Articles & Essays

Polish Composers in Occupied Poland

By Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek

The situation of composers who became former Polish citizens in September 1939 was defined by general policies and new jurisdictions introduced by the Nazi and Soviet authorities. Poland disappeared from the maps in 1939, divided into three parts: the General Government under German civil administration and military occupation, the Third Reich–incorporated territories and the USSR–annexed territories. The approaches to the inhabitants of these regions varied, yet their common feature was terror, directed first of all towards the intelligentsia. In the part of Poland that came under Soviet rule, arrests by the NKVD and deportations to Siberia were means of grasping control of the Polish population, but until June 1941, when these territories were seized by the Third Reich and incorporated into the General Government District of Galicia, musical institutions and schools still operated, even though their functioning was adapted to Soviet models and the most important positions were given to those who were willing to collaborate with the new regime.

To Nazi ideologists, from Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels on down, Polish culture, education and science were obvious impediments to the plan that aimed at the degradation and transformation of the Polnische Bevölkerung (Polish population) into a docile mass labor force. In a speech on 24 October 1940, Hitler explained that “all representatives of Polish intelligentsia should be extinguished” because “this is the law of life”. 1 In order to prove that the occupied country had no culture or national identity and to make it into an “intellectual desert” (in the words of General Governor Hans Frank), universities and high schools were closed for Polish students and professors; independent Polish newspapers and periodicals were banned and replaced by German propaganda newspapers in Polish; and musical and cultural institutions, such as orchestras, choirs, the radio and music associations were closed down. Classical music publishing and performances of Polish music (e.g., Chopin and Paderewski) were banned in the first year of the occupation, and monuments representing great figures in Polish culture were destroyed. In May 1940, for instance, the famous Chopin monument in Warsaw's Łazienki Park was knocked down and the park was reserved “for Germans only.”

Thus, in September and October 1939 composers – former Polish citizens who found themselves under the Nazi occupation – lost their sources of income as music critics, teachers at conservatories, conductors, artistic directors, music editors or simply as composers, by having their works performed. The careers of numerous talented composers of popular music also came to an abrupt end: they no longer received commissions from the Polish Radio, cabarets and theaters or for the previously flourishing recording and film industries (e.g., the famous “Syrena Record” company), because all of these organizations had been shut down.

In the Reich–incorporated territories the main goal of the Nazis was to Germanize the population or relocate it in the General Government. Composers from the most important music centers such as Poznań and Łódź, which now belonged to the Warthegau or other Reich provinces, were mainly forced to depart, but in some instances they were arrested or interned in camps. Wacław Gieburowski (1878–1943), a priest and composer and the conductor of a renowned Cathedral Choir in Poznań, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939, then released, and died in Warsaw. Jerzy Młodziejowski (1909–1985), a composer, conductor, writer on music, photographer and alpinist, took part in the September Campaign and from 1940 to 1945 was a prisoner in Woldenburg (Dobiegniew) oflag, where he conducted a prisoners' orchestra and a men's choir and composed. Zygmunt Mycielski (1907–1987), a composer and music critic who had studied with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger, and who was the descendant of a noble family, took part in the September campaign and fought in France in 1940. As a Polish soldier, he found himself in a stalag, and then was sent to forced labor on a German farm. He nevertheless composed Fiat voluntas Tua, offertoire pour deux violoncelles et piano ou orgue (1943), and Five symphonic sketches (1945).

