The Rise & Fall of Polish Song
#language & literature
small, The Rise & Fall of Polish Song, A musical debate takes place at Warsaw's Banda cabaret. From left: pianist Karol Gimpel, musician Mieczysław Hoherman, music director Marian Hemar,, tuwim teatr banda fragment nac _7101263.jpg
The vast majority of Polish popular music in the Interwar period was written by one generation of composers and poets of Jewish descent. While this fact is not widely known today, it may be further obfuscated by the fact that their contributions were hardly visible in their own time. Why? What does this tell us about the pre-war culture of Poland?
The story of Polish interwar popular music features a soundtrack of songs written and composed by authors of Jewish descent. Poets like Julian Tuwim, Marian Hemar, Andrzej Włast, Jerzy Jurandot, Ludwik Starski, Emanuel Szlechter and Władysław Szlengel – along with composers like Henryk Wars, Artur Gold, Jerzy Petersburski and Zygmunt Białostocki – are responsible for most of the pre-war musical hits.
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They all belonged to a generation of acculturated Polish Jews, with virtually no ties to traditional Jewish culture and little connection to period Yiddish culture. To a large extent, this group of artists invented popular culture in Poland, as the songs they wrote became classics known today by every Pole.
Hanna Ordonówna, a star of Polish cinema, sings 'Na Pierwszy Znak' (music by Henryk Wars, lyrics by Julian Tuwim) in the 1933 feature film 'Szpieg w Masce' (The Masked Spy). Film and cabaret provided songs that would later become national hits.
While their influence on Polish music was enormous, their position in the public sphere in their time was anything but substantial. The stage and the limelight, it seems, were reserved for Poles who were not Jewish. Here is their story – and that of the rise and fall of Polish song. (Skip to the end to see the list of Holocaust victims among Polish Jewish poets and composers.)
Cabaret – the birthplace of song
From the 'Pod Parasolem' (Under the Umbrella) revue in the Małe Qui Pro Quo (Little Qui Pro Quo) cabaret in Warsaw, 1939, photo: Stanisław Brzozowski / National Digital Archive NAC / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl
Modern popular music in Poland – the songs heard on the street, with lyrics that were the talk of the town – is inextricably connected with the history of interwar cabaret culture. It was in Warsaw's cabarets of the 1920s and 1930s, like Qui Pro Quo or Morskie Oko, that poets and composers crossed paths to create pieces that would later become the classics of Polish pop.
Like many other emerging branches of entertainment, cabaret in the interwar period was a new niche. It emerged on a grand scale after 1918, with the re-establishment of Poland's independence, and soon became one of the most vibrant forms of cultural life. As such, cabaret constituted an attractive field for young Jewish Poles, who faced significant discrimination in Polish society, even as it was undergoing significant changes.
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Among the talented Jewish artists drawn to the Polish cabaret and revue scene were exquisite poets such as Julian Tuwim, widely considered one of the greatest poets of Polish language in the 20th century – but also a great craftsman. The most famous among them, Andrzej Włast (hailed as the 'King of Trash') is considered the first mass-market writer in Poland. For many years, he delivered new texts for songs and skits on a weekly basis. He issaid to have written the lyrics for more than 2,000 songs.
Jerzy Petersburski's 'Tango Milonga', with lyrics by Andrzej Włast, is one of the very few Polish interwar hits to have made an international career. Worldwide, it is better known as 'Oh Donna Clara'.
The music for most of those songs was written by Henryk Wars, Zygmunt Białostocki, Szymon Kataszek, Jerzy Petersburski, and Artur Gold. (The latter two composers were members of the Melodyst family, a famous Jewish family of musicians, originally from Riga.) These artists brought the newest styles and rhythms to Polish popular music: the shimmies, charlestons, foxes, tango, and jazz, but also the taste of Klezmer music.
Crossing cultures through cabaret
Kazimierz Krukowski ('Lopek') in the 'Duby Smalone' (Nonsense) revue by the Cafe Club cabaret in Warsaw, 1937, photo: NAC / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl
Apart from being a new, unoccupied economic niche, cabaret also offered a unique space of freedom, one unavailable anywhere else. In the strongly hierarchized Polish society of the interwar period, Jewish artists may have perceived the cabaret as a space exempt from the normal rules and conventions of social life – along with the restrictions it imposed on minority groups. It offered the possibility of free speech, including unrestrained commentary on social and political reality.
