Last Days: Warsaw’s Shining Cultural Moment on the Eve of WWII
default, Last Days: Warsaw’s Shining Cultural Moment on the Eve of WWII, Museum Narodowe in Warsaw, 1938, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, muzeum_narodowe_w_warszawie_nac.jpg
In October 1938, a new exhibition opened at the National Museum in Warsaw, which would run until mid-1939. Titled ‘Warszawa Wczoraj, Dziś, Jutro’ (Warsaw Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow), it testified to a bountiful past, present and future for a city which, by then, was in its effervescent heyday.
And it was in those last vestiges of summer 1939, as that exhibition ran to a close, that Polish culture was still blossoming in the face of increasing threats of war. As the historian Anna Kotańska puts it:
Blueprints of a city
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Mock-up from the exhibition ‘Warszawa Wczoraj, Dziś, Jutro’ (Warsaw Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow) at the National Museum in Warsaw. A view of one of the exhibits – a mockup showing the spatial layout of old Warsaw; a visual model of the Royal Castle. 1938, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
As the most prominent sign of continuous development and modernisation in the Polish nation, Warszawa Wczoraj, Dziś, Jutro encapsulated the architectural growth of the Polish capital in the Interwar period. Twenty-four rooms across the museum were commandeered to display boards of information on the changing demographics of Warsaw, set alongside sparkling photo montages of the transforming metropolis – with an accompanying book published as a city guide.
The central room, and by far the largest part of the exhibition, was devoted to urban development, featuring models of recent construction and plans for the future appearance of the city. But the real developments that these plans depicted were to stretch far beyond the museum’s doors, uniting an ever-expanding state. One exhibit was a cross-section model of Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, depicting the underground placement of electric, telephone and gas cables – and an underground metro.
In fact, the creation of a Warsaw underground was a very active possibility in the Interwar years: the Underground Railway Department had been created in 1925, but the economic depression meant that it was only in the mid-1930s that Mayor Stefan Starzyński appointed the Underground Railway Research Bureau to kickstart the project. The completion of the work was scheduled for the mid-1940s, so all of the Interwar-period metro plans eventually came to nothing.
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There were other transport-based developments too, particularly with regards to air travel. In keeping with the 1936 spelling reforms, which promoted the use of ‘i’ instead of ‘j’ in the Polish language, LOT Polish Airlines altered its name from Polskie Linje Lotnicze to Polskie Linie Lotnicze.
Aside from mere semantics, LOT was quite literally paving the way towards a new age of Polish international connections. In 1938, a test flight from Los Angeles to Warsaw via Buenos Aires, Natal and Dakar was undertaken in order to gauge the feasibility of introducing a passenger route between the United States and Poland. These transatlantic plans would eventually come to fruition – but not until many years later, and certainly not before WWII. During the war, each and every one of LOT’s hangars and airport buildings would be destroyed.
One of the most significant developments in the final months of the Second Polish Republic – and another feature of Warszawa Wczoraj, Dziś, Jutro – was that of the new Polish Radio building, an institution which was already broadcasting one national and nine regional channels, in six foreign languages. Despite its role to accommodate the expansion of Polish Radio itself, the new building was also to be an addition to the architectural plans for a district named after Marshal Józef Piłsudski, following his death in 1935.
A competition for the design held in 1938 was won by Bohdan Pniewski. His plan, featuring rustic and modern styles, was to be over 20 storeys high and thus one of Europe’s tallest. With the foundations laid in early 1939, it promised to be an attraction as well as a symbol of Warsaw’s modernity – until war arrived just months later, physically burying the building’s beginnings, and with it any future.
And the cameras keep rolling…
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Still from the movie 'Włóczęgi', 1939, directed by Michał Waszyński, photo: Leonard Zajączkowski / Filmoteka Narodowa Instytut Audiowizualny / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Cinema was another entertainment industry in its heyday in 1939. By that year, there were already more than 50 movie theatres in Warsaw, with artists like the effervescent Eugeniusz Bodo opening their own studios. But, in spring, even a new cinema opened its doors: Kino Napoleon.
Situated in the basement of the Italian insurance company Riunione Adriatica di Sciurta in Trzech Krzyży Square, Kino Napoleon rapidly became renowned for its luxury: inside, a large hall moved tastefully to a grand balcony, where armchairs, upholstered in purple, were decorated with a gold letter N, and expensive coffee could be tasted. Outside, the cinema’s name glowed in neon. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, they altered the name to Kino Apollo – allegedly so they wouldn’t have to make major alterations to the neon sign.
Changes were afoot on the silver screen itself as well. One of the first films of 1939, released in January, was Kłamstwo Krystyny (Krystyna’s Lie), directed by the acclaimed film director Henryk Szaro. It featured an electric performance by Loda Halama, which has since gone down in Polish cinematic history: depicting her shimmying in an eruption of chiffon atop a vast cocktail glass, singing the ebullient hit Lim-Pam-Pom.
