From ‘Last Sunday’ to ‘Last Shabbos’: Poland’s Legendary Jewish Tangos
default, From ‘Last Sunday’ to ‘Last Shabbos’: Poland’s Legendary Jewish Tangos, Artur Gold and Jerzy Petersburski band, circa 1930, photo: Wikimedia Commons, center, #000000, orkiestra_artura_golda_i_jerzego_petersburskiego.jpg
Recognisable from the very first notes of those mournful, dark strings, the Polish interwar hit ‘To Ostatnia Niedziela’ (The Last Sunday) is now seen as emblematic of the entire heyday of Polish tango. The bleak music unfolds into devastation, desperation, all wrapped in nostalgia – so similar to many Polish tangos produced at the time.
Then, Adam Aston’s voice warbles out of the gloom, singing in Hebrew.
The Hebrew version of To Ostatnia Niedziela – or, as it was known in Polish, To Ostatni Szabas, or in Hebrew as Hashabat Haahrona – was just one of many Hebrew and Yiddish tangos created in Poland during the Interwar era. But these tangos were only part of a far greater influence of Jewish culture on tango in Poland. In fact, the popularity and success of the tango genre in Interwar Poland was contingent on Jewish musical influences – and on Jewish artists, whose talents, experimentation and boundless enthusiasm helped shape the musical history of the age.
The influence of Jewish artists
Polish Tangos: The Unique Interwar Soundtrack to Poland’s Independence
Jewish influences on tango in the Interwar period was interconnected with Jewish social status in newly independent Poland. Jewish life, along with degrees of assimilation into the Polish mainstream, varied dramatically. For example, Jews living in shtetls – which, by 1939, was approximately half of Poland’s Jewish population – were part of more traditional community experiences.
However, life was different in the glittering cities, charged by that frivolous 20th-century modernity. Because of technological progress and ties to international cultural centres, Polish cities became hubs for the new trend of popular culture – including tango, which erupted across urban dancefloors and cabarets in the early 1910s and 1920s. Jewish people in the cities thus had the access and the opportunity to become involved with diverse cultural potential, as Lloica Czackis explains:
They were cosmopolitan communities with various degrees of assimilation, but fundamentally open to the general society. As the tango was a predominant feature of the general popular culture, tangos in Yiddish appeared in the Jewish communities where the intercultural encounter was possible and productive.
But Yiddish tango was just one of the resulting cultural treasures of this diverse, open environment. The real impact of Jewish artists was far wider.
Tango with a Polish Twist: The International Roots of Interwar Music
Beth Holmgren notes that Jews working in urban cultural circles – and particularly in popular culture – were also often affluent and acculturated, the children of established classical musicians. They were therefore not only able to competently dabble in the new trends of the age, but as respected and admired artists, they could also claim a certain level of freedom. Of course, discrimination persisted, even in popular culture – but because they were relatively free to fashion musical fads and experiment with new styles, the music created by urban Jewish popular culture artists drew in mass audiences, who were hungry for novel musical endeavours.
Tango was particularly known for its ability to meld together high and low cultures, dancing from the slums into ballrooms. In Poland, the same unstable stratification existed, with tangos written about the darker, murkier aspects of life – and, of course, belonging to low-cultural output. But Jewish artists, like Julian Tuwim, were talented, respected and dexterous enough to flit between these poles. One minute, they would be debating the latest poetic experiments, stumbling in and out of their city’s most refined cafes and coffeehouses; and the next, they would be scribbling hit after hit for the masses.
According to Holmgren:
[Jewish artists] did not perceive writing and performing for the cabaret, revue, radio, recording studio, or film as a sociocultural descent [...] as they blended different ethnic motifs and modalities with modern American rhythms, these young Jewish artists were not lowering their standards, but striving to break into a ‘bigtime’ of at once elemental and sophisticated world music.
