Children’s literature produced by Polish-Jewish writers targeted two distinct audiences: a Polish readership and a Polish Jewish readership. Texts intended for the Polish audience generally lacked special references to Jewish life and culture, while texts intended for Polish-speaking Jews mostly featured Jewish themes and motifs. Janusz Korczak (1878/79–1942) wrote for both audiences: his Król Maciuś Pierwszy (King Maciuś the First; 1923) and Kajtuś czarodziej (Kajtuś the Wizard; 1935) were aimed at Poles, whereas stories such as Ludzie są dobrzy (People Are Good; 1938) and Trzy wyprawy Herszka (Herszek’s Three Expeditions; 1939)—which appeared in the book series Biblioteka Palestyńska dla Dzieci (Palestinian Library for Children)—were intended for Polish Jews.
Literature for Polish Children
Jewish authors began writing for non-Jewish Polish children in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The earliest such works were written by authors who were adherents of assimilation. Salomon Spitzer (1859–1941?), a Kraków pedagogue and assimilation activist, published didactic stories for children in the 1880s. Czesława Endelmanowa-Rosenblattowa (writing under the pen name Czesław Halicz) wrote for children’s periodicals. Bolesław Leśmian’s (1877–1937) Klechdy sezamowe (Legends of Sesame; 1913) and Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza (Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor; 1913) were primarily addressed to young readers. Maria Feldmanowa (1874–1953) and Janina Mortkowiczowa (1875–1960) were active as translators of classics of world literature for a young audience. Mortkowiczowa also wrote original works for children as well as a pedagogical treatise, Wychowanie estetyczne (Aesthetic Education; 1904).
Children's writer and editor Janina Mortkowicz and her daughter Hanna, a poet and also a writer for children, Warsaw, 1925. (YIVO)
Assimilated Jews—educators, publishers, editors of children’s magazines, and translators—participated in the progressive pedagogical movement that emerged at the turn of the century. Mortkowiczowa and Jakub Mortkowicz co-owned one of the most respected publishing companies of literature for children and young adults. They launched a series of quality books for young readers featuring works by Korczak, Leśmian, and foreign classics.
Korczak, Mortkowiczowa, Feldmanowa, Fryderyka Lazarusówna (1879–1942), Amelia Hertzówna (1879–1942), and Benedykt Hertz (1872–1952) wrote for the periodicals Promyk (Ray), Promyczek (Little Ray), and Z bliska i z daleka (From Near and Far), which popularized these new pedagogical ideals and democratic values. These periodicals occasionally took note of Jewish themes as part of a broader strategy of promoting democracy and tolerance and combating national and religious conflicts. For example, Korczak’s novel Mośki, Joski, i Srule appeared in installments in Promyk in 1909–1910.
These initiatives coincided with a transformation of children’s literature from within, reflecting trends in psychological and pedagogical research, especially in the field of aesthetic education. This new type of children’s literature avoided direct moralizing and overt tendentiousness, featured children as autonomous literary protagonists, and studied their imagination and consciousness. Such innovations were pioneered by Korczak, whose fictional prose, which renewed the tradition of the fairy tale, was psychologically illuminating and socially critical.
Taśtaś, by Benedykt Hertz (Warsaw: Wiedza, 1946). This fairy tale was first published in 1916. (Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Among Korczak’s followers were Hertz, a publicist and satirist, one of the first authors of children’s radio programs, author of fairy tales, stories, novels, comedies, puppet shows, and adaptations for children’s theater; Lazarusówna, a teacher, activist, and prose writer; and Halina Górska (1898–1942), the daughter of Endelmanowa-Rosenblattowa, whose socially engaged prose explored the process of growing up and developing moral standards, and in whose works the Jewish motifs and question of antisemitism appeared within a broad social context. Among Górska’s best works was the fairy tale O księciu Gotfrydzie, Rycerzu Gwiazdy Wigilijnej (Prince Gottfried, Knight of the Christmas Star; 1930) and novels Nad czarną wodą (At Black Water; 1931) and Chłopcy z ulic miasta (Boys from City Streets; 1934). Involved in the project known as Radio for Children, Górska also wrote feuilletons and gave talks on social issues and ethics.
