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The Ethnographic Museum in Tarnów

The Etnographic Museum in Tarnów

Everyone has heard of the Gypsies, but the term “the Romani” is less familiar, while the meaning of such names as Bergitka Roma, Lovara or Kalderasha is known to very few. The word Rom means a human being in general, but also a human being who is a member of this particular ethnic group, which is today estimated to number eight to fifteen million people.

For the Roma – the Gypsies – the world is divided into the Roms (those who are “ours”) and the gadzhiyo, which term denotes all the non-Roms, the aliens. In Poland, the “natives” are the Polish Roma, that is the Gypsies of the Polish lowlands, the Bergitka Roma, the Gypsies of the Polish highlands, the Lovara (from lö, i.e. horse, as originally they were horse traders), and the Kalderasha (from caldere, i.e. cauldron, as they were cauldron makers). The term “Rom” is often preceded by the adjective tsiatsiyo, which means that the given person is a “proper” Rom, one who upholds the rromanipen, an unwritten code of behaviour norms regulating the relationships within a group and between groups. It is a collection of rules and virtues that regulate the life of a tsiatsiyo Rom, including upholding the mageripen (a system of defilements), veneration of the elders, hospitality, truthfulness and speaking the Romany language in all contacts within the community. Interestingly, this language is varied, following the differences in history and migration routes of particular groups.

The Bergitka Roma is one of the oldest groups settled in the territory of Poland, for instance in the vicinity of Limanowa, where they have lived for over two centuries. Their recollections of the nomadic way of life are very hazy; hence the members of other Romani groups do not respect the Bergitka Roma, claiming that they have departed from the rromanipen. The members of the group, however, perceive themselves as faithful adherents to the Romani codes.

In the course of the 20th century, two great tragedies have befallen the Polish Gypsies: first the mass extermination by the Nazis, and later the “stopping of the wagons”, an abolition of itinerant camps in 1964. The first tragedy, the Romani holocaust, is known as the Porrajmos (also Porajmos, Parajmos, literally “the Devouring”). During the Second World War, from 200,000 to 2,000,000 people of Romani origin are estimated to have perished in concentration camps and during executions; today, the exact number of the dead is very difficult to assess due to the non-existence of relevant nationality declarations, identification documents, permanent settlement records or any other official registration files. In the recent years, several monuments and memorials recalling the Porrajmos tragedy have been erected, which allows the Romani to honour their fallen kinsmen, including those whose names will never be known.

The first act of the tragedy came with the extension, introduced on 12th November 1935, of the Nuremberg Laws, which were in force in the Third Reich. The new articles, among others, prohibited marriage between Germans and the Romani. Six months later the Romani were deprived of the right to vote, and concurrently the programme of compulsory sterilisation of Romani women was introduced. After the outbreak of the war, the Romani, not only in the Reich and in Poland, but all over the Nazi-occupied Europe, were transported to concentration camps. The Romanians imprisoned 25,000 Gypsies in the local concentration camp in Transnistria, while the Croatian Ustasha locked them, together with the Jews and Serbs, in the Jasenovac concentration camp, later transporting some 26,000 Romani to KL Auschwitz.

The second tragedy, perceived also as a turning point in the history of the Polish Roma, was the introduction, in 1964, of the registration duty (also for the newborn children), combined with the duty to possess an identification document, and compulsory military service. Regulations imposed on the Romani by the Polish state were contrary to their rromanipen codes, but as they were enforced very strictly, the Romani were forced to abandon their nomadic way of life. The number of families living in itinerant camps diminished radically. Yet it is with great difficulty that the Romani adjusted to their changed situation; detestation on the part of the settled population and indifference of the administrative authorities aggravated their problems.

Since 1996, to commemorate both events – the Porrajmos and the “stopping of the wagons”, the Memorial Itinerant Gypsy Camp has been organised in mid-July by the District Museum in Tarnów, under the direction of Adam Bartosz, in cooperation with the Tarnów Social and Cultural Association of the Romani. Gypsies and Poles alike, in the company of musicians and young women in colourful skirts, travel by gaily decorated, horse-drawn wagons or by cars to the village of Szczurowa. Over three days, the camp travels the 45-kilometre route to the village, where a memorial is held for the ninety-three individuals who on 3rd August 1943 were shot to death by the Nazis at the local cemetery. They were all inhabitants of the village, baptised in the Szczurowa church, whose only fault was their Romani origin. Their list survived in parish records, which makes it possible to read out their names during the annual memorial. En route from the Ethnographic Museum in Tarnów to Szczurowa, the camp stops in other villages, e.g. in Bielcza, Borzęcin Dolny or Żabno, where exterminations of the Gypsies took place during the war.

It is not without reason that the Memorial Itinerant Camp leaves from the Tarnów Ethnographic Museum: due to the effort of Adam Bartosz, an ethnographer and a notable scholar in Romani studies, Tarnów was the first town in Poland to organise an exhibition devoted to the Romani, their history and culture. The exhibition was later extended into a museum with a small open-air section, which constitute a part of the Ethnographic Museum in Tarnów. Old Gypsy wagons, with their typical mirrors and figures of dragons carved in wood, stand in the courtyard. In summer, tents are put up around a fire, precisely in the way it was done by the Gypsies when they still travelled Polish roads.

The Ethnographic Museum in Tarnów displays a permanent exhibition presenting the history of the Romani since the beginning of their wanderings to the present day. Its archives hold large iconographic and photographic collections referring to the culture of the Polish Roma. A Romani studies journal Studia Romologica has been published since 2008, with its first issue devoted to the Romani judiciary system. The Museum’s diorama displays, so typical in ethnographic museology, are especially worth seeing, and fascinating temporary exhibitions make the Ethnographic Museum a must-see during a visit to Tarnów.

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