from the soft-hearted. Really, this is no way to support ones' family. Photos taken two months ago.

Below: limping with a crutch, or (again on the tram routes up and down Puławska much favoured by Roma mendicants) falling to one's knees and pathetically singing a tuneless song. We don't need no education, indeed. What is society to do? It's not so much of a problem in Poland (most Poles are too stony-hearted and inured to Roma ways), but Britain fears that scenes such as these will suddenly become commonplace after 1 January.

The Roma remain their own worst enemy. Denying their own children a right to education (many of the beggars are of school age) perpetuates their plight, retarding them further in comparison with a society that's rapidly getting richer and ever more technologically enabled.

These problems could be seen from the outset of Papusza's story, the pre-war scene where a Gypsy encampment is burnt down by a group of Poles taking revenge for a beating one of them received from Gypsies he'd insulted at a local tavern; the Jewish storekeepers taking extra care of their merchandise when the Gypsy women and children came to town begging. The situation has hardly changed in a hundred years, yet the gadzio community has moved from agriculture via industry to an IT-driven economy while the Gipsies are still reliant on begging.

I thoroughly recommend the book and the film, and suspect that the film will go on to have a great career in art-house cinemas around the world for its lyrical beauty and profound story. Below: the final shot of the film. One to see.

This time three years ago:
London travel notes - from Luton to Ealing

This time four years ago:
Silent and Unseen - at your bookshops now
(today, sadly, long out of print)

This time five years ago:
Rat-run absurdity

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