Encounters with Polish Roma

I was thrilled to be headed back to Gdańsk again. Something about the flat, Germanic facades and the history of Solidarity, arguably one of the most influential social movements of the 20th Century, invigorated me. Łukasz (my second cousin once removed, a “close relation,” according to my mom) and I sped along Highway 1, recently completed for the 2012 EuroCup. Like many things I noticed since touching down in Warsaw (the welcoming pink placards and shiny glass everything at Chopin Airport, the presence of multilingual signs, cleaner, brighter public spaces), so much of Poland’s infrastructure had been positively influenced by EU funds.  Since my last visit, three years ago, Poland had become noticeably more European.

Just as I remembered, the shipyard cranes soon peaked up above the horizon.  The features of the lively city — blocks of flats, billboards for new, Western-style shopping malls, and the outline of the Old Town — began to appear.

We parked and set off on foot in the direction of the Old Town’s main market. Thanks to the annual St. Dominic’s street fair and a brisk but sunny August day, the downtown was teeming with tourists and consumerism. Tents selling tiny, hand-painted cat figurines, trendy clothing, World War II-era antiques, and plenty of food snaked along squares, side streets, and the waterfront.

Music drifted across the rynek from open air cafes, but one melody with a more lilting, exotic tonality caught my ear. I turned to see a small girl with light, ratty hair and sad eyes sitting on a stool in the shadow of St. Mary’s Basilica, playing a tiny accordion that could have been from a nearby antique booth. On the ground in front of her stood her case, with a few measly złoty inside, and a hand-scrawled sign that read, in Polish, “money for a new accordion.”

“She’s pretty good,” I said to Łukasz, who was about to snap a photo of her.  And then I realized that she wasn’t your average child street performer. Maybe it was her hair that had thrown me off. Maybe it was because we were in Poland, in Gdańsk. But there she was. A blonde, Polish-speaking, accordion-playing gypsy.

(Forgive my use of the politically incorrect term. My brain–like most Western brains, I suspect–is littered with words I would never dare use in a public, analytical forum. But, as this corner of the internet is a place for honest introspection about “Eastern” issues, I’m trying to provide you with a dose of truth.)

Łukasz decided against taking a photo. “As a photographer, it’s hard to walk by something like that,” he explained, “but you don’t want to perpetuate it.” I tried to wrap my mind around what he meant, but I had a hard enough time looking ahead as we walked toward lunch. Strains of the little girl’s melody kept making their way to my ears.

We sat down to eat at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront and ordered a few beers. A chesnut-skinned, dark-haired woman came up to Łukasz and asked him something that I didn’t quite catch in hushed Polish. He shooed her away. I raised an eyebrow. “She was just panhandling. Selling perfume.”

Curious. Two gypsy sightings in one day. In Russia, I had two sightings over a period of six months in a crowded metro car.

And then I became aware of a presence behind me. No–three presences. Three young girls had wedged themselves between the back of my chair and the table next to ours. They stood behind me silently, palms outstretched. They stood so close I could feel their breath on my neck. A waitress came by and they scurried away, repeating the process at other tables and restaurants along the waterfront.

After about a half hour of this cat and mouse, an argument erupted between the group of girls, their mother, and the waitress. The oldest daughter was yelling and cursing (in what was perfect Polish to my ears) at the waitress, who was threatening to call the police. The girls’ mother joined in, screaming in her accented Polish, turning heads all along the waterfront in her direction. The oldest daughter defiantly stuck her hand out and honked the waitress’s right breast. The waitress, turning a deep shade of red, took a deep breath and ordered them away. The family walked down the waterfront and out of sight.

These experiences seemed anachronistic in the “new” Poland I had observed over the past few days, but with European status come European problems; namely, how to respect the human rights of a population you would really prefer to not have around.

According to the Visegrad Mayors for Roma Inclusion Forum, there are between 15 and 20 thousand ethnic Roma in Poland, a statistic supported by the Union of Polish Roma. The population has undergone significant changes in the last thirty years; after the attempted systematic destruction of Roma culture and tradition by the communist regime, in the era of privatization many Roma who had become more assimilated lost access to social services–including free healthcare, schooling, and guaranteed employment–on which they depended. Since 2000, 60% of the Roma population has emigrated to other European countries as a result of EU travel liberalization policies. And yet the Roma are still the “least tolerated minority in Poland.”

Poland’s Roma intolerance extends past the denial of basic social and welfare services. As reported by Amnesty International, in April 2013 the city government of Wrocław notified the local Roma population that it would be evicted from an informal settlement housing more than 60 people, including children. In a letter to the mayor, community representatives underscore their attempts to assimilate, and desire to remain Wrocław residents: “We feel a part of this city. We have nowhere to go. Can we ask you to let us settle somewhere else in the city?” In early May, Polish Radio reported that the eviction decision lay with the city court, though if affirmed, the city would offer social housing alternatives for the community.

Poland is hardly the only EU member state that has had difficulty reconciling its European identity with fair treatment of its Roma population, nor is it the state with the worst record. But events like those unfolding in Wrocław mar Poland’s image of the democratic Eastern leader that it tries so hard to project.

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2 thoughts on “Encounters with Polish Roma

  1. It is a complicated problem. It is not a simple question of prejudice and poverty. Eastern European Governments have many issues and difficulty providing basic services. It is not realistic to expect them to find a good solution quickly. But Poles are pretty creative so you never know.

    1. Hi Marek, Thanks for your comment! I hope that my post didn’t seem like it oversimplified the problem; on the contrary, I was trying to explain how difficult it is for both parties in the situation. I think Poland does a comparatively good job dealing with the Roma population, and I agree, Poles are definitely some of the most creative and resourceful Europeans I know. Given how well Poland’s transition has gone so far, I hope the government will put its best foot forward in solving the problem.

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