Julian Tuwim was an iconoclast, a revolutionary, a poet of the regime, a Jewish mystic who turned to communism in order to escape anti-Semitism. A look into the poet's turbulent life reveals much about Poland's darkest era.
Rhyming for the masses
Tuwim was the first mass poet, writing cabaret sketches, humoresque pieces, satires and szmonces, comic pieces rooted in and alluding to Jewish tradition. His phrases would echo in the Warsaw streets. He wrote texts for the theatre and librettos for opera, as well as lyrics to musical hits of his era and film soundtracks.
This work made Tuwim very famous and provided him with decent income. Though he considered it a second-class product, he never managed to quit the cabaret. He professed that by working three days a month for a cabaret, he had the remaining 27 for writing poems.
Thanks to brilliant interpretations in subsequent generations, his poems and texts are still very much alive in Polish culture, although younger generations may not be aware of their origin.
A mystical approach to writing
The poet who conjured up chart-busting cabaret songs believed in a rather mystical concept of the word. In his collection Words in Blood, Tuwim wrote:
And the word was made flesh,
And it has dwelt among us,
I feed the starving body
With words as if they were fruit.
He began keeping diaries as a young boy, in which he noted words with a similar sound, but which possessed different meanings in other languages. His linguistic fascinations endured throughout his life, and as an older man he would often note exotic words and phrases on little pieces of paper.
Tuwim often attempted to employ sound to transgress the semantic layer of words, coming close to Khlebnikov’s idea of a language beyond reason. Only such a sensual and nearly erotic concept of the word could generate a poem like Peach:
Do you hear? there is juiciness in this word, there is the bitter sweetness of mashed fruit pulp; the juice, dripping down and swallowed greedily by the thirsty mouth. Soft, round, mossed with delicate fluff, this peach lures me, wakes my desire, I want to caress it with my lips, nip it lightly with my fingers, stroke it fondly, and blow into its velvety puff.
A stigmatised agoraphobiac
Most photographs portray Tuwim’s right profile. Some of the few that capture him full face allow a glimpse of a birthmark on his left cheek. According to biographer Mariusz Urbanek, Adela Tuwimowa saw in her son's birthmark the curse of fate (she wanted him to undergo surgery). Tuwim’s sister remembers their mother 'going into some collusion with a fortune-teller, who was supposed to free Julian of this devil’s stigma.'
The mole repulsed other children, and as a boy Tuwim refused to go outside with his mother, as he didn’t want her to suffer from the insults and scorn. Perhaps the naevus on his cheek was also the cause of problems at school: Tuwim had to repeat the 6th grade.
In later years, the poet developed agoraphobia and one can speculate about the role his physical appearance played in developing the disorder. His phobia was so severe that it forced him to travel by taxi only anytime he wanted to leave the house.
Scandals and debauchery
Following the release of Spring in 1918, critics wrote that: 'the degenerate Tuwim transforms young souls like the worst poison'. The poem inspired one of the greatest scandals in the history of Polish poetry, and the poet was accused of the worst: licentiousness, debauchery, depravation of youth, pornography. The poem describes 14-year-old factory workers soon to be transformed into 'vile' mothers because of lust. These 'breeding monster' made Tuwim instantaneously famous, if not popular.
Tuwim remained a subversive character throughout his life. This most obvious in his censored works, one of which is entitled A Poem in which the Author Politely but Decidedly Asks a Multitude of Neighbours to Kiss his Ass...
A Jewish anti-Semite
Tuwim came from a fully assimilated Jewish family and felt for a long time he had little in common with other Jewish people. 'Black, sly, bearded / with delirious eyes / that are filled with eternal angst', he wrote in a piece entitled Jews. He was in favour of assimilation:'I am and I always will be against the uniform beard-bearers and their Hebrew-German bigos as well as the tradition of injuring the Polish language'. For these reasons, the traditional Jewish community saw him as a traitor who chose Polishness.
Once, during a reading of his poem Stockers, the police had to defend him against a mob of infuriated Jews. His use of the word gudłaje – reserved for anti-Semitic discourse – triggered their indignation.
It was only during the Holocaust that Tuwim began to identify with his Jewish roots. In the text We, Polish Jews, written in exile in 1944, he explains to the Jewish why feels Polish, and to the Polish why he feels Jewish.