This is explained by Elżbieta Janicka, a scholar specialising in Polish-Jewish relations:
The cabaret actor/author takes on the role of a jester, which entitles him to do just about everything, and even more… He can mock the king himself, and even unmask violence and exclusion.
The joke, however – as Janicka explains – is that all this freedom is meaningless... As the cabaret convention makes the critique illegitimate, a part of the the carnivalesque time of a temporary reversal of roles.
Qui Pro Quo
Janicka goes on to describe the Polish cabaret as a 'slippery field of integration'. In fact, cabaret helped to shape forms as ambiguous as the genre of szmonces, or humourous cabaret pieces which make fun of the habits and the language of assimilating Jews – rendering them in a grotesquely caricatural manner.
Szmonces quickly became a subject of criticism in the interwar Jewish press. As Nachum Sokolov stated in 1927:
Its clownery has as much to do with the question of mending customs as does, for example, the cancan with the question of citizens’ equal rights.
One of the most popular szmonces pieces, 'Sęk' was written and performed by Konrad Tom in 1926. This is the 1972 version by Kabaret Dudek, performed by Edward Dziewoński and Wiesław Michnikowski.
Importantly, szmonces pieces were produced by Jews themselves (Tuwim, Jurandot and Kondrad Tom were all masters of the genre), which contributed to their ambiguous status. While they popularized many harmful stereotypes, they also offered a platform on which new Polish citizens could communicate with 'Polish' Poles. This can be considered one of the unwritten rules of the slippery integration of Polish Jews with the majority during this period.
As it turns out, there were others...
The scene and the ob-scene
Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz 'Lopek' Krukowski in a scene from the film 'Uhlans, Ulhans, the Painted Boys' (originally: Ułani, Ułani, Chłopcy Malowani), 1931, photo: NAC / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl
Although artists of Jewish descent were behind the majority of cabaret pieces, this was completely invisible on stage. Very few of them found themselves among the actors and performers of cabaret programmes. A notable exception includes Kazimierz Krukowski, popularly known as Lopek, whose recognition came from performing szmonces.
Other performative arts – theatre, film, and singing – all bear a similar mark. The only artists of Jewish origin to have made some kind of a career in interwar Polish film were Michał Znicz and Nora Ney. In the case of pre-war song, it was only Adam Aston and Wiera Gran. Here, too, it seems that the dividing line ran here more or less along the border that separated the stage from the backstage.
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Thus, while Jewish artists created the Polish entertainment culture, they were invisible on its various scenes: film screen, theatre and cabaret stage, concert halls. Janicka describes this situation as an example of the ‘ob-scenity’ principle, which defines what qualifies for stage and what doesn't.
Nora Ney and Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski in the film 'Serce na Ulicy' (Heart on the Street), 1930, photo: NAC / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl
What's more, the names mentioned above – like those of Marian Hemar, Andrzej Włast, Ludwik Starski, Albert Harris, Fanny Gordon or Henryk Wars – were pseudonyms and stage names. Taking on a Polish- or exotic-sounding stage name may well have been the prerequisite for artists of Jewish descent to find a place in the limelight – a price they had to pay in order to face a 'Polish' audience.
But this generation of Jewish artists can be credited with more than inventing Polish popular music. To a large extent, it was also this very milieu that shaped the character of Polish urban folk culture – or even our image of what interwar urban folklore was like.
Many of the most typical Warsaw songs, such as Nie Masz Cwaniaka nad Warszawiaka (There's None More Sly than a Warsaw Guy), Syn Ulicy (Son of the Street), and U Cioci na Imieninach (A Party at Auntie’s) – which, to the Polish ear momentarily evoke the iconic images and sounds of the prewar Warsaw's street – were authored by artists of Jewish origins.
Andrzej Włast played an especially significant role in this area. Born in Łódź as Gustaw Baumritter, he wrote lyrics for such typical Warsaw pieces as A Party at Auntie’s (with music by Bolesław Mucman) and Son of the Street (music by Jakub Kagan). His Varsovian repertoire includes also Na Wolskiej Sali Iskry Szły (Sparks Set Off in the Hall in Wola), with music by Zygmunt Wiehler, or Tango Andrusowskie (Roguish Tango), with music by Jerzy Petersburski.
