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The Rise and Fall of Polish Song

Mikołaj Gliński
Prewar hits were created at the cabaret. Here, a musical debate takes place at the Banda (The Gang) cabaret. From left: pianist Karol Gimpel, musician Mieczysław Hoherman, music director Marian Hemar, composer Władysław Dan-Daniłowski, and the poet Julian Tuwim on the right, photo: NAC National Digital Archive /
A musical debate takes place at Warsaw's Banda cabaret. From left: pianist Karol Gimpel, musician Mieczysław Hoherman, music director Marian Hemar, composer Władysław Dan-Daniłowski, and poet Julian Tuwim; photo: NAC National Digital Archive /

The vast majority of Polish popular music in the interwar period was written by one generation of composers and poets of Jewish descent. While this is not a generally accepted idea, it may be further obfuscated by the fact that their contribution was hardly visible on stage. Why was it so and what does this tell us about Polish pre-war culture?

The story of Polish pre-war entertainment music is a soundtrack made up of songs written and composed by authors of Jewish descent. Poets like Julian Tuwim, Marian Hemar, Andrzej Włast, Jerzy Jurandot, Ludwik Starski, Emanuel Szlechter and Władysław Szlengel, along with composers like Henryk Wars, Artur Gold, Jerzy Petersburski and Zygmunt Białostocki, stand behind the vast majority of the pre-war music hit chart titles.

They all belonged to a generation of acculturated Polish Jews, with virtually no ties to traditional Jewish culture and little connection to modern Yiddish culture. To a large extent this group of artists invented popular culture in Poland, and the songs they wrote became classics known today by every Pole.

The star of Polish cinema Hanna Ordonówna sings Na pierwszy znak (music by Henryk Wars, lyrics by Julian Tuwim) in the 1933 feature film Szpieg w masce (Spy in the Mask). Film and cabaret provided songs that would later become the national hit songs. 

Still, while their influence on Polish music was enormous, their position on stage was anything but substantial. The stage and the limelight, it seems, were reserved for Poles. Why was this the case, and what does this tell us about Polish culture of the pre-war period?

Here is the short story of the rise and fall of Polish song. (Skip to the end to see the list of Holocaust victims among the Polish-Jewish poets and composers)

Song Is Born in Cabaret

Pod parasolem (Under the Umbrella) revue in the Małe Qui Pro Quo (Little Qui Pro Quo) cabaret in Warsaw, 1939, photo: Stanisław Brzozowski, photo: National Digital Archive NAC /
Pod parasolem (Under the Umbrella) revue in the Małe Qui Pro Quo (Little Qui Pro Quo) cabaret in Warsaw, 1939, photo: Stanisław Brzozowski, photo: National Digital Archive NAC /

Modern popular music in Poland – the songs heard on the street, with lyrics that were the talk of the town – is inextricably connected with the history of inter-war cabaret culture. It was in Warsaw's cabarets of the 1920s and 1930s, like Qui Pro Quo or Morskie Oko, that poets and composers crossed paths to create pieces that would later become the classics of Polish pop.

Like many other emerging branches of entertainment, cabaret in the interwar period was a new niche. It emerged on a grand scale after the reclaiming of independence in 1918, and soon became one of the most vibrant forms of cultural life. As such, it constituted an attractive field for young Jews, who were not only undergoing great civilizational changes but who also suffered from discrimination.

Cabaret and revue attracted many artists of Jewish descent, among them exquisite poets like Julian Tuwim, who is widely considered one of the greatest poets of Polish language in the 20th century, but also great craftsmen. The most famous among them Andrzej Włast, hailed 'King of Trash,' is considered the first mass culture author in Poland. For many years and on a weekly basis he delivered new texts for songs and skits; he is said to have written lyrics for over 2000 songs.

Jerzy Petersburski's Tango Milonga, with lyrics by Andrzej Włast, is one of the very few Polish interwar hits to have made an international carreer. In the world it is better known as Oh Donna Clara.

The music for most of those songs was written by Henryk Wars, Zygmunt Białostocki, Szymon Kataszek, Jerzy Petersburski, and Artur Gold (the last two composers were members of the Melodyst family, a famous Jewish family of musicians, originally from Riga). They were the ones who brought to Polish popular music the newest styles and rythms: the shimmies, charlestons, foxes, tango and jazz, but also the taste of the Klezmer music.