Composers from Poznań (renamed Posen) for the most part headed towards Warsaw or Cracow or hid elsewhere. Tadeusz Zygfryd Kassern (Lvov 1904–New York 1957), who, until 1939, had worked as a lawyer in the general prosecutor's office in Poznań and as a music critic in Nowy Kurier (1929–33) and Dziennik Poznański (1934–38), while maintaining quite a successful composing career, was evacuated to Lvov in August 1939, which he left in 1940 for Cracow, where he found work at a Gebethner and Wolff bookstore. As he was wanted by the Gestapo because of his Jewish origins, he moved to Warsaw, where he hid under the name of Teodor Sroczyński. During the war he composed several works, including a Concertino for piano and orchestra (1940), a Concerto for string orchestra, piano sonatinas, a Children's Suite for two pianos, and songs. Stanisław Wiechowicz – a widely respected composition professor at Poznań conservatory, author mainly of choral music (he later composed a mournful Letter to Marc Chagall, 1961), moved at first to Warsaw, then to a remote locality, where he was hired officially as an office clerk on his friends' forest property. Extermination was the principal method used for composers who were seen by the Nazis as being linked to patriotic activities or Polish cultural institutions in the territories, which they wanted to become ethnically “cleansed”. The talented Silesian composer Jan Sztwiertnia (1911–1940), who perished in the Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in Austria, was an early victim of these persecutions.

After the Wannsee conference in January 1942, most Polish–Jewish composers were murdered in the genocide conceived as the “Final solution to the Jewish question”, where the category of “Jew” was defined acccording to the German Nuremberg Laws. Whole generations of Polish musicians of Jewish origin were killed by the Nazis, unless a member of a family was abroad or survived in hiding. An example is the history of the Kagan and Górzyński (Grünberg) families. Of the four Kagan brothers born in Nowogródek (now Navahrudak in Belarus) as sons of Mordechai and Sara (née Kantor), the eldest, Mieczysław (born in 1887; he changed his name to Kochanowski), a conductor and composer of dance music, was murdered in May 1943 in the Gestapo interrogation prison at Szucha Avenue in Warsaw, where the arrested were routinely cruelly tortured and often killed. The youngest brother, Alexander (born in 1906), survived the war as a soldier in the Polish Army in France and was interned in Switzerland. Jakub Kagan (1896–1941), a composer of dance music, pianist, conductor, and jazz musician, who took part in the 1920 Polish–Soviet war, was the author of several pre–war hits, such as Złota pantera (Gold Panther, 1929), to words by Andrzej Włast (1895–1942?); he was forced to move to the Warsaw ghetto in 1941, where he performed as a pianist at the Splendid Café and Melody Palace Theater, and where he was killed by the Nazis, probably in 1942. The fourth brother, Feliks (who had changed his name to Kochański) also perished during the war (see Tomasz Lerski, Syrena Record. Pierwsza polska wytwórnia fonograficzna 1904–1939, Editions ”Karin”, New York – Warsaw 2004: 661–662).

Among the three sons of a music teacher in Cracow, the eldest, Władysław Górzyński (orig. Adolf Grünberg, composer and conductor, born in 1887), went into hiding during the war and survived. His three sons and wife died during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. His younger brother, Zdzisław Górzyński (1895–1977), an outstanding Polish conductor who had worked at the Warsaw Opera House, in Lvov and at other theatres, directed the Small Orchestra of Polish Radio from 1935 to 1939. During the war, he hid under the very Polish name of Jan Zbigniew Michalczyk, survived by giving music lessons and accompanied clandestine concerts. He was under the care of composers who belonged to the clandestine Music Council (especially composer Piotr Perkowski and his sister, Felicja Krysiewicz). The youngest brother, composer Tadeusz Górzyński (born in 1899), who studied violin in Cracow, conducting and composition in Vienna, and was for many years president of the Warsaw Association of Musicians, was arrested and sent to the Nazis' Majdanek concentration camp. He was forced to work on the construction of the camp, and he died of typhoid fever in 1942 (Lerski 2004: 642–3).