Another 1939 film was Doctor Murek, based on two novels by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz. Released in April, this picture starred Franciszek Brodniewicz, Nora Ney and Ina Benita, with music by Władysław and Henryk Szpilman. Ewa Mazierska describes it as being ‘embedded in contemporary reality’ with a ‘fatalistic feel’ – a world away from the patriotic dramas of early Polish cinema.
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Just four days before Doctor Murek premiered, however, came probably the most renowned picture of 1939 and a blockbuster of its time: the spirited, bucolic world of Vagabonds, directed by the great Michał Waszyński. It was a final celebration of the eastern, Lvovian influence which had taken the Polish entertainment media by storm in the Interwar years.
Just as all actors and singers were trained in the Lviv dialect of the East, so too did Vagabonds leach tenfold that typical Interwar sound, steeped in the urban folklore and humour of Lviv itself. And who better to star in the film than the comedy duo Szczepko and Tońko, themselves the central proponents of the Lvovian dialect?
From 1933, the pair had smirked and tittered their inundating way into the houses and hearts of the Polish population each Sunday, as Polish Radio dutifully opened its doors to a saturated, unadulterated helping of Lvovian mirth with their hilarious broadcast Wesoła Lwowska Fala (Lviv’s Merry Wave). Estimates claim that six million were listening to the broadcasts in the Interwar period, or one sixth of the Polish population. As the writer Jerzy Janicki describes it:
Every week at nine in the evening on Sunday, all the superheterodyne, all ‘Philips’ and ‘Telefunken’, all still playing here and there with the use of ‘Daimon’ batteries and anodes and radio cameras, were set to a medium wave length of 385.1 meters, in which they were renting the ether of Polish Radio Lviv.
But it was in Vagabonds that all of Szczepko and Tońko’s homely, rural Lvovian charm boiled down to one jubilant song: Tylko we Lwowie (Only in Lviv), by Henryk Wars and Emanuel Schlechter. Szczepko and Tońko’s performance in the film is classic Lviv: skipping past market stalls oozing flowers and fruit and ornaments, the pair simper and drawl a potent local brogue about the irresistible values of their city, as the shoppers around them accumulate into a raucous riot of bobbing headscarves.
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A few years later, Bodo performed and recorded the song in Russian, as Czekamy Was we Lwowie (We’re Waiting for You in Lviv) – linked to his time spent in Russia with Henryk Wars’s Tea-Jazz Orchestra. But it is Szczepko and Tońko’s rendition which is most remembered as the final traces of a more diverse Polish interwar culture, and has since been re-released in multiple Polish, Ukrainian and Russian editions.
Even despite the popularity of Vagabonds, there were, however, many other films which were finished before the war, but that ultimately went without a premiere – or were never finished in the first place. On 11th August 1939, Warszawski Dziennik Narodowy even ran a list of the upcoming pictures for the new season, billing them as examples of a new era for Polish film:
At the moment, domestic film production is showing a significant revival, which is relatively larger than in the previous years.
Songs of a dying age
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'Season, Open Up' revue at the Ali Baba Theater in Warsaw. Pictured: Czesław Konarski and Alicja Halama in a scene from the 'After the Ball' dance. 1939, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
As Vagabonds testifies, the beginning months of 1939 are often referred to as the ‘golden summer’ of Polish interwar music. Drawing on years of thriving production predominately by talented Jewish artists, popular music in Poland peaked during early 1939, with a series of promising events taking place.
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Eugeniusz Bodo opened his gastronomic enterprise, Café Bodo, in February 1939. It was also during that year that the behemoth of the Polish recording world, Syrena-Electro, signed a recording contract with HMV, exporting and importing across the world. And, just the year before, Josephine Baker had visited Warsaw and Kraków – giving her legendary performances in which she danced nude, except for a string of bananas around her waist.
From a musical perspective, things were certainly, and consistently, on the up and up.
Syrena itself was still pouring out the delicious, yet heartbreaking sounds, mainly written by Jewish artists, which had captivated Poland throughout the Interwar period. There was the tango Złociste Chryzantemy (Golden chrysanthemums), by Zbigniew Maciejowski, about a hypnotising, yet dying flower, and Wars and Schlechter’s Modna Piosenka (Fashionable Song), which ironically detailed the eventual demise of a once-popular melody and the city within which it was sustained. And one of the company’s last recordings was Nic o Tobie Nie Wiem (I Don’t Know Anything About You), performed by Mieczysław Fogg – a song which had already tasted success in Vagabonds.
Another song recorded in that summer was the waltz Trzy Listy (Three Letters), by Leon Boruński and Jerzy Jurandot, a story of repeated failures to communicate love - and one of the last big hits before WWII. Jurandot, too, was certainly in his prime in 1939, working with other pre-war stars like Stefania Grodzieńska, who was also his wife, and the acclaimed compère Fryderyk Járosy in musical production. Together, they planned to establish a new theatre, the Figaro.
