Sunday, October 4, 2009

Poland: Roma Sites Documented - Including Holocaust Mass Grave and Memorials

Zabno, Poland: Roma Mass Grave and Monument. Photo: Adam Bartosz, 2005

Poland: Roma Sites Documented - Including Holocaust Mass Graves and Memorials

by Samuel D. Gruber

Beginning in 2005, when I was serving part-time as the Research Director of the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, I had the privilege of working with Polish scholar and minority-rights activist Adam Bartosz on an inventory and survey of all known Roma (Gypsy) cultural heritage sites in Poland. Adam had previously helped with the survey of Jewish cemeteries carried out in the early 1990s, and he had subsequently researched and published widely on Jewish heritage in the Tarnow region, where he administers local museums.

My work was only to define the parameters and methodology of the project, and then to review Adam’s field work. Adam did all the real work and visited and photographed them. Later, with the help of Katrina A. Krzysztofiak, program manager at the Commission and a native Polish speaker, I edited Adam’s findings into a report for the Commission.

I am happy to write that the report Roma Historical and Cultural Sites in Poland has now been released by the Commission and is available online.

It is not a long report, but it is an important one. To my knowledge it is the first ever compiled and published list of Roma cultural sites from any country. It is an important step in the acknowledgment of Roma history and culture in Poland. Unfortunately, as the report demonstrates, that history has not been a happy one, especially since the Holocaust and under the Communist regime. Since there is little recorded Roma history before recent times, most of the sites identified are either associated with the Holocaust – mostly death and burial sites, and a few recent memorials.

Lodz, Poland. Part of Memorial to Deported Jews and Roma at Radegast Station.
Adam Bartosz, 2005

Szaflary (Malopolska), Poland. Roma settlement. Photo: Adam Bartosz, 2005

We do not advocate the same sorts of cultural heritage protection policies for these residential sites (nor for the private tombs in cemeteries which are also recorded) as for more traditionally defined cultural hertiage sites, but we do not want them ignored and forgotten either. For Polish Roma themselves, this report may prove valuable. Since the restriction of Roma seasonal migration and gatherings in Poland during the Communist regime, many Roma are also mostly ignorant of the extent of the Roma settlement and cultural sites.

Tarnow, Poland: Outdoor exhibit at Ethnographic Museum. Photo: Adam Bartosz, 2005

There have been moves in recent years to combat this ignorance and neglect. Bartosz himself founded the "Gypsy" in Tarnow(actual name is the Ethnographic Museum, a branch of the Regional Museum of Tarnow) to collect testimony and artifacts of Poland Roma culture. The museum, one of the first of its kind in the world, is not entirely accepted by all in the Roma community, but it has gradually developed into an institution that Roma find a positive contribution to their minority status in Poland.

Even more important for establishing Roma cultural presence has been the annual pilgrimage, led since 1995 by Roman Catholic priest Stanisław Opocki, to visit and remember Holocaust-era sites in the country. In many ways Poland’s Roma community have looked to the Jewish community for inspiration and ideas for how to reclaim and represent their hertiage, and how to better establish themselves and ensure recognition as a distinct cultural minority in Poland today, that is nonetheless, part of the Polish nation.

According to the report:

The survey team identified the following types of places associated with the Roma:

Places of martyrdom. This includes sites of suffering and death inflicted upon the Roma during the years of the Second World War, the major site being the German Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Monuments have been planned at other concentration camp sites. There are also several graves of Roma Holocaust victims in local cemeteries, some of which have been marked and are now the destination of annual commemorative pilgrimages.

Places of pilgrimage. There is one major important religious site, the Monastery of Capuchin Friars (Zakon Braci Mniejszych Kapucynów). It has a figure of the Holy Mary of Rywałd, which is popularly known as “Mary of the Gypsies.” This site has been the focus of pilgrimages since the years between the First and Second World Wars.

There is also an annual Roma pilgrimage in Łososina Górna, Koszary (Małopolska Province) which has been led by Roman Catholic priest Stanisław Opocki. Begun in 1995, it is a major activity in the settlement. Pilgrims set out on foot from the nearby church in Łososina (part of the town of Limanowa) to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrow in the town situated 6 km away. It is the most colorful Roma pilgrimage in Poland, with over 1,000 participants annually from Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Places commemorating important individuals. This category includes sites associated with Papusza, a Roma poet, and other noteworthy Roma, such as painter Ignacy Pawłowski. Graves are mentioned in descriptions of cemeteries even though they have not been singled out with special monuments.

Museum and private collections. The Roma themselves have not initiated any known private collections or exhibitions. In recent years, however, some exhibits have opened, the largest of which is in Tarnów. There is also a small collection in Gorzów. The Tarnów Museum is the first museum in the world to create a Roma collection. The survey team also visited private collections. Because the material culture of Roma is very scarce, even small collections are of great importance for documenting Roma traditions.

Roma settlements. Settlements of poor Mountain Roma still exist. There has been gradual improvement in the condition of these places due to the government aid program.

More recent concentrations of Roma also exist in many cities where the Roma were forced to move to by the government in 1964. The residents of these poor communities are gradually dispersing due to improved economic circumstances of individual Roma.

Cemeteries. The survey covers the best-known cemeteries. There presumably are, however, other cemeteries used by Roma that have not yet been identified. Not much is known of the burial sites Roma used before the Second World War but today Roma often erect richly-decorated monumental tombs with expensive materials. In municipal cemeteries, there is frequently considerable attention given to burying the dead near other members of the group.

Roma graves are found in various types of cemeteries including those maintained by municipalities and the Roman-Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Although there are not formal sections exclusively for Roma burials, Roma often combine plots, and create distinct enclaves within the larger necropolis. Roma tombs have various forms but they are typically more ornate than the surrounding tombs. In many cases, these are large chapel-like structures or large gravestones of expensive stone.

Roma graves are generally well maintained. Customarily, large crowds visit burial sites and drink vodka to honor family members on All Saints Day (November 1).

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