Józef Wittlin and his wife Halina, on their honeymoon, Lwów, 1924. (YIVO)

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Polish Literature

This overview examines Jewish literary creativity in Polish, its historical and artistic roots, and its place in Polish literature. It focuses on those authors who defined themselves as Jewish by exploring Jewish themes: painting their own self-portraits as Jews, depicting Jewish social life and spiritual experience, and enriching Polish literature with forms, contents, and symbolism rooted in the Jewish tradition.

The Slow Beginnings

Despite centuries of Jewish residence in the country, Jews’ use of Polish as a means of literary expression was a relatively late phenomenon. Their integration into Polish “national” culture as its consumers and active contributors lagged behind similar processes in Western European societies. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Polish Jewry was almost entirely Yiddish speaking. Although many Jews used Polish vernacular in everyday contact with their neighbors, writing in Polish was uncommon. The explanation for this late start might include the extensive cultural autonomy Polish Jews enjoyed in the early modern period; their distinctive religious traditions and late secularization; the particular legal and socioeconomic conditions prevailing in Poland; and demographic factors (the sheer size of the community and its compact settlement patterns)—all of which impeded earlier linguistic and cultural integration.

Jewish participation in Polish cultural life was conditional on the progress of linguistic Polonization, which began with the appearance, in the early nineteenth century, of a new social stratum: a Polish-speaking Jewish intelligentsia that acted as a bridge between Polish and Jewish societies. Its emergence was a byproduct of modernization and the resulting weakening of traditional Jewish culture that set in motion complex processes of secularization, acculturation, and assimilation. On a larger scale, the advances of Polish occurred as a result of the introduction of Polish-language education—first in Galicia after the Ausgleich (the 1867 compromise that established the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary), and in the former Congress Kingdom following World War I—and of the progress of Polish cultural orientation among Jewish Enlighteners in the large urban centers of Galicia (Kraków, Lwów) and the Congress Kingdom (Warsaw). In the latter region, the process was also enhanced by the influx of more Polonized Jews from Galicia.

Portrait of a Man (Aleksander Wat). Aleksander Rafalowski, 1956. Oil on canvas. (© Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, Poland / The Bridgeman Art Library)

Among the first published Polish texts were those written by anonymous Jewish authors that appeared in the late eighteenth century in the midst of intense debates over reforms of Polish society, including the “improvement” of Jews. Not surprisingly, these Jewish texts in Polish bore a political character: produced for specific occasions, they were part of a lobbying effort promoting emancipation. Thus, among the oldest Polish texts written by Jews is a translation of a Hebrew poem celebrating the second anniversary of the reformist constitution of May 1792, addressed to the Polish king. To modern readers, its language verges on the sycophantic. Similar intentions informed “Psalm córek syjonskich” (Psalm of the Daughters of Zion; 1810), a poem presented by Kraków Jews to a visiting dignitary. These versified appeals shared several features with the memoranda and treatises penned by Jews for Polish consumption that began to proliferate in the same period; for example, the Polish translation of a patriotic sermon was delivered in the Vilna synagogue by Salomon Polonus in 1794.

Indeed, during most of the nineteenth century the “Jewish question” continued to be the source of occasional poetry appealing for Polish–Jewish solidarity. On some political occasions (e.g., the uprisings of 1830, 1846, 1848, and 1863), Polish literati wooed Jewish support by depicting visions of future “brotherhood” and cooperation of the two “most suffering peoples on Earth.” Such occasions often inspired Jewish intellectuals to respond with declarations of Polish patriotism, sometimes expressing hope for Polish patriots’ help in improving the lot of the Jews.

Jewish linguistic integration and active involvement in Polish culture was also a question of demographics. It grew with the entrance of each sizable group, or generational cohort, into the realm of Polish culture and the infusion of new talents. The collective conversion of Frankists to Christianity in the mid-1700s resulted in the largest single influx of Jews into the Polish upper classes. Their impact on the life and work of Poland’s greatest romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, has long been among the most contentious issues in Polish Jewish literary studies. The earliest significant Jewish author (later writing in both Polish and French) was Jan Czyński (1801–1867), born into a family of Frankist converts. A veteran of the November uprising (1830) and author of novels, plays, and political and philosophical treatises, Czyński also distinguished himself as a tireless campaigner for Jewish political rights.

The Maskilim in Search of Integration

Portret Brunona Jasieńskego (Portrait of Bruno Jasieński). Tytus Czyżewski, Poland, 1920. Oil on canvas. Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź. (Image courtesy of the museum)

Another early influx of Jewish literary talent came with a subcurrent of the Haskalah, promoting Polish cultural assimilation and patriotism along with allegiance to modernized Judaism. Many of its followers were alumni and teachers of the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary (est. 1826), which produced no rabbis but enriched Polish Jewish elites with hundreds of secular intellectuals educated in Jewish as well as modern European traditions and fluent in both Polish and Hebrew. They established a Jewish press in Polish and proposed the first formulas for Jewish participation in Polish culture. Although their ideological influence began to wane a decade or two after the January uprising (1863), their literary impact did not. In fact, the first Polish Jewish literary circles crystalized around their integrationist journals, Jutrzenka (The Dawn; 1861–1863) and Izraelita (1866–1912), both of which published original literary texts as a way of promoting their ideas.