Cabaret as the slippery field of integration

Kzimierz Krukowski (Lopek) w rewii „Duby smalone” kabaretu „Cafe Club” w Warszawie (1937); fot. NAC
Kazimierz Krukowski (Lopek) in the revue show called "Duby smalone" by the "Cafe Club" cabaret in Warsaw (1937); photo: NAC

But apart from being a new, unoccupied economic niche, cabaret also offered a unique space of freedom unavailable anywhere else. In the strongly hierarchized Polish culture of the interwar period, Jewish artists may have perceived the cabaret as a space exempt from the normal rules and conventions of social life and the restrictions it imposed on minorities. It offered the possibility of free speech, and of unrestrained commentary on social and political reality. This is explained by Elżbieta Janicka, a scholar specialising in Polish-Jewish relations:

- The cabaret actor/author takes on the role of a jester, which entitles him to do just about everything, and even more… He can mock the king himself, and even unmask violence and exclusion.

However, as Janicka explains, the joke is that all this freedom is meaningless... as the cabaret convention makes the critique illegitimate, a part of the the carnivalesque time of a temporary reversal of roles.

Janicka goes on to describe the Polish cabaret as a "slippery field of integration". In fact, cabaret helped to shape forms as ambiguous as the 'szmonces', a sense of humour which makes fun of the habits and the language of assimilating Jews – in 'szmonces' these are rendered in a grotesquely caricatural manner. Szmonces pieces were already subject to criticism in the interwar Jewish press.

"Its clownery has as much to do with the question of mending customs as does, for example, the cancan with the question of citizens’ equal rights", Nachum Sokolov stated in 1927.

One of the most popular szmonces pieces, Sęk was written and performed by Konrad Tom in 1926. Here's the 1972 version by Kabaret Dudek, performed by Edward Dziewoński and Wiesław Michnikowski

Importantly, szmonces pieces were produced by Jews themselves (Tuwim, Jurandot and Kondrad Tom were all masters of the genre) and this contributed to their ambiguous status. While they popularized many harmful stereotypes, they also offered a platform on which new Polish citizens could communicate with the 'Polish' Poles. This can be considered one of the unwritten rules of the slippery integration of Jews with the Polish dominant culture. As it turns out, there might have been more of these unwritten rules.

The Scene and the Ob-scene

Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz "Lopek" Krukowski in a scene from the film Ułani, ułani, chłopcy malowani 1931.  photo: ot. NAC /
Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz "Lopek" Krukowski in a scene from the film Ułani, ułani, chłopcy malowani 1931.  photo: ot. NAC /

Although the artists of Jewish descent stood behind the majority of cabaret pieces, this was completely invisible on stage. Very few Polish artists of Jewish descent found themselves among the actors and performers of cabaret programmes. A notable exception includes Kazimierz Krukowski, popularly known as Lopek, whose recognition came from performing szmonces pieces.

Other performative arts – theatre, film, and singing – all bear a similar mark. The only artists of Jewish origin to have made some kind of a career in interwar Polish film were Michał Znicz and Nora Ney. In the case of pre-war song, it was only Adam Aston and Wiera Gran. It seems that the dividing line ran here more or less along the border that separated the stage from the backstage. The Jewish artists created the Polish entertainment culture, but were invisible on its various scenes: film screen, theatre and cabaret stage, concert halls. Elżbieta Janicka describes this situation as an example of  the ‘ob-scenity’ principle, which defines what qualifies for stage and what doesn't.

In fact, the names mentioned above, just like those of Marian Hemar, Andrzej Włast, Ludwik Starski, Albert Harris, Fanny Gordon or Henryk Wars, were pseudonyms and stage names. Taking on a Polish- or exotic-sounding stage name may well have been the prerequisite for artists of Jewish descent to get on stage and stand in the limelight –a price they had to pay in order to be able to face a 'Polish' audience. 

Nora Ney and Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski in the film Serce na ulicy (Heart on the Street) (1930), photo: NAC /
Nora Ney and Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski in the film Serce na ulicy (Heart on the Street) (1930), photo: NAC /

Inventing Polish Urban Folklore...

But this generation of artists can be credited with more than inventing Polish popular music. To a large extent, it was also this very milieu that shaped the character of Polish urban folk culture, or even our image of what pre-war urban folklore looked like.

In Warsaw...

Many of the most typical Warsaw songs, such as Nie masz cwaniaka nad warszawiaka, Syn ulicy (Son of the Street), and U cioci na imieninach (A Party at Auntie’s) – which to a Polish ear momentarily evoke the iconic images and sounds of the prewar Warsaw's street - were authored by artists of Jewish origin.