If cities were hubs of popular culture, at their heart was the Polish capital, Warsaw. One third of Warsaw’s Interwar population was Jewish, and even at the start of the era, it was Jewish artists who were prominent in the emerging popular cultural centres, like cabaret. There, dexterous and masterful poets like Tuwim, Marian Hemar and Andrzej Włast – all from Jewish backgrounds – played around with Polish language, custom and tradition in increasingly audacious skits and hits. These were often in Polish, and designed to appeal to affluent communities, both Jewish and not. Czackis says that:
The situation of Jews in Polish urban centres allowed the encounter between the traditional Jewish world and the modernity that surrounded them. This happened also at a linguistic level, where many Jews had turned to the language of their non-Jewish neighbours.
Sometimes, cabaret performances did include more obvious signs of Jewish influence. One prominent example is szmonces, in which a Jewish character – often the harried Lopek, played by Kazimierz Krukowski, Tuwim’s cousin – would sing about his everyday struggles in a melded Polish-Yiddish-speak. These sketches became immensely popular, and the characters beloved throughout Warsaw.
But this blended cultural world was also crucial to the development of tango. Jewish artists were the leading lights of the tango craze: Jerzy Petersburski; Artur and Henryk Gold; the trio of cabaret titans, Tuwim, Hemar and Włast; Adam Aston; Zenon Friedwald; Zygmunt Białostocki…
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As in cabaret, their tangos – which were written in Polish – would sometimes also show clearer Jewish references. One prominent example is the 1932 song Rebeka, by Włast and Białostocki, which described a lovelorn girl from a shtetl, pining for a richer, debonair, more cosmopolitan lover. Interestingly, this depiction of the liminal relationship between city and province, acculturated and tradition, also reflects wider trends. Cultural interaction and assimilation did occur in the shtetl too, where it was again facilitated by the rise of modernity and technology. This allowed contemporary output to reach shtetl communities, arguably contributing to a growing secularisation in Interwar Poland.
Jewish cultural authority & assimilation
However, Jewish tango in Poland was an example of how incomplete this process actually became.
Because of its diverse background, Jewish tango became a genre of blurred boundaries: experimentation and freedom might have been possible, but it was also a music of uncertainty, occupying a liminal space. You can hear flashes of klezmer in Jewish tango, as well as suggestions of more melancholic Jewish musical traditions – but the songs are still always shot through with flashes of that typical Argentine melodrama too.
Meanwhile, in the birthplace of tango, Argentina, Jewish immigrants were also… playing the tango. There, tango proved an opportunity for artists to integrate, as Czackis describes:
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The tango, as opposed to other occupations more frequent to immigrants, was for musicians more than just a job; it offered a means to integrate into society. It was a place where, for a moment, new Spanish speakers had no accent; a place where they could experiment, where each brought something from home, perhaps without a clear aesthetic purpose. We could even imagine that those who were involved in the tango from its beginnings identified themselves with this style more than with the country itself.
But crucially, as Czackis hints, tango also allowed artists to draw inspiration from their unstable immigrant backgrounds and foreign homes, eventually leading to the birth of Yiddish tangos in Argentina. The tango began to become popular in Argentina around the same time as the second-largest Jewish community in the world settled there.
The dual influences of integration and of maintaining distinct cultural identity were also key characteristics of Jewish tango in Poland at the time. Indeed, Czackis notes that it was often Jews fleeing poorer conditions in Eastern Europe which brought them to Argentina – and straight into the arms of tango:
The tango was born just before the turn of the twentieth century in Buenos Aires as the resulting blend of the cultures of Italian, Spanish, French and Eastern European Jewish immigrants and Afro-Argentine rhythms.
Jewish violinists arriving from Poland, Russia and Rumania often headed to the tango scene, as their instrument was already emerging as typical of the style. This was not only a source of income but a means of adapting to society, since other occupations kept the immigrants apart from gentiles.
