Feliks Konarski, alias Ref-Ren, was a soldier of the Polish II Corps, a poet and singer-songwriter very well known before World War II, and the author and composer of numerous popular compositions, including Wiosna, wiosna jest nareszcie and Pięciu chłopców z Albatrosa.
As Jan Bielatowicz wrote in his book 30 lat pracy artystycznej poza krajem Ref-Rena i Niny Olesińskiej, 1941–1971 [editor's translation: 30 years of Ref-Ren's and Nina Olesińska's artistic work abroad, 1941–1971]:
Konarski is an entirely self-generated talent. He has never studied music and plays instruments by ear. The stage has appealed to him ever since childhood. He was head of the theatre society by the time he was a middle school student in Kiev, even though many of the society were older than him. Having left Kiev on foot in 1921 (his parents stayed there), Konarski arrived in Warsaw to pass his final high school exams and enrol in university. However, science had less appeal to him than music and the stage. He started composing songs, playing the banjo. Konrad Tom was the first to give him a hand, in addition to choosing Konarski's life-long pseudonym for him, one which Konarski didn’t particularly like.
His Red Poppies on Monte Cassino became one of the independence hymns with which Poles have for decades manifested their patriotism, particularly in the time of the Stalinist regime from 1945 to 1956,. It was a song that was listened to with appropriate solemnity; dancing would stop.
As Konarski himself reminisced in the book Historia ‘Czerwonych maków’ [The Story of The Red Poppies]:
Polish Tangos: The Unique Interwar Soundtrack to Poland’s Independence
I’ve written over two thousand songs in my life. Some of them were cheerful, other sentimental; some made sense, other didn’t; some were good and some were bad; some were valuable, some bland. Some of my compositions would become hugely popular – others faded without any resonance… There was only one that could cross all the borders and boundaries in the world, and unite Poles scattered all over the most distant places on Earth: The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino.
The fate of the war led Konarski to Anders’ Army in 1941, together with whom he embarked to Italy through Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt on 1st April 1942. During the journey, Konarski created a theatre on the front, Polska Parada [The Polish Parade]. Together with a team of actors he accompanied the soldiers with poems, sketches, music, and songs.
How The Red Poppies was created
As Anna Mieszkowska described the crucial night:
When the great Monte Cassino offensive was launched on the night of 11th May , Konarski couldn’t find a place for himself. … He experienced this very personally. The fight lasted for seven days. Day or night, the sound could be heard even from afar. Or rather, the damped echo that reached them from a large distance. They, the artists, were safe. But they didn’t feel good about it. They were thinking about those who stayed amidst a sea of red poppies forever. Konarski, as Gwidon Borucki told me, was gloomy and didn’t talk to anyone, which was unusual given his naturally cheerful disposition. He would play a bit of guitar or jot something down from time to time. One night he woke Fredek [Alfred Schütz] up and made him immediately play and correctly write down the notes for the lyrics he'd written on a random piece of paper. At three in the morning they woke Borucki up to give him the lyrics and notation so that he would sing. Instantly. He didn’t even protest too much. He felt it must be something important.
On the night of 18th May 1944, Alfred Schütz (artistic alias: Al Sutio) – a soldier of the II Corps, composer, and conductor – created the music for the two first verses and the refrain in just a couple of hours. Konarski created the third verse several hours later. The first performer of The Red Poppies, Gwidon Borucki, later reminisced:
Between 12th and 18th May we didn’t have any performances or rehearsals. Everybody was dejected, walking around without any willingness to do anything. Only Felek disappeared somewhere. Later, when news of the victory reached us, it turned out that he already had the song ready. I think he started writing it on the first night – from May 11th to May 12th. Only Fredek Schütz and I saw the first manuscript. It was full of corrections.
The title of the song is a reference to the flowers that were blooming on the hills riddled with bullets. It is also possible that the author was inspired by the stories of soldiers who fought in the battle of the Somme and later compared the colour of the flowers to the blood of the killed and the wounded.
The first performance
On 18th May 1944 the soldiers of the II Corps captured Monte Cassino monastery. At the feet of its ruins the martial trumpeter announced the victory of the Polish soldiers by playing St. Mary's Trumpet Call. The way to Rome – at the time they didn’t know that over a thousand Polish soldiers would die during the journey – was open. On the same day, the first celebrations for the winners took place – they would sing the refrain, reading the lyrics from a huge banner painted by Feliks Fabian and Mieczysław Malicz on cardboard. As the composer recollected:
Later the famous performance for the 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment, the captors of the monastery's hill, took place. The generals of the allied powers and us took part in it. I remember General Anders congratulating us, he was very pleased, although he said that ‘the music might be too difficult for the soldiers and it might not catch on’. It turned out that he wasn’t right. The heroes of Monte Cassino loved the song, because it was written for them and about them. But people in the country loved it too. I’ve written over a thousand melodies, but none grew more popular than The Red Poppies.