Some of the composers imprisoned in the Warsaw and Łódź ghettos tried to earn their living through any possible form of musical activity under these tragic circumstances; these included Marian Neuteich, Adam Furmański, David Bajgelman, David Laks, Marian Altenberg, Artur Gold and several others. They perished in the ghettos and death camps (Treblinka and Auschwitz, primarily). Władysław Szpilman, probably the only composer in the Warsaw ghetto who survived the war, was helped by fellow musicians, including the composer Piotr Perkowski and the singers Andrzej Bogucki and Zofia Godlewska. An eminent composer from Lvov, Józef Koffler, the first Polish twelve–tone composer, was killed with his wife and small son somewhere in the former Polish territory. Those who stayed (Jakub Mund, Emmanuel Schlechter and Zygmunt Schatz) died in the ghetto or the Janovska camp. Other Polish composers from Lvov died as a result of other German persecutions: Alfred Stadler (1889–1944) was executed as a hostage and Wiktor Hausman (1893–1943) was executed at Warsaw's Gęsia Street prison. Mieczysław Krzyński (1901–1987) was imprisoned in the camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen but survived.

In contrast to the territories annexed to the Reich, musical activity for Poles was allowed in the General Government, although Hans Frank confined it to “some forms of primitive entertainment” in the cafés, under such conditions as registration and special renewable permission (the Erlaubniskarte), and only after the acceptance of a concert program by Nazi censors. In the NSDAP document, Die Frage der Behandlung der Bevölkerung der ehemaligen polnischen Gebiete nach rassenpolitischen Gesichtspunkten (The Question of Dealing with the Population of the Former Polish Territory from the Racial–Political Point of View), of November 1939, in the section entitled Treatment of Poles and Jews in the Remaining [part of] Poland [i.e., General Government], the following guidelines are presented: “Cafés and restaurants, although they were often the meeting points of nationalistic and intellectual circles in Poland, should not be closed, as control over them seems to be easier than over the private gatherings of conspirators, as would necessarily have happened and in which Polish history so abounds.”

This method was diligently applied. Cafés were closed if they broke the censorship rules (as was the case with the Café Zachęta, where a concert program featured Polish compositions), or because at a certain point it was useful for the policy of terror and intimidation exercised by the Nazi authorities. At one of the first cafés, the Arkadia, which opened in occupied Warsaw at the end of 1939 in what was left of the Warsaw Philharmonic building (most of it had been destroyed in bombing raids in September, with the musical scores and instrument collections), and which was a center of right–wing nationalistic underground activity, everybody present was arrested on 5 December 1940. Some of the café's visitors and employees were executed, others were sent to concentration camps. Composer and pianist Henryk Gadomski (1907–1941), although he had nothing to do with the clandestine activities there, was transported to Auschwitz on 6 January 1941, where he perished the same year. His compositions were destroyed during the war. 2 Composer Bronisław Onufry Kopczyński (1916–1943), known for his anti–Semitic views and actions before the war, and who was linked during the war to right–wing underground organizations, was arrested by the Gestapo in January 1943 and died at the Majdanek camp in April of that year. Some composers survived thanks to their profession: Szymon Laks, arrested in France and transported to Auschwitz because of his Jewish origins, and Adam Kopyciński, both conducted orchestras at Auschwitz.

It was also at a café – the Lira at Szpitalna Street 5, opened by Piotr Perkowski – that the above–mentioned clandestine Council of Musicians was founded as one of many underground institutions. Its goals were to counteract the effects of Nazi policies. Different subsections served various aims: the organization of clandestine musical life (concerts in private apartments were organized in order to avoid censorship and perform Polish music, especially Chopin); the organization of classical music concerts at cafés; the commissioning of special songs for the underground Home Army (such songs were eventually composed by Witold Lutosławski, Andrzej Panufnik and others); music education; and financial support and help for musicians in hiding.

Thus, several composers performed at the Warsaw cafés, as it was almost the only possibility of work for a musician – apart from private teaching and playing at funerals or in churches . 3 Musicians who played in institutions established by the Nazis in the fall of 1940, such as the Theater der Stadt Warschau (Theatre of the City of Warsaw, which occupied the Teatr Polski), and the Orchestra of the General Government in Cracow, were either collaborationists or had no other choice and were sanctioned by the clandestine Council of Musicians because they were endangered themselves or had to protect a husband or a wife of Jewish origin). This was the case of Walerian Bierdiajew, who conducted at the Theater der Stadt Warschau.

