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Polish Literature

Biblical and Hebraic Influences

Translations of the Bible played an important part in the development of Polish as a literary language. From the early 14th century onward, the Old Testament – particularly the Psalms – provided a major source of poetical inspiration in Polish literature and culture. Some of the best-known of these Polish versions of the Scriptures were the 15th-century Queen Sophia Bible; the 14th-century Floriański Psalter; the Calvinist Brześć (Radziwill) Bible (1562); Szymon Budny's Nieświez Bible (1572); and Fr. Jakub Wujek's classic Catholic Bible (1593–99), which injected the greatest concentration of biblical imagery and expression into the Polish language. Polish Bibles from the 16th century onward were mainly the work of Protestants, who also produced many paraphrases of biblical books such as the Psalms. New translations have been produced in the 20th century, and there have also been a few Polish Jewish versions of Old Testament texts, notably Song of Songs (1922) by Juliusz Feldhorn (1901–1943), who was murdered by the Nazis; and complete Old Testaments by F. Aszkenazy (1927–30) and S. Spitzer (1937). In Polish literature proper, the influence of the Bible may be detected during and after the Renaissance era in works such as Żywot Józefa z pokolenia żydowskiego ("The Life of Joseph," 1545), a biblical interlude by Mikolaj Rej, the Calvinist "father of Polish literature" who also published a verse translation of Psalms (1546); and the Kazania sejmowe ("Parliamentary Sermons," 1597) of the Jesuit Piotr Skarga. The impact of the Old Testament was most evident in the outstanding Polish poet of the Renaissance, Jan Kochanowski, whose works include Pieśń o potopie ("The Song of the Flood," 1558), Zuzanna (1562), and Treny ("Lamentations," 1580; English selections, 1920). Kochanowski's sensitive and beautiful version of Psalms, Psałterz Dawidów (1578), was the finest poetical work of its time and served as a literary model until the 19th-century romantic period. Some later Psalters by his followers and imitators were Maciej Rybiński's Psalmy monarchy i proroka św. Dawida ("The Psalms of David, King and Prophet," 1598) and the paraphrase by Mikolaj Sęp-Szarzyński in Rytmy (1601). Some Polish writers were also interested in other books of the Bible, which they either translated or used as stylistic models. The staunchly Catholic poet and historian Wespazjan Kochowski celebrated the tenth anniversary of the battle of Vienna (in which King Jan III Sobieski defeated the Turks) with his Psalmodia polska ("Polish Psalmody," 1693), written in the form of biblical prose. There were also scores of dramatic works and interludes on biblical subjects belonging to the theatrical repertory of the Polish court from the 16th and 17th centuries onward.


Scriptural phraseology, syntax, and imagery constantly recur in the works of Poland's greatest writers, particularly in the romantic era. Some notable examples are Adam *Mickiewicz 's Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego ("The Books of the Polish Nation and Pilgrimage," 1832), Juliusz Slowacki's Anhelli (1838), and Zygmunt Krasinski's Psalmy przyszłości ("Psalms of the Future," 1845). Cyprian Kamil Norwid ranks next with his Żydowie Polscy ("Polish Jews"), which summarizes the history of the Jews from the time of Moses until the era of the struggle of the Poles and Jews ("Maccabees") against their common oppressors. Biblical books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job; figures such as Cain and Abel, Moses, Samson, Saul, David, Judith, and Daniel; historic sites such as Mount Ararat and Babylon; and even objects such as Samson's pillar or the prophet's staff were, for centuries, the poetical stock-in-trade of many Polish writers. These include Kazimierz Brodziński, Stefan Witwicki, Kornel Ujejski, Maria Konopnicka, Wladislaw Belza, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Stanislaw Wyspiański, Jan Kasprowicz, Leopold Staff, and Jan Dobraczyński. After Poland lost her independence, writers used biblical themes to discuss the present in the guise of an ancient historical setting, this being the only means of presenting the slavery into which the Poles had been forced, without exposing the authors to the wrath of foreign oppressors. Polish poets found in the Bible the moral values required by a people condemned to slavery, contempt, and humiliation. Biblical and other Jewish figures had the same function as those drawn from Greek and Roman mythology in the dramas of Stanislaw Wyspiański (Daniel, 1907) and Karol Hubert Rostworowski; Opowiesci biblijne ("Biblical Tales," 1963) of Kosidowski had a vast sale even in post-World War II Communist Poland.