Typically, entrance into Polish literature crowned a process of gradual acculturation that accelerated in the mid-1800s. Occasionally, however, Jews acceded to it directly from the Yiddish-language environment in its most traditional form. The earliest example of such radical transition was that of Julian (Yehuda) Klaczko (1825–1906), an essayist, literary critic, political writer, and conservative Polish politician. His literary career progressed from Hebrew poetry to Polish essays and literary criticism, and also to political and literary studies written in French that brought him international acclaim. But while Klaczko’s rise was unusual enough to attract significant public attention, the equally spectacular case of Wilhelm Feldman (1868–1919), Klaczko’s junior by more than 40 years, was less exceptional in its time.

Izraelita, the longest-lived Jewish journal in Polish, replaced the short-lived Jutrzenka after a three-year break. For almost five decades, Izraelita remained a center of gravity for Jews entering the Polish literary scene. Their ranks included poets, writers, literary historians, and critics, as well as publicists such as Hilary Nussbaum (1820–1895), Henryk Merzbach (1836–1903), Aleksander Kraushar (1842–1931), Jakub Alfred Cohen (1843–1906), Daniel Zgliński (1847–1931), Cezary Jellenta (1861–1935), Alfred Nossig (1863–1943), Leo Belmont (1865–1941), Wilhelm Feldman, Kazimierz Sterling (1875–1933), Jan Adolf Herz (1878–1843), Czesława Endelman (b. 1879) and Andrzej Marek (1880–1943).

Izraelita, vol. 1, no. 27 (1866). (The Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

These writers’ contributions to Izraelita dealt exclusively with Jewish themes, the exploration of which constituted a bridge- and image-building exercise: providing Jewish audiences with a vision of modernity, and occasional Polish readers whom the editors hoped to attract, with an insiders’ image of Jewish life. They sought to present an honest, competent, and “objective” Jewish self-portrait that would correct gentile misperceptions of Jews and help reduce anti-Jewish prejudice. Although Izraelita’s hopes of attracting Polish readers failed to materialize—even retaining its original Jewish subscribers became a challenge as disillusionment with assimilation set in—the journal must be credited with providing a training ground for several generations of Jewish intellectuals, some of whom eventually gained recognition as mainstream Polish writers. It also produced the first literary self-portrayals of Jews in the Polish language. Although they remained on the periphery of Polish literature, read by few Polish readers and of little direct help in promoting Polish literary careers of Jewish authors, they nevertheless laid foundations for a Polish Jewish literary school.

In the late 1800s, however, works about Jews by Jews were only slowly gaining acceptance as a legitimate part of the Polish literary repertoire. Jews who gained recognition in Polish literature usually excelled in fields of no relevance to Jewish culture, such as literary criticism (Klaczko, Jellenta, Feldman, Stanisław Lack [1876–1909], Ostap Ortwin [1876–1942]). On the other hand, credit for introducing Jewish themes into mainstream Polish prose went to Polish liberals, ideologically and politically inspired writers and publicists collectively referred to as Positivists, and led by Eliza Orzeszkowa. They looked at Jewish society with the eyes of well-meaning outsiders, with compassion, appreciation of its potential, and commitment to the idea of integration.

For a decade and a half after the January uprising, Polish and Jewish literary perceptions of Jews were influenced by an ideology of integration. During this period, Jewish assimilationists—as supporters of integration were usually but somewhat misleadingly called—constituted a tiny but visible minority of Polish Jewry, a minority that, not surprisingly, monopolized Jewish literary activity in Polish. This group can be divided roughly into those who sought to modernize Polish Jewry and to solve the so-called “Jewish question” by selective, moderate, but genuine assimilation—the “Poles of Mosaic persuasion” who sought to reconcile Polish cultural and political loyalties with commitment to (modernized) Judaism—and those who advocated a total and unconditional surrender of Jewish identity or, to use a standard phrase of Polish publicists of the time, full abolition of “Jewish separatism.” The first approach was eclipsed relatively quickly, and its appeal was reduced by the persistence of antisemitism and multiplying desertions of its original proponents who opted either for Zionism or total Polonization. In the long run, the latter orientation prevailed as a matter of both ideology and practice. Most Jewish contributors to nineteenth-century Polish literature ended up totally immersed in Polish culture, publicly seeking to distance themselves from Jewishness, and not infrequently sealing this process with baptism. Although this orientation remained influential until 1939 and beyond, in the twentieth century its supporters faced increased competition from Jews using Polish as a vehicle expressing a Jewish cultural and political identity.

More research is needed into the cultural identities of “assimilationists” whose views, attitudes, strategies, and responses to the changing social climate hardly present a uniform picture. The biographies of Klaczko and Feldman, for example, offer striking similarities and intriguing contrasts that can be partially explained by the almost four decades separating their births. Both enjoyed distinguished carriers as writers, literary critics, and politicians; their traditional Jewish childhoods were followed by membership in the finest of cultural elites and a significant level of public recognition at home and abroad; both shared extreme assimilationist views unmitigated by personal experience of antisemitism; both ended up converting to Christianity (Feldman only on his deathbed). Klaczko joined the Polish conservative camp and never looked back. Feldman, on the contrary, never denied his Jewish roots, although he claimed that Jews were not a nation and should “dissolve” in Polish society for their own good. This self-proclaimed “child of the Jewish proletariat” retained a lifelong preoccupation with Jewish issues and politics, fighting lonely and invariably losing battles against Jewish and Polish nationalism. While Klaczko’s Jewish origins were not forgotten, they posed no threat to his high literary status. Feldman, on the contrary, became the subject of relentless and vicious attacks: by Jews for his anti-Zionist stance, and by Poles as a symbol of Jewish “infiltration” of Polish culture. Klaczko’s integration proceeded gently in comparison with the forces shaping Feldman’s life, including the failure of assimilation, the rise of mass politics, and the growing confrontation of two modern nationalisms.

