Articles & Essays

The Musical Worlds of Polish Jews, 1920-1960: Identity, Politics, and Culture

By Juliane Brand

A Review of the Conference at Arizona State University, 2013

In November 2013, a select group of international scholars met in Tempe, Arizona, to discuss the richness and diversity of music created and performed in Poland during the first half of the twentieth century. The event, hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University (ASU) and co-organized with The OREL Foundation, took place over two days, both of them packed with presentations, and it concluded with a stellar concert by the ARC (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) Ensemble. Given the present-day abundance of musicological, ethnographic, and cultural studies, conferences such as this one risk becoming mere blips on the screen—but this was a gem of a blip! As sometimes happens when planning and participation align, each of the nine papers and the keynote address contextualized topics that were covered by others, and active participation in the freewheeling discussions among presenters, session moderators, and a small but engaged audience further extended the nexus of links. For the planning and forethought that made this event come together we are indebted to Robert Elias, from the OREL Foundation; Bret Werb, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Anna Holian, from ASU's Center for Jewish Studies; and ASU professors Sabine Feisst and Anna Cichopek-Gajraj. Thanks must also go to Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Director of the ASU Center for Jewish Studies, whose background and wide-ranging curiosity often nudged discussions in fruitful new directions. Professor Feisst also cajoled a fine group of student musicians into preparing an afternoon recital of music by Wanda Landowska.

Not surprisingly, the conference confirmed the difficulty of expanding the perimeters of what is acknowledged to be Central European music. During the past sixty years, fissures have appeared incrementally within those perimeters. But for every Karol Szymanowski and, more recently, Mieczysław Weinberg and Szymon Laks, who have broken through to international recognition, there are dozens of Tadeusz Zygfryd Kasserns, Józef Kofflers, and Roman Polasters who have not done as well, although they defined their times as vividly and variegatedly as did those whose names are better known. Not to mention the fact that cultural categories such as Yiddish theater music and klezmer music remain out in the cold. Given the conference title's references to plural "worlds," I expected from the outset to hear much that would be new to me. Yet I'm sure I was not alone in being astonished by the vastness of unexplored material that was shown to lie in shadows beyond the perimeters. With respect to Central European music and music-making during the first half of the twentieth century, the problem is clearly not just natural human resistance to the unfamiliar. And in this case we are further hampered by the wanton destruction and accidental loss of a shocking quantity of sources. Fortunately work can still be salvaged from the rubble, and as the scholars at this event presented their work it was heartening to hear so many of them conclude not with an explicitly final statement but, instead, with an implicit promise of work "to be continued."

Of course, all active fields of study are to some extent in medias res. In the case of Polish studies there may simply be a lower ratio of what is known to what remains unknown and of what is documented to what remains undocumented. It occurred to me that this may be a consequence of how diverse a region Poland is and was, of how wide-ranging and intersecting the cultural traditions were throughout this region, and how gnarled its political history has been. Poland is now bordered by Germany to the west; by the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; by Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania to the east; and, to the north, by the Baltic Sea, with, just a little farther east, the small Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. But this Poland is a fairly recent construction. Historically, and at its largest, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, but in the late eighteenth century this region was successively partitioned by its neighbors, and after 1795 Poland did not exist as an independent state: it consisted merely of sectors—Austrian, Prussian, and Russian—in which the occupiers gradually inculcated their languages, cultures, and traditions. The Versailles Treaty, at the end of the First World War, reconstituted the Polish nation, but the newly drawn borders remained in dispute for several more years. There was a Polish-Soviet War in 1919–1921, a Polish-Lithuanian War in 1920, and a Seven-Day War between Polish and Czechoslovakian troops. And within two decades, Polish independence was again wiped out when the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia led to new invasions and occupation.

