Moved Away, Then Faded Away: The Lives of Polish Interwar Artists after WWII
default, Moved Away, Then Faded Away: The Lives of Polish Interwar Artists after WWII, Włada Majewska and Marian Hemar at the RWE Studio, photo: National Digital Archive NAC, center, wanda_majewska_marian_hemar_nac.jpg
The burgeoning cultural output of Interwar Poland offered plenteous opportunities for talented individuals in every artistic sphere to achieve celebrity status. With stage and screen ever-beckoning new talents, a luxurious popular culture was on the up and up. All was obliterated when war broke out in 1939.
For those who survived the war, Poland became an unfamiliar landscape. Out of the glittering troupe of interwar icons, only Mieczysław Fogg and Władysław Szpilman remained the idolised stalwarts of a culture deteriorating around them. But what happened to those interwar stars who settled abroad after 1945?
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Marian Hemar was an acclaimed interwar lyricist and poet, working for some of the most renowned cabarets and stages of Warsaw. At the beginning of the war, Hemar had been seen by his friend Benno Rand at the Romanian border looking depressed. Hemar’s wife, Maria Modzelewska, had recently left him for an army officer, and he was chain-smoking, his career and personal life in tatters. Hemar also considered suicide. An opportunity came in the form of joining the army, where – after penning a couple of war songs, he was delegated to London by General Sikorski for cultural and educational work in the Ministry of Information.
After 1945, Hemar decided to stay in London, quickly becoming engrossed in the cultural activities of the Polish diaspora. He established the Orzeł Biały (White Eagle) cabaret in 1946, the same year he married a second wife, Caroll (Caja) Ann Eric, a Hollywood starlet and one of the torch-bearer models for Columbia Pictures. Initially living in Caja’s flat in Knightsbridge, Hemar and his wife moved to Bayswater/Kensington by the late 1940s. Hemar then established the political and satirical Hemar Theatre in the late 1940s, which staged 19 programs; he also collaborated with the Association of Polish Stage Artists (ZASP), directing his own comedies, and submitted work for Wiadomości and Tydzień Polski.
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Quickly achieving renown among Polish émigrés, Hemar became a bastion of Polish life in the city, giving popular satirical commentaries on Radio Free Europe on a weekly basis from the year 1951. In 1955, he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his artistic work at the ZASP Theatre, and a year later, his divorce with Modzelewska was finalised. Allegedly, he wrote more than 60 songs for the diaspora, including the 1956 Lwowskie Gwiazdy (Lviv Stars), with lyrics emphasising the distance between pre-war Poland and the Poland it had become:
I repeat spells,
I think they will come back again
These stars – diamonds,
and love, and youth, and Lviv
In 1959, Hemar and his wife moved to Fig Tree Cottage, Leith Hill, in Dorking. In 1966, he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of Polonia Restituta, and in 1967, he was given a lifetime achievement award from the London-based Dziennik Polski newspaper for his dramatic, revue and other theatrical work. But it was not just Polish culture to which Hemar applied himself: In 1968, he also published a translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and later, a translation of Horace’s Odes. He also published new volumes of his own poetry until 1971. Surrey historians have also noted that Hemar wrote to The Times in 1966 to support the continuation of the Polish Library in London; he described the venture as evidence of ‘Great Britain’s generosity and hospitality, friendship and faith kept with former allies’.
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Hemar died in February 1972 and was buried in Christ Church, Coldharbour. One of Hemar’s poems, Życzenie (Wish), describes asking for ‘a sachet – a tiny one – with some Polish soil … ask my wife to use it, when my mourners gather’. In keeping with his words, a group of celebrities and guests, together with the Polish Ave Verum choir, gathered at his graveside in October 2016 to celebrate Hemar’s life with a concert – and to place a casket of soil from Łyczakowski Cemetery, Lwów, onto his grave.
