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The 20th century’s ‘greatest Jewish poet’

Sculpture of Tuwim on Piotrkowska Street in Lodz. (Polimerek/Wikimedia Commons photo)

A 1974 headline in the Yiddish newspaper Forverts described the
Jewish-Polish poet Julian Tuwim, born 125 years ago in Lodz, as “the greatest Jewish poet” of the 20th century. Writing in the Polish language, Tuwim was the most widely read contemporary poet in Poland’s interwar period. His charming children’s verses and poetic mastery of the Polish language have won the hearts of successive generations of Poles. His statue sits on the main street of Lodz.

In a starkly monolithic time and place, Tuwim fiercely proclaimed both Jewish and Polish identities. Yet he was also ambivalent and critical of both these identities and traditions. In 1924, Tuwim told an interviewer: “For anti-Semites, I am a Jew and my poetry is Jewish. For Jewish nationalists, I am a traitor and renegade. Tough luck!”

Tuwim befuddled friends and foes alike with his capacity to espouse seemingly incompatible views and positions. Champion of Polish culture, yet critic of Polish ethnocentrism. Self-distancing from Jewish culture, yet literary foe of anti-Semitism and writer of a searing Holocaust lament poem in 1944 (“We, Polish Jews,” the first Holocaust poem written by a contemporary Jewish literary figure). He was staunchly anti-authoritarian, yet after the war, he returned from his New York safe haven to live in communist Poland. His friend and fellow writer Jozef Wittlin declared in exasperation: “Tuwim is the proof that God does exist, for such a stupid man to be such a great poet.”

There was remarkable range to his writing: children’s verse, cabaret lyrics, love poems, political poems, poems of Polish attachment, Jewish attachment and catastrophist forebodings as Europe hurtled toward the abyss.

Raised in a Polish-speaking Jewish home, Tuwim would be among the first generation of Jewish-Polish literary luminaries to write in Polish for a broad national audience. His popularity undoubtedly fuelled denunciations from ethno-nationalist critics who denounced Tuwim as “culturally alien to Poland,” in what fellow Jewish-Polish poet Maurycy Szymel called “a pogrom against Tuwim’s right to Polish literature.”

Indeed, Tuwim’s signature contribution to Polish literature was his inventive, expressive use of the language. The Polish Nobel Prize winner for literature, Czeslaw Milosc, called Tuwim a “virtuoso of lyricism.” Literary critic Roman Zrebowicz declared that Tuwim’s linguistic mastery gave his work a unique sensual quality: “all of Tuwim’s poetry smells as ecstatically as a forest. Each verse has its own particular aroma.”

In 1940, while in exile in Brazil, Tuwim wrote a long bittersweet reflection titled, “Polish Flowers,” in which he confessed to feeling separated from Poland “by an Atlantic of yearning,” declaring “This (Poland) is fatherland/And other countries are hotels.” In the same poem, Tuwim denounced the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in prewar Poland: “When the street was ruled by petty middle-class scoundrels/Excellent ‘Catholics’/Except that they had not yet become Christian … When the rampant braggarts so beat the Jews/That I felt more shame for my fatherland/than pity for my beaten brethren.”

He was estranged, yet unable or unwilling to detach from his Jewish identity. Exile and Diaspora, he believed, had rendered Jews a lost, forlorn people. His 1918 poem “Jews” (written at age 24), describes Jews as “People who do not know what a fatherland is/Because they have lived everywhere … The centuries have engraved on their faces/The painful lines of suffering.” In the poem “Jewboy,” written in 1925, Tuwim confronts the Jewish fate of exile: “How did we come to this? How did we lose ourselves/In this vast world, strange and hostile to us? … And we will never find peace or rest/Singing Jews, lost Jews.”

Like many literary and intellectual Jewish contemporaries in Poland and across Europe, Tuwim believed the Jewish future depended on equal citizenship in their country of birth. He was not opposed to the Zionist project, but his own embrace of Polish language and writing ruled out the option of Palestine as a new personal homeland. And yet, Tuwim paid a steep price for his attachment to Poland.
Anti-Semitic attacks on his writing intensified through the 1930s. Tuwim confided about this rejection: “It is difficult to be a stepson with a stepmother. I am going down, it is very difficult for me in this country.” A period of ulcers and agoraphobia set in.

Days after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Tuwim was spirited west in an exodus of the country’s leading cultural figures. He lived briefly in Paris, and somewhat longer in Brazil, before spending most of the war in New York.

Tuwim and his wife, Stefania, returned to live permanently in Poland in 1946. He was not the only prominent Polish Jew to do so. He believed a Poland under communist tutelage offered the best protection for Jews. In 1947 the Tuwims adopted a Jewish orphan daughter in Warsaw. On his return to Poland, Tuwim moved the buried body of his mother from outside Warsaw to the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. The opening stanza of his poem “Matka” (“Mother”) declares: “At the cemetery in Lodz/The Jewish cemetery, stands/The Polish grave of my mother/My Jewish mother’s tomb.”

Polish and Jewish together. Julian Tuwim held on to the end. He died in Poland in 1953.

In his lifetime, Tuwim reflected the possibilities and impossibilities of 20th-century Polish-Jewish relations. In the 21st century, Tuwim’s poetry reads as a plea for diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism. These were dangerous verses in his day. They remain timely in our own.

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