Thus the time-span under review — 1920-1960 — may be divided into three periods: the time between the restoration of Polish independence and the invasions of 1939; the years of the World War II and the occupation; and the postwar years as a Soviet satellite country. Antony Polonsky's keynote address, "Jews in Polish Cultural Life: Between Acceptance and Rejection," provided an overview Poland's political history as it intersected with the history of Poland's Jews in general and with the lives of three Polish-Jewish artists in particular. Polonsky pointed out that Jewish acculturation and integration—the process of transforming Jews "from a religious and cultural community transcending national boundaries and linked by a common faith into citizens of the countries in which they lived"—was more gradual than in countries further to the west but nevertheless followed similar paths. In Polish lands, as in Western Europe, those who believed that their national culture required protection did all they could to thwart the inclusion within that culture of anything that they thought of as "foreign." Polonsky reached back a bit further than 1920—a demarcation of change not only in the country's borders and national status, he said, but also in social sensibilities—when he spoke about the Polish-Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856–1879), one of the first Jews to make a name for himself in the plastic arts, both at home and abroad. He then summarized the career of Julian Tuwim (1894–1953), a kind of Polish Walt Whitman, born more than a generation after Gottlieb. Tuwim exemplified the very different difficulties faced by Polish Jews in the 1920s and early 1930s. Even when his career was at its apex, Polish modernists despised him for trying to bridge the gap between high and popular culture, whereas the petite bourgeoisie for whom he was trying to write was increasingly succumbing to anti-Semitic propaganda. Polonsky described Tuwim's 1930s Bal w Operze (A Ball at the Opera) as one of the most remarkable of the apocalyptic visions that date from the years preceding the World War II.

The third artist whom Polonsky chose to speak about was Józef Koffler (1896–1944), the first Polish twelve-tone composer, at one time considered equal in importance to Szymanowski. According to Polonsky, Koffler's music, like that of other Polish composers of the interwar period, reflects the many trends—Russian, German, French, neoclassical, and folkloristic, among others — that were current at the time. Koffler's music was better known Western Europe than at home, but he stayed in Lwów even after the German and Soviet invasions, and he and his family disappeared in or around 1944. To date, most of his unpublished works remain unrecovered.

As Polonsky pointed out in concluding his talk, the historical dispute "between two visions of Poland, one pluralistic, outward looking, and European, the other nativist and hostile to foreign influences," continues to this day. Those who chose to identify Polishness narrowly with Catholicism and national victimization tended to blend their rejection of Jewish elements, whether culturally high or low, into their rejection of cosmopolitanism in general. Conversely, many Polish Jews struggled to unite their Jewishness with their Polishness, and the same difficulties still beset anyone who tries to categorize Polish artists. Being Polish or being Jewish comprised a sense of cultural belonging, as well as a degree of geographic sense of place. There was and still is an uncomfortable area in which Polishness and Jewishness are not necessarily felt to overlap, for assimilated as well as unassimilated Polish Jews, and adherence to one group could make loyalty to the other difficult, perhaps even impossible.

How this problem manifests itself in art is a question that came up a number of times during the conference. Is the dichotomy even traceable if the artist does not make it explicit. Moreover, in differentiating people by their national or religious background or adherence, are we in danger of overriding an individual's self-identity? The question also came up as to whether an artist who had not previously identified with his Jewishness but was then hunted for that very condition might turn to Jewish traditions, not out of creative need but in order to make common cause. And if so, how does one assess that person's works? Viktor Ullmann, Walter Klein, and other non-observant Jewish composers started to create works with Jewish themes only after they were incarcerated in Terezín, although what motivated them will probably remain debatable. For the time being, most scholars who are intent on recovering the work of forgotten and suppressed Jewish artists will continue, quite sensibly, to include anyone with a Jewish background, regardless of that individual's relationship to Judaism or Jewish culture.

Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek's paper, "Presence, Absence, Identity, and the Musical Worlds of Polish Jews," was well placed to open the conference because she started with an overview of Poland's political history between the wars and how that history shaped its musical life. With Poland's restored independence after the First World War, Polish writers, artists, and musicians could participate in the artistic ferment that swept across Europe. In this new Poland, openness toward the West and increased secularization became possible, and many of the Polish artists and intellectuals born at the turn of the century who began their studies in Warsaw were able to expand their horizons and contacts in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere. Many of them participated in activities of the newly and optimistically founded Internationale Gesellschaft für Neue Musik, or IGNM (International Society for Contemporary Music). Just as they recognized their Polishness—and could celebrate it in their art if they so chose—so they could participate in the rebirth of international European culture. This period, during which Poland enjoyed what Naliwajek-Mazurek termed a "presence" within the broader European scene, was abruptly exchanged for the country's exclusion, or "absence," in and after September 1939. And after 1945, some of the survivors tried to rebuild their lives in Soviet-controlled Poland, but most went into exile.