Thus a symbiotic relationship between Argentine tango and Jewish tango was present. Just like in Argentina, other occupations may have been closed to Jewish musicians in Poland – but popular music, and tango in particular, provided certain freedoms. Polish tango went on to become more dolorous compared to the Argentine original, due to heady influences from Jewish music…
Jewish Life in Poland Shown by Polish Jewish Painters
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Poster for the film 'The Dybbuk', directed by Michał Waszyński, pictured: Lili Liliana (in white), 1937, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
But if that was the story of tango in the Polish language, what about tango in languages used by Jewish communities? In Polish areas with strong Yiddish communities, tango also developed – but in the language of the people. As in the Polish language, Yiddish cabarets, revues and theatres – showing performances like Szymon An-ski’s acclaimed The Dybbuk – were also growing in the era. This popular culture also prompted the production of tango hits in Yiddish as well. Still, such songs were only created where cultural interaction had been possible in the first place. On the back of integration and modernisation, tango, with its electric sense of passion and exotic flair, was ripe for popular interest.
Yiddish tangos were inspired by models of Polish tango; Czackis coined the term ‘tangele’ to summarise the spirit of the Yiddish version ‘combining the word tango with the endearing Yiddish diminutive -le, and so meaning “little/dear tango”‘.
Yiddish tango bore similarities to Argentine tango, as well as to Jewish music: all three were steeped in heartache, with wailing violins capturing a sense of desperation and yearning. But Yiddish tangos could also be sparky numbers – vibrant depictions of Jewish life in their punch and parody – with humorous or uniquely Jewish versions of Polish tangos released.
Thus Rebeka became Rivkele in Yiddish – still mournful, still packed with flirtatious rapport, but where the protagonist, Rivkele, refuses to abandon her Jewish roots for love.
But another Jewish tango development was in the language of Jewish religious music: Hebrew. Yiddish was deemed jargon by some – seen, according to Katarzyna Zimek and Tomasz Jankowski, as a ‘corrupt form of German’. This was especially the case for emigrating Jews moving from Eastern Europe to Palestine.
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In fact, it was in Hebrew that tango from Poland took on its most international form, once again traversing boundaries and blending cultural heritages. Zimek and Jankowski summarise its development as follows:
It is no coincidence that Hebrew-language dance pieces started to emerge in the mid-1930s. This was naturally linked to the rise of the culture of dance and the influence which Polish-language artistic oeuvre exerted in this field, although what mattered most were the new, emerging conditions in which not only tangos, but Hebrew-language popular music in general was able to develop.
The growth of Polish-Hebrew tango thus followed a similar trajectory to the genre in Polish and Yiddish – Jewish artists were energised by modern developments in dance and music. But its progress was slower than tangos in Yiddish:
The vast majority of albums released during the pre-war period contained either cantorial music, folk songs, or the repertoire of operettas and theatres of the day — songs, couplets, monologues or skits performed in Yiddish. If any Hebrew secular music was published at all, it tended to be arranged in a cantorial style.
It was emigration, however, which kickstarted the new trend.
The development of Hebrew tango was tied to Jewish national identity, and arose from the popularity of Zionism among the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland – those who would have had access to Polish tango.
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Polish Zionists, according to Zimek and Jankowski, were inspired by ‘the analogies between the Polish struggle for independence during the Partitions of Poland and the struggle of their own nation for the establishment of their own state’. This also sparked an interest in Polish Romanticism – the folkloric sentimental spirit of that genre had already influenced the early development of Polish tango.
When Jews began to emigrate, cultural links with Poland, however, remained. Polish popular music stars like Hanka Ordonówna and Eugeniusz Bodo performed to enchanted crowds in Palestine, whilst Polish films also achieved success. Popular culture also travelled: in Poland, emigration was mentioned in Polish-language hits – like the 1935 tango List do Palystyny – whilst in Palestine, revue theatres expanded, drawing on Polish cabaret styles, referencing cultural affairs, and crucially jam-packed with tango.
Polish-Hebrew tango reflected these developments, explain Zimek and Jankowski:
Their essential feature is the context in which they were born and the emotions in which they convey — a multidimensional conflict between the desire to stay true to tradition and the drive towards modernity. These songs constitute a record of the dilemmas which Jews were facing at the time; faced with the need to choose between their old and new homeland and language while at the same time wishing to retain their individual nature and to lead an enjoyable life.
