An Alternative History of Literature from Poland
#language & literature
small, An Alternative History of Literature from Poland, Vlasta Burian as the hairdresser Ferdynand Suplatko (left) and Adolf Dymsza as the antique seller Kamil Klepka reading the news in a scene from the fi, czytanie_nac.jpg
Polish literature is, of course, literature written in the Polish language: Kochanowski, Mickiewicz, Schulz, Gombrowicz... Yet, throughout the centuries, literature written in other languages has surfaced on Polish territory as well. What is the history of these works?
For centuries, the Polish Republic was a state of many cultures and nations in which different languages were spoken. Polish was merely one of them – and at different moments and in different places, it was neither the dominant nor the most significant one. Here, we have selected some extraordinary books written in Poland, including its historic, geographical, cultural, and even phantasmatic forms, but not in Polish itself.
Poland Didn't Always Speak Polish: The Lost Linguistic Diversity of Europe
1523: ‘Carmen de Statura, Feritate et Venatione Bisontis’ by Nicolaus Hussovius (Latin)
- A Latin poem about the bison (in Polish: żubr) of the Lithuanian forests, which marks the beginnings of Belarusian literature
The common knowledge of Latin among the citizens of the Polish Republic always made a huge impression on foreigners that visited this part of Europe. Throughout the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there was also an abundance of literature created in Latin. One of the most interesting 'Polish' texts in this language is a piece which was written in Kraków in 1523, entitled Carmen de Satura, Feritate et Venatione Bisontis (A Song about the Appearance, Savagery and Hunting of the Bison).
The poem was commissioned by Pope Leo X, a great fan of hunting who was fascinated with the strange animal that lived in Europe's northern woods. The bishop of Płock, Erazm Ciołek, wanted to please the pope and intended for a stuffed specimen of the animal to be sent to him. He also commissioned a Catholic clerk and a poet, Mikołaj Hussowski, to write a poem about the mysterious animal. The pope died, the bison was never sent to Rome, but the poem did get written.
Mikołaj Hussowski (who lived from ca. 1475/1485 until after 1533) came from the Belarusian part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and his work is now considered one of the first pieces of Belarusian literature. Hussowczyk, as he is also called, is rightly considered the first minstrel of the Belarusian land, and with his beautiful descriptions of the Lithuanian-Russian forests, he seems to be a worthy predecessor to Mickiewicz.
Early 17th cent.: ‘Cene Urene’ by Itchkhak Yanover (Yiddish)
- A book for women read by men
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Scene from 'Wypełnić Pustkę' (To Fill The Void), directed by Rama Burshtein, photo: press release
This was perhaps the most popular book in the history of Yiddish. It was first released in the early 17th century near Lublin, in the town of Janów Lubelski. To date, it has enjoyed 250 editions. According to a scholar of Yiddish literature, Chone Shmeruk, Cene Urene is partially a homiletic paraphrase of the Pentateuch – which means its is a kind of midrash, or commentary on the first books of the Torah, written in Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jewish masses across Eastern Europe.
The book was meant for women who were excluded from traditional education and simply did not know the language of the holy books. But the phenomenon of Cene Urene lies in the fact that a book which was originally meant for women was in fact read by men who had already forgotten Hebrew. For this reason, the author also wrote a version for men, but it was never nearly as popular as Cene Urene.
1632: ‘Lyricorum Libri IV’ by Mathias Casimirus Sarbievius (Latin)
- A Christian Horace out of the Mazovia region writing about Europe and Sarmatia in Latin
Sarbiewski's Lyricorum Libri IV was released in Antwerp in 1632, and its title vignette was designed by Rubens himself. The 17th-century European elite read the lyrical poems of Sarbievus with passion. In that century alone, 30 editions of his poetry were released across Europe, and Sarbiewski became famous on a scale reserved for very few in the era. He was presented with the pope's medal and hailed the Christian Horace. Some of his contemporaries, like the Dutchman Grotius, thought that Sarbievus's talent even surpassed that of Horace.