The Image of the Jew

Evidence of an unfriendly attitude toward the Jews may be found in Polish literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as in Catholic polemical literature of the Reformation period. This was also the case with epigrams and satires of the so-called bourgeois literature, in the satirical Worek Judaszów ("Judas' Sack," 1600) by Sebastian Fabjan Klonowicz, who was mayor of Lublin, and in Wyprawa żydowska na wojne ("The Jewish War Expedition," 1606), a comedy by an anonymous author. In writings of this type there are sometimes echoes of anti-Jewish riots, as in Taniec Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej ("The Dance of the Polish Republic," 1647), a rhymed chronicle by Gabriel Krasiński which describes part of the student riots at Kazimierz, the Jewish district of krakow.


A markedly different attitude governs works about Jews during the period of the so-called Four-Year Sejm (1788–92) and at the beginning of the 19th century, which appealed for tolerance toward the Jews (see *Poland ). This also characterized the first Polish social novel about Jews, Lejbe i Sióra ("Leib and Sarah," 1821), by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. Polish folk poetry also mentions Jewish participation in the Kościuszko revolt, one instance being the song about Berek *Joselewicz , the commander of a squadron of Polish lancers, who died a hero's death near Kock in 1809. The figure of the Jew and the Jewish problem both appear in the works of the great Polish romantic poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, and Z. Krasiński) and their imitators. Juliusz Słowacki portrayed the fate of the Jew as a human being – hated, alien, and condemned to shame, contempt, and death – in Judith, a character in his drama Ksiądz Marek ("Father Marek," 1843). Proud and conscious of her fate, she seeks revenge on her antisemitic persecutors. The third of the great romantics, Zygmunt Krasiński, symbolized the role of Jewish converts in the revolutionary movements of Europe in his historical drama Nieboska Komedia ("The Ungodly Comedy," 1835). The events preceding the outbreak of the November insurrection (1830) and its collapse inspired a rich political and polemical literature dealing with the problem of the Jews. Works of this type were Au Peuple d'Israël (1832), a French appeal by the historian Joachim Lelewel, who also wrote the booklet Sprawa żydowska w roku 1859 ("The Jewish Question in 1859," 1860), defending the Jews against antisemitic attack; and papers by the Jew Ludwik Ozeas Lubliner, author of Des Juifs en Pologne (1839), Obrona Żydów ("The Defense of the Jews," 1858), and Do Polaków Izraelitów, w Polsce ("To Polish Israelites in Poland," 1862). Pro-Jewish works were also written by other romantics, such as Cyprian Norwid, Wladislaw Syrokomla, Mieczyslaw Romanowski, Aleksander Teofil Lenartowicz, and Wlodzimierz Wolski. Their sympathetic references to the Jews were often interwoven with others about Polish suffering under the foreign oppressor. In 1883 the poet Wladislaw Belza published poems of this kind about the Jews in his anthology Żydzi w poezyi polskiejgłosy poetów o Żydach ("Jews in Polish Poetry – Voices of the Poets on the Jews," 19062), a work inspired by the Jewish assimilationist Agudas Achim society. The short-lived rapprochement between Poles and Jews before and after the outbreak of the January Revolution (1861–63) was reflected in poems by some Poles, such as Ludwik Mieroslawski, a nationalist politician and general, and in the verse of Jews like Henryk Merzbach and M. Epstein, who also participated in the uprising; but these were phenomena of minor literary importance.