Authors who wrote for children during the interwar period included Zuzanna Rabska (1888–1960)—daughter of historian Aleksander Kraushar—who wrote stories, novels, and poems, contributed to Moje Pisemko (My Little Magazine) and Płomyk (Little Flame), and edited radio programs for children; Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa (1902–1968), who is known for several volumes of children’s poetry that she also illustrated, and prose writer Amelia Hertzówna (1879–1942). Irena Tuwim (1899–1987), the sister of poet Julian Tuwim, translated works such as Winnie the Pooh (Kubuś Puchatek; 1938), Walt Disney’s version of the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White (Królewny Śnieżki; 1939), and other classics of children’s literature into Polish.
Julian Tuwim (1894–1953) and Jan Brzechwa (1900–1966) occupy a unique place in interwar Polish children’s literature. Their works entered the canon of Polish children’s literature while countless phrases and sayings from their poems—Tuwim’s Lokomotywa (Locomotive; 1938), Słoń Trąbalski (Elephant Trąbalski; 1938), Murzynek Bambo (Bambo the Negro Boy), and Brzechwa’s Kaczka dziwaczka (The Eccentric Duck; 1939), became popular expressions in modern Polish. Recently, readings of fragments of Lokomotywa opened the “All Poland Reads to Children” initiative promoting reading among the youngest children.
Several volumes of Tuwim’s poetry from the late 1930s initiated a new trend in children’s literature. It drew on children’s linguistic imagination and their fondness for language games and used experimentation to reveal the hidden mechanisms of the language, in particular that of children and colloquial speech. Tuwim’s favorite techniques were wordplays and delexicalization and desemantization of proverbs and idioms, combined with grotesque and “pure nonsense” humor. In Brzechwa’s poems—among them, Tańcowała igła z nitką (The Needle Danced with the Thread; 1938) and Kaczka dziwaczka—the plot is often based on the playful expansions of proverbs, sayings, and idioms. Stefan Themerson (1910–1988) followed in Tuwim’s and Brzechwa’s footsteps, mixing the grotesque with the nonsensical in a style reminiscent of English nursery rhymes. His stories included Jacuś w zaczarowanym mieście (Jacuś in the Enchanted Town; 1931), Narodziny liter (The Birth of Letters; 1932), and Pan Tom buduje dom (Mr. Tom Builds a House; 1938).
Literature for Polish Jewish Children
The development of Polish Jewish literature for children was fueled by acculturation and linguistic Polonization, which in the interwar period resulted in the adoption of Polish–Yiddish bilingualism by many members of the Jewish middle class. This process brought about the proliferation of press supplements for Polish-speaking children. Nasz Przegląd (Our Review) published Mały Przegląd (Little Review) edited by Korczak; Chwila (Moment) published Chwilka (Little Moment) edited by Runa Reitmanowa (1890–?); and Nowy Dziennik (New Daily) published Dzienniczek (Little Daily). In addition, several specialized magazines for young readers appeared, including Nasza Jutrzenka (Our Morning Star; 1921–1938) and Okienko na świat (Little Window on the World; 1937–1939). Among these, Mały Przegląd stood out for publishing texts written by children. The position of authors cooperating with the press for children was explained in the 1931 article “O bajkę i legendę żydowską w języku polskim” (For a Jewish Fairy Tale and a Legend in the Polish Language) by Juliusz Feldhorn (1901–1943), who appealed for the promotion of Polish versions of Jewish fairy tales and legends and interpreted Polish Jewish children’s literature in the context of linguistic Polonization.
Almost all Polish Jewish poets began their literary careers by contributing to children’s supplements. Literature for children occupied a special place in the work of Anda Eker (1912–1936) and Minka Silberman (1912–1941). Their literary output included plays, Zionist movement songs, and poems for special events celebrating Jewish traditions and holidays, as well as folklore and Jewish motifs from Palestine.
