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Bronislawa Wajs ("Papusza")



Bronislawa Wajs (1908-1987), also known as Papusza ("doll"), was an unusual child, to say the least. She learned how to read and write by stealing chickens and trading their corpses for reading lessons and books! In the summer of 1949, Jerzy Ficowski heard Papusza performing her songs and, recognizing her talent, urged her to write them down as poems, so that he could publish them. The song "Tears of Blood" (translated below) along with several others, was published by Ficowski in the early 1950s in a book titled Pieśni Papuszi (Papusza's Songs). Unfortunately, Papusza's own people rejected her poetry, as one of her biographers explains:

"Among the most powerful lyrics to emerge from the porraimos (Holocaust) were those composed by a young Polish Gypsy named Bronislawa Wajs, who was known as Papusza, the Romani word for “doll.”  Born sometime between 1908 and 1910, she was raised as part of a great kumpania, a band [company] of families who traveled throughout Poland and Lithuania in horse-drawn caravans until the mid-1960s when the Polish government, like most others, put an end to their wandering life. The members of Papusza’s family were harpists who, as Fonseca says, “hauled their great stringed instruments upright over the wagons like sails.” An unusual child, Papusza learned to read and write by stealing chickens in the villages where they stopped.  She would bring the birds to the literate locals in exchange for lessons and books, which she kept well hidden, for when Papusza was growing up during the 1920s, literacy was almost unheard of among the Gypsies; it was a gadjo practice and therefore unclean. The Roma have strict purity lawsa rigid code of practices, rituals, and taboos that must be followed in order to maintain cleanliness. Gadje and their habits and possessions are considered especially unclean, mahrime, and therefore any Gypsy associating with them for reasons besides trade or other unavoidable dealings is by extension mahrime, and subject to expulsion by the group. Whenever Papusza was caught reading she was beaten and her books were destroyed. But still she continued ..."

"The Holocaust, or porraimos, as it has come to be called by the Roma, and which means “the devouring,” resulted in the murders of more than 500,000 Gypsies (between one- and two-thirds of the total European Gypsy population at that time).  The devouring, to the Roma, meant not only the genocide of their people, but also the continued denial of their suffering, the longstanding international amnesia extending back through several hundred years of the enslavement, persecution, and exile of these travelers. But for Papusza the horror of the devouring was to be followed by the rejection of her own people. Ostracized and fearing for her life, Papusza suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. She never wrote again and lived the rest of her life in loneliness, rejected by the Rom community."

There is more biographical information about this fascinating poet and her tragic life below, but first let's read one of her poems ...



Tears of Blood

(How we suffered under the German soldiers in Volyň  from 1943 to 1944)

In the woods. No water, no fire — great hunger.
Where could the children sleep? No tent.
We could not light the fire at night.
By day, the smoke would alert the Germans.
How to live with children in the cold of winter?
All are barefoot…
When they wanted to murder us,
first they forced us to hard labor.
A German came to see us.
— I have bad news for you.
They want to kill you tonight.
Don’t tell anybody.
I too am a dark Gypsy,
of your blood — a true one.
God help you
in the black forest…
Having said these words,
he embraced us all…

For two three days no food.
All go to sleep hungry.
Unable to sleep,
they stare at the stars…
God, how beautiful it is to live!
The Germans will not let us…

Ah, you, my little star!
At dawn you are large!
Blind the Germans!
Confuse them,
lead them astray,
so the Jewish and Gypsy child can live!

When big winter comes,
what will the Gypsy woman with a small child do?
Where will she find clothing?
Everything is turning to rags.
One wants to die.
No one knows, only the sky,
only the river hears our lament.
Whose eyes saw us as enemies?
Whose mouth cursed us?
Do not hear them, God.
Hear us!
A cold night came,
The old Gypsy women sang
A Gypsy fairy tale:
Golden winter will come,
snow, like little stars,
will cover the earth, the hands.
The black eyes will freeze,
the hearts will die.

So much snow fell,
it covered the road.
One could only see the Milky Way in the sky.

On such night of frost
a little daughter dies,
and in four days
mothers bury in the snow
four little sons.
Sun, without you,
see how a little Gypsy is dying from cold
in the big forest.