Between the Two World Wars

When applied to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, the designation assimilationist tells us little about the individual itineraries followed by Jewish literati crossing Polish–Jewish cultural borderlands. They formed no group in the sociological, ideological, or artistic sense, and practiced most diverse literary genres, styles, and techniques. Yet they differed from later Polish writers of Jewish origin in terms of their intended audiences. The “assimilationists” targeted culturally Polish audiences that they addressed using Polish cultural codes, symbolism, and aesthetic conventions. In the late nineteenth century, when relatively few Jews wrote in Polish and the milieu of Jewish consumers of Polish literature was only beginning to emerge, they had no choice. By the early twentieth century, however, the situation had changed significantly. The influx of Jews to Polish belles lettres rose exponentially; in fact, the Jewish creative presence in Polish literature was one of the most significant novelties of the interwar period. Growing Jewish linguistic assimilation and the dawning of modern Jewish national consciousness facilitated this important quantitative and qualitative change.

Children's writer and editor Janina Mortkowicz and her daughter Hanna, a poet and also a writer for children, Warsaw, 1925. (YIVO)

The linguistic assimilation of Polish Jews in the reborn Polish state (1918–1939) was of massive proportions. With the expansion of the Polish educational system, linguistic Polonization transcended its initial class character, spreading from a narrow stratum of Jewish intelligentsia down to much broader groups who had until then been faithful to Yiddish. In the 1930s, Polish established itself as the second most widely spoken language of Polish Jews, and an essential component of what historian Khone Shmeruk characterized as a trilingual (Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish) Jewish culture, with dynamically changing “spheres of influence” among its linguistic components. Polish was becoming a vehicle of cultural expression for the growing population of Polish-speaking Jews. The rapidly swelling ranks of Polish writers of Jewish descent were matched by growing numbers of Jewish consumers of Polish literature and the underlying demand for works addressing Jewish issues, themes, and cultural sensibilities.

The birth of modern Jewish national consciousness and the advent of mass politics altered the traditional pattern of Polish–Jewish relations. Modern Jewish nationalism gained strength under the pressure of, and in interaction with, the rising tide of Polish nationalism and one of its correlates, antisemitism. The latter grew steadily from the 1880s on, finding its way to the programs of nationalist parties in the early twentieth century and establishing itself between the two world wars as a standard feature of Polish politics.

These contradictory developments—linguistic Polonization combined with radicalization of nationalists on both sides—were bound to resonate in the cultural sphere. On the one hand, Polish nationalists questioned Jews’ ability to absorb Polish culture. Rather, they claimed, Jews were subverting Polish tradition by saturating it with un-Polish values, contents, and forms. These concerns eventually degenerated into a full-blown campaign to contain the “Jewish invasion” of Polish culture. On the other hand, pointing to the futility of assimilation, Jewish nationalists called for the revival of a separate Jewish culture and for putting it in the service of Jewish national interests. Nationalist tensions weakened—but far from eliminated—assimilation, understood as a deeply internalized and emotionally positive identification of Jews with Poland and Polish values. Paradoxically, while linguistic Polonization progressed, Polish national identity began to regress among Jews.

Nevertheless, the majority of (and the best) Jewish writers continued to adhere to the traditional assimilationist stance, making mainstream Polish literature the main forum of their literary activity. Once weak and narrow, this stream now turned into a mighty river, taking the Polish literary establishment by storm. Thus, interwar lyrical poetry was dominated by Antoni Lange (1861–1929), Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937), Tadeusz Peiper (1891–1969), Julian Tuwim (1894–1953), Antoni Słonimski (1895–1976),Józef Wittlin (1896–1976), Anatol Stern (1899–1968), Aleksander Wat (1900–1967), Bruno Jasieński (1901–1939), Marian Hemar (1901–1972), Mieczysław Jastrun (1903–1983), Adam Ważyk (1905–1982), Lucjan Szenwald (1909–1934), Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917–1944), and others, representing most schools, currents, and genres, extending from the most elitist and artistically sophisticated forms of poetic expression to those targeting mass audiences; from the most innovative to moderately traditional; and from poetry aimed at adult readers to that designed specifically for children.

No less formally diversified was the Polish prose of the interwar period, whose most acclaimed and formally innovative authors included Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), Józef Wittlin, and Adolf Rudnicki (1912–1990), followed by stylistically more traditionally minded authors, such as Janusz Korczak (1878/79–1942), Herminia Naglerowa (1890–1957), Stefania Zahorska (1890–1961), Halina Górska (1898–1942), and Irena Krzywicka (1904–1994). The ranks of literary critics widened to include Emil Breiter (1886–1943), Ludwik Fryde (1912–1942), and the young Artur Sandauer (1913–1989).