To give depth to this history Naliwajek-Mazurek chose three musicians who helped to define Polish music in the interwar years and survived into the postwar period: Szymon Laks (1901–1983), Tadeusz Zygfryd Kassern (1904–1957), and Władysław Szpilman (1911–2000). All three completed their artistic education outside Poland, and all three adopted an internationalist neoclassical style that included folkloristic and post-impressionist elements. In Paris both Laks and Kassern were members of the local Association of Polish Musicians, but whereas Laks chose to settle in Paris and returned there after having survived Auschwitz, Kassern returned to Poland and made a life for himself at home. During the interwar years he combined a successful career in law with continuing compositional productivity and recognition. After having managed, somehow, to survive the horrors of the war years in Poland, he would have been happy to remain there even under communist rule, but he soon ran into political difficulties and in 1947 emigrated to the United States. Szpilman, who made an early name for himself as a pianist and composer of classical, popular, and film music, also managed to survive the war in Poland but, unlike Kassern, he made a successful transition to life in postwar Poland, serving from 1945 to 1963 as director of the Polish Radio's Popular Music Department and at the same time continuing a glamorous international performing career. Roman Polanski's film The Pianist, which is based on Szpilman's memoir of surviving the Warsaw Ghetto and appeared two years after his death, has inssured his status as one of the best-known Polish musicians of the twentieth century.

The historian and poet Maja Trochimczyk focused on the tragic years after 1939 in her paper, "Jewish Composers of Polish Music in 1943," a sweeping overview of musicians whose lives were permanently altered or ended altogether by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Those who left Poland before 1939—among them Bronisław Kaper (1902–1983), Karol Rathaus (1895–1954), and Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986), all of whom found refuge in the United States—had the best chance of surviving; in exile they resumed their careers, and they remained active long enough to assure themselves a place in music history; Tansman, however, who had been living in Paris before the war, returned there after the war and lived there until his death. Of those who were caught by surprise when the German bombing began in September 1939, by far the largest number—some hundreds of thousands of refugees—fled eastward to the Soviet Union, where, despite the volatility of Soviet refugee policy, they had a significantly better chance of surviving the war than if they had stayed in Poland, or even returned home after the fighting had ceased, as some of them did. Henryk Wars (later changed to Vars) (1902–1977) and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919–1994) exemplify the tribulations of this means of survival, for they owed their lives to conscription into the Anders Army, which was sent to fight in Palestine and later in Africa. Other Poles fled south to Italy or west to France. The conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879–1953), father of Jerzy Fitelberg, was among those who passed through Paris on the way to final exile in the United States. According to Trochimczyk, only twelve composers managed to survive in Poland, and of those only Szpilman presently enjoys any degree of recognition. It is a hopeful sign that Kassern's works have come back into view in Poland in recent years, and Roman Palester (1907–1989), who was once regarded as a composer of talent equal to that of Szymanowski, is also getting renewed attention, thanks to a 2005 monograph on him by Zofia Helman. Trochimczyk pointed to the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on 16 May 1943 as the ultimate demarcation point for anything that might have been considered the purveyance of Jewish music in Poland. After that, most Jewish musicians who had remained in Poland were in hiding or in ghettos and concentration camps, and few of them survived. Many of those who had not died in the Warsaw Ghetto were killed in the death camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz, Dachau. For Trochimczyk the starting point for the work of recovery is the monumental and as yet unpublished Jews in Musical Culture in Polish Lands in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Dictionary, courageously initiated by Leon Błaszczyk and since expanded by others. These scholars cast have cast their nets wide in order to include composers of popular and art music, song writers, conductors, cabaret performers, concert singers, instrumentalists, and music teachers. Many of these individuals would have enjoyed only local importance even in normal times, and few of those in Trochimczyk's roll-calls of names would have maintained posthumous significance. But again and again during her talk I found my sympathy involuntarily stirred by a brief description of an active, productive life turned upside down, brutally ended, and forgotten. In shining a light, however briefly, on one brutally abridged existence after another, Trochimczyk painted an extraordinarily vivid scene of human and cultural devastation.

