Bronisława Wajs, or Papusza – the Gypsy poet who wrote in the language of the Roma. She came from the Polska Roma ethnic group, the Polish lowland Roma. Born in Lublin on the 17th of August 1908 or the 10th of May 1910, she died on the 8th of February 1987 in Inowrocław.
Bronisława Wajs, or Papusza – the Gypsy poet who wrote in the language of the Roma.
Life on the road
The caravan in which Bronisława Wajs was born and raised wandered the territories of Podole, Wołyń and the areas neighboring Vilinus. The Wajs family consisted mainly of musicians and harpists. They traveled the towns and villages, and played at inns, fairs and weddings.
Her future was decided on the third night after her birth. The gypsies say that it is at that time a spirit appeared and listed all the good and bad that would be her part. Gave warnings. The mother expected this visit, and was afraid, so that night she was accompanied by an old woman from her tribe. The words of the spirit, they could not repeat to anyone. They only whispered: 'She'll either bring great honor or great shame'. They took the girls from the forest to the village and had her baptized. But in the tabor no one called her 'Bronka'. They used 'super-beautiful'. Because of her beauty they called her Papusza, which in the Roma language means 'doll'
- My mom called me 'dolly'. And I was healthy, little hands, tiny breasts. I was slim. Flushed face, big hair, like a rich mistress, I braided them into plaits. [She never cut them during her life.] I liked to dance, sing, very cheery I was. Always in a skirt made as if from flowers, the color of cherries, agile like a little squirrel, only black.”
-Angelika Kuźniak, Papusza, Czarne Publishing house, Wołowiec 2013
The poet to be was one of the few Roma women who learned to read and write by herself. She never went to school. Papusza would reminisce in her later years:
I really wanted to learn to read, but my parents didn't take good care of me. Stepfather was a drunk, played cards; mother didn't have a clue what learning was, to teach the kid or not.[...] I asked children who went to school to show me a few letters. And so it was. Later I stole this and that and brought them to be taught in exchange. A Jewish shopkeeper woman lived close by. I caught chickens, gave her, and she taught me. Then I read lots of papers, and many books. I read well, but write horribly, because I wrote little and read a lot.
Bronisława was arranged to be married at age 16 to her stepfather's brother – a man 25 years her senior, the harpist Dionizy Wajs. During the Second World War she and her group hid from the Germans in the forests of Western Ukraine. After the war the Polish Gypsies from the east moved to the Regained Lands, it was the same with Papusza's group. Of the winter of 1950, the poet later recalled:
We went alone, the children peeped from under the duvets and sang carols. Christmas Eve we stayed over night in a beautiful forest; they flung aside the snow, started a fire; both young and old sang carols by the fire, and roasted potatoes because there was nothing else to eat, two weeks on the road. That year, strange it was, ominous and ill-fated. Mommie'd gone ahead by train, brother went whither, sister elsewhere. The whole caravan, six wagons, crawled forward; we had no holy wafer that year.
After years of wandering with the caravans, she settled in Żagań in 1950. For the longest period, the years between 1954-1981, she lived in Gorzów Wielkopolski, when the Romani caravan stopped for good. In 1981, old and sick, the poet was taken into care by a family from Inowrocław.
In the Romani community she met with disdain, because she had abandoned the traditional female role. Rejected because of her infertility, accused of revealing tribal secrets, she was finally cast out from the community. These persecutions caused mental disorders, and forced her into periodic psychiatric treatments.
In 1949 the caravan of Dionizy Wajs was joined by Jerzy Ficowski, a runaway from persecutions of the secret police, who was fascinated by gypsy customs and language. 'That's Bronka Wajs, the wife of the gray guy with the mustache, Papusza they call'er, she puts together the Gypsy songs, a poet!”- he heard. He quickly noticed the literary value of the improvised songs by Bronisława, and convinced her to start noting them down.
