A poet, novelist, essayist, translator; he was born on 17 August 1896 in Dmytrów near Radziechów in eastern Małopolska; he died on February 28, 1976 in New York.
A poet, novelist, essayist, translator; he belonged to the generation who was deeply affected by the war and antiwar sentiment was often expressed in his work.
Józef Wittlin, photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (National Digital Archive).
Between 1906-1914 he attended classical gymnasium in Lvov (after which he passed a centrally administered bacalauréat exam). His first published poem, "Prolog ku czci Zygmunta Krasińskiego", was published in "Wici" press in 1912 on the 100th anniversary of Zygmunt Krasiński's death. He graduated in Vienna in 1915, he then went on to stusy German, French and history of art. There also he met Joseph Roth and Rainer Maria Rilke whose works he later translated into Polish.
World War I interrupted his education. Wittlin joined the East Legion, which was disbanded in 1915. Between 1916-1918 he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. After the war he worked as a gymnasium teacher in Lvov while continuing Polish and philosophical studies.
During 1919-1920 he was associated with the expressionists from "Zdrój" ("The Source") where his debut volume of poems "Hymny" ("Hymns") (1920) was published. In 1922 he became literary director of the Municipal Theatre in Łódź and co-founder and professor at its Dramatic School and also served as drama critic for the daily "Głos Polski". His new bonds with "Skamander" group of writers were noticeable. Starting from the twenties he was a regular contributor to all major Polish literary journals; he published critiques, articles and poems in "Skamander", "Wiadomosci Literackie" ("Literary News") and "Filomata" press.
He belonged to the generation who was deeply affected by the war. Antiwar sentiment was often expressed in his work. Wittlin also acted as antiwar writer, signing letters of protest and publishing articles. With other members of the Skamander group he became the target of attacks of ONR (National-Radical Bloc).
The outbreak of World War II took him to France. After the collapse of France he managed to escape (via Portugal) to the United States and from 1941 he lived in New York. Between 1941-1943 (with Jan Lechoń and Kazimierz Wierzyński) he co-edited "Tygodnik Polski" ("Polish Weekly"); in 1952 he started to work for Radio Free Europe. He spent the rest of his life in New York, writing and translating. He died on 28 February 1976 in New York.
Wittlin's major work of fiction (published in 1935 dated 1936) was "Salt of the Earth" / "Sól ziemi", originally intended as the first volume of an unwritten cycle which he started writing in the twenties. This extremely beautiful story, often favorably compared with the best of English or American fiction, is about the twilight of the period, the end of the epoch, warning of the death and extermination of culture. The setting is an isolated area in the Carpathian Mountains (Eastern Galicia) where new of the war portends the disruption of human fortunes throughout the world, including the rustic life of the villagers. The main character of Salt of the Earth was a simple Hutsul of Eastern Galicia, drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army at the beginning of World War I. Bewildered and puzzled by the strange events around him, he discovers a universal significance from his experiences. The objective narrative is informed with a discreet lyricism and humour.
This character, an illiterate peasant, a "patient foot soldier", was confronted by the brunt of military action and an incomprehensible mechanism of the war. He bears the symbolic name, Piotr Niewiadomski, ("Unknown") and his simple, clear, concise language, questions and reactions remained detached from the war. Wittlin took to an absurd level "things like wars, killing, service to emperors and kings". In light of the excellence of the novel it is truly regrettable that the manuscript of the further two parts were lost in the French debacle. In 1972, the "Kultura" monthly, published extracts from the second volume of the "Salt of the Earth" but the author did not finish the trilogy.
In 1936 "Salt of the Earth" was awarded the "Wiadomosci Literackie" ("Literary News") prize. A year later it received Zloty Wawrzyn (Gold Laurel Wreath) from the Polish Academy of Literature. Most importantly, it was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1939.
Having been translated into many languages, "Salt of the Earth" retains an honourable place in European pacifist literature. The English translation (New York 1941) won for the author the rare distinction, the awards of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1943) and of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1965 Jerzy Wittlin received the Jurzykowski Award.
In 1922 Jerzy Wittlin published his translation of an old Babylonian poem "Gilgamesh" (in the process of translation he used the German version of the work). In 1914, he embarked upon his huge project, a new Polish version of Homer's "The Odyssey" in verse, which he published in 1924 but this was subsequently revised over and over. Wittlin believed that Homer's epic was eternally young, it was a universal novel, and it was about "Everybody". In the preface author wrote that "sitting in a smoky café, small offices, ateliers or workshops you are missing your Ithaca like Odysseus about whom I will sing a song today...".Wittlin's first translation of "The Odyssey" was built on the Greek hexameter and he used the archaic language but it did not content him so he published the second version in 1931 for which he was awarded the Polish Pen Club's prize in 1935.
He also translated over twenty novels and plays and selected works of such poets and writers as: Francisco Brines, Miguel Hernandez, Salvatore Quasimodo, William Carlos Williams, Wystan Hugh Auden, Joseph Roth and Herman Hesse's "Steppenwolf".
After the war, in 1946, he published "Mój Lwów" / "My Lvov", a heart-warming book of recollections of his native city. He already knew that he would live as an émigré. Poland had changed since he left in 1939, aligning itself more to the west. His books looks back to his youth and childhood, in "his" world. This very personal book contained eternal and undeniable truths about the passing life and the need of remembrance.
Wittlin's writing was insightful and measured. His sketches and essays reported and reflected on his experiences. 1933 saw the publication of a new volume of essays "Etapy" / "Stages" from his trip to Italy, France and Yugoslavia and named them "literary reportages". They overflow with his joy of life and optimism.
Thirty years later, in Paris, he published a contrasting volume of studies and essays, "Orfeusz w piekle XX wieku" / "Orpheus in the 20th Century Hell". This is an autobiographical portrait which Wittlin said was "full of thoughts, remarks, observations of an attentive and sensitive observer who noticed the moral and cultural crisis of Europe". This crisis of value was the proof that the world and humanity had become impoverished but Jerzy Wittlin did not want to resign himself to this fate.
Writing preface to Salt of the Earth Zygmunt Kubiak named Wittlin "Polish Homeride" - a poet following the model of Homer's poetry, the one who focuses on everything that is great and everlasting.
- Hymny (Hymns), Poznan 1920;
- Sól ziemi (Salt of the Earth), Warsaw 1936 (correctly 1935);
- Etapy (Stages), Warsaw 1933;
- Mój Lwów (My Lvov), New York 1946;
- Orfeusz w piekle XX wieku (Orpheus in the 20. Century Hell), Paris 1963.
Author: Wojciech Kaliszewski, College of the Family Covenant in Warsaw, May 2003