Most of these writers saw themselves as part and parcel of the Polish cultural system and resented having their long-established Polish identities challenged. Tuwim and Słonimski responded to Poles questioning their place in Polish culture, and to Jews deploring their desertion of Jewish culture, with biting satire, furiously ridiculing the claims of both groups; others, like Leśmian, ducked the challenge, keeping a safe distance from Jewish themes and Jewish cultural activism. The exhaustion of long-dominant literary conventions, and, especially, the end of modernism, made room for formal experimentation in which Jewish writers excelled. Bruno Schulz’s innovative poetic prose (and the depth of its roots in Jewish culture) is only now being fully appreciated. The avant-garde movement of the 1920s featured a particularly high concentration of poets of Jewish origin, but Jewish poets played key roles in an array of literary groups representing a full spectrum of approaches. Poetry’s horizons were also expanded, for example, by Leśmian’s unmatchable synthesis of peasant mythology, modernist sensuality, and poetics seeming to reach the most archaic roots of the Polish language, or the work of his cousin, Jan Brzechwa (1900–1966), who revolutionized poetry for children.

It was the assimilationists who produced Wiadomości Literackie [Literary News, 1924–1939], Poland’s highest quality literary journal of any era, edited by Mieczysław Grydzewski (1894–1970). In the interwar years this modern, liberal, cosmopolitan, Polish-patriotic journal, despite being an inherently “Jewish” weekly in the eyes of Polish nationalists, was an indisputable authority on, and kingmaker of, Polish literature. Its standing was additionally enhanced by the journal’s role as ambassador of Polish culture abroad and by its prestigious annual literary awards. Predictably, Wiadomości became the supreme irritant of Polish cultural nationalists who struggled, resolutely but in vain, to diminish the journal’s appeal.

This fortress of assimilationism was challenged also by nationally minded Jewish literati. Considering assimilation bankrupt, they called for the creation of a national Jewish literature in Polish, a language they saw as a vital component of the multilingual cultural system of Polish Jews. This second current—Polish Jewish literature (as opposed to mainstream Polish literature or Jewish literature in Jewish languages)—represented a novel phenomenon. It emerged in the 1920s and reached maturity in the following decade. Unlike the assimilationist camp, which catered to culturally Polish audiences and infuriated Polish nationalists by their alleged “mimicry” and “sabotage” of Polish culture, Polish Jewish writers never claimed to be Polish. They were, in their own words, “returning home to Jewishness” from an arduous journey of acculturation to address culturally and nationally Jewish audiences.

Polish Jewish literature developed around leading Zionist journals such as Chwila (The Moment; Lwów, 1919–1939), Opinia (Opinion; Warsaw, 1933–1935), Nowy Dziennik (New Daily; Kraków, 1918–1939), Nasz Przegląd (Our Review; Warsaw, 1923–1939), Nasza Opinia (Our Opinion; Lwów, 1935–1939), Nowy Głos (New Voice; Warsaw, 1937–1938) and Ster (Rudder; Warsaw, 1937–1938), all of which published original literary materials, sometimes in special supplements. As it matured, Polish Jewish literature began emancipating itself from its press cradle. However, the process was cut short by the outbreak of World War II.

In its short existence, Polish Jewish literature did not produce writers of the stature of Tuwim, Leśmian, and other stars of mainstream Polish literature. Nevertheless, it grew dynamically, riding the wave of depolonization of Jewish authors and Jewish audiences, focusing mostly on poetry but penetrating most literary genres. While the “assimilationists” struggled to secure a place for themselves in the Polish tradition, “Polish Jewish” writers used Polish as a vehicle for their efforts to revitalize Jewish national culture. Drawing on nostalgia for the past, uncertainty of the present, and fragile dreams of the future, they embarked on a quest for Jewish identity, a search they infused with a spirit of privacy and intimacy, giving it a strongly autobiographical character. They added to the Polish literary tradition the first collective Jewish self-portrait construed of fiercely individualistic components, and introducing elements of Jewish culture into it. Another important outcome of the emergence of Polish Jewish literature was the internal differentiation of the reading public along ethnonational lines. While Jews participated in both “Polish” and “Jewish” communication circles, Poles stuck exclusively to the “Polish” ones. One good (if somewhat extreme) example of this was two versions of the same Polish-language novel by Janusz KorczakMośki, Jośki i Srule (1910) and Józki, Jaśki i Franki (1911), destined, respectively, for Polish Jewish and Polish readers. They aimed at two distinct youth subcultures, both rooted in the Polish language.

In addition to Korczak, contributors to Polish Jewish literature included poets Dvora Vogel (1902–1942), Maurycy Szymel (1903–1942), Roman Brandstaetter (1906–1987), and Anda Eker (1912–1936); prose writer Jakub Appenszlak (1894–1950); and literary critics and essayists Mojżesz Kanfer (1880–1942), Wilhelm Fallek (1887–1941), Juliusz Feldhorn (1901–1943), Karol Dresdner (1908–1943), and Stefan Pomer (d. 1941). The external borders of this formation remained fluid, and there was an overlap between assimilationist and nationalist Jewish literary circles. Cases of writers who published both in Wiadomości and in the Jewish “national” press, readers who read both, and bilingual or even trilingual writers active in any combination of them, were quite common.

The Long Shadow of the Holocaust

The Holocaust destroyed traditional Jewish life; it decimated the ranks of Jewish writers and the Jewish reading public. At the same time, however, it instilled in many survivors a profound urge to bear witness. Converting the experience of the Holocaust into a literary testimony became a driving literary impulse and an omnipresent theme for Stanisław Wygodzki (1907–1992), Ida Fink (b. 1921), Bohdan Wojdowski (1930–1994), Adolf Rudnicki, and Henryk Grynberg (b. 1936). The fall of the Warsaw ghetto inspired Julian Stryjkowski (1905–1996), then a committed Communist in exile in the USSR, to make commemoration of the pre-Holocaust Jewish world a lifelong artistic commitment.

