One way ticket- 1981 in Oświęcim

Despite the cruel past and painful memories Roma associated with the Auschwitz camp, some 140 members of the Roma community decided to settle in the city Oświęcim after the war. However, the co-existence with the Polish neighbours deteriorated and a bar fight involving Roma in 1981 resulted in a pogrom against the Roma community and they were forced to leave the town.

Despite the cruel past and painful memories Roma associated with the Auschwitz camp, some members of the Roma community settled in the city Oświęcim after the war. They were members of itinerary groups and though by law, Roma were forced in 1964 to permanently settle, it was in practical terms, a process spread over time and some Roma maintained an itinerary lifestyle until the 1980s. According to official data, 137 registered Roma lived in Oświęcim in the 1980ies, however, unofficially, there are almost 300 people of Roma origin who lived in the city.

There was probably no Polish Roma family that was not affected by the extermination during the Nazi regime. Thus, in post-war Oświęcim settled Roma people who had lost their parents, grandparents and other relatives in Auschwitz. There were even seven survivors among them who survived due to the fact that they were not recognized as Roma and were not sent to the „Zigeunerlager“, the camp section B IIe at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. They were seen as strong and able to work and survived the camp.

Some Roma  established contacts with non-Roma. Many worked in the factories in the town while others were involved in trade, bringing goods from Yugoslavia or Italy and selling them at home.

On the other hand, the politics started to segregate Roma and non-Roma. In schools they established separate “Gypsy classes” and Roma children were treated unequal.

The relationship between Roma and the majority population began to deteriorate. Some people questioned where Roma have the products from, they were trading with. And in general, the frustration with the communist regime grew and people were looking for a scapegoat. One incident was to enough to spark violence against Roma.

Roma Museum in Oswiecim, 2019, copyright: Association of Roma in Poland

It was on 21. October 1981 when a fight broke out in a bar, involving Roma. This incident was used as a pretext to attack the whole Roma community in the town. During the pogrom people were beaten, houses or cars were set on fire, cars were pushed into the river and property was destroyed.

My father remembers these days: On my way home after a date, I was driving downhill by the castle. I could see that something is on fire. I passed a friend who told me: Romek, you’ve got to run away! I didn’t listen to him. I could see huge flames where my house is. A lot of people gathered. I drove up to the crowd. Someone hollers: That Gipsy is here! So I turn back and I try to get to my house from Górnicki Street on the other side. On my way there, I saw a civic militia officer I know: Romek, you must get out of there!

I asked him, what happened to mum and dad. He told me: Nothing, just run.

I could not run, I had to find out what happened to the others. The officer said: I am coming with you. He got in my car and we were turning into Berka Street. There was a crowd there as well. The crowd was moving on, demolishing apartments. The officer was scared: I get out. I looked into the mirror and told him to stay, since they were also approaching from behind and began to surrounding us. I turned on the lights and tried to drive off. I was yellingGet out of the way, I am leaving. But they just stood there. I was so terrified. They could have killed me, lynch me. I closed my eyes and I opened them again. I did not recall that drive. The windshield wipers ripped out. But I was alive. I went to No.8 Stolarska Street. The crowd there was screaming: Let’s burn this down! Let’s burn the Gypsy kids at the stake! They sang songs and the Polish national anthem. The civic militia was fighting with them and if it would not have been for the militia officers, all the Roma in Oświęcim would have been burnt to death.   

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted some friends in the crowd. I approached one of them. How could you? My mum liked you, you helped us and we helped you. We got into an argument. Then I asked another one: We ate from the same plate. He shoved me off.

Most Roma were hiding in the woods next to the nearby town of Bobrek. My father, I and some more people stayed in the city. The following day, the police took us to their headquarters. We went on foot with them escorting us. People were staring at us like ravenous lions. At the police headquarters they told us that neither the civil militia, nor the authorities nor the party want Gypsies in Oświęcim. We must leave. If we stay, they would wash their hands of us.

In the meantime, inhabitants of the town had established a “Committee for the expulsion of Gypsies”. The authorities supported this postulate. First, the Roma were offered apartments in so-called barracks in Bielsko-Biała, located several dozen kilometers from Oświęcim. Roma were afraid to go there, since there was violence against the Roma also in other parts of Poland.

However, the authorities wanted the Roma not only to leave Oświęcim, but Poland and so they  opened up the opportunity for Roma to leave the country and many decided to move to  Sweden. However, they were also betrayed by the authorities who didn’t give them passports but only “travel documents” with no possibility of return.

My father remembers: “They handed us one-way tickets. On them, it said that we were not citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland anymore. I reached Lund in Sweden on the 13. December 1981. In Poland they declared Martial law on that day”.

Today, most of these Roma live in Sweden. Some decided to return to Poland. My father is among of them.

Roma Museum in Oswiecim, 2019, copyright: Association of Roma in Poland

Written by: Joanna Talewicz



Andrzej Mirga, Romowie w historii najnowszej Polski [w:] Z.Kurcz i in., „Mniejszości narodowe w Polsce”, Wrocław 1997.

Sławomir Kapralski, Refleksje o pogromach. Na marginesie wydarzeń w Oświęcimiu w 1981 roku, [w:] „Studia Romologica”,  2009, nr 2, s. 233-252.

Lidia Ostałowska, Cygan to Cygan, Warszawa, 2021.