Rachel Holzer in Julian Tuwim's Meshugene Zashke (Crazy Zashke) from the revue Tate, du lakhst (Daddy, You're Laughing), at the Nowości Theater, Warsaw, 1938. Photograph by Leo Forbert.

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Tuwim, Julian

(1894–1953), poet, satirist, translator, and editor. Born in Łódź into an assimilated family, Julian Tuwim was the grandson of Leon Krukowski, the publisher of Dziennik Łódzki. In 1916, Tuwim moved to Warsaw, where he studied law and philosophy. One of the most popular Polish interwar poets, he belonged both to the innovative group Skamander, which helped revitalize Polish poetry after 1918, and to the prestigious literary circle around the journal Wiadomości Literackie. Successfully combining intellectual and popular literature, Tuwim excelled in several fields: he was an outstanding lyricist and political satirist, and he also wrote poetry for children, texts of songs, operetta librettos, theater adaptations, and texts for cabaret. After World War II, which he spent in exile in the United States, he returned to Poland in 1946.


Tuwim published several volumes of poetry, including Czyhanie na Boga (Lying in Wait for God; 1918), Sokrates tańczący (The Dancing Socrates; 1920), Siódma jesień (Seventh Autumn; 1922), Biblia cygańska (Gypsy Bible; 1933), Słowa we krwi (Words in Blood; 1936), and Treść gorejąca (Contents Aflame; 1936); a volume of satire, Jarmark rymów (Market of Rhymes; 1934); followed by poems Bal w operze (Ball at the Opera; written 1936, published 1946) and Kwiaty polskie (Polish Flowers; 1949); volumes of children’s verse, Lokomotywa (Locomotive; 1938), Słoń Trąbalski (Elephant Trąbalski; 1938), and Zosia Samosia (Self-Willed Sophie; 1938); and sketches Pegaz dęba (Pegasus Rampant; 1950). He edited several anthologies, dictionaries, and lexicons covering fields as diverse as Polish witchcraft and demons, Polish vocabulary related to alcohol consumption, and Polish literature. He also translated Latin, Russian, and French literary works, as well as Polish poetry into Esperanto. Tuwim’s poetry for children quickly found its way into Polish school textbooks and became part of the canon of children’s literature.


Tuwim’s early poetry was influenced by futurism and expressionism but did not break completely with literary tradition. It was marked by vitalism inspired by Bergson’s philosophy, a fondness for everyday, proselike language and urban motifs, and a tendency to feature ordinary people as protagonists. With time, this approach gave way to a classicist tendency, existential, and metaphysical themes, catastrophic motifs, and a vision of poetry as “an alchemy of words.” Tuwim’s political poetry and its distinctive pacifist overtones attracted a great deal of attention. His linguistic experimentation revealed the influence of Russian futurism and its view of language. His “philosophy of language” focused on the relationship between word and object, sound and name, and the concept of poetry as words returning to their origins.


Tuwim’s feelings about his Jewishness were ambivalent and assumed a variety of forms. In a 1924 interview, the poet told Nasz Przegląd (no. 6): “I am a Polonized Jew, that is, a Jew-Pole, and I don’t care what people say about it. I was raised in Polish culture; instinctively, guided by a sincere impulse, I would say subconsciously, I have become attached with all my soul to Polishness.” He added that assimilation was the only logical solution to the Jewish question in Poland but the antisemitism poisoning Polish society caused him not to believe in it.


Thus, antsemitism became an issue of key importance to Tuwim. At times, in his early poetry, he seemed to present himself in conformity to antisemitic stereotypes. This perspective, apparent in Semi-Eros, Bank (Bank), and Giełdziarze (Stock Brokers), prompted protests from Jewish readers. By contrast, in Żydek (Little Jew) a sense of solidarity unites two Jewish marginals: an assimilated poet and a mad beggar. Tuwim decided not to publish some of his more dramatic poems on the subject of Polish–Jewish relations, among them “Pieśni o biciu” (Songs about a Beating; written in 1914 in reaction to antisemitic incidents in Łódź), or youthful poems identifying with the persecuted and expressing the internal conflict created by belonging simultaneously to Jewish and Polish worlds (“Tragedia”). Writing for the cabaret, he excelled in szmonces, the cabaret genre that portrayed a Jewish milieu and drew on comic interaction between Polish and Yiddish (e.g., "Mistyka finansów" [Finance Mystique; 1933] and "Elegia starozakonna" [Old Testament Elegy; 1928]), and mocked the forms of assmiliation of the Jewish bourgeoisie.


During the interwar period, Tuwim was viciously attacked by right-wing critics who depicted his work as a reflection of Jewish “racial” characteristics and thus as “alien” to Polish art, corrupting and amoral. In the late 1930s, demands were voiced for the removal of Tuwim’s poetry from school textbooks and for the confiscation of his books. Some nationalist Jewish groups also treated him as a renegade; for example, he was attacked in Marek Turkow’s brochure “Polacy, Żydzi i mechesi” (Poles, Jews and the Apostates; 1930).


Tuwim responded to antisemitic nationalist attacks with biting satire, mocking anti-Jewish stereotypes. His support for the new political regime after 1945 can be interpreted in this political context. In the ironic poem Kwiaty Polskie, written during the war, Tuwim condemned fascism and expressed hope for a new democratic and tolerant Poland.


Defending himself from antisemitic attacks, Tuwim stressed his family’s rootedness in Polish culture and his dislike of Jewish Orthodoxy and of Yiddish (e.g., Wspomnienie o Łodzi [Remembering Łódź; 1934]).


However, the Holocaust had modified his position. In My, Żydzi Polscy (We, the Polish Jews), written in 1944 while he was living in exile in the United States, the declaration “I am a Pole” is accompanied by a confession of deep and unconditional solidarity with Jewish victims of Nazism. Tuwim’s love for the Polish language, however, was free of ambivalence. In his best-known declaration of this linguistic affinity, he stated, “This is my home: four walls of verse / The Polish language, my beautiful homeland” (from the poem “Zieleń”).

Suggested Reading

Michał Głowiński, Poetyka Tuwima a polska tradycja literacka (Warsaw, 1962); Magnus Kryński, “Politics and Poetry: The Case of Julian Tuwim,” The Polish Review 18.4 (1973): 3–33; Jadwiga Sawicka, “Filozofia słowa” Juliana Tuwima (Wrocław, 1975); Chone Shmeruk, “Preface,” in Anu, yehude Polin / Mir, poylishe yidn / My, Żydzi polscy / We, Polish Jews, by Julian Tuwim, pp. 7–12 (Jerusalem 1984), in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and English; Julian Tuwim, Tam zostałem: Wspomnienia młodości, ed. Tadeusz Januszewski (Warsaw, 2003).

Author

Translation

Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti; revised by Magda Opalski