The most ambitious venue was the café tellingly named “Home of Art” (“Dom Sztuki”) — in the absence of the Philharmonic, Opera and radio concert halls; it was organized by the composer Bolesław Woytowicz (1899–1980), who had been professor of piano at the Warsaw Conservatory before the war. This café's programs even featured newly composed chamber and solo works by Woytowicz himself and other jobless composers, such as Grażyna Bacewicz, Roman Palester (1907–1989), Lutosławski, Kisielewski and Kazimierz Wiłkomirski.

Some composers were imprisoned for a time at the Pawiak prison: Woytowicz was arrested on 22 May 1943 and released a month later; Palester was arrested in 1940 and held for about six weeks; Lech Miklaszewski (1910–1992), also arrested in 1940, was imprisoned there for six months; and Wacław Gajdziński was sent from the Pawiak prison on 24 May 1944 to Stutthof, where he died.

Witold Lutosławski performed mainly at cafés in a piano duo with Andrzej Panufnik, playing mostly arrangements of standard repertoire – first at the Aria café, sometimes accompanying soloists; then at U Aktorek (At the Actresses'); and, beginning in 1942, at Sztuka i Moda (Art and Fashion). The only surviving composition from that experience is Lutosławski's flamboyant Variations on Paganini (1941), for two pianos; other pieces were improvised, or else they perished in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and in the subsequent burning of the city by the Nazis. During a roundup, when all the visitors and staff were arrested and sent to the Pawiak prison, Panufnik and Lutosławski were released thanks to the intervention of the café's owner. During the war, Lutosławski also composed Two Studies for Piano (1940–41) and the Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1944).

In Cracow, which was much more tightly controlled, a café, Kawiarnia Plastyków (Café of Artists), was where Polish musicians could perform for Polish audiences, independent of the Nazis (except for the censorship, to be sure). As late as 14 April 1942, Jan Ekier gave a piano recital there, but two days later 198 artists and others were arrested and locked up in the Montelupi prison. On 24–25 April they were deported to Auschwitz (numbers 32489 – 32586 and 33091 – 33190). On 27 May 168 of these people were shot.

Composer Ludomir Marczak (1907–1943), linked to the underground Robotnicza Partia Polskich Socjalistów (Polish Socialist Workers Party), was arrested in November 1943, together with thirteen Jews whom he had hidden in a specially built shelter at Świętojerska Street. They were taken to the Pawiak prison and executed. Jadwiga Sałek–Daneko (pseudonym “Kasia”, 1911–1943), who actively took part in transferring people from the ghetto into hiding, was also arrested there and was then tortured and executed. They were posthumously awarded the medal “Righteous Among the Nations.”

In 1943, although the terror intensified, the Nazi Propaganda Office became more liberal towards music performances. This trend was even stronger in 1944, when, in the face of military defeats on all fronts, some of the Nazi authorities tried to gain some influence in Polish society by liberalizing cultural policies, and the Rada Naczelna Opiekuńcza – charitable council – was allowed to organize symphonic concerts in the conservatory building. Andrzej Panufnik's “Tragic” Overture (1942) was premiered there.

Some composers actively took part in the Warsaw Uprising as soldiers of the Home Army. Wawrzyniec Żuławski (1916–1957), a gifted writer, musicologist and critic, who had studied composition, philosophy and musicology in Warsaw until 1939 (and who was one of Poland's finest alpinists), was active in the underground and then fought in the Uprising under the pseudonym Jerzy Koryciński, in the “Odwet” Home Army battalion. During the war he composed a Partita for piano (1941), a Concertino for violin and string orchestra (1942), a Prelude and Fugue for string quartet (1942) and a Piano Quintet (1943).