The beginning of the relations of Papusza and Ficowski coincided with a critical moment for Polish Gypsies – the time of the government-imposed settlement injunction. Thus, the lost world of freedom and Gypsy caravans became a natural motif for the Romani poet. In her poetry, which grows out of the Gypsy folk-song tradition, she describes the fate of her nation, expressed its habits and yearnings. Her poems, lacking regular rhythm, sometimes border on tale telling.
Her debut was a poem, translated from Romani in the publication Nowa Kultura in 1951. The first translated drafts Ficowski sent to Julian Tuwim who in turn contributed to its publishing.
I look here, I look there-
in the warm water the Moon bathes,
Like in the forest stream
A young Romany
What's going on
That's the world laughing.
[I look here, I look there / Dikchaw daj, dikchaw doj, 1951]
After the publishing of her 1951 collection The Songs of Papusza, she became famous. However she still lived a modest life, telling fortunes to provide for herself, her sick husband, and a boy she took in, whom she dubbed Tarzan.
When Tuwim heard of her material situation, he solicited royalties for her poems, and later an artist scholarship, the poet however demurred taking them: "Don't be angry with me, cause I'm no learned person to take prices". She never thought it possible to take money for writing songs.
Papusza never learned to write properly. Ficowski had to decipher her quickly written, unclear scripts, which were full mistakes and words that lacked whole syllables. But because he did not want to discourage her from writing he never asked for help in clearing up the uncertainties.
All of Papusza's literary work are about forty handwritten poems. She left a few compositions in prose which described gypsy life. The piece which is considered the best, and was held in high esteem by Tuwim is Gypsy Song Taken From Papusza's Head
In the forest I grew like a shrub of gold,
born in a Gypsy tent,
akin to a boletus.
I love fire like my own heart.
The winds lesser and greater
cradled the little Gypsy
and blew her far away into the world...
The rains washed away my tears,
The sun my golden, Gypsy father,
kept me warm
and beautifully tanned my heart.
From a blue stream I didn't take strength
only washed my eyes...
The bear wanders the forests
like a silver moon,
the wolf fears the fire,
he won't bite a Gypsy.
[..] Oh, how beautifully by the tent,
sings the girl,
the fire burns!
Oh, how beautifully, people, from afar
to hear the Easter songs of birds,
the whimpers of children, and the song, and the dance
of boys and girls.
[…] Oh, how beautifully the forest rustles for us-
sings me songs.
How beautifully the rivers flow,
they fill my heart with joy.
How delightful to behold the water deep
and to tell her everything.
Because no one can understand me,
only the forests and streams.
What I'm telling here it has all long passed
and took everything, everything with it-
and my younger years.'
[Gypsy Song Taken From Papusza's Head / Gili romani Papuszakre szerestyr utchody,1950/1951]
From 1962 Papusza belonged to the Polish Literary Union. Her poems were translated into German, English, French, Spanish, Swedish and Italian.
"Falorykta" or Punishment
The mysterious word 'falorykta' in the Romani language means a sentence, a condemning, a punishment for revealing secrets to people from outside of the gypsy culture. Papusza feared rejection by the gypsies, thus she never spoke of herself as a poet, but only as a fortune teller.
In the post-war years in the Polska Roma community there was a rigorous ban on giving aliens any information on Romani traditions, rites, taboos and language. After the publishing of Polish Gypsies, in which Ficowski described their beliefs, moral code and added a small dictionary of important Romani phrases, the community elders accused the author's friend, Papusza, of treason.
The accusations from her brethren, along with threats of pulling her apart with horses, often backed by violence, made the poet collapse into mental illness. However she never made a negative judgment on Ficowski's decision to publish her poetry. She still held him as her closest friend, and in her letters, she called him Little Brother, or Pszałoro.
In 1999, on occasion of receiving the Man of the Borderland title, Ficowski would reminiscent on the entrance into the hermetic and distrustful Gypsy community.