Devastation was likewise an undercurrent in Eliyana R. Adler's paper, "Singing Their Way Home," in which she considered the validity of a redemptive reading of songs and singing among Jews during the Holocaust period. Since the end of World War II, one scholar after another has attempted to counter the accepted view of Jews as passive victims, with evidence of active resistance. Given the paucity of such militant responses as the Warsaw and other ghetto uprisings, scholarly attention shifted to actions that might be considered political or spiritual resistance. High among these was music, specifically song and singing. Adler became interested in the many references to singing in memoirs written by survivors of the thousands of Polish Jews who became permanent refugees in the Soviet Union after 1939, in particular the memoir by Chaim Shapiro, (born 1922), who was seventeen in 1939 when he left his family in Lomza. He described several instances in which songs were sung to transmit private "coded" communications to others. Whatever it attempted to portend, such singing posed no threat to those in power. There are probably as many instances of Nazi guards forcing prisoners to sing during work duty or marches. I remembered the passage in Szymon Laks's memoir, translated into English as Music of Another World, in which he called playing in the Auschwitz camp orchestra a "demoralizing" supplemental torture. In her research Adler found that prisoners who sang voluntarily did so mainly to cheer themselves up and to remind themselves of home and of happier times. Adler's conclusion, although it affirms the capacity of individuals to attempt to live "normally" even in abnormal circumstances, thus also highlighted, poignantly, how severely choices were circumscribed, indeed practically nonexistent, for all those faceless, nameless victims. Some of the melodies and poems sung by the subjects of Adler's talk may have been among those that Joseph Toltz discussed in his paper, "Moja pieśni tyś moja moc ("My song, you are my strength"): Personal Repertories of Polish and Yiddish Songs from Youth Survivors of the Łódź Ghetto." Toltz's oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors who settled in Melbourne, Australia, after the war are part of a larger project documenting the personal meaning of music in the lives of Jewish camp and ghetto inmates during the Nazi years. Toltz takes issue with the ways in which survivor recollections are often pressed into narrative reconstructions of a communal experience—for example in the postwar publication of songbooks organized by emotional tropes such as despair, destruction, resistance or combat, and renewal. Such neat divisions of experience can lead to a blurring of individual experience. In his research Toltz wrestles with the complexities of the relationship between witness and survivor, listener and testifier. Listening, in this context – as I understood Toltz to define it – should not be a method for determining objective facts but rather an opportunity for subjective reinterpretation of the moment of recall, involving the listener, the testifier, and what is testified. In this view, musical memory is less a matter of "truth" or veracity than of a dialogic encounter in which the listener's understanding opens itself to the testifier's subjective experience. Clips of several interviews, and especially camp songs rendered by old voices that occasionally cracked in the act of remembering, gave persuasive support to Toltz's point of view.