Hebrew popular song
Although Hebrew songs had been recorded in Poland prior to the 1930s, even forming part of the early repertoire of Polish recording companies like Syrena Electro, popular music in Hebrew took longer to develop. When this did begin – with most Hebrew tangos recorded between 1936 and 1939 – they were closely linked to Jewish national revival, and intended for export to those Jews emigrating to Palestine. Zimek and Jankowski say that:
The Taste of Tradition: The Lasting Influence of Jewish Cuisine in Poland
It is in these tangos that the Hebrew language — previously reserved solely for the domain of religious music (the cantorial music) — became the language of popular music which accompanied evening dancing events and the flirtatious advances of lovers. Using Hebrew for tangos was an ideological declaration.
Often, the Hebrew tangos were adaptations of Polish hits, with new lyrics – written mostly by Israel Mordechai Biderman, with some by Jehuda Warszawiak. According to Zimek and Jankowski, they were released around a year and a half after the Polish originals, and included in a separate section of Syrena’s catalogue.
Out of the 1000 recordings of Jewish music on Syrena Electro between 1926 and 1939, 18 were Hebrew popular dance hits – and the majority of these were tangos. These were translations and adaptations of the most popular Polish hits of the day: the lifetime of hit songs was short, meaning only the most well-known were released in Hebrew. One of the first to be recorded was To Ostatni Szabas.
Most were also performed by Polish-Jewish singer Adam Aston, under the pseudonym Ben Lewi – from his original surname, Loewinsohn.
But there were also two original, more explicitly Jewish recordings: Miriam and Moladeti (My Homeland), with lyrics by Israel Mordechai Biderman, and music by Hertz Rubin. Even a post-war hit released in Israel, Zikhrini (Remember Me), was still heavily influenced by pre-war Polish music, and was performed by Igo Krischer, who had begun his career in pre-war Poland. Tango – particularly Hebrew tango – was thus intertwined to a great degree with cultural interaction and emigration, pulling together a vibrant, and wide-ranging variety of contemporary musical, societal and political influences.
The tango story did not end in the 1930s, although it very nearly was lost.
Many of the Jewish artists who were in Poland at the outbreak of World War II did not survive – with some forced to play their tangos in concentration camps before they were murdered. This horrific act also led to the dubbing of any music played by inmate orchestras as ‘Death Tango’.
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The meticulously-produced pre-war tangos were also destroyed en masse during the war. This continued to occur post-war at the hands of the Communists, as such songs were seen as symbols of a detested era.
Because they were objects of mass culture, add Zimek and Jankowski, the songs were rarely preserved by museums. As a result, countless tangos were lost.
But some Jewish tangos did survive – and play on today. Aside from the continued popularity of Polish tangos, written by Jewish artists, there are now revivalists keeping alive the distinct Polish-Jewish genre. Olga Avigail sings Yiddish-Polish hits with a coquettish and alluring delivery, whilst Zimek and Jankowski have recently released the first-ever CD of 16 pre-war Hebrew tracks, including 13 tangos.
Tango in Poland – in Polish, Yiddish or Hebrew – was thus heavily influenced by Jewish music, reflecting the country’s multiracial and multi-ethnic milieu. It was a genre which was able to meld seamlessly together those strands of Polish, Jewish, and Argentine life, as well as sundry other musical influences.
Encapsulating the exciting and diverse tang of interwar Poland, Jewish tango was the soundtrack to a generation.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jun 2020
Sources: ‘The Shtetl: New Evaluations’ by Steven T. Katz (NYU 2009); ‘Oy, My Buenos Aires: Jewish Immigrants and the Creation of Argentine National Identity’ by Mollie Lewis Nouwen (UNM Press 2013); ‘The Interwar Gallery’ by Sam Kassow; Polskie Tango Hebrajskie (CD, 2019)