The Polish poet had spent some of his life in Rome. In his works, Sarbiewski combined his local, sarmatic tradition with the European one through taking up local themes such as praising the River Bug (Laus Bugi). The Sarmatian trend in his poetry was also expressed in an epic poem about the legendary founder of the Polish kingdom, Lech. This would-be Sarmatian Aeneid was not finished and preserved.
1804: ‘Manuscrit Trouvé à Saragosse’ by Jan Potocki (French)
- The last novel of the Enlightenment in a truly baroque, layered form
Jan Potocki was a cosmopolitan, a traveller, historian, archaeologist, and one of the first researchers of Slavic antiquities. He lived outside of Poland since his early childhood, as a result of which his Polish was apparently rather poor. He wrote in French, and this was also the language in which he published many historical and travel books.
But Potocki made history with the Saragossa Manuscript, one of the strangest books in the history of world literature, a multi-layered novel which made its author a precursor to Borges, Perec and Calvino. The first version of his book came out in 1804 in St Petersburg, but Potocki had been working on it from 1794, through to the very last days of his life (which he spent in his family estate in Uładówka, in present-day Ukraine).
Much later, in 1965, the novel was made into a film – The Saragossa Manuscript (originally: Rękopis Znaleziony w Saragossie), directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. It is known as a favourite film of directors such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch or Francis Ford Coppola.
1815: ‘Sipurei Ma'asiyot’ by Nachman of Breslov (Hebrew & Yiddish)
Thirteen fantasy short stories – dictated by the tsadik Nakhman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, to his students towards the end of his life – are considered the best work of Hasidic literature. The author of the collection was a great-grandson of the founding father of Hasidism, Isreal Baal Shem Tov (the protagonist of the famous Shikhvey Habesht). A huge body of interpretative literature has grown around these fantastic stories.
According to Chone Shmeruk, this is due to the fact the writings include kabbala symbolism, as well as allegories and incomplete meanings which altogether add up to an ambiguity which seems impossible to delve into and decipher fully. The short stories were first released in 1815, and, in accordance with the author's will, they were published simultaneously in Hebrew and in Yiddish. This is also how they are printed today.
1819: ‘Megalleh Temirim’ by Josef Perl (Hebrew)
- A book about the search for a mysterious… book – the first novel in Hebrew literature?
Written in Hebrew, Megale Tmirin (Revealer of Secrets) was a response to the writings of Nachman and the Shikhvey Habesht. Josef Perl from Tarnopol was an activist of the Jewish Enlightenment known as Haskala and thus a declared enemy of Hasidism in any of its forms. His book contained a mystification of the correspondence between Hasidic Jews, which supposedly arrived at the publisher's office in some ‘miraculous way’.
The action of the Revealer of Secrets concentrates on the chase after an anti-Hasidic book which had apparently appeared in Poland and which deserved to be condemned and destroyed. (The Hasidic Jews were said to have destroyed books which showed them in negative light.) But the existence of such a book is also an act of mystification. Thus, we are dealing with a truly postmodern intrigue.
Although the book was originally written in Hebrew, the author himself quickly translated it into Yiddish, so that it could reach a very wide Jewish audience. The legend goes that Megale Tmirin was often found at the shtibleh (small Hasidic temples) of Galicia, where it was believed to really be a Hasidic work. Perl also left behind other extraordinary works: a continuation of Megalleh Temirim called Boykhen Tsadik (The Tsadik's Examiner), a fragment of a historic novel titled Antygnos, and the translation into Yiddish of Fielding's Tom Jones.
1832: ‘Le Roi de Ladawa’ by Juliusz Słowacki (French)
- A romantic love story à la Walter Scott set in an exotic Ukrainian landscape, against the backdrop of the November Uprising. A piece written for money to suit Western European tastes
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’Wzięcie Arsenału‘ (Seizure of the Arsenal) from the ‘Cykl Listopadowy’ (November Cycle) by Marcin Zaleski, 1830, photo: Creative Commons licence
Staying in Paris in 1832 and urgently needing money to publish his poetry, Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki decided to become a French writer. In order to make this happen, he began writing a love story in French, in the spirit of Walter Scott – but he set the action in Poland. Everything was very well thought out. After the November Uprising, Poland was even quite fashionable in the West, and the Uprising, a background to the fiction's events, was even called ‘la dernière revolution de Pologne’ (Poland's last revolution).