Perhaps his double ethnic identity is best captured in the poem from 1924, Little Jew. There, he speaks of a small, ragged Jewish beggar, who sings in the courtyard for money. An elegant man looks onto him from the first floor, a poet. The poem finishes with:
We shall never find silence nor shelter
Singing Jews, insane Jews
Michał Głowiński, a literary theoretician, observed that 'it is obvious that in this verse, Tuwim identifies both with the beggar and with the poet. It is perfectly visible how the question of national identity played a key role in his work. Tuwim struggled with it throughout his life.'
Neither Jewish nor Polish
For anti-Semites Tuwim always remained a Jewish man, and as a Jewish man he was the object of brutal assaults. Accusing Tuwim of 'jewing up' Polish literature, the magazine Prosto z mostu wrote in 1930, 'Tuwim doesn’t write in Polish, but merely using the Polish language'.
There were instances where he reacted boldly. In a verse addressed to 'a certain barking nationalist' he declared he wouldn’t tell a dog to go fuck him, for fear of degrading the dog. He was also very witty at taking anti-Semitic phrases and words and mocking them.
What is interesting is that Tuwim’s popularity was so broad, and his influence so great, that even pre-war anti-Semitic writers such as Józef Aleksander Gałuszka would imitate him.
The constant anti-Semitic attacks exhausted him, and towards the end of his life he even developed an obsession about them. His friend and fellow poet Aleksander Wat said that late in life Tuwim often screamed that he would remember those attacks to the grave.
Although he abandoned his law studies after only a year, he continually developed his passions and interests. In the mid-1920s, Tuwim, already a famous poet and cabaret artist, showed his unknown face. The anthology Polish Demons and Spells was a summary of many years of research into demonology, and he devoted pamphlets to the study of folk superstitions connected to the devil. His private 'demonic' library held over a thousand volumes, and he owned a collection of books about rats – for years he intended to put together a huge monograph about the rodents.
He also put together a Polish Drunks’ Dictionary, where the word 'drunk' had 135 synonyms. As for the multitude of curiosities and poetic finds he picked up from the press and various books, they were brought together in The Prancing Pegasus and Cicer Cum Caule.
Translating into Esperanto
Tuwim knew a few languages, though he didn’t consider himself a polyglot. Nonetheless, he debuted as a translator in 1911, when he transcribed Leopold Staff’s poem In the Autumn Sun into Esperanto.
He also translated foreign poetry into Polish, including works by Rimbaud, Heine and Horatio. However, first and foremost, he translated the Russian poets Lermontov, Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Blok. He considered Russian a language created for poetry and Pushkin was his great love. Ilya Erenburg remembered that upon hearing the poet recite his translation of the Bronze Horseman, he could hear the preserved rhythm of Pushkin’s original text.
For years Tuwim attempted to translate Eugene Onegin, but reportedly gave up after working on just one line for weeks on end. And although he knew Pushkin very well, he never considered himself a specialist.
Poetry for children
Tuwim began writing for children rather late. His famous rhymes, which nowadays in Poland are essential elements of nearly everyone’s childhood memories, were created in the mid-1930s. His famous Locomotive was released in 1936. Tuwim and his wife Stefania Marchwiówna had no children, but when they returned to Poland after the war they adopted an orphaned 5-year-old.
Flirting with the communist authorities
Czesław Miłosz often quoted Tuwim’s close friend, Józef Wittlin, and said that 'Tuwim is the proof that God does exist, for such a stupid man to be such a great poet.' Wittlin was supposedly thus commenting on Tuwim’s questionable political leanings: his overly enthusiastic approach to communism and Soviet Russia.
Perhaps Wat provides the best explanation for Tuwim’s stance. Once, after a meeting with the secretary general of the Soviet writers’ association and following a long presentation in praise of the Communist party, a loud, long series of applause resounded throughout the room. Suddenly Tuwim surged forward from the first row and started clapping right under the apparatchik's nose, in ecstasy. Urbanek claims that his behaviour was not a sign of servility, and he quotes Aleksander Wat: 'he was an ecstatic man, who just had to adore someone, to dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and he lived only in those moments of elation, and only thanks to those moments.'