The Persecution of Nomadic Gypsies in the Kingdom of Poland in the Second Half of the 19th Century

Alicja Gontarek

Abstract


This article concerns the persecution of Romany nomads in the Kingdom of Poland in the second half of the 19th century. Such actions, initiated on a larger scale in the 1890s, included forcing outlanders from cities and villages by using all available methods. They resulted mainly from a spontaneous and impetuous resistance of the majority community in the face of a wave of thefts and other minor offences that accompanied the arrival of nomadic Gypsies. Such behaviour, especially in the villages, was part of peasants’ traditional self-defence, which aimed at increasing the level of security for residents of those areas dealing with the limited speed and effectiveness of police intervention. The Polish public, including its intellectual elite, considered the Gypsy issue a social notion, which was part of a larger programme combatting all kinds of pathologies influencing both urban and rural communities, e. g. alcohol addiction, begging, prostitution, violence, etc. The actions aimed against Gypsies had nothing to do with ethnic or nationalist animosities. Indeed, nomadic Gypsies, especially in the rural areas (and in the manors of landowners), played their centuries-old roles of musicians, fortunetellers, or useful herbalists or healers who knew how to treat dangerous illnesses and relieve a variety of ailments. Thus, their appearance “electrified” residents in a positive manner too, as an element of exoticism which was usually unseen. The improvised social action to drive out nomadic Gypsies was mainly caused by the lack of effective government response to an increased influx of these groups in the empire in the second half of the 19th century. Considering the lack of a longterm and thoughtful government policy concerning Gypsies, with the exception of the 1895 resolution which banned the nomadic lifestyle throughout the empire, the so-called Gypsy issue was not a part of a national or ethnic strategy. Such problematic issues were supposed to be resolved mainly by the police, which however exacerbated the matter. The cumbersome presence of Gypsies was probably treated as a regional issue, perhaps most noticeable in the Kingdom of Poland. Nonetheless, the fact that the 1895 resolution was adopted anyway demonstrates the attempts to define and comprehensively resolve the so-called Gypsy issue not only in the kingdom, but also across the empire. However, when the law was passed, the authorities were aware of the anachronism of their actions and the lack of resources to help them reach their goal, i.e. the eradication of nomadism.


Keywords


combating nomadism; Gypsies; Kingdom of Poland; nomadism; peasantry

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15826/qr.2018.3.332

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