The deep changes in political outlook after the defeat of 1863 and the attitude adopted by literature of the so-called Positivist period toward everyday contemporary themes made Polish poets increasingly aware of the Jews and the Jewish problem, not only from the Polish point of view, but also as a specific, characteristic feature of contemporary society. The role of Jews in science, industry, commerce, and banking was reflected in Polish literature of the period. The radical development of Polish socialism on the one hand, and of Polish nationalism on the other, made the Jew a stock character – artisan, merchant, scholar, politician, journalist, or yeshivah student – and writers portrayed him according to their specific outlook. Polish poets, far from despising the Jews, pitied and defended them in their works. This was especially true of the Warsaw urban poet Wiktor Gomulicki, although such writers tended to overlook the Jewish world discovered by playwrights and prose writers. However, sympathetic insight was evident in the works of Poland's greatest poetess, Maria Konopnicka, who condemned antisemitic outrages in one of her novellas, and in Żydzi (1843), a play by Józef Korzeniowski. Much space was also devoted to the Jewish problem by prose writers such as Eliza *Orzeskowa , Klemens *Junosza , Józef Rogosz, and Ignacy Maciejowski (Sewer). Another leading writer, Boleslaw Prus, introduced two Jewish figures in Lalka (3 vols., 1887–89), the first important Polish realistic novel. Szlangbaum, a Jewish stereotype, is avaricious, ruthless, self-abasing before the rich, and self-confident with the poor, sacrificing everything for the sake of business; but the second Jew, Dr. Szuman, partly resembles the romantic hero of the novel. In his great historical novel Faraon ("The Pharaoh," 3 vols., 1895–96), set in ancient Egypt, Prus also alludes to the Jewish situation in contemporary Poland. In his weekly column in a Warsaw newspaper, Prus displayed a contradictory attitude, either attacking the Jews for their financial skill and resourcefulness or praising them for the same abilities, through which the Jews, unlike Polish Christians, served the interests of society in general. The Jew as a revolutionary social innovator was a figure created by the great radical prose writer Stefan Żeromski. In his novel Ludzie bezdomni ("The Homeless," 2 vols., 1900) he depicted the role of a Jewish physician in initiating the fight for reforms in stagnant Polish society. Żeromski's last novel, Przedwiośnie ("Early Spring," 1925), aimed against the right-wing Pilsudski regime, assigned a much more important task to the Jews as the co-authors of the Polish Communist movement. In Communism Żeromski saw a force capable of redeeming Poland's disinherited youth.


A different tendency also made its appearance from the late 19th century, some writers setting out to prove the destructive role of the Jews in the social, political, economic, and cultural life of Poland. Wladislaw Stanislaw Reymont (1867–1925) drew an unfavorable picture of the Jews in his novel Ziemia obiecana ("The Promised Land," 1899), where he showed the different cross sections of industrial life in Lodz during the period of czarist occupation. Both Jewish and German capitalists exploit the Polish working classes, which are thus denied the benefits of a native capitalism. Other hostile assessments were presented by Teodor Jeske-Choiński, a mediocre novelist and critic who expressed reactionary, clericalist opinions, and Roman Dmowski, the ideologist of Polish nationalism and a leader of the National Democratic movement, who played a major role in the propagation of antisemitism. Aleksander Świętochowski, once broadminded and progressive, joined the conservative, antisemitic groups of writers, as did the poet Andrzej Niemojewski, who edited Myśl niepodległa. In his youth Niemojewski had been a revolutionary democrat, but in his later years he joined the extreme reactionary, nationalist circles frequented by Adolf Nowaczyński (Neuwert), a playwright and pamphleteer of Jewish birth. Many antisemites were active as essayists and literary critics, although scarcely anyone of major importance campaigned against the Jews.


After Poland attained independence and national sovereignty in 1918, new forms of social and artistic life came into being. At the same time the whole basis of political thought underwent a change under the impact of the new conflicts in a society liberated from foreign oppression. Polish poetry, which was revitalized during the years 1918–39, also echoed the voice of Polish Jewry. Some poets dedicated works to the Jews, whom they considered to be fellow citizens sharing common ideals determined by the same political program. In two pre-World War II poems, "Księżyc ulicy Pawiej" ("The Moon of Pawia Street") and "Na śmierć rewolucjonisty" ("On the Death of a Revolutionary"), Wladislaw Broniewski, a communist, sympathetically portrayed the life of the Jewish poor and the struggle of the Jewish revolutionaries who died in the cause of the Polish working classes. In his moving Ballady i romanse, written after a pogrom organized by the Nazis, Broniewski expressed his admiration for the Jews, while his "Pamięci Szmula Zygielbojma" commemorated Samuel *Zygelbojm who committed suicide in London in order to draw world attention to the destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazis. Artur Oppman (Or-Ot), a Warsaw poet, eulogized a certain Rabbi Jawor who chose to remain within the walls of the embattled Polish capital. Among its citizens he enjoyed "the credit of the ancient sons of Judah, the servants of Jehovah, and of the bards and knights." On the other hand, another outstanding poet, Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski, sometimes described the Jews in a satirical manner in poems such as his "Sonata księżycowa rodziny Kon" ("The Moonlight Sonata of the Kon Family"), "Ballada o Aronku" ("The Ballad of Little Aaron"), and "Wilno, ulica Niemecka" ("Vilna, the German Street"). Wanda Melcer's Czarny ląd ("The Black Land," 1896), a series of reportages written after a visit to the Jewish section of Warsaw, stressed the exoticism of Jewish customs, clothing, speech, behavior, and way of life. This account was not written for the sake of cheap sensation, but indicated the many aspects of a social problem.