The Figaro’s premiere was scheduled for 2nd September 1939. An advertisement for it printed in Wieczór Warszawski on 31st August was emblazoned with the phrase ‘Żyć nie umierać!’ – or, ‘This is the life!’, with the paper going on to write that it would be:
Surely the most favourite and merriest stage in Warsaw.
Of course, the Figaro never opened.
But though the larger situation in Warsaw was acknowledged to be deteriorating, even in those latter days of August, it is said that Varsovians were still dancing in the cabarets and theatres which peppered the streets of the capital, unknowingly mocking the impending chaos and destruction. As Władysław Szpilman notes, even in the evening of 31st August:
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Bands still played behind the darkened windows of cafés and bars where the customers drank, danced and stirred up their patriotic feelings by singing belligerent songs. The need for a blackout, the chance to walk about with a gas mask slung over your shoulder, a journey home at night by taxi through streets that suddenly looked different added a certain spice to life, especially as there was no real danger yet.
Indeed, other cabarets and theatres were planning on opening new shows, with newspapers printing the details of the latest seasons. In mid-August, Kurier Warszawski announced the artists involved in the 1939 to 1940 season at the National Theatre and Opera. It also described the planned opening of the Figaro.
On 12th August, the paper also promoted the inauguration of the new revue theatre Tip-Top, located in the rooms of the former Buffo Theatre and directed by the founder of Chór Dana, Władysław Daniłowski. The premiere was advertised as starring the revellers’ group alongside Bodo, Hanka Ordonówna and Loda Halama; Kurier Warszawski promoted it as an example of the prosperous new season for the remaining cabarets in the capital. The next program for Tip-Top was advertised on 30th August, but of course never came to fruition.
In fact, it was Trzy Listy which was one of the songs premiering during what would be one of the last first-rate – and tantalisingly acerbic – revue shows of the era, Orzeł czy Reszka, shown at the Ali Baba theatre. The programme ran continuously from May to August 1939. The title itself was characteristically tongue-in-cheek: Orzeł referred to the Polish eagle, but also to ‘heads’, whilst ‘Reszka’ was both the diminutive form for ‘Rzesza’ (or ‘Reich’) and referred to the tail side of a coin.
The finale of the revue, Panopticon of Military Figures, included a performance by Ludwik Sempoliński singing Ten Wąsik, Ach Ten Wąsik (This Moustache, Oh, This Moustache) – a parody of Hitler, with music to Charlie Chaplin’s classic Titina - which told of Chaplin’s bowler hat transforming into helmets, and laughter descending into screams. The song was performed more than 180 times up to the end of August.
Then, there was a performance by Mieczysław Fogg dressed as Neville Chamberlain, and Wojciech Ruszkowski as Mussolini. But in the months leading up to September, the threat across the border was growing more and more dangerous. Interventions from a critical German ambassador in Warsaw meant the show had to be altered repeatedly. Sempoliński recalled the concern over Ten Wąsik:
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A month following the opening night of the revue, the German Ambassador protested at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs against making fun of Hitler. We were bewildered as this stage character was one of the highlights of our show. In my attempts to rescue the show, I shaved the moustache, but it did not help much. The observers from the German Embassy were watching whether the order was obeyed. I was forced to dress up as Goebbels. They allowed it.
After the war broke out, Sempoliński was forced to go into hiding in Vilnius to avoid persecution for his rendition of the song.
The themes of Orzeł czy Reszka found their way into a subsequent revue show at the Ali Baba, Pakty i Fakty (Pacts and Facts), which premiered on 31st August. Earlier that month, Wieczór Warszawski had billed it as a performance ‘awaited impatiently by the entirety of Warsaw’s theatre scene’. Despite the ultimately low audience numbers, the show would be one of, if not the last occasion at which several eminent stars of the period came together. Marian Hemar recollected covering his windows with strips of paper before the evening premiere, whilst Fogg recalled in his memoirs that, after his performance on 31st August:
I came home late. I barely went to bed, and the bomb blasts, preceded by the sirens, woke me up in the morning. […] Despair overwhelmed me. So, the war! I connected with the theatre.
‘Come in the afternoon, we play as usual…’ I heard on the phone. Good!
The theatre was bombed and destroyed on 4th September. The music – and the hopes and lives of many of the cabaret and theatre and film artists of this remarkable era – dissipated into the smoke-filled air.
And thus, the promises of brighter futures which appeared to be within touching distance just mere days before 1st September were transformed, suddenly and almost unexpectedly, into rubble – leaving Poland decimated of its artistic potential. Although, as Warszawa Wczoraj, Dziś, Jutro does attest, the capital – and the country – did have a future, it would never be the same as the one lost 80 years before.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jun 2019
Sources: http://mazowsze.hist.pl/37/Almanach_Muzealny/796/1999/27397; http://cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl/dmuseion/docmetadata?id=30835&show_nav=true; ‘Warsaw: The Cabaret Years’ by Ron Nowicki (Mercury House, 1992); ‘Syrena Songs: Music Extra’, BBC World Service, 2018