A Broken Trail

Angelika Kuźniak, Papusza, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2013 Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof Krauze, Papusza, Next Movie, 2013

The memory of the poet Papusza, revived by the book and the film about her, allows us to understand that the Gypsy culture was a really important part of the colorful, multinational Central Europe.

The incompatibility of two worlds—the settled, European group centered around farming, and the migratory caravans which appeared on the trails leading from the Balkans to Lithuania, Poland and the Netherlands—probably resulted from their very nature. The newcomers, separated by a cocoon of different language, customs and faith, were not able to fit into either the feudal or the bourgeois order of modern Europe. Royal and aristocratic courts, officials and bishops tried to force them to settle down: in vain. Roma communities were at best threatened with marginalization, finding a niche for themselves in the world of“loose people,”defying the rigors of state governance, and in the worst case—with criminalization, since every now and then appetites appeared to force the “vagrants” into the role of farmers or apprentices. Across the centuries attempts of this kind were doomed to failure, while the efforts of untimely modernizers, trying to squeeze the Roma into the mold of the existing social order, put the very idea of modernization into ridicule.

The people of the highway, shunning high culture and literacy, the charms of the city, schools and medicine, survived for the longest in the weakly urbanized expanses of Central and Eastern Europe. They maintained their status of marginalized “people of the highway,” almost invisible to the modern state and functioning—with their coppersmithing, horse trading, music making, divination and petty theft—on the outskirts of the modern economy, until the arrival of the two totalitarianisms. During the Second World War they barely avoided annihilation; that part of their community survived is owed to the fact that they were scattered across the countryside, and that the Nazis did not regard them as their prime target. The postwar Communist regimes, in which modern bureaucracy could count on the support of the apparatus of repression, in a period of two decades managed to “assign the eternal wanderers to the soil”: the wooden wagons were burnt as firewood, their inhabitants were deposited in dilapidated buildings, work orders were issued and armies of hygienists and social workers were recruited.

A success? Not necessarily: rather a further stage of bringing the idea of “forced modernization” into ridicule and providing a proof that cultures are even harder to transplant than old trees. The half-century which passed from settling the Roma in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary brought huge changes with it: a batch of such gloriously named processes as Urbanization, Schooling and Uprooting Illiteracy worked wonders. The statistics, however, are ruthless: the unemployment rate (extremely high) or university degrees (very low) among the citizens of Roma origin show the durability of invisible barriers.

Perhaps, as it is often the case, an ideal solution did not exist. After the defeat of the two utopian projects, the Enlightenment and the Socialist one, it is difficult to imagine how communities guided by a coherent, but un-codified system of rules, precepts and taboos, extremely patriarchal, living beyond time and calendar, could painlessly plunge into the world of “modernity” without forsaking their lifestyle. Such things happen: various customs or indeed worlds, do not cross the border defined by the twilight of childhood, as Carlo Gozzi would have it. Remaining forever in their forests, not entering into “modernity” or “adulthood, are both Winnie the Pooh, and the elves from Tolkien’s trilogy, while cuddly toys of childhood are relegated to the attic at the threshold of the primary school, and in a few years they are joined by the skipping rope and skateboard. Perhaps it would be easiest to say that in the mid-twentieth century, even in Central Europe, where time passed more slowly, Roma communities experienced a particularly tragic dilemma: the old way of life was impossible to maintain and the new one offered few really attractive things—and if it did, it was the attraction of the “hot water at the tap” kind, which the various beneficiaries of modernity strangely fail to appreciate.

The tension resulting from the split into two worlds—the caravans and IDs, the violin and scrawls in a notebook, spells cast on chicken and penicillin-prescribing clinics—would be difficult to bear for everyone, let alone a person endowed with special sensitivity. Bronisława Wajs, Papusza or Lalka (Doll) experienced all this to the full, standing on the border between the forest and the basement, Holocaust and Stalinism, the Borderlands and the “Recovered Territories” in western Poland, and finally, as a cultural anthropologist would put it, between the world of “orality” and “literacy”. And we are only now becoming ready to confront this split which she was forced to experience—and try to give justice to her.