The upsurge of Polish antisemitism immediately before the outbreak of World War II found reflection in the satirical poetry of Antoni *Slonimski , whose Dwa końce świata ("Two Ends of the Earth," 1937) attacked racism and Fascism. Many leading Polish writers dealt with issues involving the Jews and fought antisemitic manifestations. They included members of the Przedmieście group founded in 1933: Jerzy Kornacki, Helena Boguszewska, Pola Gojawiczyńska, and Halina Górska. Allied with them were other writers and journalists who worked for weeklies such as Oblicze Dnia, Epoka, Czarno na białym, Sygnały, Poprostu, Lewar, and Dziennik Popularny. Weeklies ranging on the opposing side included Prosto z mostu and Merkurjusz Ordynaryny. In the battle against Fascism and antisemitism during the years preceding World War II many satirical poets took an active part. Among them were Jewish writers such as Antoni Slonimski, Juljan *Tuwim , Leon Pasternak (1910–1969), Stanislaw Jerzy *Lec , Jan *Brzechwa , Wlodzimierz Slobodnik (1900–1991), Lucian *Szenwald , Jerzy Jurandot, and Jerzy Kamil Weintraub (1916–1943); and non-Jewish writers such as Artur Marya Swinarski, and Eduard Szymański. After the defeat of the Nazi invaders, many Polish writers – Jews and non-Jews – devoted books to the "Final Solution" of the Jewish problem, as put into effect during the German occupation. Events in Poland two decades later, after the Israel-Arab Six-Day War of 1967, were reflected in "Israel" (1968), an outstanding poem by the émigré Polish writer Kazimierz Wierzyński, a member of the old Skamander literary group, and Czeslaw Milosz, émigré Polish writer.