A more lyrical testimony to Włast’s intimate relationship with Warsaw is the song entitled Warszawo, Moja Warszawo (Warsaw, My Warsaw), with music by Zygmunt Karasiński, and Warszawo Ma (My Warsaw) – inspired by the Jewish folk classic Mein Shtetele Belz (My Little Town of Beltz).
The same is true in regard to Władysław Szlengel. Known today primarily as the most important poet of the Warsaw Ghetto, Szlengel wrote lyrics for songs that later began to epitomise the urban culture of pre-war Warsaw. His Panna Andzia Ma Wychodne (Miss Andzia’s Got A Day Off ), Chodźmy na Piwko na Przeciwko (Let’s Get a Beer Across the Way), and Jadziem Panie Zielonka (Off We Go, Mr. Zielonka) stand as classics of the genre today.
According to Tomasz Lerski, these songs, featuring music composed by Bolesław Mucman, were 'perfect parodies, full of charm and harmony, and alluding to the atmosphere of authentic working-class ballads of the Warsaw suburbs'. They soon became authentic themselves.
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Perhaps the most symbolic of all of these songs is the ballad Bal na Gnojnej (The Ball on Gnojna Street). In its lyrics, the song preserved some of the original atmosphere of the night canteen run by Gruby Josek (Fat Josek) near Grzybowski Square – a place were local Jewish porters and traders crossed paths with members of Polish political establishment and Warsaw's literary boheme. The music, for lyrics written by Julian Krzewiński and Leopold Brodziński, was composed by Fanny Gordon – a Jewish composer, born in Russia, and one of the most extraordinary of the entire interwar period.
... to Lviv
In Lviv, the same pioneering role can be ascribed to Marian Hemar and Emanuel Szlechter. Hemar created dozens of songs written in bałak – a highly original variety of Polish urban argot which comprised elements of Ukrainian, German and Yiddish.
Born in 1904, Emanuel Schelchter was one of the most talented lyricists of the younger generation. Apart from the numerous all-Polish songs known to this day – such as Sex Appeal and Umówiłem się z Nią na Dziewiąta (I've Got a Date with Her at Nine) – he also wrote lyrics for many typical Lviv songs, like Tylko we Lwowie (Only in Lviv) and My Dwaj, Oba Cwaj (We Two, Both Two).
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Along with the brilliant screenwriter Ludwik Starski, author of such hits like Zimny Drań (Cold Rascal) and Już nie Zapomnisz Mnie (Now You Won’t Forget Me), they created the screenplay and dialogues in bałak for several films set in Lviv. Szlechter and Starski also authored two lullabies known even today to every child in Poland: Ach Śpij Kochanie (Ah, Sleep, My Love) and Dobranoc, Oczka Zmruż (Goodnight, Close Your Eyes), both composed by Henryk Wars.
Translating lyrics, exchanging cultures
While these artists were instrumental in creating and shaping the style of Polish popular music (and its local Warsaw or Lviv variations), they also facilitated the creative exchange taking place between the majority Polish-language culture and the flourishing popular culture in Yiddish, present in its own theatres, cabarets, movie theatres and music.
It was thanks to them that the Polish versions of such songs as Main Yiddishe Mame (My Yiddish Mama) and Sztetele Belz made it into mainstream Polish music. Throughout the entire interwar period, popular Polish songs were translated into Yiddish. Eugeniusz Bodo’s film song Nie Można Kogoś Zmuszać do Miłości (You Cannot Force Someone to Love), was played in Yiddish under the title M’ken Nisht Tzvingn tzu Kayn Libe and performed by Menashe Oppenheim, a star of Yiddish film in Poland, also a composer and singer.
The same artist also sang the famous Sex Appeal, with music by Wars, in Yiddish, originally performed by Bodo in the film Piętro Wyżej (One Floor Up). The Yiddish lyrics were written by Samuel Korn-Teuer, the author of the lyrics for Mayn Yiddishe Mame. Another interwar hit song – Jerzy Petersburski's Ja Się Boję Sama Spać (I'm Afraid to Sleep Alone) – had a Yiddish version, titled Ich Hob a Moyre Schloffen Allein.
Occasionally, this process also went the other way. The popular song Zuleyka, sung in Yiddish by Menashe Oppenheim, was recorded in Polish by Adam Aston.