A strange thing: Papusza is not an unknown figure. The first translations of her poems by Jerzy Ficowski were published in the early 1950s, and later—against the will of the poet (or ignoring it)—reprinted many times. She appeared on postage stamps and in anthologies, her name was mentioned in textbooks. Also the dramatic story of her life was recounted many times in radio and press documentaries still in the Communist Poland. Both meetings with her which we could enjoy this year thanks to the book by Angelica Kuźniak and the film by the Krauzes, do not disclose any unknown or embarrassing facts: they simply take her from under the magnifying glass of the humiliating paternalism (“Oh yes, the Gypsies, you know, singing and violin…”) and usher her into the group of “great spirits”: poets struggling with themselves and the world.

This was all the more difficult that, admittedly, Roma culture has recently been conventionalized and commercialized in a dramatic way. Great educators, particularly those associated with the “anti-pedagogics” tendency, often despair over the child’s imagination, curtailed or even crushed in the first years of school: but what should we say about various concerts of “Gypsy bands” playing at weddings and festivals of folklore? Sequins, galligaskins, artificial eyelashes and mascara appear there in an abundance which would probably delight only camp enthusiasts, admirers of Dolly Parton and Johnny Liberace. With texts it is not any better: it seems that to create “Gypsy songs,” nowadays apparently written mainly by non-Gypsies, it is enough to rattle a matrix containing just a dozen words {colorful wagons, fate, violin, love, black eyes, cuckoo, soothsayer, silver, tears, tambourine, moon, horses, tents}, and then take them out at random, like a bored Dadaist.

And then we read:

Oh, forest, my father,
black father,
you brought me up,
you abandoned me

—and we fall silent.

How much of Papusza is there in these poems and how much of Jerzy Ficowski, who first persuaded the Doll to write down her recitations to music, then took the effort of translation, and finally of releasing them in print? I guess it will remain indefinite, as will the relationship between them, remarkable through the fact that it was so ambiguous and non-erotic. Ficowski— twenty something, during the war a member of the Home Army, fighting in the ranks of the “Tower” regiment in the Warsaw Uprising, in the first years of the brutal consolidation of power by the Communist regime pursued by the secret police, and also a budding poet—found himself in a wandering caravan in 1948 and spent nearly two years hiding there. What a stroke of luck to stumble upon Papusza—a young woman, wife of a much older husband, from her earliest years so eager to discover the world that she taught herself to read and write, while remaining almost entirely outside the “literary culture” not only as a “creator,” but also as a recipient (among a dozen books which she was able to name there was Leśmian, the Ballads of Mickiewicz, but also a stack of cheap romances and the second part of The Count of Monte Cristo).

The years in the camp, the literal and metaphorical inserting of a pen in Papusza’s hand by the poet—such was the introduction to the drama of her life. The climax would occur in the next few years. Ficowski, having obtained the support of Julian Tuwim, a poet championed by the regime, and making an excellent use of the boon for Socialist Realism, which encouraged people to find and support “folk” artists, hitherto absent in official circulation, begins to publish her poems in his own translation (in a compact form they were to appear as Songs of Papusza in 1956). At the same time the first version of his book Polish Gypsies appeared in the bookstores (1953): a historical and ethnographic compendium, containing, among other things, a description of customs and daily practices as well as a set of basic phrases in a number of Romani dialects, that could—stretching things a little bit—be considered a “dictionary.”

The original edition of the poems brought Papusza momentary fame, the echoes of which reached the Roma community too. But this made it easier for the Gypsy elders—a few months later, after the publication of Polish Gypsies— to accuse Papusza of being an accomplice in “revealing secrets”—for in the eyes of the leaders of a community which derives its cohesion and identity from a kind of withdrawal from the world at large, a printed description of phrases and behaviors that henceforth became transparent to any stranger constituted such a crime.

