Jerzy Waldorff was a Polish music critic, writer, columnist, and social activist. He was born in 1910 in Warsaw, where he died in 1999.
Waldorff's long and eventful life spanned nearly across the whole 20th century. He was shaped by the tradition and culture of the interwar period and transferred this culture to the post-war reality, becoming 'the last baron of the Polish People's Republic'. Mariusz Urbanek wrote:
His characteristic voice coming from the radio was recognised by everyone. His subsequent dachshund dogs, all named Puzon (translator's note: Polish word for 'trombone'), which accompanied him during TV shows, were equally popular. He wrote columns devoted to classical music and books which were widely read for their fine style.
Waldorff was born in 1910 as a son of Joanna, née Szuster, and the landowner Witold Preyss. Jerzy Waldorff was the main source of information about his family and social background. He often objected to being called an 'aristocrat' or a 'baron'. 'I descend from a very old gentry', he said in the interview carried out by Tomasz Raczek. The coat of arms that he used – 'Nebram' – was known as early as in the 14th century. 'Waldorff' is another name for the same coat of arms, but Jerzy Waldorff himself did not explain why he decided to use this variant of his surname. His parents were wealthy. Nevertheless, his father was careless with money, so the family's financial situation was not always stable.
Waldorff spent the first years of his life in Kościelna Wieś in the Kujawy region and in a small manor house in Rękawczyn in the Wielkopolska region, which he described later in the autobiographical novel Fidrek. He was educated in the lower secondary school in Trzemeszno and in the St. Mary Magdalene's lower secondary school in Poznań, which influenced him a lot. Waldorff emphasised that he was shaped by the family environment. He had a big multigenerational family which took part in providing a young individual with 'decent education'. 'At that time the artistocracy simply consisted of well-educated people', Waldorff said. He dedicated many of the anecdotes from his books to his relatives and friends, uncles and grandmothers. Before the war he went on a few journeys to Western Europe: he visited France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. His mother was particularly persistent on these journeys since she believed that thanks to them her son would get to know European culture better and later make use of this knowledge in his adult life. Waldorff was a fluent speaker of French, English and German.
He studied law at the University of Poznań and received music education in the Academy of Music. However, he quickly abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer and moved to Warsaw in order to become a music critic. From 1936 he was a music reviewer in the magazines Kurier Poranny and Prosto z Mostu. He supported the National Democracy political movement. In 1938 he stopped collaborating with Prosto z Mostu, because he objected to the growing anti-Semitism of the magazine. However, in 1939 Waldorff published a few anti-Semitic articles in Kurier Poranny. Also in 1939, influenced by the experiences from the travel to Italy in 1937, he published his first book titled Art under the Dictatorship in which he underlined Mussolini's merits for Italy's development.
In 1938 Waldorff met Mieczysław Jankowski, who was later a dancer of the Grand Theatre and National Opera in Warsaw and a pedagogue. They spent holiday in Krynica and after that Waldorff told his mother he was going to get involved with him. The mother accepted her son's decision, but the father disinherited him and part of his relatives cut him off or outspokenly ignored.
Waldorff spent the wartime in Warsaw. He was not mobilised in September 1939. In October he went to Vilnius in order to find and bring Mieczysław Jankowski over to Warsaw. Waldorff met him in 1938; they were together until the end of his life (Jankowski passed for Waldorff's alleged cousin, but close friends knew about their relationship).
During the war Waldorff was involved in conspiratorial cultural life. He collaborated with the underground and the Central Welfare Council and organised classical music concerts for children and the young. When the Warsaw Uprising broke out, he was in Łomianki near Warsaw where he was preparing announcements from the intercepts of the Allies radio stations.
After the war, as a son of a landowner, a supporter of the National Democracy movement and a former columnist of a right wing magazine, he had trouble finding a job, but the director of the Polish Radio, Roman Jasiński, employed him 'covertly', as Waldorff himself put it. He worked under a pseudonym as the radio programmes controller. Thus, Waldorff was a witness of the post-war revival of the Polish Radio in the ruined Warsaw. In 1945 he lived in the temporary studio of the radio in a flat on Targowa street. He shared the sleeping space 'under the piano' with Władysław Szpilman. Waldorff wrote down and edited the pianist's war memories. The first version of the memoirs appeared in 1946 under the title Śmierć Miasta (translator's note: The Death of a City). In 1946 he became an editor of the magazine Przekrój, consequently moving to Kraków, and he convinced Marian Eile to hire Konstanty Idelfons Gałczyński. In 1950 he moved back to Warsaw and worked as a reporter for Express Wieczorny. From 1951 he had his weekly music programmes in the Polish Radio. He worked in the radio until 1976 when he signed the so called 'Memoriał 25', the letter of opposition against the changes in the constitution of the Polish People's Republic signed by members of the music circles. After that he was expelled from the radio.
During all his life Waldorff worked not only as a music critic but also a music popularizer and educator. His work in the radio brought him a big popularity which grew even more because of his columns in press and television appearances. Between 1957 and 1960 he published the famous series 'Ciach go smykiem' in the weekly Świat. For years he was a columnist in Polityka, he published books which were devoted to music above all, but they were also novels, biographies and memoirs.
The second area of his work, not less important than writing and music criticism, was social activity which was often linked with journalism. Waldorff was famous and recognised and it enabled him to gain funds and publicity for social campaigns. Through all his life he would involve in and animate different social actions and campaigns either for funding a museum or protecting an old palace or building a monument.
His first big success in this scope was a campaign for buying out Karol Szymanowski's villa named 'Atma' in Zakopane and founding the composer's museum there. He also acted in support of the opening of the Theatre Museum in Warsaw, getting a place for the seat of the Museum of Musical Instruments in Poznań, rescuing the palace in Antonin from devastation, organising the Polish Piano Festival in Słupsk (in 1986 he received honorary citizenship of this city) and building Józef Piłsudski's monument next to the Belweder palace. In 1974 he founded the Social Committee for the Care of Old Powązki. He managed to convince both famous actors, the big names of the cultural world and the 'common Warsaw inhabitants' that it was necessary to save the historic gravestones. On his initiative there is a fundraising for this cause at the Powązki cemetery organised every year. In 1992 Waldorff was declared a honorary citizen of Warsaw. In 1996 he was chosen the Warsaw inhabitant of the century and in 1990 he received the Kisiel Award, established by Stefan Kisielewski, Waldorff's lifelong friend. In 1995 he was awarded the Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Merit for his contribution to the Polish culture.
Waldorff was a dog lover. His famous dachshund Puzon (or, actually, all his dachshunds, each bearing the same name) was his companion in the radio studio and, later, in TV shows.
Waldorff died in December in 1999 from pneumonia. In his will he appointed his lifelong partner, Mieczysław Jankowski, as his heir and made a wish to be buried with him in one grave. Waldorff and Jankowski, who died in 2005, rest in the Powązki cemetery in Warsaw.
Originally written in Polish by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, December 2016, translated by MW, March 2018.