Andrzej Włast played an especially significant role in this area. Born in Łódź, as Gustaw Baumritter, he wrote lyrics for such typical Warsaw pieces, as A Party at Auntie’s (with music by Bolesław Mucman) or Son of the Street (music by Jakub Kagan). His Varsovian repertoire includes also Na wolskiej sali iskry szły (Sparks Set Off in the Hall in Wola) (music by Zygmunt Wiehler) or Tango andrusowskie (Andrus Tango) (music by Jerzy Petersburski). A more lyrical testimony to Włast’s intimate relationship with Warsaw is the song entitled Warszawo, moja Warszawo (Warsaw, My Warsaw; music by Zygmunt Karasiński) and Warszawo ma - a version of a Jewish folk classic Shtetele Belz.

The same is true in regard to Władysław Szlengel. Known today primarily as the most important poet of the Warsaw ghetto, Szlengel before the war wrote lyrics for songs that later began to epitomize the urban culture of prewar Warsaw. His Panna Andzia ma wychodne (Miss Andzia’s Got A Day Off ), Chodźmy na piwko na przeciwko (Let’s Get a Beer Next Door), and Jadziem Panie Zielonka (Off We Go, Mr. Zielonka) are today the classics of the genre. According to Tomasz Lerski, these songs (with music composed by Bolesław Mucman) were "perfect parodies, full of charm and harmony, and alluding to the atmosphere of authentic working class ballads of the Warsaw suburbs". They soon became authentic themselves.

Perhaps the most symbolical of all of these songs is the ballad Bal na Gnojnej (The Ball on Gnojna Street). The song preserved in its lyrics some of the original atmosphere of a night canteen run by Gruby Josek (Fat Josek) near the Grzybowski square, a place were local Jewish porters and traders crossed paths with members of Polish political establishment and literary Warsaw's boheme. The music for lyrics written by Julian Krzewiński and Leopold Brodziński was composed by Fanny Gordon, a Russia-born Jewish composer, one of the most extraordinary composers of the interwar period.


...and Lviv

In Lviv the same pioneering role can be ascribed to Marian Hemar and Emanuel Szlechter. Hemar created dozens of songs written in balak, a highly original variety of Polish urban argot which comprised elements of Ukrainian, German and Yiddish.

Born in 1904, Emanuel Schelchter was one of the most talented lyrics authors of the young generation. Apart from the numerous all-Polish songs known to this day – such as Sex Appeal and Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiąta (I Have a Date with Her for Nine) – he also wrote lyrics for many typical Lviv songs, like Tylko we Lwowie (Only in Lviv) and My dwaj - obacwaj.

Along with the brilliant screenwriter Ludwik Starski, author of such hits like Zimny drań (Cold Rascal) and Już nie zapomnisz mnie (Now You Won’t Forget Me), they created the screenplay and dialogues in bałak for several films set in Lviv. Szlechter and Starski also authored two lullabies known even today to every child in Poland: Ach śpij kochanie (Ah, Sleep, My Love) and Dobranoc, oczka zmruż (Goodnight, Close Your Eyes), both composed by Henryk Wars.


Between Cultures

While these artists were instrumental in creating and shaping the style of Polish popular music (and its local Warsaw or Lviv variations), they also interwove it with Jewish folklore. It was thanks to them that the Polish versions of such songs as Main yiddishe mame and Sztetele Belz made it into mainstream Polish music. They facilitated the creative exchange taking place between the dominant Polish-language culture and the flourishing popular culture in Yiddish, with its theatres, cabarets, movie theatres, music.

Throughout the entire interwar period, popular Polish songs were translated into Yiddish. Eugeniusz Bodo’s film song Nie można kogoś zmuszać do miłości (You Cannot Force Someone to Love), was played in Yiddish under the title M’ken nisht tzvingn tzu kayn libe and was performed by Menashe Oppenheim, star of Yiddish film in Poland, and also a composer and singer.


The same artist also sang the famous Sex Appeal (music by Wars) in Yiddish, originally performed by Bodo in the film Piętro wyżej. The Yiddish lyrics were written by Samuel Korn-Teuer, author of the lyrics for Mayn yiddishe mame. Another interwar hit song - Jerzy Petersburski's Ja się boję sama spać (I'm afraid of sleeping alone) - had a Yiddish version entitled "Ich hob a moyre schloffen allein".

Occasionally this process also went the other way. The popular song Zuleyka sung in Yiddish by Menashe Oppenheim was recorded in Polish by Adam Aston.

