The treatment of the Roma minority in Poland and Europe as a cohesive group is a common and completely wrong simplification. Meanwhile, the history of Roma presence in Europe reaches up to the early Middle Ages, when the ancestors of this diaspora left their homeland in India. The stories and customs of particular groups differ according to the countries in which they made their home. In Poland there live representatives of four groups that arrived there between the 15th and the 19th century and settled in different moments of history. For example, the members of the Carpathian Roma abandoned the nomadic way of life already in the 18th century, while the settlement of others took place in the 1960s. They all have Polish citizenship and a status of an ethnic minority recognized by law.
In Poland, however, the most attention is still paid to the relatively new part of the Roma diaspora – the immigrants from Romania. In the society's consciousness often mistaken both for their Polish kinsmen of for the citizens of Romania with European roots, since the 1990s they have been falling victims to social dislike due to their nomadic way of living and begging on the streets. This is not happening in Poland only. In most European countries, apart from the historically rooted groups, one can meet migratory groups coming from Romania. These immigrants raise controversies almost everywhere they go.
The reasons for the rapid immigration of the Romanian Roma, their lifestyle and the exclusion that makes the change of their situation almost impossible can be found in historical, social and political conditions of this minority in its country of origin. The history of the Roma across Europe is full of tragic events resulting from the distinctness of this group. This dislike towards them had various backgrounds – from xenophobia to racist ideologies, to difficulties with placing the nomadic groups within the framework of political systems based on increasing control. Especially in Romania, the origins of the Roma exclusion reach up to far past, and the steps taken today are just the beginning of a long way towards a change of their situation.
In most European countries the Roma have moved freely at least until the 16th century, respected for their craft skills and the aura of mystery that surrounded them. However, they came to Romania as slaves and this status remained until the half of the 19th century. The end of abolition process brought the heyday of the Roma culture which was fought against for centuries and impoverished by violent attempts to assimilate it with European culture. This was also connected with the first great wave of the Romanian Roma emigration to other countries in Europe. Nevertheless, the centuries of incapacitation have created certain patterns passed from generation to generation, limited the possibilities for development and supported self-stereotyping – some of the Roma have been prisoners of it to this day.
The 20th century, with the birth of racial ideologies, turned out to be the most tragic to the Roma. The concept of concentration camps for the Gypsies as well as politics of sterilization established in Germany in the 1930s spread quickly to other European countries. The moment they were sanctioned by the racist Nuremberg Laws, they quickly took a form of genocide. The 'forgotten holocaust', the memory of which survived among the uneducated communities as word of mouth – while in general social perception it remains hidden in the shadow of Jewish extermination – killed almost half of the Roma population in Europe. At that time, Romania imprisoned 25 thousand of the Roma in its own concentration camp in Transnistria, where the final number of victims amounts to almost 11 thousand.
The next step defining the distinctness of the Romanian Roma was the communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. His rules, which left the country's economy and condition of the whole nation in a pitiful state had of course the most severe impact on the most excluded part of the society. The Roma, mostly settled in the countryside, which even today takes up to 85% of the country's territory, fell victims to the “systematization”, consisting in the demolition of villages and forced transfer of whole communities to the cities, to work in factories. In effect, what remained after the systemic transformation were ghettos full of uneducated, unqualified, large families (the most violent communist regime in Europe opposed all forms of birth control) and a huge number of Roma children in almost legendary Romanian orphanages. Neither the fall of communism nor joining the European Union have improved the situation of the local Roma, over 80% of who live there below the poverty line. However, once again the changes of the system opened the only gate for the desperate: emigration.
In the early 1990s the Romanian Roma arrived in many European countries, including Poland, which served as a sort of a stopover, undertaking jobs available to people of their education and social status. The most 'economical' solution turned out to be begging and the nomadic way of living. The lack of systemic solutions other than deportation (until the enlargement of the EU) and demolition of illegal settlements marked the fate of the Romanian Roma with insecurity on one hand and stagnation on the other. On one hand what stopped the systemic solutions were the prevailing stereotypes, simplifying the reasons for this state of being, such as 'intrinsic qualities' of the Gypsies blaming the 'cultural differences' – which commonly manifests itself in the actions of the representatives. On the other hand, such mechanisms as learned helplessness and inheritance of poverty make it impossible to change the situation on one's own.
In his memoirs, a Wrocław-based writer Wacław Grabowski describes the lot of the settlement in Wilczy Kąt: 'In 1994 the Romanian Roma (initially about 200 people) started to settle at the foot of a huge rubbish heap which turned into a mountain now quite overgrown with trees. Apparently they came to Wrocław by train and from the railway station they turned right, to K. Pułaskiego St., T. Kościuszki St. and Na Niskich Łąkach – reaching Młoda St. In less than a year, in a quiet place away from the western winds, they built their «houses» of such materials as planks, hardboard foil and roofing felt' - he recalls. The camp was then demolished by the authorities, the history repeated itself in that place in 2006.
The oldest residents of the settlement on Kamieńskiego St., which was created as a result of transfers and demolition of a few smaller camps (on Irysowa St. and Paprotna St.), spent their teenage years still in Wilczy Kąt. This is how the journey of Romanian Roma has been going on in Wrocław itself. The fate of the settlement residents will not be just a media fact or an individual story. It is up to the residents of Wrocław if it is inscribed in the continuation of centuries of exclusion or if it becomes a chance for a change not only for the current residents of the settlement, but also for the future generations.
MORE [resources in Polish]
Paweł Lechowski, Ewa Kocój – Gypsies in Romania
Adam Bartosz – In Search for National Identity
Miłosz Gierlich – Wrocław Citizens With No Luggage
Wacław Grabski – Living Differently