Postcard with scenes of Grodno (now Hrodna, Belarus), home of the nineteenth-century Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa (portrait, center), author of Meir Ezofowicz and other books with sympathetic portrayals of Jews, ca. 1915. Photograph by L. M. Gelgor. (YIVO)

Opening the list of writers commemorating their heritage are scarce literary testimonies by authors who did not survive. For others, including Mieczysław Jastrun, Artur Sandauer, Kazimierz Brandys (1913–2000), Krystyna Żywulska (1918–1992), and Hanna Krall (b. 1937), the Holocaust became a central but not the only literary theme. Tuwim, Słonimski, Wittlin, Lucjan Szenwald (1909–1944), Kalman Segal (1917–1980), and others who, like Stryjkowski, spent the critical war years in exile, devoted many moving pages to it. So did many non-Jewish Poles, adding the voice of the witness to that of the victim and prime target of Nazi genocide. It was this difference of perspective—combined with the deeply autobiographical nature of Jewish accounts—that made these works an easily identifiable stream within a broader commemorative tradition. It stands out as its most intimate, penetrating, and emotionally eloquent element.

The experience of the Holocaust led many strongly acculturated Jewish writers to reexamine their identities. One of the earliest documents of such transformation is Tuwim’s My Żydzi polscy (We, Polish Jews; 1944), a dramatic manifesto in which one of Poland’s greatest poets (and one whose earlier work revealed some ambivalence toward things Jewish), begs for symbolic readmittance—as a “Jew doloris causa”—to the Jewish nation conceptualized as a community of suffering. The history of My Żydzi polscy also offers a good example of the obstacles that commemoration of the Holocaust encountered under Communist rule. First published in London and immediately translated into English and Hebrew, My Żydzi polscy appeared in Poland only in 1947. Not reprinted for several decades, excluded even from Tuwim’s published collected works, the piece remained virtually unknown to Polish readers.

Likewise, Stryjkowski’s best novel, Głosy w ciemności (Voices in the Dark), print-ready at the end of the war, had to wait 10 years to finally appear in book form in 1956. Both these and quite a few other texts ran against cultural policies of the new regime, which discouraged any expression of nationalist sentiment, and, under Stalinism, systematically suppressed references to Jews and Jewish culture. The ban, from the end of the 1940s, was extended to formerly tolerated depictions of Jews as victims of Nazi terror, even to accounts most carefully balancing the suffering of Jews against that of non-Jews. The doctrine of socialist realism (the conceptualization and implementation of which owed a good deal to left-wing Jewish literati) called for optimistic, propagandistic visions of the future to mobilize the toiling masses—a requirement incompatible with testifying about the recent Polish Jewish experience.

These political circumstances, magnified by the absence of sympathetic Jewish audiences, phased out and sometimes delayed both Jewish literary responses to the Holocaust and to more comprehensive accounts of the Polish Jewish experience in the twentieth century. Thus, Holocaust-related literature was released in stages over several literary generations. Many texts composed during and immediately after the war—diaries, memoirs, poetry, and the first pieces of realistic, semidocumentary prose—appeared in print in the 1940s, before the consolidation of Stalinism at the end of the decade. The next wave of publications followed the political thaw of 1956. Along with documentary and semidocumentary prose and poetry, the post-1956 period saw the appearance of full-fledged fiction devoted to the Holocaust, and the extension of the scope of permissible Jewish topics beyond wartime martyrdom. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish themes became increasingly associated with political opposition; the body of writings featuring them grew unevenly, echoing changing moods of censorship, flare-ups of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment, and successive waves of emigration from Poland.

A new generation of writers entering the Polish literary scene, many of them child survivors, established a natural bridge between classical Holocaust narratives and stories about Jewish destinies in postwar Poland. Thus, Bohdan Wojdowski’s monumental Chleb rzucony umarłym (Bread Cast to the Dead; 1971) and short stories from the Warsaw ghetto find a natural continuation in his Krzywe drogi (Crooked Roads; 1987), a portrayal of two generations of Polish Jews who, caught in contemporary political turmoil, contemplate the failure of their assimilation. The Holocaust is a constant and intensely autobiographical presence in Henryk Grynberg’s poetry and prose, including novels set in postwar realities, and those retrospectively settling accounts with the author’s Polish past after his emigration. Some works produced in the late Communist period are reminiscent of those published in Izraelita a century earlier. They guide non-Jewish readers through the maze of Jewish experience, too distant and too arcane to be grasped without extensive psychological, moral, and historical commentary. This approach also permeates Zdążyć przed Panem Bogiem (To Steal a March on God; 1977), in which Hanna Krall imposes an additional layer of commentary on the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising narrated by Marek Edelman, its last surviving leader. The approach is also a recurring pattern in autobiographical prose, of which Józef Hen’s (b. 1932) realistic symbolic reconstruction of his Jewish childhood in Nowolipie (1991), methodically cross-referenced with explanations of the meaning of long-forgotten words and terms, and with notes on characters’ fate during and after the war, is a good example.