Aston may be considered an exceptional artist in this respect, as he sang and recorded in three languages: Polish, Jewish and in Hebrew (he would use Ben-Levi as a stage name when singing in Hebrew). His was the Hebrew version of the 1935 Jerzy Petersburski's hit song To ostatnia niedziela (in Russia popular as Utomlyonnoye solntse). The lyrics for Ha-shabat ha-akharona (The Last shabat) were written by Israel M. Biderman.


Jewish musical motifs made it into Polish popular music through the efforts of composers like Zygmunt Białostocki. His 1933 tango Rebeka with lyrics by Włast was based on a sorrowful musical motif from a Chasidic melody, the lyrics dealt with the cultural distance that separated the shtetl and the city, the culture of Jews and that of the goys. Apparently, it was even sung by Hasidic Jews.


Another Jewish musical motif can be found in a song "List do Palestyny" (Letter to Palestine) composed by Bolesław Mucman, with lyrics by Andrzej Włast. It includes a musical fragment from Max Bruch's Kol Nidre, both music and lyrics becoming the expression of a Zionist longing for the Promised Land.

A different musical vestige of those Jewish origins is the so-called Jewish- or Yiddish-fox, a kind of foxtrot inspired by Klezmer music. (Although it is possible that in this case, the inspiration came to Poland via Hollywood.)


This cultural exchange also emerged in other fields. The texts performed by famous Jewish comedians from Łódź – Dzigan and Schumacher – originally written by Moshe Broderzon, were translated into Polish. Broderzon, who was a member of the important avant-garde poetry circle Yung Yiddish, was also a cabaret artist and authored the lyrics of many popular Yiddish songs. He cooperated with Henoch Kon, the most important composer of Yiddish music in the interwar period, next to Dovid Beigielman.

The Holocaust of Polish song

Despite the fact that most of these artists identified with Polish culture and had little connection with traditional Jewish life, upon the outbreak of WW2 they found themselves in the ghettos, or had to go into hiding.

This fate did not spare the king of song himself. The Almighty Andrzej Włast found himself in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was murdered after, as legend has it, attempting to escape. It was there that he wrote one of his saddest song, Warszawo ma (My Warsaw), a remake of Shtetele Belz.


Władysław Szlengel, author of many Warsaw songs popular to this day, died during the Ghetto Uprising. Today he is primarily known as the bard of the ghetto.

Another songwriter to die in the Warsaw ghetto (probably in 1943) was Józef Lipski. Before the war, along with Szlengel, he co-wrote the lyrics for the beautiful Tango Notturno.

Jerzy Ryba (Jerry), film critic and author of lyrics for Bo to się zwykle tak zaczyna (Because It Usually Begins This Way) and Za późno (Too Late) died in the Warsaw ghetto. The exact circumstances of his death remain unknown.

Emanuel Szlechter –author of many songs, a screenwriter and artist behind the lyrics to Sex Appeal and Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą (I’ve Got a Date with Her at Nine) – died during the liquidation of the Lviv ghetto in 1943.

The losses among composers were just as shocking.

Zygmunt Białostocki, author of Rebeka, was murdered in the Nazi death camp in Treblinka following the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.

Arthur Gold, composer and author of the tango Jesienne róże (Autumn Roses) and the melody for the hit song Ta mała piła dziś (This Little One’s Been Drinking Today) died in Treblinka. Before his death, the Nazis forced him to establish a camp orchestra.

Bolesław Mucman, close collaborator of Szlengel and composer of U cioci na imieninach, was killed in the Warsaw ghetto.

Jakub Kagan, who composed the popular tango Złota pantera (Golden Panther) and the Varsovian-old-style hit Syn ulicy (Son of the Street) died in the Warsaw ghetto, probably in 1942.

Szymon Kataszek, pioneer of Polish jazz, author of Każdemu wolno kochać (Everyone is Allowed to Love) managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto. He returned to conducting an orchestra on the Aryan side, but was denounced, arrested and executed in the Pawiak prison in 1943.

Feliks Halpern, who wrote the music for the ballad Czarna Mańka (Black Mary), died in the Łódź ghetto on the 3rd of March, 1942.

Dovid Beigielman, music director of the Yiddish theatre Ararat in Łódź and composer of songs such as Nisim nisim and Yidn, shmidn was in the Łódź ghetto during the war. He probably died in the camp of KL Auschwitz in Gliwice in 1944.

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, December, 2014

Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, March 2015

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