Once, at home, the moon stood in the window,
didn’t let me sleep. Someone looked inside.
I asked — who is there?
— Open the door, my dark Gypsy.
I saw a beautiful young Jewish girl,
shivering from cold,
asking for food.
You poor thing, my little one.
I gave her bread, whatever I had, a shirt.
We both forgot that not far away
were the police.
But they didn’t come that night.

All the birds
are praying for our children,
so the evil people, vipers, will not kill them.
Ah, fate!
My unlucky luck!

Snow fell as thick as leaves,
barred our way,
such heavy snow, it buried the cartwheels.
One had to trample a track,
push the carts behind the horses.

How many miseries and hungers!
How many sorrows and roads!
How many sharp stones pierced our feet!
How many bullets flew by our ears!

Translated from the Polish by Yala Korwin.



In his foreword to Papusza's poetry, Ficowski quotes an excerpt from her autobiography:

"My origin. My father came from the Warmiak clan, my mother from Galician Gypsies. On my father's side, we were a better family. I don't remember my father too well; I was five years old when he died in Siberia. Eight years later, my mother married Jan Wajs. I was my mother's only child… Until I was twelve, I couldn't read and write. I wanted to read and write so badly, but my family neglected me. My stepfather was a drunk and a gambler, and my mother had no idea what literacy was or that a child must learn. So how did I learn? I asked children who went to school to show me how to write letters. I always stole something and brought it to them so they would teach me, and so I learned a b c d, and so on."

"Not far from us lived a Jewish shopkeeper. I stole a chicken and took it to her, and she taught me how to read in return. And then I began to read various books and newspapers. I can read well, but my writing is awful because I read a lot and didn't write much. And that has lasted all my life till today. I'm very proud of my knowledge, even if I didn't get it in school. But life gave me education and knowledge. Then when I was thirteen years old, I was skinny and as nimble as a wood squirrel, only I was black. I read and Gypsies laughed at me for that and they spat at me. They gossiped about me and, in defiance, I would read more and more. How many times did I cry, but just the same I kept on doing what I wanted. I enrolled in the library and borrowed any books I could lay my hands on because I didn't know what was good and what wasn't. I asked my family to enroll me in school, but they couldn't have been less interested."

"Please, you a Gypsy girl and you want to be a teacher?" So I let them alone and just went on reading and reading."

"Once Gypsies were playing music on a farm by the river and my father took me with him. While they played, I read a book. Some woman came over to me and said, "A Gypsy – and she can read! Well, that's nice." I burst out laughing but meanwhile I had tears in my eyes; she inquired what and how and I told her about myself. She kissed me and went away, and then I read some more."

Papusza married Dionýz Wajs. He came from the same clan as her stepfather. The Wajses traditionally earned money with their music; they were famous harp players. With their big, heavy harps they travelled in horse-drawn wagons and played wherever there was a demand for their music. Among their family possessions, Dionýz Wajs' family preserved a document showing that their ancestors played in the court of the noblewoman Marysienka Sobieska.

When the Second World War broke out, and Roma Gypsies were being murdered in Poland by German Nazis and Ukrainian fascists, they apparently chose to give up their carts and horses, but not their harps. With heavy harps on their backs, they looked for hiding places in the woods. Ficowski tells the story of how a harp saved the lives of Romani musicians from a group of Ukrainian fascists. One of the most daring Roma allegedly shouted, "We'll shoot all of you with this carbine". And apparently the bandits took fright and ran away.

Of course, it wasn't that idyllic. According to Kenrick and Puxon, 35,000 Roma out of 50,000 were murdered during the war in Poland. The Wajs clan hid in the forest in Volyň, hungry, cold and terrified. This horrible experience inspired Papusza to write her longest poem "Ratfale jasfa – so pal sasendyr pšegijam upre Volyň 43 a 44 berša" ("Bloody tears – what we endured from German soldiers in Volyň in '43 and '44").

According to Ficovski, Papusza began to write down her "songs" in 1950, after World War II was over.

As is evident from her autobiography, her relatives did not wish her to partake in such "eccentric" activities as reading and writing. They made fun of her reading when she was a child and later they laughed at her writing. The position of the community in which Papusza lived was that she should not write. And so, despite all the encouragement of Jerzy Ficowski, there were times when the poet didn't take her pen in hand.

Even though Ficowski collected only thirty of Papusza's poems (some short, some epic and long), they are unique and enormously strong works of art in their authenticity, absolute honesty, sincerity and originality drawn from "nomadic life under the protection of nature".

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