Bronisława Wajs, commonly known by her Romani name Papusza, is one of the most famous Romani poets ever known. She grew up nomadically with her family in Poland as part of a kumpania or band of famililes. She was literate, unusual for Polska Roma of those time. She learnt by trading a chicken for a lesson with local villagers. This was frowned upon and whenever she was found reading she was beaten and the book destroyed. She was married in a traditional ceremony at 15 to a much older and revered harpist named Dionizy Wajs. She was very unhappy with the marriage and took to singing as an outlet for her frustrations with her husband often accompanying her on harp. Soon after learning to sing she began to compose her own ballads and songs based on traditional Romani story-telling and songwriting.
In 1949 she was heard by the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski who instantly recognized her talent. Many of her poems dealt with "Nastos" (Greek for "a return home"), a theme common in Romani poetry. Although Roma used this to describe the yearning to return to the open road Ficowski saw this as Papusza yearning to be settled down, to no longer be nomadic. He published several of her poems in a magazine called Problemy along with an anti-nomadic interview with Polish poet Julian Tuwim. Ficowski became an adviser on "The Gypsy Question", often using Papusza's poems to back him up. This helped lead to the forced settlement of Roma all over Poland in 1950 known variously as 'Action C', or "The Great Halt". Similar legislation began to spring up in neighboring countries soon after such as Czechoslovakia (1958), Bulgaria (1958), and Romania (1962). Papusza herself settled in the western Polish city of Gorzów Wielkopolski, spending most of the rest of her life in a house on Kosynierów Gdyńskich street which today bears a plaque dedicated to her.
The Roma community soon began to regard Papusza as a traitor, threatening her and calling her names. Papusza maintained that Ficowski had exploited her work and had taken it out of context. Her appeals fell on deaf ears and the Baro Shero (Big head, an elder in the Roma community) declared her "unclean". She was banished from the Roma world, and even Ficowski broke contact with her. Afterwards, she spent 8 months in a mental hospital and then the next 34 years of her life alone and isolated before her death in 1987.
Most of Papusza's work involved traditional Gypsy formats along with some unusual aspects such as writing in singular form. Most of her work dealt with nostalgia, longing, and (especially) feeling lost.
"...the water does not look behind
It flees, runs farther away
Where eyes will not see her,
the water wanders...
She published poems frequently from the late 1940s to the mid-'50s, when she was removed from Roma life, first in Polish literary magazines and then in books of her own. She published again for a short time in the late '60s.