Some composers were killed during the Uprising, either as soldiers or civilians. The most outstanding of them was Roman Padlewski (1915–1944), who was also a violinist, pianist, conductor and music critic; he was shot in the back by a German soldier on 14 August 1944 while attempting to disarm a Goliath tracked mine. He had been active in the underground Musicians Council and had composed several works: Songs to poems by Jerzy Liebert for soprano and orchestra (1942), a Violin Concerto (1944), an orchestral setting of J. S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor and D major (1943), as well as an uncompleted Third String Quartet (1944). Several of this composer's pre–war works perished, probably during the Uprising or afterwards, in Warsaw, which had been set on fire by Nazi squads. His Second String Quartet (1942) was preserved only thanks to the action of the Clandestine Musicians' Council, which chose the most valuable works composed during the war, microfilmed them and secretly sent them by plane to London, as it was rightly feared that they might not be preserved under the tragic wartime conditions.

Bronisław Wolfstahl (1883–1944), a conductor, pianist and composer who had studied in Vienna, Leipzig and Berlin and had conducted in Lvov, at the Vienna Volksoper, the Warsaw Opera House and the Warsaw Philharmonic, was murdered on 5 September 1944 in the Wola quarter, where, a month earlier (5–7 August), during the massacres of civilians by Nazi squads under the command of Heinz Reinefarth (1903–1979), approximately 59,400 people were killed.

After the Warsaw Uprising, some composers were sent to camps – among them, Andrzej Markowski (1924–1986), who fought in the Uprising and was then prisoner of the Murnau oflag, Edward Bury (1919–1995), Tomasz Kiesewetter (1911–1992), Stefania Allinówna (1895–1988) and – one of the youngest – Tadeusz Baird (1928–1981), who began to study composition during the war (with Bolesław Woytowicz and Kazimierz Sikorski) and was only sixteen when he was deported to Germany; there he had to work in the fields and constructing fortifications. After his attempt to escape failed, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo, went through concentration camp, misery, hunger, serious illness and long months of convalescence.

Not all of the Polish composers who fell victim to the Germans' ruthless extermination policies could be named here. The individual stories that have been described are only emblematic of the fate of Polish society as a whole, which was decimated and torn apart by the invaders. Only through grim determination and tremendous energy was Poland once again able to become a major center of musical activity after the most devastating war in its, and Europe's, history.

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  • 1. Quoted from: Adam Basak, Eksterminacja inteligencji jako metoda ludobójstwa. Polskie doświadczenia a praktyka kodyfikacyjna i orzecznictwo w sprawach zbrodni hitlerowskich [Extermination of intelligentsia as a method of genocide. Polish experiences versus jurisdiction concerning Nazi crimes], Acta Universitatis Wratislaviensis. Studia nad Faszyzmem i Zbrodniami Hitlerowskimi, Karol Jońca (ed.), Vol. 14, Wrocław 1991, p. 285.
  • 2. He graduated from conducting class at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1931 and then earned his living as a composer of incidental music for several Warsaw theaters. His compositions for symphony orchestra were performed at the Polish Radio and Warsaw Philharmonic (Tryptyk) and Warsaw Opera House (Ludowe Tańce). He was also the author of songs and of music for piano. O.B., Pamięci Henryka Gadomskiego [To the Memory of Henryk Gadomski], Ruch Muzyczny 1946, No. 20/21, p. 30.
  • 3. Read also Richard C. Lukas, The Forgotten Holocaust. The Poles under German Occupation 1939–1944, Hippocrene Books, New York 1986, p. 105: ”German authorities allowed Poles to attend only third–rate theatrical productions, often pornographic in nature. Since the Union of Polish Stage Artists forbade its members to perform in German–controlled theaters, this meant that actors and actresses frequently became singers or gave recitations at coffee houses where people drank ersatz coffee and ate minuscule pastries”.
  • Posted June 7, 2010

    Articles & Essays