Adam Aston, the pre-war crooner with a voice like velvet, had considerably less success after 1945. Aston ended up in Henryk Wars’s Tea Jazz Orchestra in Lviv, before travelling to Frunze, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, with his wife in 1941. The pair nearly perished from starvation before being recruited by Ryszard Frank for a military orchestra; Aston later performed as part of the Polish Parade, joining the 2nd Polish Corps under General Anders. In 1944, Aston recorded the English-language hit Warsaw Melody, and, in 1946, he appeared in the 1946 Polish-Italian film Wielka Droga (Great Way), directed by Michał Waszyński.
Initially finding himself in London after demobilisation in 1947, Aston took part in the Polish Parade show heard on the BBC Home Service that year, broadcast from the Granville Theatre. He then travelled to South Africa, where he worked as an agent of a company producing spirits. He also performed in Johannesburg, at the Polish club-café Rozenberga. He was later appointed the director of a paper factory operating in the city.
By 1953, American Billboard magazine was running short articles under its International column about Aston’s new music. They explained that he could ‘handle the Polish lyric capably’, and that he had a ‘finely phrased’ voice, showcasing songs which were actually re-releases of his popular hits from the 1930s. In 1959, however, Aston suffered a heart attack, moving permanently to London in 1960. There, he performed at the Polish Polonia Theatre and acquired membership in ZASP.
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In the mid-1960s, Aston visited Warsaw and gave press interviews while making recordings for the Polish Radio. Soon after, he reunited with Henryk Wars in London, before the composer moved to the United States.
Although he remained popular, Aston – unlike Hemar – refrained from seriously continuing his professional career among the Polish émigré community in London. After the 1960s, he was rarely seen giving public performances, and the star, who was once an icon of Polish popular music, ultimately faded into obscurity. He died on 10 January 1993, his remains scattered in the gardens of the Golders Green Crematorium – where there is not even a plaque to commemorate him.
Zofia Terné, the spectacular pre-war singer once dubbed ‘the Nightingale of Warsaw’, had also joined the artistic troupe of the Polish II Corps under General Anders during the war. She met with Fryderyk Jarosy’s Cyrulik Warszawski (The Warsaw Barber) cabaret troupe in France after 1945, and later arrived in London with them in 1946.
She is reported to have performed in Polish theatres in London, including at Orzeł Biały, where a new café, Piekiełko, had been opened. There are still records of a photograph of her, alongside some of the other Qui Pro Quo veterans, performing at Ognisko Polskie in 1952. She also worked with the Polish Section of the BBC, and Radio Free Europe, where she appeared on Hemar’s broadcasts. She also established her own exclusive club, Chez Sophie.
Terné also visited Warsaw regularly, performing at the Palace of Culture in 1958. American Billboard even reported on one of her visits in 1967, and the star arrived back for the sixth time in 1969.
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Allegedly, at a concert held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her artistic work – less than a year before her death – she pointed out that whilst she was happy to perform, she felt she no longer belonged to talented musical spheres. She died on 17 August, 1987 and was buried in North Sheen Cemetery.
At her will reading the same year, it was revealed that Terné had left her entire fortune to the House of Veteran Actors of Polish Scenes in Skolimów, saving the financially destitute institution and allowing for the creation of a new building.
Hanka Ordonówna, the interwar icon of the Polish stage and screen, was imprisoned in Pawiak at the start of the war. Upon her release, she left for her husband’s estate near Wilno, performing in the cabarets which had been organised there. After her husband was arrested by the NKVD, Ordonówna accepted an invitation to sing in Moscow. Following her subsequent arrest, she was deported to a labour camp in Uzbekistan, where she fell ill with tuberculosis.
Nevertheless, Ordonówna managed to join the Anders Army in their journey to the Middle East. There, she found her vocation in caring for children in the orphanage of a dilapidated hotel in Ashkabad, eventually accompanying them to India – where she remained for three years, seeking treatment for tuberculosis alongside the children. There, she wrote Tulacze Dzieci (Wanderer Children), which detailed their experiences in the USSR.
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Ordonówna was eventually relocated to Beirut, where she joined her husband, and continued to perform for fellow Polish exiles. She contracted typhus in 1950 and died at the age of 48. She was initially buried in Beirut, but her ashes were transported to Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw in 1991.