Also dealing with a single sphere of music-making was Joel Rubin's paper, "Szpilman, Baigelman, and Barsh: The Legacy of an Extended Polish-Jewish Musical Family on Three Continents." Joel Rubin—a highly knowledgeable master klezmer musician— spoke eloquently about a multigenerational extended family of professional Jewish instrumentalists active in Poland at least since the mid-nineteenth century. During the interwar period they dispersed and carried their traditions into exile in Canada, Brazil, and the United States, which is where the most famous member of this family, Władysław Szpilman, was able to continue his career as a film and song composer. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Rubin explained, Polish klezmorim played an important role as liaisons between shtetl Jewish culture and assimilated Polish-Jewish cultures and between popular Yiddish entertainment and art music. Klezmorim performed in all genres, from instrumental religious klezmer music to Yiddish entertainment theater, Polish folk and popular song, jazz, and chamber and symphonic music. Though there are many studies of klezmer music as practiced in the Ukraine, Belarus and, to a lesser extent, Austro-Hungarian Galicia and Romania, the klezmer tradition and the lives of klezmorin in Poland have largely been ignored. Rubin's research into this area began as historical ethnomusicology, but as he met more and more members of the Szpilman, Baigelmann, and Barsch families and learned of their activities, his project grew to include cultural history and enthnography and dealt more broadly with the diversity of music produced by several generations of professional musicians, all of whom could trace their origins to a few klezmer families. It is a compelling picture of cultural synthesis and evolution.

Over the course of the two conference days, the historical surveys and papers dealing with single genres and categories of music-making created an ever deepening informational backdrop for several papers that focused more narrowly on individual artists. In her paper, "Identity and Yiddish Nationalism in the Writings of Menachem Kipnis," Julia Riegel examined the work and aesthetics of a well-known folklorist, singer, music critic, and author. Kipnis (1878–1942), who was relatively fortunate inasmuch as he died a natural, non-violent death in the Warsaw Ghetto, is today remembered mainly for his collections of Jewish folksongs, but he ardently celebrated the contributions of all Jewish artists, whether they represented eastern European Jewish traditions or had assimilated into the world of Western European high culture, as was increasingly the case during the interwar period. Riegel believes that he himself should be positioned at the intersection of those two worlds, and this may explain some of the contradictions and idiosyncrasies in his writings. Scholarly attention has heretofore neglected Kipnis's more academic writings, yet although his unpublished papers were probably lost in the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, Riegel's work shows how much can be gleaned from his published works, most of which were in Yiddish and addressed primarily to Yiddish-speaking European Jews. Riegel focused on one of these works in particular, Di velt-berihmte yidishe muziker, a study of nine composers with very different musical languages, only two of whom were practicing Jews, but in all of whose works Kipnis nevertheless claimed to see something intrinsically and recognizably Jewish. In arguing for this commonality in the creations of anyone with Jewish roots, Riegl noted that Kipnis employed terms just as exclusionary and "racialist" as those used by such mid- and late-nineteenth century anti-Semites as Richard Wagner—although of course he used the same ideas to maintain a diametrically opposed view. Not only does Kipnis provide yet another instance of belief steering evidence: he also reflects the prevalence of ethnic- and race-based critical judgment at the turn of the twentieth century.

In a lecture demonstration, "Tadeusz Zygfryd Kassern's American Years," Slawomir Dobrzanski complemented Naliwajek-Mazurek's earlier discussion of this artist by focusing on the composer's postwar life in a new country and on a comparison of works written before and after emigration. The story of Kassern's physical survival in Poland, where he lived openly (in Kraków, Warsaw, and Zakopane) under an assumed name, is a remarkable one, but after immigrating to the United States he never managed to reestablish himself as a composer. Dobrzanski's performances of selected compositions by Kassern confirmed his conclusion that the composer's musical languagedid not evolve significantly as a result of living and working in a new culture. (This was also true of quite a few other émigré composers.) Although Kassern's works seem miraculously to have survived the war years intact, almost all of them remain unpublished. Plans to publish his works were under discussion in communist Poland soon after the war but were scuttled when Kassern began to speak out against Poland's increasing communization. The only works that today remain in common use are two pedagogical pieces (Candy Music Box and Teen-Age Concerto) and the Sonatina for Flute and Piano, composed in 1952. Thus in this case as in others, works remains to be done.

