She grew up like all others in her kumpania, moving from one place to the next. She was taught to be loyal only to her families and to never trust the gadjikano. Never. She was never to learn their ways lest she become unclean. She was cautioned that her place in the world was only right where she was, wherever she was. This was their way and had always been.

The beatings that she took from her parents when they caught her learning to read and write were meant to educate her.

“Read! Write!” they yelled in Polish, as they burned a book they found hidden in her chest, for there were indeed no words in Romani for those foreign concepts.

Still, secretly, she did learn to read and to write and those foreign skills only served to give her a deeper identity with her people. She wrote poems of lament and struggle that spoke for Gypsies like none before. Her husband accompanied her on the harp as she sang songs of nostos, a return to a home that never existed.

Her special talents made her believe that it really was possible to live in both worlds, the Rom and the Gadjo, as she attracted more and more notoriety through her song.

But she was wrong.

As her kumpania had warned her, she was betrayed and her own writings were twisted and used against her people as rationale for forced resettlement during Socialist Poland’s Great Halt to “the Gypsy problem.”

Bronisława Wajs spent eight months in a mental institution recovering from her ensuing erasure from Gypsy society. The mention of her name forbidden, the next generation of gypsy children grew up having never heard of their greatest voice. She lived a hermit life until her death on February 8, 1987.

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