Feliks Konarski, a pre-war writer, performer and director, had been based in Lviv when war broke out. At the time, he was performing in Henryk Wars’s Tea Jazz Orchestra, before travelling out of Russia in 1941. He joined the Anders Army that year and, following their trail, established a Polish Soldiers’ Theatre in Tehran in May 1942. He also penned the standout Polish war hit Czerwone Maki na Monte Cassino (Red Poppies in Monte Cassino) the night before the battle.
Konarski then starred in Waszyński’s 1946 film Wielka Droga (The Great Road), and he moved to London the same year. Konarski initially performed in camps in Scotland and England, penning the song Piosenka Starszego Pana (The Song of the Elderly Gentleman) in 1946 – which he later performed for Polonia Records, recorded in England:
And to think that it's gone, that it's over
Those old evenings will not return
Maria Drue recalls Konarski being one of the permanent cast members of Orzeł Biały’s café, Piekiełko, describing that:
Ref-Ren gave a repertoire without thinking – every week, new songs, contemporary skits and poems. The fruitfulness and diversity of his work was amazing. We wondered when he found time to write?... After returning to London, Felek either watched television or bet on horses.
But there were tensions in Polish émigré cultural circles too: Ref-Ren split from Hemar’s direction in 1948, opening Teatr Ref-Ren in Ognisko Polskie, whilst Hemar established Teatr Hemar. In fact, it was this split which inspired Konarski to organise a parody of Hemar in 1948 – after Hemar’s egocentric attitude had discouraged Konarski and other experienced directors from being involved in Teatr Hemar. The premiere of Nasi Za Granicą (We Abroad) was held on 8 December 1948, and reportedly. ‘almost the entirety of Polish London’ attended.
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Konarski’s financial insecurity, due to his reliance on the Polish theatrical scene in London, meant that he eventually decided to move to Chicago in 1965 – owing in part to the fact several of his 2nd Corps colleagues had already settled there after demobilisation. He also had a close cousin, the poet Zbigniew Chałko, who resided in the American city and had invited Konarski and his wife to relocate there.
Once in Chicago, Konarski continued to perform, preparing two revues a year and touring Polish centres across the United States. He also began a radio programme, Czerwone Maki na Monte Cassino – inspired by his song of the same title – which broadcast for 25 years, entertaining Polish-Americans and bridging generational gaps.
Konarski died in Chicago on 12 September 1991. The story goes that he passed just one day before he was due to return to Poland for the first time since the war. Irena Anders recounted his funeral, describing how Konarski was ‘in an open coffin, dressed in the tuxedo in which he performed’.
Fryderyk Jarosy, the renowned compere of Qui Pro Quo and Cyrulik Warszawski, spent the majority of the war in hiding after escaping German imprisonment, though he was incarcerated for a brief time in Buchenwald. After entertaining displaced persons in a German camp, he led a troupe of performers across Europe to London – under the old name of Cyrulik Warszawski.
Though settling in London, in 1947, Jarosy took a six-month engagement to Tel Aviv to join the Li-La-Lo theatre as director. They performed there for a year, before being forced out of the country by another conflict, and Jarosy returned to London.
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Ultimately, his was a fate similar to Aston’s. Jarosy became destitute in the English capital, with limited success in Polish émigré circles. Although, like his compatriots, he recorded some programmes for Radio Free Europe, these were never broadcast. There are records that Jarosy travelled to Los Angeles in 1950 with fellow entertainers, but there is very little to show of his post-war professional career. He returned to his wife and children, who were based in Italy, in August 1960, and died in a hospital in Viareggio soon after they had reconciled.
Nora Ney, the once ravishing actress of the 1930s, had escaped Poland for the USSR with her daughter. She worked in the radio during the war – but, after returning to Poland in 1945, she found limited opportunities for work. She emigrated to the United States with her daughter and sister in 1946, first settling in New York, before moving to California.