A third artist viewed up close, the Polish keyboardist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), received double attention, first in Carla Shapreau's paper, "The Theft of Culture, Persecution, and the Identity of Wanda Landowska," and then in an afternoon concert, introduced by Bret Werb, in which two of her compositions were presented. Carla Shapreau, a lawyer and expert in intellectual and cultural property law, told of Landowska's extensive collections of manuscripts, rare printed music, books, and historical musical instruments, which she kept in her home in France but had to leave behind when she fled Paris after the Nazis invaded Paris in June 1940. All of her property was confiscated in September 1940 by a subdivision of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi agency in charge of appropriating artistic and intellectual assets in non-German occupied Europe. The story of what happened to the items plundered from Landowska's home remains incomplete, for only some of the valuable items have been recovered; the whereabouts of many others are still unaccounted for. A major player in this story is the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas, established in August 1943 by the Roosevelt administration, and its offshoot, the so-called Monuments Men, who, after the war, assisted in tracing and restituting plundered cultural properties, including those that were "souvernired" out of the country by U.S. servicemen. It is fascinating to follow the detective work of tracing such stolen art, but equally fascinating, as Shapreau pointed out, is the matter of what the items themselves reveal about the artistic sensibilities and aesthetics of their owners.

Certainly Landowska's Polish roots are apparent in a program of two of her chamber works—Five Polish Folk Songs for harpsichord (played here on the piano), winds, and strings, and a Berceuse for piano. The two works were performed by ASU Music Department students Jordan Sera, flute; Wilson Harmon, oboe; Ryan Cerulla, bassoon; Oswaldo Zapata and Josh Coffrey, trumpet; Yerim Kim and Artur Tumayjan, violin; Daemin Kim and Sungjin Park, viola; Beth Weser, cello; Tyler Smith, double bass; and Qiyanao Zheng, piano. Bret Werb introduced each work and also provided background on Landowska's career, productivity, self-identity, and superstar status. In 1907, for example, she personally presented a manuscript of the Berceuse to the work's dedicatee, Alexandra Feodorovna, the last empress of Russia. The Five Polish Folk Songs reflect Landowska's identification with her Polish background, but this theme also led Werb to discuss the degree to which she identified with her Jewishness. Landowska's husband, Werb pointed out, had been a pioneer of Jewish ethnography and folklore, and she herself composed at least two works with Jewish themes, a Hebrew Poem for orchestra (not yet recovered) and a Rhapsodie Orientale for orchestra, which has been found. Landowska's view of her cultural identity may eventually be better understood, because Werb mentioned that a cache of Landowska documents at the Library of Congress is presently off limits but will be released after all of her music has been catalogued.

The conference ended on a high note with a concert by the Toronto-based ARC Ensemble, which presented three chamber works by Polish-Jewish composers. Jerzy Fitelberg's Sonatina for two violins (composed in 1947), performed with high-wire technical brilliance by Erika Raum and Benjamin Boman, was imaginative and completely captivating. Two piano quintets (with the additional musicians Steven Dann, Bryan Epperson, Dianne Werner, and David Louie) followed: Szymon Laks's four-movement Piano Quintet on Popular Polish Themes (arranged in 1967 from a quartet composed in 1945), a fairly slight piece, as its title suggests; and Mieczysław Weinberg's five-movement Piano Quintet op. 18 (composed in 1944). Weinberg's was by far the most substantial work on the program; a recording of it by the ARC Ensemble was released in 2006 (on RCA Red Seal), and I'm sure that I was not alone in promising that I would listen to the piece again.

After two intense days of hearing tragic life stories and long rosters of names, it was heartening to know that the three composers featured in the event-concluding concert were survivors. It is true that all three of them lost their homeland and, with the possible exception of Weinberg, also lost the chance to fulfill their early promise, but all three were among the fortunate few most of whose works survived and remain accessible to performers and scholars. Some of Fitelberg's works have yet to be published (the performance of the Sonatina for two violins was possible thanks to Simon Wynberg, the ARC Ensemble's Artistic Director, who came across the manuscript at the New York Public Library), but Weinberg's music is distributed by Edition Sikorski and peermusic classical; the latter also carries some of Fitelberg's music. All of Laks's works were recently taken up by the "Suppressed Music/Musik verfolgter und exilierter Komponisten" series published jointly by Boosey and Hawkes and Bote und Bock. This series, plus brilliant live and recorded performances by groups such as the ARC Ensemble, will surely stimulate others to search for forgotten music from this period. The story will be continued.