The setting was an exotic Ukraine, the areas near Humań and Zofiówka, which Słowacki knew from excursions in his youth. The titular King of Ladawa was also exotic and eccentric, and his figure was modelled on the real-life persona of Ścibor Marchocki. Marchocki had created a kind of private state, the so-called Minkowiecki State, where he attempted to implement ancient customs. An equally authentic albeit eccentric figure was that of Jan Rogoza, aka Emir Abu Giaffir – Emir Wacław Rzewuski in reality.
Apart from them, the main characters of the novel were supposed to be the king's son, Kazimierz, and also a prodigy of the emir, a beautiful Greek woman (this constituted a philhellenic element of the work). Their romantic liaison was supposed to be developed in subsequent parts, but Słowacki never wrote them. He stopped after five chapters, which made up a few dozen pages of text in French. The literary researcher and specialist on Słowacki, Juliusz Kleiner, commented on the work: ‘The handwriting is not too neat, but it's readable […] the spelling is a catastrophe’.
1829-1842: ‘Histoire d’Avenir’ by Adam Mickiewicz (French)
- Sci-fi by Mickiewicz, a vision of a technological development of Europe A.D. 2000, confirming his prophetic talents (too bad it was never finished!)
It was more or less at this time that Adam Mickiewicz was working on an unfinished piece in French. Some say that had it been finished and published, Histoire d’Avenir (Story of the Future) would have altered the development of sci-fi literature. What is certain is that the reading of this novel – whose first version was created in St. Petersburg in 1829 – would have changed our perception of the Romantic bard. The content of the book is now known to us thanks to the poet's friend A.E. Odyniec, who saw the manuscript.
According to him, Mickiewicz predicted that after the year 2000, planet Earth would enter into relationships with other planets using balloons which ‘sail in the air like the ships now sail the seas’, and that planet will be covered with a network of iron railways ‘that shall alter the form of the world’. There were also supposed to be mobile cities (on iron wheels), telescopes ‘through which all of the Earth will be seen from the balloons, and from the Earth, you will be able to see what is happening on its satellites.’
The bard was also right in how he predicted the invention of a radio, as he wrote about ‘acoustic apparatus thanks to which one will be able to hear concerts and public lectures given in town while sitting down calmly by the fireplace in a hotel’. Odyniec ends his account saying: ‘And Adam also seriously claims that all of this can be one day, and it must‘.
According to Antoni Smuszkiewicz, the author of the book called Zaczarowana Gra (The Enchanted Game), the preserved fragments of Mickiewicz's utopia are also interesting as the first attempts at a new literary genre, which would later receive the label of ‘historical fiction’. Smuszkiewicz declares that Mickiewicz was ahead of such classic of the future genre as France's Penguin Island (1908), Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), and Wells' The Shape of Things to Come. In Polish literature, Smuszkiewicz names two titles that Mickiewicz ‘outran’ – Wojna i Praca (War and Work) from 1903 and Zemsta (The Revenge) from 1908, both written by Bolesław Prus.
1891: ‘Dudka Belaruskaya’ by Francišak Bahuševič (Belarusian)
- A manifesto of Belarusian national identity – in an era when any printing in the Belarusian language was illegal
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House with Belarusian landscape in the background, source: otter.flog.pl
Bahuševič (Polish: Bahusiewicz) was born in Świrany near Vilnius. He participated in the January Uprising, and in order to avoid repression after its failure, he moved to Ukraine. After the tsar's amnesty in 1883, he returned to Vilnius, where he became a defendant at its regional court. He often appeared without any reward, and thus gained the moniker of an advocate of the Belarusian folk.
Because of the interdiction against publishing any text in Belarusian, after 1863, Bahusiewicz's poems appeared in the Austrian and German-occupied areas of Poland under a pseudonym. Apparently, Dudka Belaruskaya was transported into Vilnius from Kraków by Józef Piłsudki himself. The preface to this collection is considered a manifesto of Belarusian national identity. It was under the influence of Bahuševič's writings that Janka Kupała began to create his own poetry. Kupała, who became the most famous 20th century Belarusian poet, wrote his first verse in Polish.