Postwar emigration displaced many writers (Grynberg, Fink, Wygodzki, Wilhelm Dichter, Arnold Słucki, Segal, Anna Freilich) who continued to write in Polish in Israel, America, and Western Europe unaffected by censorship and political pressures but as a rule greatly delayed in reaching the Polish public. Typically published by Polish publishers abroad, these writings would eventually find their way to larger Polish audiences, sometimes after delays of many years.

The third postwar wave of literary accounts of the modern Jewish experience in Poland, one marked by a surprising resurgence of war-related themes, began in the mid-1980s and continued well into the 1990s, coinciding with the fall of communism, the reestablishment of full freedom of artistic expression, and dramatically increased public interest in things Jewish. It saw an unprecedented flood of memoirs, autobiographies, diaries, family sagas, and collections of interviews, as well as poetry and fiction examining the Jewish experience in the twentieth century. It also intensified the process of repatriation to Polish literature of works written and published abroad, reprints of those published long ago in limited numbers of copies, along with a long overdue, general debate about the meaning of the Jewish experience in Poland. A pathbreaking study by Sandauer (1982) on the situation of Polish writers of Jewish descent in the twentieth century played a key role in linking the literary and nonliterary aspects of this debate.

Formally, as well as in other respects, the postwar contribution of Jewish writers followed trends established prior to 1939. The Holocaust accelerated the process of cultural depolonization of surviving Jewish artists and bestowed a strong sense of Polish Jewish dualism on those entering literary life. Events of the following decades magnified this tendency, further reinforcing Jewish writers’ preference for an autobiographical, semidocumentary, and staunchly individualistic approach. From the very inception of a Jewish literary milieu in the nineteenth century, the issue of identity has dominated Jewish contributions to Polish literature. Preoccupation with identity was enhanced by the Holocaust and its aftermath, producing stories of survivors navigating the choppy waters of Communist politics, defining attitudes toward Israel and emigration: examples include Stanisław Lec (1909–1966), author of Rękopis jerozolimski (The Jerusalem Manuscript); Sandauer; Rudnicki; and Grynberg, who settled accounts with Jewishness in a specifically Polish context. While insiders’ images of the Jewish world occupied the margin of Polish literature of the nineteenth century, their most recent renditions moved closer to center stage at the turn of the twenty-first century, gaining selective recognition as universal symbols of the human condition.

As active participants in Polish literary life, Jewish authors had established a significant presence from the end of the nineteenth century, covering many artistic currents, all literary genres, and readership circles. By contrast, their contribution to Polish literature, according to the literary historian Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, is best defined as literary accounts of the Polish Jewish experience seen through insiders’ eyes. From this point of view, she argues, the development of the Jewish literary milieu can be regarded as the formation of an artistically differentiated, multigenerational Jewish literary school in Polish literature. Polish writers of Jewish origin were ideally positioned to synthesize Polish and Jewish traditions, and this is what they did.


[The following list identifies and briefly describes Polish writers who are not the subject of an independent biographical entry.]

Arensztajn, Franciszka

(Arnsztajnowa; born Meyerson, 1865–1942?), poet, playwright, and translator. A key cultural personality in her native Lublin, and cofounder of the city’s Writers Association, Franciszka Arensztajn was a regular contributor to the local literary press. Her plays were staged at theaters in Lublin and other Polish cities. Together with poet Józef Czechowicz, she “discovered,” researched, and popularized Lublin’s neglected historical monuments in Stare kamienie (Old Stones; 1934). Her first published poems appeared in 1895 and were followed by several volumes of modernist poetry with Polish patriotic and folkloric themes, as well as poems for children. She probably died in the Warsaw ghetto.

Feldhorn, Juliusz

(1901–1943), teacher, poet, and translator. After earning a doctorate in Polish philology at Jagiellonian University, Juliusz Feldhorn taught Polish and Polish literature at the Jewish gymnasium in Kraków. He published several collections of poems, studies of Jewish motifs in Polish and world literature (Cyprian Norwid, John Galsworthy), and a Polish translation of the biblical Song of Songs. Feldhorn presented a moving metaphor of Jewish fate in the poem “Zwycięstwo Ahaswera” (Victory of Ahasuerus; 1926). He contributed regularly to Miesięcznik Żydowski (Jewish Monthly). Feldhorn died during the Holocaust.

Fryde, Ludwik

(1912–1942), literary critic. Educated in Polish philology and culture at the University of Warsaw, Ludwik Fryde established an influential school of literary criticism in the 1930s and is best known for his innovative theoretical and methodological work. Fryde died in the Holocaust.

Górska, Halina

(1898–1943), novelist, radio journalist, and social worker. The Warsaw-born daughter of writer Czesława Endelmanowa, Halina Górska studied sociology in Brussels and later moved to Lwów, where she immersed herself in philanthropic and educational activities on behalf of youth and the working poor. Active in the League for the Defense of the Rights of Man, Górska’s left-wing social activism is discernible also in her radio journalism and prose, which reveal a preoccupation with ethics and social justice. A cofounder and coeditor of the socialist monthly Sygnały (Signals), her views became radical in the 1930s, evolving from liberalism to outright Communist positions for which she was tried following the closure of Sygnały in 1937. Górska was murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