The Jewish Contribution

Since Polish Jewry was almost entirely Yiddish-speaking until the early part of the 20th century, Jews who wrote in Polish were at first comparatively few. The pioneer of Jewish literary activity in Polish was the converted essayist Juljan *Klaczko . Two writers who followed his lead later in the 19th century were Wladislaw Ordon (Wladislaw Szancer, 1848–1914), a tragic figure of humble origin whose poems were once highly regarded, and the poet and historian Alkar (Aleksander Kraushar, 1843–1931), who translated works by *Heine . By the beginning of the 20th century, Jews had become more active in Polish literature, their participation being reflected in the symbolic figure of the Jewess Rachel in Stanislaw Wyspiański's drama Wesele ("The Wedding" 1901). The Jewish share in Poland's cultural life gained momentum during the first two decades of the 20th century, and particularly after the achievement of national independence following World War I. Those representing this trend include the poets Franciszka Arnsteinowa (1865–1942), Henryk Balk (1901–1941), Mieczysaw Braun, Julia Dickstein-Wielczynska (1880?–1943), Juliusz Feldheim (1901–1943), Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917–1944), Bruno *Jasieński , Cezary Jellenta (Napoleon Hirszband, 1861–1935), Boleslaw *Leśmian , Stefan Napierski (Stefan Marek Eiger, 1899–1949), Artur Prędski (Artur Pfeffer, 1900–1941), S.R. Stande, Jan Stur (Hersz Feingold, 1895–1923), L. Szenwald, and J.K. Weintraub. Among the novelists were Leo Belmont (Leopold Blumenfeld, 1865–1940), Henryk Drzewiecki, Halina Górska, Gustawa Jarecka (1908–1942), Alfred Aleksander Konar (Aleksander Kinderfreund, 1862–1940?), Bruno *Schulz , and Bruno Winawer. The last also wrote plays, as did Jasieński. Three early Jewish literary critics and historians were Samuel *Adalberg , Henryk *Biegeleisen , and Wilhelm *Feldman . Many of these writers died during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and among them also the famous children's writer and educator Janusz *Korczak . Both between the world wars and after 1945, Jews, or men and women of Jewish origin, continued to make an important contribution as poets, playwrights, novelists, short story writers, and literary historians and critics. Some who were active before World War II resumed their careers in Poland after the German defeat. Leading poets in this category were Jan Brzechwa, Mieczyslaw *Jastrun , Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Tadeusz *Peiper , Tadeusz Różewicz, Antoni *Slonimski , Arnold Slucki, Juljan Tuwim, Aleksander *Wat , Adam Ważyk, Józef *Wittlin , Wiktor Woroszylski, and Stanislaw *Wygodzki . Of these, Slonimski maintained his independence of the Communist Party line on Zionism, while Wygodzki left Poland for Israel after the Six-Day War of 1967. Other poets included Stefania Grodzieńska (1914– ), Leon Pasternak, Józef Prutkowski (Józef Nacht, 1915–1981), Wlodimierz Slobodnik, and Irena Tuwim (1900–1987), Juljan Tuwim's sister. Two major playwrights were the émigré satirist Marian *Hemar and the ex-Zionist convert Roman *Brandstaetter ; others included Benedykt Hertz and Jerzy Lutowski (1923–1984). Kazimierz *Brandys , Adolf *Rudnicki , and Julian *Stryjkowski were leading novelists, the last specializing in stories of pre-World War I Jewish life; and others included Michal Maksymilian Borwicz (Maksymilian Boruchowicz, 1911– ), whose anthology, Pieśń ujdzie cało ("The Song Will Prevail," 1947), contained Jewish songs of the occupation era, as well as Irena Krzywicka (1904–1994) and Stanislaw Lem (1921– ). Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa (1905–1967), who in 1936 published W Palestynie: obrazy i zagadnienia ("In Palestine: Pictures and Problems") on the situation of Palestinian Jewry, later wrote the biographical Janusz Korczak (1949; Mister Doctor, 1965). Some Jewish authors in other genres were the screenwriter Józef Hen (1923– ), the émigré author and actor Henryk Grynberg, the satirist Karol Szpalski (1908–1963), and Krystyna Żywulska (1918– ), author of Przeżyłam Oświęcim ("I Survived Auschwitz," 1946).

Polish Jews were also prominent as literary historians and critics, and as editors and publishers of important literary reviews which influenced cultural life, notably Wiadomości Literackie (edited by M. Grydzewski). Juljusz Kleiner (1866–1957), who wrote many literary monographs and standard textbooks on Polish literature, trained a whole generation of literary critics, including scholars such as Henryk Balk and Henryk Szyper (1900–1949). Some later writers of eminence in this field were Jan Kott (1914–2001), whose works on Shakespeare were translated into many languages; Henryk Markiewicz (1922– ), a leading Marxist literary theorist; Maria Renata Mayenowa (1910–1988); Henryk Wolpe (1899–1967); and Wiktor Weintraub (1908–1988), who became professor of Polish literature at Harvard University, U.S. Other authorities on Polish literary history and criticism included Rafal Marcel Blueth (1891–1939), Emil Breiter (1886–1943), Wilhelm Fallek (1888–1941), Ludwik Fryde (1912–1942), Dawid Jakub Hopensztand (1904–1943), Roman Karst (1911– ), Jerzy Pomianowski (1921– ), Artur Sandauer (1913–1989), and Henryk Vogler (1911–2005). A number of major writers and critics were also distinguished translators.


Udział żydów w kulturze, 2 vols. (1938); J. Feldhorn, Literatura polska wieku XVI a Żydzi (1929); K. Bartosiewicz, Antysemityzm w literaturze polskiej XVI i XVII wieków (1940); T. Jeske-Choiński, Żyd w powieści polskiej (1914): W. Fallek, in: Pamiętnik zjazda naukowego im. Jana Kochanowsskiego… (1931), 383–471; K. Dresdner, in: Miesięcznik Żydowski, 2 pt. 1 (1932), 399–426.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.