The outrage of the Polish Roma was all the greater because at the same time they became a target of a hostile campaign of the Communist authorities, whose firmness was matched only by their misunderstanding of the foundations of the Roma culture. Instant “orders to settle down” were issued, the Gypsies were forced to accept identity cards and encouraged to “productivization” through the creation of “Gypsy cooperatives” and “Roma work brigades,” taking part in the crude and forced industrialization of the country. These unwise initiatives were shortlived: all that remains of the “work brigades” are some photos of Nowa Huta, after the first wave of the settlement campaign, and devastated tenement houses in the formerly German Western Poland. The majority of the Polish Roma offered a passive resistance to the endeavors of the regime until the end of the 1960s. In the period of the publication of the Gypsies on Polish roads the fear of imposed changes was particularly strong. The threat of a curse and exclusion hung over Papusza: she paid for it with mental illness, recurring nervous breakdowns and ultimately with the decision to stop writing.

In all accounts and evaluations Bronisława Wajs appears as a tragic character: marked out from the beginning, but separated from her peers by her curiosity about the world, not fitting into the patriarchal society (although attempting to adapt to it), standing between the world of writing and the world of songs, in subsequent years she became a witness of the war, the Holocaust, the destructive modernity, and finally a victim of ostracism. Unfulfilled to the end either in love and motherhood or in her work, she was gradually fading (she died in May 1987) in an apartment amongst the dreary communist countryside, bereft after the death of her husband and left by her foster son: how much closer to the figure of Job, or a Mater Dolorosa than a vociferous “accursed poet” mired in games of self-creation.

And Ficowski, an insurgent and poet, in the film a young man and faun, at his ripe age remembered rather as a self-styled Faust, with a Spanish beard, fancy beret and a melancholy look? The first unjust thought charges him with forgetting that when you domesticate someone you are responsible for that person. We think about a frivolous poet who knew, after all, about the power of the Roma taboos, but ignored their consequences; having listened to Papusza, having gifted her not only with a pen, but a hope for a different fate, he returned to his non-Gypsy life, like thousands of reporters who are willing to listen to the stories of others as long as they can serve as material for a moneyearning text.

Fortunately, both works dealing with Papusza, the film and the book, are far from unequivocal, showing a young man who indeed was not loyal to his “sister” when he saw the world standing wide open before him, but seeing her hurt, he awkwardly tried to come back, help her, support her. In vain: Papusza got stuck in a Gorzów tenement house as a witness, as a treasury guard robbed of the jewels—he, the eternal youth, travelled around the world, translating Garcia Lorca and poems of the Ashkenazi Jews, tirelessly searching for the remains of the legacy of Bruno Schulz and commenting on it in his other opus magnum—a collection of essays entitled Regions of the Great Heresy. It must be said for him that until the end of his life he remained faithful to the abused—by translating songs of caravans and shtetl, and as a citizen, by signing memoranda of protest to the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic, by engaging in the activities Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), accepting with dignity the recurring publication bans. But Papusza, what use was Schulz and KOR to her? In the words of another poet, “outstretched hands glow in the dark like an old town.”

We are left with a few volumes—in which, if you sift out diminutives, cuckoos and the sound of tambourines, the most powerful voice turns out to be the stoic acceptance of transience, of oblivion. “My white, red and green forests / my black evenings / midnight hours / already do not remember anything / and do not know at all.” And lest we forget too soon—the film also remains: with moving roles of Papusza (Jowita Budnik) and her husband Dionizy (Zbigniew Waleryś) and even more moving images: poignant, majestic, black-and-white shots. If the producers want to capitalize on the successes already accomplished at festivals in Thessaloniki and Karlovy Vary, it will be enough to publish an album consisting of still-frames: particular scenes, well-composed and well-photographed, generate as powerful emotions as daguerreotypes or collections of the masters of photography from a century ago. Background music—songs composed by Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz.

Maybe it just had to be that way, and the Central European Gypsies were some distant analogy to the heroes of our childhood, which are the free Native Americans? In fact, did they not share the same fate? In real life—a degradation or, at best an acculturation. In mass culture— sugary falsehood, whether in the Disney version or a dancing club one. To the vast majority of people this is enough: the rest, perceiving these old tribes as a figure of irresponsibility, freedom, vagrancy, is left with a vague mixture of guilt and regret, and watching for the now defunct caravan, which—in the last scenes of the film— arrives on black meadows under the high, white sky.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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