Yet, her American dream deteriorated quickly – despite her vast Polish-language experience, there was little space for a non-English speaker in American cinema. Eventually, her daughter supported her in gaining membership of the American Association of Actors, but she was still only recommended for silent roles. Instead of continuing and developing her career, Ney was instead occupied with work as a secretary or domestic helper.
Though she had been married twice before, with both ending in divorce, Ney married twice more in the States. Her third marriage, to Eugeniusz J. Brown, did not last, though the fourth, to the wealthy Leon Friedland, ensured her a comfortable retirement. She spent her final years watching films – but never pre-war pictures – on her television or in the cinema. She was invited to a 1994 Polish film event at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, but was too elderly to attend.
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Nora Ney died on 21 February 2003 in Encinitas, California, after suffering from Alzheimer’s and pneumonia. Her daughter, Joanna, still works in the film industry.
Archival photography by Michal Karski from the film 'Henryk Wars: A Songster of Warsaw' directed by Wiesław Dąbrowski, photo: www.polishdocs.pl; Henryk Wars, photo: Michal Karski
Henryk Wars, an eminent pre-war composer known as the 'father of Polish jazz', established a Tea Jazz Orchestra in Lviv following the outbreak of war, which was later combined with the Polish Parade. He also composed music for the post-war film Wielka Droga.
Remaining in Italy immediately after the war, Wars departed for the States with his family in 1947 – and, unlike Nora Ney, he had far greater success there, despite a few early stumbling blocks. First arriving in New York, the Wars family later moved to Los Angeles – though a musicians’ strike, combined with his lack of contacts, left him vulnerable to immediate struggles. He spent several years with little opportunity, working only as a copyist, and he debated changing careers to become a clerk – though his wife warned him against this.
Eventually, in 1950, Ira Gershwin sponsored him to join the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and in 1952, he scored his first contract in the US, with Universal Studios. Wars ran into trouble immediately: Production was extremely haphazard, with two composers employed for the film. Yet, two years later, Wars became friendly with John Wayne, who hired him to compose for Westerns and cowboy films. Wars’s compositions debuted in the 1954 film Seven Men from Now.
Wars anglicised his name to Henry Vars to secure work in America – though he often went uncredited in production details, as the American custom was to instead attribute music to the film’s musical director.
From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, however, Wars’s American career took off: he wrote music for productions under Columbia, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox and MGM; overall, he contributed to around 60 films and TV shows. His songs were performed by Bing Crosby and Doris Day. Over and Over and Over, sung by Margaret Whiting, sold half a million copies and also gained popularity in Poland, in a performance by Anna German.
But Wars’s greatest post-war success came with a film and television series about a dolphin. He composed the theme for Flipper and Flipper’s New Adventure in the 1960s – pictures followed by the television series Flipper, produced from 1964 to 1967.
In 1967, Wars made his first and last visit to Warsaw after the end of WWII, with records suggesting he recorded jazz suites for the Polish Radio, and conducted at the Warsaw Philharmonic, whilst also performing for Polish Television and the Polish Film Chronicle.
The last programme which credits Wars was the 1971 film Fools’ Parade, starring James Stewart and George Kennedy. Later in his life, the composer also attended cultural events at the Jasna Góra Catholic Church in Los Angeles, and drew caricatures. On 1 September 1977, Wars died at home, listening to the composer Szymanowski – whose works he had admired for the duration of his life. A few years after his death, Wars’s wife discovered lost scores of music in their garage; and, in the early 2000s, a documentary was made to celebrate the composer: Henryk Wars: A Songster of Warsaw (Henryk Wars: Pieśniarz Warszawy).
Although Polish popular culture changed dramatically after the demise of the interwar period, the brilliance and virtuosity of those artists whose central repertoire originated from the 1920s and 1930s ensured a small corner of the Polish stage would remain open for them – even if just for little while. Several of these interwar icons never again achieved any level of renown similar to that which they had experienced in the interbellum. Still, they remain personifications of a glorious age of Polish cultural output – and this legacy is timeless.
Written by Juliette Bretan, 10 Jan 2019