I managed to gain their trust mainly thanks to the assistance in medical aid. It was so long ago, that Tuwim was still helping me, he had better influence with the powers that be – this was an honor I had to be friends with a man a generation older than me. The Gypsies became convinced that I didn't mean them harm, and that I didn't demand payment so they trusted me. Only by wandering with them could I have learnt their language and customs. Their life consisted of very tightly kept secrets and a deep feeling of resentment, for which they paid with an aversion to the outside world.
The poet who was friends with the gypsies felt the more touched by chicaneries Papusza had to endure from her brethren.
I translated her poetry. So the elders believed that if she sang her songs, she sang the whole rest, hence they were inclined to think her a traitor. Because Papusza had a nervous breakdown, they deemed she was not completely responsible for her actions. This is probably why she could avoid the worst. I, as non-Gypsy, didn't fall under their jurisdiction. However, they broke off all contact with me – the alien who had done the impermissible. I had revealed to the world how the Gypsy community had lived and governed itself for centuries. My Gypsy friends had told me: 'your eyes are bright, ours are dark but we see the world in the same way'. Turns out, not everyone and not in the same... If there is some kind of antagonism between us and the Gypsies (who among all ethnic groups in Poland are first to be loathed and distrusted), one can now see how many centuries of common superstitions and reciprocal wrongdoings.
Ficowski often said he was greatly fortunate to meet Papusza and to be know as her discoverer. Papusza, however was unlucky enough to meet him.
She was condemned from every side, and her name in the wider circles of the Gypsy community became a synonym of transgression. If it hadn't come to my wandering with the caravan, in which she wandered, we would never have heard of the forest poet, maybe her most beautiful poems would never have been created, much less written down. But – I think it's safe to assume- Papusza would have been happier, and wouldn't have suffered so many defeats.
She left the caravan. Only her old, sick husband didn't abandon her. Tuwim and Ficowski remained close to her. The Romani lived only in her memories. She wrote in a letter to Ficowski in 1952:
I did not betray my Gypsy nation nor did I send them to the gallows. Because everyone knew they stole chickens, and told fortunes and such things, they know how they provided for themselves, and why the stupid but wise nation wandered the world [...]. They will say Papusza dziuklory (a bitch). And maybe some time in the world they will understand I didn't harm anybody, didn't do anything wrong, and didn't even try to.
Excluded from the gypsy community , she lived for 30 years outside of it. She stopped writing. A few of her last poems were published in 1970. A lot of what she had written, she burned along with letters from friends, Tuwim among others.
"If I only had not leaned to read and write, stupid me, maybe I'd have been happier", she confessed at the end of her life.
Papusza's Life After Life
In 1974 Maja and Ryszard Wójcik made a documentary, Papusza, based on their own script, having asked Ficowski to be their consultant.
In 1991 another documentary was made, The Story of a Gypsy, scripted and directed by Greg Kowalski with music by Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz It shows among others the memoirs of Papusza herself, of Jerzy Ficowski, of her sister Janina Zielińska, of her son Władysław Wajs and her doctor Maria Serafiniuk.
On the 24th of June1994 in the Kraków Theatre in the Błonie park, Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz conducted the premiere of his symphonic poem Papusza's Harp, performed in the Romani language, with a cast of opera stars, including the Met star Gwendolyn Bradley. The piece was meant to be the Gypsy Mass but it finally grew to a form this rich. The spectacle was directed by Krzysztof Jasiński, a specialist in great outdoor performances
In 2013 the feature film Papusza will be in cinemas, directed and scripted by Joanna Kos Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, with a soundtrack from the Papusza's Harp score by Pawluśkiewicz.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, June 2013
(Poetry translated by Jerzy Ficowski):
Papusza's Songs ("Papušakre Gila" - łącznie z testami oryginalnymi), Wrocław 1956,
Spoken Songs, Łódź 1973,
"O forest, my father", Warsaw 1990.
Lubuska Culture Award (1958),
"Nadodrze" Award (1978),
Gorzów Award (1978).