Przygody Magdusi (Magdusia’s Adventures) by Benedykt Hertz (Warsaw: Nasza Księgarnia, 1957). Illustrated by Wanda Manteufel-Zawidzka. This book of stories was first published in 1916. (Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
In the late 1930s, Polish Jewish writers for children clustered around Okienko na świat, a weekly edited by Marta Hirszprung. Its contributors included well-known writers Juliusz Feldhorn and Chaim Löw (pseudonym of Leon Przemski, 1901–1976), and poets Maurycy Szymel (1903–1942), Horacy Safrin (1899–1980), Maria Hochberżanka (1913–1996), and Minka Silberman. Okienko published Jewish fairy tales and legends, historical and Talmudic stories, Polish translations of Yiddish classics, and biographies of prominent Jewish leaders in Europe and Palestine (e.g., a short story about Yosef Trumpeldor). It sponsored literary competitions and published the winning entries. Przegląd Społeczny (Lwów) published literary criticism pertaining to children’s literature written by Dvora Vogel (1900–1942) and Hermann Sternbach (1880–?).
Post-Holocaust Children’s Literature
Polish Jewish children’s literature never recovered after the Holocaust. Among authors who continued writing in this mode after 1945 were Julian Tuwim, who wrote Cuda i dziwy (Miracles and Wonders; 1949); and Brzechwa, author of the trilogy Akademia Pana Kleksa (Mr. Blot’s Academy; 1946), Podróże Pana Kleksa (Mr. Blot’s Journeys; 1961), and Triumf Pana Kleksa (Mr. Blot’s Triumph; 1965), as well as Opowiedział dzięcioł sowie (The Woodpecker Told the Owl; 1946) and Pchła szachrajka (Trickster Flea; 1946). Hertz, Rabska, and Themerson continued their writing, and the most popular works by Irena Tuwim were published after the war, including Marek-Wagarek (Marek the Truant; 1955), O pingwinie Kleofasku (Kleofasek the Penguin; 1960), and Co okręt wiezie? (What Is the Ship Carrying?; 1962).
Chaim Löw wrote biographical novels while Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa explored social and moral issues in novels and radio programs for young listeners. Stanisław Wygodzki’s (1907–1992) postwar writings for children included Rzeki i księżyc (Rivers and the Moon; 1965), Uciekł lew (The Lion Escaped; 1965), and Odwiedziła mnie żyrafa (A Giraffe Paid Me a Visit; 1966).
New contributors to children’s literature included Karol Szpalski (1908–1963), who gained popularity as the author of verse for younger children, including O Antku, co wioskę porzucił (Antek, Who Left the Village; 1953) and Dziwne przygody płynącej wody (Strange Adventures of the Running Water; 1954), as well as song lyrics and radio programs. Arnold Słucki (1920–1972) published Wiersze dla Ali (Poems for Ala; 1965). Marian Brandys (1912–1998) wrote reports from Africa targeted at young readers called Śladami Stasia i Nel (In the Footsteps of Staś and Nel; 1961); the title alludes to the protagonists of the popular children’s novel W pustyni I w puszczy (In the Desert and in the Jungle), by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916). Satirist Antoni Marianowicz (1924–2003), whose poetic style resembled that of Tuwim and Brzechwa, published the volumes Kara Mustafa (1956) and Dziesięcioro Murzyniątek (Ten Little Black Kids; 1992) and translated foreign classics of children’s literature (e.g., Alice in Wonderland, 1955).
Józef Zbigniew Białek, Literatura dla dzieci i młodzieży w latach 1918–1939 (Warsaw, 1979); Krystyna Kuliczkowska, “Literatura dla dzieci i młodzieży,” in Literatura okresu Młodej Polski, ed. Kazimierz Wyka, Artur Hutnikiewicz, and Mirosława Puchalska, vol. 3, pp. 561–583 (Warsaw, 1973); Janina Mortkowiczowa, “O postępowych czasopismach dla dzieci i młodzieży w latach 1909–1926,” Studia pedagogiczne 5 (1958): 159–213; Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, Polish-Jewish Literature in the Interwar Years, trans. Abe Shenitzer, (Syracuse, N.Y., 2003), pp. 16, 21, 35; Anna Szóstak, Nurt lingwistyczny we współczesnej polskiej poezji dziecięcej (Zielona Góra, Pol., 2000).
Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti; revised by Magda Opalski