The first performer of The Red Poppies who sang in General Anders' headquarters in Campobasso was Gwidon Borucki, a soldier of Anders’ Army, and a musician, singer, and actor. He was accompanied by the fourteen-person orchestra of Alfred Schütz. As Konarski would later recollect in his book:
When we were singing The Red Poppies for the first time, at the foot of the hill, everybody was crying. The soldiers were crying with us. The red poppies that blossomed that night became yet another symbol of heroism and sacrifice – and an homage of the living for those who loved their fatherland so much that they gave their lives for the freedom of the people.
Irena Jarosiewicz (artistic alias Renata Bogdańska) was Borucki’s wife at the time (she would later become the second wife of General Anders). As Borucki was moved to another area, he was no longer involved in Konarski’s theatre. Instead, Adam Astron stepped in – he would later become the first person to record The Red Poppies in Milan in 1946 for the La voce del Padrone album. The version recorded for BBC radio also dates back to that period; Aston sung the last verse in Italian. The fourth verse was written by Konarski in 1969, on the 25th anniversary of the battle.
The forbidden song
The song was printed in Italy as early as in 1944 and immediately became immensely popular. In the next editions, especially the ones released in Poland, the lyrics would sometimes be modified. Konarski gave an account of this in his book:
Finally came the days when The Red Poppies became a forbidden song. …
Two events were characteristic of these days. I was given an account of them by two eye-witnesses, quite recently, actually. … Some young man came home from a party, and as he was still in a rather jolly mood, he started singing various melodies. At some point, The Red Poppies came up to his mind. He would sing it louder and louder, more sincerely and more sincerely, ignoring the fact that the window was open. It happened that a policeman was walking down the street at that time and he heard the song. The young man didn’t sleep in his house that night… The second event was even more grotesque. There were celebrations of some martial anniversary in the Warsaw district of Mariensztat. It was some sort of an academy, there was a group of actors and a musician, a Jewish accordionist. The programme of the celebrations included a performance of a number of soldier songs. The accordionist played along by ear, without any notes. At some point he started to perform The Red Poppies. Immediately one of the organisers of the academy came up to the musician and snapped at him: ‘Are you insane? What are you playing here? During an celebration for soldiers?’. The accordionist calmly replied: ‘Who do you think was fighting in Monte Cassino? The Chinese?’. And he kept on playing.
A whim of history had it that some percentage of the fees for performing the song for commercial purposes went to… Germany, as GEMA, a state-authorized collecting society, had a right to a part of the royalties. After the death of the composer, who settled in Germany, the federal state of Bavaria became the holder of the copyrights to the song. The Alexandrov Ensemble which has its roots back in the times of the Red Army earns money for these royalties, singing The Red Poppies in Polish, standing to attention during their Polish tours.
After the war, Alfred Schütz settled in Brazil. In 1961 he moved to Munich, where he lived up until his death in 1999. Schütz left no heirs behind, so after his wife’s death in 2004, the copyrights to music created by Schütz were transferred to the Free State of Bavaria, in accordance with German law. GEMA, a German state-authorized collecting society, became holder of the copyrights to the song.
In the summer of 2014, the head of Biblioteka Polskiej Piosenki [The Library of Polish Song], Waldemar Domański, together with the lawyer Bogusław Wieczorek, made an official enquiry to the authorities of Bavaria to find out what steps should be taken for the copyrights to be owned by the library, whose main task is documenting the notation of Polish songs, making them publicly available, and organising singing lessons in Kraków. The Polish attempt to gain the rights to the famous song was understood and soon turned out to be successful. The official letter that was sent to Kraków in the beginning of February 2015 said:
Having in mind the enormous historical, cultural, and patriotic importance of the song for Poland, Bavaria is ready to transfer the rights to its use to Poland.
The Bavarian Ministry of Finance, Regional Development and Home Affairs began the procedure of transferring the rights. It was finished on 13th September 2015 in Munich.
Representatives of the Polish and Bavarian authorities signed an agreement about transferring the rights to the melody of The Red Poppies. As the announcement of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, it was signed by Artur Nowak-Faz, the under-secretary of state in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the secretary of state in the Bavarian Ministry of Finance, Regional Development and Home Affairs, Albert Füracker. The consul general of the Republic of Poland in Munich, Andrzej Osiak, was also present during the ceremony. As Nowak-Far emphasised:
This song is a particular cultural property of Polish culture and its importance is both historical and emotional. It is an homage to the bravery and dedication of the Polish soldiers fighting for the freedom of Poland in Monte Cassino.
As Albert Füracker, the representative of Germany said:
Bavaria is happy to meet the plea of the Polish side. This song commemorates the battle of Monte Cassino, one of the longest and bloodiest fights of World War II, during which nearly one thousand Polish soldiers died.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, May 2014, updated by jrk September 2015, translated by NS October 2016.
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