1907: ‘Bay Nakht afn Altn Mark’ by Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (Yiddish)
- A modernist drama with gothic elements, as well as zombies dancing in the night on the shtetl's market square
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‘The Groom’ amongst Hasidic Jews, 1931, photo: National Digital Archive (NAC)
Considered one of the founding fathers of Yiddish literature, Y.L.Peretz came from Zamość, but he spent most of his life in Warsaw, where he became a central figure of the Yiddish literary life (Peretz also wrote in Hebrew and was fluent in Polish). In Warsaw, he wrote Bay nakht afn altn mark (At Night in the Old Marketplace), and he worked on subsequent editions of it for almost the rest of his life.
The drama depicts the dream of a wanderer who returns to his hometown after many years. In the dream, he sees the dead dwellers of the city, who rise from their graves after midnight. There is also a dance of corpses. The complicated drama was never staged during Peretz's lifetime. More than a hundred different characters appear in it, representing the various layers of Jewish society and thus the different approaches towards assimilation – from the proponents of the Haskala, through revolutionaries, to the Zionists.
1924: ‘Totenwolf’ by Ernst Wiechert (German)
- Interwar German literature created in Eastern Prussia, soon after the plebiscite
Born in 1887, Ernst Wiechert was once considered among the most significant German writers. By now forgotten, Wiechert was born in Kleinort (presently called Piersławek) in the Mazury region near Mrągowo. In the Interwar period, this area was part of Eastern Prussia, a German territory whose border ran just 120 km from Warsaw. The Mazurian forests, where Wiechert spent his childhood and youth, became the great theme of his prose, and he called himself a Waldlaeufer. Early novels by Wiechert were associated with Nazi ideology, through its neo-Pagan and pan-German themes, and they were frequently published after the Nazi movement's rise to power. The author himself forbade the novels to be renewed.
The main theme of the Wald novel is a mad ancestral attachment to the Mazurian forest. The law of possession itself becomes the greatest value, a value so great that the protagonist is ready to murder anyone who trespasses on his territory. Another work by Wiechert is Der Totenwolf (The Werewolf), a book that depicts a group of people displaced from inner Germany to Eastern Prussia. It cultivated the ideal of a strong people, one capable of standing up against the given customs and traditions. Der Totenwolf was a typical German nationalist who looked at the weak with contempt and for whom a sense of pity as well as a bond with tradition could only weaken the German soul.
In the second half of 1920s, Wiechert began writing pacifist stories – he himself fought in the First World War and was wounded in the battle of Verdun. Amongst these, the most popular one was the romance Die Majorin (The Major's Wife), which came out in 1934. In his post-war novel, Die Jerominkinder (Jeromin's Children), considered Wiechert's opus magnum, the writer returned to the landscapes of his childhood, placing the sage in the village of Sowiróg and voicing his conservative worldview.
1956: ‘Papushakre Gila’ by Papusza (Romani)
- Poems about lost woods and lost freedom, written mostly after the Polish Romani were forced to settle in a Poland under the communist regime
The book and the poems would have never been written if it was not for a chance encounter which took place right after the Second World War in the woods of the Pomorze region. Whilst hiding from the security forces, Jerzy Ficowski was travelling with a gypsy tabor when he met Papusza, a Roma woman who wrote poems. He befriended her and learned the Roma language, and encouraged the poetess (who was unaware of her talent) to write her verses down.
And this is what she wrote: ‘Andre wesz baryjom syr sownkuno kuszcczo / andre satra romani syr ćaćuno gżybo’ (‘In the forest I grew like a shrub of gold, born in a Gypsy tent, akin to a boletus.’) Ficowski translated her poems, and, thanks to the encouragement of Julian Tuwim, he published them. This made some in the gypsy community accuse Papusza of revealing their secrets.
jewish heritage in poland
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 17 Jul 2014, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 22 Jul 2014, edited by LD, Jun 2020