July 29, 2009

‘Papusza’ and ‘The Library beneath the Harp’

I have just completed a series of poems and songs written from the point of view of the Romani poet ‘Papusza’ [image right]. The poet Bronisława Wajs (1908-1987) was known by her RomaniPapusza name Papusza which means ‘doll’.

She grew up on the road in Poland within her kumpania or band of families. She was literate and learned to read and write by trading food for lessons.

Her reading and writing was frowned upon and whenever she was found reading she was beaten and the book destroyed. She was married at fifteen to a much older and revered harpist Dionízy Wajs.

Unhappy in marriage she took to singing as an outlet for her frustrations with her husband often accompanying her on harp. She then began to compose her own poems and songs.

When the Second World War broke out, and Roma were being murdered in Poland both by the German Nazis and the Ukrainian fascists, they gave up their carts and horses but not their harps.

With heavy harps on their backs, they looked for hiding places in the woods. 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.

A 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”), parts of which are used in my poem ‘The Library Beneath the Harp’.

In 1949 Papusza was heard by the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski who recognized her talent. Ficowski published several of her poems in a magazine called Problemy along with an anti-nomadic interview with Polish poet Julian Tuwim.

Ficowski became an adviser on “The Gypsy Question”, and used Papusza's poems to make his case against nomadism. This led to the forced settlement of the Roma all over Poland in 1950 known variously as ‘Action C’ or “The Great Halt”.

The Roma community began to regard Papusza as a traitor, threatening her and calling her names. Papusza maintained that Ficowski had exploited her work and had taken it out of context.

Her appeals were ignored and the Baro Shero (Big head, an elder in the Roma community) declared her “unclean”. She was banished from the Roma world, and even Ficowski broke contact with her.

Afterward, she spent eight months in a mental asylum and then the next thirty-four years of her life alone and isolated.

Her tribe laid a curse on Papusza’s poems and upon anybody using or performing her work. My sequence of songs called ‘The Library beneath the Harp’ partly borrows and reshapes some of Papusza’s introductory autobiography from the Songs of Papusza as well as three of her poems.

The title of the poem was found among the opening chapter to Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isobel Fonseca. I am very grateful to Dan Allum of The Romany Theatre Company for introducing me to the story of Papusza which, I am sure you will agree, is fascinating as well as disturbing.

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  1. Jane Housham

    Dear David

    How can I read these poems? Have they been published yet?

    Best wishes

    Jane Housham
    UH Press

    04 Aug 2009, 08:42

  2. Pascale Petit

    Thank you David, hers is a fascinating story and I look forward to reading your poems about her. It reminded me of my mother who was also beaten for reading or accepting a book instead of a doll as a school prize. I look forward to seeing you at Aldeburgh.

    05 Aug 2009, 18:44

  3. Diana

    I would like to add that there is a book written about Papusza – Colum McCann: Zoli (2006). However, it is a fiction, not an autobiography. As McCann points in his notes, he decided to write the story after reading a study mentioned in your article Bury me standing… by I. Fonseca.
    I have bought the book Zoli and I feel that it will be a very inspiring reading.

    10 Aug 2009, 17:56

  4. Amrita

    Hi !

    I am grieved to know the real life story of the Romani poet Papusza.
    Yes, i am also looking forward to read the poems.

    With Regards

    11 Aug 2009, 11:54

  5. KEB

    This is a terrible story – the fact that it’s no worse than a thousand other terrible stories makes it even more terrible. Dark times. And anyway, who says poetry makes nothing happen? I’ve always thought that had to be wrong.

    28 Aug 2009, 12:08

  6. sebastian bott

    Hello Professor Morley

    I am doing some work on Ficowski, Tuwim and Papusza. I would like to read your poem. Has it been published yet?
    Yours truly, Sebastian

    14 Nov 2009, 16:56

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