Jasieński, Bruno

(1901–1939), poet, novelist, and playwright. Bruno Jasieński (Zyskind) was born in Klimontów; with Anatol Stern, he wrote the manifesto Nuz w bzuhu (Knife in the Belly; 1921), and became an unquestionable leader of Polish futurism. Dynamism and absurdity permeate Jasieński’s poetry, including the 1921 collections But w butonierce (The Boot in a Buttonhole) and Pieśń o głodzie (Song of Hunger). In 1925, Jasieński emigrated to France but was expelled for Communist activism and publishing a vision of a proletarian revolution, titled “Palę Paryż” (I Burn Paris; 1928) in L’Humanité. Jasieński’s play Słowo o Jakubie Szeli (A Word on Jakub Szela, 1926) glorified a nineteenth-century antifeudal uprising of Polish peasantry. He spent the last decade of his life in the USSR organizing the Union of Soviet Writers and writing in both Polish and Russian—Bal Manekinów (The Dummies’ Ball, 1931), Chelovek menyayet kozhu (Man Changes His Skin, 1935; Polish, 1934). Arrested in 1937 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, Jasieński died on his way to exile near Vladivostok. The Soviets officially rehabilitated Jasieński in 1956.

Jellenta (Hirszbrand), Cezary

(1861–1935), literary critic and writer. A Warsaw-born lawyer, Cezary Jellenta abandoned his legal practice in 1905 to become one of the most influential Polish literary critics of the turn of the century. Associated with the Young Poland movement, he pioneered a modernist approach to art. As editor of the journals Ateneum and Rydwan, and contributor to key literary periodicals of the day, Jellenta wrote about philosophy, art theory, theater, music, and the visual arts. Active in the Polish independence movement, he spent years in political exile in Germany popularizing Polish culture.

Löw, Chaim

(1901–1976), writer and one of the most insightful literary critics of Polish Jewish literature. Holder of a doctorate in Polish literature from Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Chaim Löw taught Polish in Jewish schools and published studies on Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish literature in the Polish Jewish press. His 1934 essay “Smok w słowiczym gnieździe: Żydzi w poezji odrodzonej Polski” (Dragon in a Nightingale’s Nest: Jews in Polish Poetry from 1918) presented a new generation of Polish Jews who achieved unprecedented prominence in Polish poetry of the interwar period. Löw served in the Polish military from 1943 to 1953, first in the USSR, where he fled the invading Nazis, and later in Poland. After the war he abandoned Jewish themes, contributed to the official press, and wrote historical novels under the pen name Leon Przemski.

Mortkowicz, Janina

(1875–1960), writer, translator, and editor. Before marrying publisher Jakub Mortkowicz, Janina Mortkowicz was active in literacy and educational campaigns among youth and workers. As head of the children’s literature section in her husband’s publishing house, she ran the press and its bookstore with her daughter Hanna after Jakub’s death. Janina Mortkowicz wrote for and about children, producing stories, textbooks, and pedagogical and psychological essays such as “O wychowaniu estetycznym” (On Aesthetic Education; 1903). She also translated classics of children’s literature and edited journals for young readers. After surviving World War II on the “Aryan side,” she unsuccessfully sought to revive the family publishing business.

Mortkowicz-Olczakowa, Hanna

(1905–1968), poet, writer of books for children and young readers. Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa was born in Warsaw, the daughter of publisher Jakub Mortkowicz and writer Janina Mortkowicz. After her father’s death she and her mother ran the family publishing house. Her first published poems appeared in 1924. She is best known as for her poetry and prose for the young. After surviving World War II in hiding, she resumed literary and editorial activity in 1945 in state-owned presses.

Ortwin, Ostap

(1876–1942), literary critic. Born in Tłumacz in Galicia, Ostap Ortwin (Katzenellenbogen) obtained a doctorate in law and established a prominent presence in Lemberg’s cultural life in the 1890s. The focus of his widely published reviews and innovative critical essays, Proby przekrojów (Attempts at Cross-Sections; 1936), gradually moved from theater to poetry. Ortwin developed a theory of literary criticism as an autonomous literary genre. A socialist, he gained fame during the high-profile trial of Stanisław Brzozowski for his spirited defense of this socialist writer accused of being a tsarist agent. Ortwin died in the Holocaust under unknown circumstances.

Peiper, Tadeusz

(1891–1969), poet, writer, and literary critic. Informally educated in Kraków, Berlin, Paris, and Madrid, Tadeusz Peiper became artistically active in his native Kraków in the 1920s. A futurist, he published art manifestos and edited Zwrotnica (Switch), a left-leaning literary journal. Peiper’s critique of futurism and his innovative theory of poetry were proposed in Nowe usta (New Lips; 1925); these works, as well as his own poetry, established him as a leader and chief ideologist of the Polish avant-garde movement. After surviving World War II in the USSR and returning to Poland, he became noticeably less productive and gradually fell silent.

Peltyn, Szmul Hirsz

(1831–1896), author, publisher, editor, and publicist. Born in Mariampol (Lithuania), Samuel Peltyn received a formal religious education while studying Polish culture and the humanities on his own. Prior to moving to Warsaw in 1853, Peltyn taught Hebrew and Polish and published a Polish grammar text for Yiddish-speaking youth. In Warsaw, he worked in journalism and publishing, promoting reform of Judaism, productivization, and the cultural Polonization of Jews. After the defeat of the 1863 uprising left the Warsaw Polonizing elite without a press organ, Peltyn launched Izraelita (1866–1912), the longest-published Jewish journal in Poland. He edited the weekly until his death, writing editorials and articles on religion, ethics, Jewish history, and antisemitism. Peltyn also wrote stories and translated the works of other authors. Among his unpublished manuscripts is Historia Żydów (History of the Jews). An active member of the Reform temple in Warsaw, Peltyn sought to give the service a Polish rather than German character.