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Aston may be considered an exceptional artist in this respect, as he sang and recorded in three languages: Polish, Jewish and Hebrew (he used Ben-Levi as a stage name when singing in Hebrew). He sang the Hebrew version of the 1935 Jerzy Petersburski hit To Ostatnia Niedziela (It's the Last Sunday), also popular in Russia as Utomlyonnoye Solntse. The lyrics for Ha-Shabat Ha-Akharona (The Last Shabbat) were written by Israel M. Biderman.
Through the efforts of composers like Zygmunt Białostocki, Jewish music also made it into popular songs. His 1933 tango Rebeka, with lyrics by Włast, was based on a sorrowful musical motif from a Hasidic melody. The lyrics dealt with the cultural distance that separated the shtetl and the city, the culture of Jews and that of the goys. Apparently, it was even sung by Hasidic Jews.
Another Jewish musical motif can be found in a song List do Palestyny (Letter to Palestine), composed by Bolesław Mucman, with lyrics by Włast as well. It includes a musical fragment from Max Bruch's Kol Nidre, with both the music and lyrics becoming the expression of a Zionist longing for the Promised Land.
A different musical vestige of those Jewish origins is the so-called Jewish- or Yiddish-fox, a kind of foxtrot inspired by Klezmer music. (Although in this case, it is possible that the inspiration came to Poland via Hollywood.)
This cultural exchange also emerged in other fields. Texts performed by two famous Jewish comedians from Łódź named Dzigan and Schumacher – originally written by Moshe Broderzon – were translated into Polish. Broderzon, as a member of the important avant-garde poetry circle Yung-yidish, was also a cabaret artist and authored the lyrics of many popular Yiddish songs. He cooperated with Henoch Kon – next to Dovid Beigielman, the most important composer of Yiddish music in the interwar period.
The Holocaust of Polish song
While many of these artists held little connection with traditional Jewish life, upon the outbreak of World War Two, they were confined to the ghettos, or had to go into hiding. Although thankfully, their lyrics and music live on today, the unjust and untimely losses of their livelihoods and lives also represented an irreparable loss for the music of Poland.
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This fate did not spare the 'King of Song' himself. Andrzej Włast found himself in the Warsaw Ghetto – where he was murdered after, as legend has it, he attempted to escape.
Władysław Szlengel, the author of many Warsaw songs popular to this day, died during the Ghetto Uprising. Today, he is primarily known as the 'Bard of the Ghetto'.
Jerzy Ryba (Jerry), film critic and author of lyrics for Bo to Się Zwykle Tak Zaczyna (For It Often Begins This Way) and Zapóźno (Too Late) died in the Warsaw Ghetto. The exact circumstances of his death remain unknown.
Emanuel Szlechter – the author of many songs, a screenwriter and the artist behind the lyrics to Sex Appeal and Umówiłem Się z Nią na Dziewiątą – died during the liquidation of the Lviv Ghetto in 1943.
Zygmunt Białostocki, the author of Rebeka, was murdered in the Nazi death camp in Treblinka, following the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Arthur Gold, the composer and author of the tango Jesienne Róże (Autumn Roses) and the melody for the hit song Ta Mała Piła Dziś (This Little One’s Been Drinking Today) died in Treblinka. Before his death, the Nazis forced him to establish a camp orchestra.
Bolesław Mucman, a close collaborator of Szlengel and the composer of U Cioci na Imieninach, was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Jakub Kagan, who composed the popular tango Złota Pantera (Golden Panther) and the Varsovian hit Syn Ulicy died in the Warsaw Ghetto, probably in 1942.
Szymon Kataszek, a pioneer of Polish jazz and the author of Każdemu Wolno Kochać (Everyone's Free to Love) managed to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto. He returned to conducting an orchestra on the Aryan side, but was denounced, arrested and executed in the Pawiak prison in Warsaw in 1943.
Feliks Halpern, who wrote the music for the ballad Czarna Mańka (Black Mary), died in the Łódź Ghetto on 3rd March 1942.
Dovid Beigielman, the music director of the Yiddish theatre Ararat in Łódź and the composer of songs such as Nisim, Nisim and Yidn, Shmidn was in the Łódź Ghetto during the war. He probably died in the camp of KL Auschwitz in Gliwice in 1944.
polish pop music
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Dec 2014; trans. with edits by Paulina Schlosser, Mar 2015; edited by LD, Mar 2019