Segal, Kalman

(1917–1980), bilingual (Polish and Yiddish) writer, poet, and journalist. Born in Sanok into a rural family, Kalman Segal survived the Holocaust imprisoned in Soviet labor camps. Back in Poland in 1946, he made his literary debut in Yiddish and later in Polish. His Yiddish poetry, short stories, and journalism are recognizably autobiographical, as is his Polish output. His writing dealt with traditional life, Jewish martyrdom, and the Communist transition in Poland. In 1969, Segal immigrated to Israel where for the rest of his life he worked as a Yiddish-language radio journalist while continuing to write, now exclusively in Yiddish. His works include Lider (Poems; 1952), Tsu mayn nayer heym (To My New Home; 1953), A shtetl baym Son (A Town on the San; 1956), Der tayvl in shtetl (The Devil in Town; 1967), Aleynkayt (Aloneness; 1977), Vu shmeterlingen shvebn (Where Butterflies Fly; 1981), and some 20 Polish titles published between 1956 and 1969.

Stern, Anatol

(1899–1968), poet, prose writer and screenwriter, literary and film critic. Anatol Stern was a prominent avant-garde figure, an initiator and ideologist of Polish futurism. Imprisoned for blasphemy in 1920, he was released after protests from fellow writers, but in the 1930s he found himself in conflict again with the increasingly authoritarian regime. He wrote and coproduced (with Bruno Jasieński and Aleksander Wat) important futurist manifestos and helped edit Nowa sztuka (New Art), an avant-garde journal. An early cinema enthusiast, Stern wrote some 30 screenplays, mostly based on Polish classics. He spent the war years in the USSR. In 1942, he joined the Polish army heading for Palestine, and returned to Warsaw in 1948. Stern’s early works, Futuryzacje (Futurizations; 1919) and Nagi człowiek w środmieściu (Naked Man Downtown; 1919), combine explosive dynamism, brutal irony, and optimism with a strong message against totalitarianism. More subdued contemplation of the past prevails in his postwar output, Widzialne i niewidzialne (The Visible and Invisible; 1963) and Alarm nocny (Night Alarm; 1970).

Szlengel, Władysław

(1914–1943), poet, satirist, and actor. Educated at the Warsaw School of Commerce, Władysław Szlengel wrote poems, songs, satire, and texts for cabarets (e.g., the Ali Baba theater). He published in Nasz Przegląd, Szpilki, and Sygnały. After participating in the 1939 defense of Warsaw against the invading Nazis, and briefly directing a theater in Białystok, Szlengel found himself in the Warsaw ghetto. There, at the Leszno Street café-club Sztuka (Art), he wrote, staged, and personally presented Żywy dziennik (Living Diary), a gripping versified chronicle of the ghetto life. Along with his other ghetto poems, Żywy dziennik gained Szlengel huge popularity among ghetto Jews. Fragments of his works (poems written in 1942–1943, selected by the poet himself), survived World War II as part of the Ringelblum archive. Szlengel called his collection Co czytałem umarłym, wiersze z getta warszawskiego (What I Read to the Dead, Verses from the Warsaw Ghetto). It appeared in print in 1977, edited by Irena Maciejewska. Szlengel died during the ghetto uprising, presumably fighting in the ranks of the insurgents.

Suggested Reading

Jan Błoński, Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto (Kraków, 1994); Aliny Brodzka-Wald, Dorota Krawczyńska, and Jacek Leociak, eds., Literatura polska wobec zagłady (Warsaw, 2000); Natan Gross, Poeci i Szoa (Sosnowiec, Pol., 1993); Madeline G. Levine, “Polish Literature and the Holocaust,” Holocaust Studies Annual 3 (1987): 189–202; Eugenia Łoch, ed., Literackieportrety Żydów (Lublin, Pol., 1996); Magdalena Opalski and Israel Bartal, Poles and Jews: A Failed Brotherhood (Hanover, N.H., 1992); Władysław Panas, Pismo i rana: Szkice o problematyce żydowskiej w literaturze polskiej (Lublin, Pol., 1996); Antony Polonsky and Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, eds., Contemporary Jewish Writing in Poland: An Anthology (Lincoln, Nebr., 2001); Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, ed., Międzywojenna poezja polsko-żydowska (Kraków, 1996); Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, Polish-Jewish Literature in the Interwar Years, trans. Abe Shenitzer (Syracuse, N.Y., 2003); Artur Sandauer, On the Situation of the Polish Writer of Jewish Descent in the Twentieth Century, trans. Abe Shenitzer and Sarah Shenitzer (Jerusalem 2005); Ruth Shenfeld, Adolf Rudnitski: Sofer ben shene ‘olamot (Jerusalem, 1991); Chone Shmeruk, “Hebrew-Yiddish-Polish: A Trilingual Jewish Culture,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman et al., pp. 285–311 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Bożena Umińska, Postać z cienim: Portrety Żydówek w polskiej litereaturze od końca IXI wieku do 1939 roku (Warsaw, 2001); Józef Wróbel, Tematy żydowskie w prozie polskiej, 1939–1987 (Kraków, 1991).